- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2000

Darren Aronofsky began his film-directing career by demonstrating a flair for obsessive states of mind in the low-budget black-and-white sleeper "Pi." Unveiled at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1998 and acquired by a new distribution company, Artisan Entertainment, it went a long way on an initial production cost of $60,000, grossing somewhere in excess of $10 million worldwide.

Mr. Aronofsky, 30, continues to explore the obsessive in his second feature, "Requiem for a Dream," which opens Nov. 3 in the Washington area. Derived from a 1978 novel by Hubert Selby Jr., the production adds several refinements to the Aronofsky arsenal: a modestly comfortable budget of $4.5 million, color photography and a cast of familiar professionals, with Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans in the principal roles, plus Louise Lasser and Christopher MacDonald in minor ones.

"We were the first Artisan movie," Mr. Aronofsky recalls during a conversation at the Mayflower Hotel. "Well, maybe not the first property, strictly speaking, since they had acquired the inventory of Alive, which went out of business. But 'Pi' was the first new acquisition and the first picture they distributed.

"It's interesting how their fortunes have changed. In 1998, 'Pi' had the highest return on investment of any movie in release. A year later, 'The Blair Witch Project' came along and achieved the highest return of any movie in history, as far as anyone can determine. So Artisan didn't do too badly between those two pictures."

The new film, also an Artisan release, permitted Mr. Aronofsky to work close to home. Now a Manhattan resident, he grew up in Manhattan Beach, adjacent to the the principal locations of Brighton Beach and Coney Island.

His parents, retired schoolteachers, have bit roles in "Requiem." His mother is one of the "yentas" who congregate in a sunbathing line outside the apartment building where Miss Burstyn's character, a widow named Sara Goldfarb, resides. His father plays a subway passenger who gets to revile the deranged Sara as a "wacko."

The Selby novel alternates the downhill stories of Sara, a diet-pill addict who dreams of appearing on a favorite television show, and her hellbent son Harry, played by Mr. Leto, whose shortsighted involvement in drug dealing also compromises his girlfriend, Marion (Miss Connelly), and best friend, Tyrone (Mr. Wayans).

Mr. Aronofsky shifted the book's location from the Bronx to Brooklyn. "The culture was exactly the same, and Selby didn't seem to mind," he says. "I just wanted to shoot in my neighborhood. I knew I could capture it in a unique way."

The movie doesn't attempt to update the setting or locate it specifically in the period of the novel, either. "It's a blurring meant to convey the idea of addiction as a kind of timeless thing, without the topical features that would link it definitely to one frame of reference," he explains.

"I wouldn't say it was an easy place to work, and it helped to have grown up there. It gave me a certain amount of connections. Brooklyn is definitely a crooked place. People know each other, stuff like that.

"The people who own property or land have grown very savvy about the movie business, since quite a few films have been shot in the area. It can get expensive if you're negotiating deals in certain areas, but things worked out pretty well."

The interiors for the movie were filmed in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn. Lest it be mistaken as a hotbed of studio space, Mr. Aronofsky explains, "We rented a huge, empty concrete warehouse and constructed our sets there. It was great except for all the pigeon… . Quite a few pigeons have taken up residence there, and [they] were flying overhead all the time. It wasn't really a soundproof studio, but it met our needs. One of the great things about being able to afford a union crew is that you have all these marvelous technicians and craftsmen around you.

"There's nothing they can't do to solve problems. Here's an example: In one of the scenes where the apartment ladies are sitting out on the sidewalk, catching the sun, it was actually raining all the time."

Mr. Aronofsky thinks of addiction as a vice so ingrained that it may date from the simplest life forms. Suggestively, he calls his production company Protozoa Pictures. A subsidiary, a new digital studio, is named Amoeba Proteus. The latter's first assignment was to supply special-effects shots for "Requiem for a Dream," which incorporates several sequences that emphasize impressionistic and hallucinatory imagery.

"I think when we were amoebas floating around in the primordial soup," Mr. Aronofsky surmises, "that we were searching for carbon molecules to get high on. I believe addiction is something we've had for a long time. Starbucks is a serious, serious drug in my estimation. The Grande is probably two hits of espresso, and I try to limit myself to one a day. I end up abusing everything when I write.

"When I direct, I try to stay pure, because the stretch is so long. If you get dependent on something, you won't kick it until the shoot is over. I try not to smoke or do any of that stuff."

Although he admits to a fleeting marijuana episode during a post-collegiate drive to Belize with a couple of compatibly carefree friends, Mr. Aronofsky denies a familiarity with notoriously ominous or illegal substances.

"I've had friends who dealt with serious stuff," he says, "but if you count watching television eight hours a day as a serious addiction, I had to kick that. It was a year after college, and I was back in Brooklyn, not knowing what to do.

"I spent a lot of time watching TV and did a lot of writing about TV addiction. I think all the addictions are linked: my TV phase, hard drugs, taking pills to lose weight, trying to quit cigarettes or alcohol. The same inner psychology is involved.

"Say it's the common coffee craving. I'm getting a bit of a headache and know I shouldn't have it. I've told myself to avoid it, but then, I didn't have any yesterday. Maybe a sip or two will be OK."

Apart from his TV habit, evidently overcome, and his coffee nerves, which still can be jangled, Mr. Aronofsky rates work as a conspicuous addiction. "I'm a major workaholic," he declares. "My personal life is completely sacrificed for work. I don't know, maybe I need to have a kid or something. That might slow it down. I'd want to raise a kid right, so that could make it easier to change on the job. So far, my films are my babies."

Not that we're running a matchmaking service here, but if anyone is interested in the prospect of a Brooklyn-born, Harvard-educated filmmaker whose self-evident talent might be improved by conventional domesticity, Darren Aronofsky usually can be found in New York City.

"I'm not one of the New Yorkers who hate Los Angeles," he remarks. "I respect it and have fun there. A lot of people I like live there, but I really need the city's energy. Family and everyone I'm really close to is still in New York. And I'm still pathetically eligible."

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