New math

After the surprise 1998 indie hit Pi, a hyperstylized exploration of mathematics and obscure Orthodox Jewish ritual, Darren Aronofsky's choice of adapting Hubert Selby Jr.'s 1978 novel "Requiem for a Dream," a downbeat drama about a clan of drug addicts in New York's Brighton Beach, might appear to be an act of random perversity. As it turns out, Selby has always been a major influence on the writer/ director.

"He's one of my heroes," Aronofsky says. "When I went to film school, I made his short stories into a short film called 'Fortune Cookie.' It's about a fortune-teller who gets addicted to the fortunes in cookies!" Aronofsky's obsession with Selby's work eventually led him to contact the author about adapting Requiem for the screen. The 31-year-old auteur and the 72-year-old writer's visions proved to be eerily in sync: Comparing his "Requiem" script with one Selby had penned in the 1970s, Aronofsky discovered that "about 80 percent of the scenes he had chosen `from the book`, I had chosen. After that, we just traded notes."

The finished film, which was shot in 40 days in and around Brooklyn's Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach neighborhoods, cost only $4.5 million to make -- a bargain by current industry standards. Although full of praise for all of his cast's performances, Aronofsky speaks with a certain awe of Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn's turn as cross-addicted widow Sara Goldfarb. "Her performance is unbelievable. Definitely the best thing I have ever been involved with was having the honor to catch this performance," he says. "She's 67. And she had four prosthetic necks that took about five hours a day to work with; she had two fat suits. I mean, just technically, huge problems. And she just seized them."

None of this skill and artistry much impressed the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) when Aronofsky submitted his film for rating. To the MPAA, even more troubling than the characters' drug use was a strobe-lit scene of lesbian sexuality involving Jennifer Connelly's Marion. "The three-minute psychological intensity of the film's climax," the director says, "they had problems with that and wanted it to be toned down."

The MPAA doled out the dreaded NC-17 rating, a virtual guarantee of diminished newspaper coverage and theater distribution. The filmmaker, with a slight undertone of "fuck 'em" in his voice, says he refused to comply with suggested snips. "We turned it down," he says. "It'll be released unrated. It won't be cut at all."

Aronofsky seems drawn to films -- "Pi," "Requiem," a projected new Batman movie ("We'll see what happens," Aronofsky cautions) -- that focus on marginalized heroes and subcultures. He says that his projects all share a more specific subtext: "It's being a Jew in the world. When you're Jewish or another minority in America, you're still an outsider. The notion of being somehow different puts you on the outside. You just sense it -- you grow up in this world and see all the fucked-up things people do to one another over and over again, and it makes you wonder why. I think I'm attracted to darkness, just to explore that idea."

But do we really need yet another drug movie? "I don't think the movie is about drugs. It's more about addiction," Aronofsky says. "What is a drug? It could be TV, it could be coffee, alcohol. The word 'heroin' is never mentioned in the film because I wasn't really interested in telling that sort of story.

"Selby's message is the `to which` length people go to escape reality. And that when we do that, we create a hole in our present," he says. "Addiction vs. the human spirit. And that struggle, no matter who you are, you deal with that. You battle with your own addictions. And they are your own demons."

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