It’s been 12 years since Harry Goldfarb, Marion Silver, and Tyrone Love burst on screen in pursuit of a pound of pure and no hassles. Since then, Requiem for a Dream has achieved that rare distinction of being a low-budget, high-impact movie, the quintessential cult hit. It solidified director Darren Aronofsky’s wunderkind reputation, one later buttressed by the critical successes of The Wrestler and Black Swan. It redefined what a “drug movie” could be, illustrating brutal addiction despite the word “heroin” never being uttered in its 101-minute running time. It subverted film grammar, challenged the mechanics of narrative, and influenced filmmakers wide and legion.
All this has been observed and repeated ad infinitum over the past decade. What’s escaped admiration is the experimental and incredibly effective sound design that permeates the film. Though the soundtrack has been recognized—most notably Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna overture, which has been recycled in droves of trailers—the influence of the movie’s actual sound work has been underappreciated.
Sound design is perhaps the most overlooked art in cinema, and for good reason: truly perfect sound serves only to enhance immersion in the film. It's not supposed to draw attention. But once you start paying attention, Requiem's scenes are riddled with subtle, striking enhancements, from the hallucinated growl of a character's refrigerator to the grating teeth-grinding of an addict on uppers. I talked with Nelson Ferreira, supervising sound editor of the movie, to discuss what went into making the film's sound.
What was your role in the film?
Well, I was the supervising sound editor, so I basically headed the team that did all the sound for the movie. Everything except the musical score, of course, which was performed by the brilliant Kronos Quartet. I communicated directly with Darren, talked through the ideas we had for the film, and communicated those ideas to the crew. I make it sound like a big crew, but it was actually like four people. It was a low-budget movie, a low-budget crew, but a very high-quality movie.
There’s not a lot of silence in the movie. It’s a relentless aural experience, right from the cold opening of Ellen Burstyn locking herself in the closet. How did a movie like this compare with your other work?
That’s a good question, and I’d have to give a multi-part answer. Firstly, it dealt on a psychological level that a lot of films don’t. It was way beyond the scope of the sound psychology of most movies. It wasn’t rudimentary ABCD stuff like trying to narrow down who the villain might be. We really had to think between the lines. And, in that regard, I really have to give the credit where it’s due, which is mainly with the director. Darren has a way of reading between the lines and finding the psychology and psychosis within the story that most people just wouldn’t see. He brought that out of us, he pushed us to frontiers that we hadn’t been to before. Quite honestly, we had never been afforded the opportunity to do it. Even most big Hollywood movies are pretty two-dimensional in terms of sound, and Darren just opened a door. Not just for us, but for a lot of filmmakers.
There are really two worlds in the movie, two parallel storylines. You have the son and the mother; there’s Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly’s descent into heroin addiction and Ellen Burstyn’s diet pill delusions. Did you try to differentiate those two narratives through sound in any way?
Hmm. I’m not sure I would say differentiate necessarily; both narratives were definitely different motifs. We actually focused on segueing them pretty seamlessly into each other to draw the parallels between those two worlds. I would say that Jared and Jennifer’s world is very much from their point of view looking out. With Ellen’s world, it was much more imbued with a sort of eye-in-the-sky feel. You had that the corner-of-the-room perspective, personified by the television set and the refrigerator. That was a perspective to which sound designer Craig Henighan gave so much personality and life. So converging those two worlds was really a priority for us.
And in terms of conceiving those ideas, it comes back to Darren. He says, quite literally: “Give me everything you’ve got. Every idea, bring it to the table. There’s probably a 10% chance I keep it, but if I do, it will be the best work you’ve ever done.”
You mentioned the fridge. The way it manifests as this eerie imposter in Ellen’s hallucinations is brilliant. There’s so much going on there, it almost becomes a character.
It was just one of those things that goes to show how much the art of sound design is changing, way beyond what the term meant 20 years ago. Now it’s the art of taking the sounds of everyday things and shaping them, stretching them with pitch or by clever placement, and giving them different meaning or an emphasis they otherwise wouldn’t have. The fridge is really a very simple thing. It’s just a matter of the fridge you choose—no two fridges sound alike. If we had taken a fridge which was just a Westinghouse or Whirlpool made a year ago, it would sound like a well-oiled machine. It wouldn’t have had the same impact. You need something that has an old compressor, that really growls, that’s what gives it character. We’re always referring to personality. Everyone wants personality. It’s the courage to try something different that gives it a different feel.
Sarah Goldfarb, played by Ellen Burstyn, recoils in fear of her refrigerator.
One of the more novel aspects of Requiem is its use of “hip-hop” montages, rapid-fire sequences used to compactly show the characters shooting up or entering the illusory world of their drug high. How did your team approach the sound design in those sequences?
It’s interesting you call it “hip-hop”, because that’s exactly what Darren called it. Those were actually the first things they showed us. Darren has worked for quite a while with an absent-minded-professor type named Brian Emrich, a sound designer in New York. They’ve been working together since some of Darren’s more indie stuff, like Pi. Throughout the filming of Requiem, Brian would feed him little things for those sequences. So those things actually developed during picture editing. Even before sound editing, the basic concepts of those hip-hop sequences had been delivered to us. What we did in the sound editing process is refine things like the dilating pupil, that sort of thing, to raise the level of the sound and give it a larger and more cinematic feel. What we received were essentially sketches, but even Brian and Darren’s sketches gave such great direction. They required no verbal description. It was immediately like, “O.K., I know what he’s trying to do.” He’s trying to create something, trying to use these transitions to echo the drug rush, to really capture the heroin rushing through the veins.
The “hip-hop” sequences that recur every time a character consumes or injects a drug.
I’ve seen Aronofsky mention placing the sound of an airplane passing overhead in the background of those sequences. He got the idea after being inspired by jumbo jets flying over New York from JFK. How often do you use sounds that “don’t belong?” In other words, how devoted to realism were you in the project? It’s a movie with lots of surreal and absurdist overtones, so how do you deal with that as a sound designer?
I’ll go on a limb and say that it’s common for good sound designers to do. Which lends itself to what I was saying before: intelligent choices of sound don’t necessarily fit, but they always have some sort of impact. The sound of say, a jet, the rising tension of it, is maybe exactly what’s required to make that impact—to say here’s the heroin, here it goes into the body’s system. The sound itself is so dynamic; it has that push, that rush of moving air to it. We routinely do stuff like that, where you’re juxtaposing things. Sometimes trying to jam a square peg in the round hole is exactly what you need.
Yeah. So much of the film is rooted in repetition, in a kind of cycle anchored by Clint Mansell’s Lux Aeterna overture. There are periods of calm, then periods of drug-addled frenzy. Was that cycle kept in mind during sound design?
Absolutely. Again, that’s what good designers do. They find a way of drawing a straight line through the movie. Good designers watch a piece and try to figure out what’s trying to be said. What’s the common theme, in terms of story? Where can I draw a line? Sometimes that straight line is on an upward curve in terms of tension—that’s where the fridge and airplane sounds come in. In television, where there isn’t time to live with a project and find that theme, it becomes very paint-by-numbers. In terms of placing sounds, they say, “here’s the scene, we’re in a park, here’s the bird, here’s the car, next.” It might be unfair to label all of television this way, but in general it just doesn’t provide the broad canvas needed. With movies, you can find something to hitch your wagon to and really ride with it.
You and the sound crew were nominated for a Golden Reel from the Motion Pictures Sound Editors, but overlooked for an Oscar nomination. I’ve talked to other sound editors, many who think the Oscar snub was unfair. Thoughts? Do you think sound design, in general, is unfairly evaluated, or does most quality work get its rightful recognition?
You know what, that’s a really good question. I might give a somewhat biased answer: I’m this random guy who works up in Toronto, so I’m somewhat detached from the Hollywood machine. I do the occasionally Hollywood movie, but mostly outside stuff, hopefully stuff like Requiem. Awards can be incredibly biased based on membership, who’s voting for whom, etc. Usually the nominees have reason to be there and deserve a nod. I helped with Black Swan as well, and in that case the Canadian crew can only take on a limited role. Most of the sound design there was done in New York, a lot by Craig Henighan. And in the case of Black Swan, a lot of people told me personally it should have been Oscar-nominated for its sound work. I agree, and I think there was probably some West Coast bias in the nominee selection. As an Academy member voting in that category, you’re more likely to be in tune with the people you work with in your community, which is most likely a Hollywood community. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s just how it works. It might be the same thing with me—I’m not saying I vote for people I know, but when it comes to local sound designers in my area, I’m more aware of the struggle it took to make their work, so I have more appreciation for it.
Understandable. In closing, what’s your favorite memory from the movie?
Personally speaking, it would be the first morning I had with Darren Aronofsky. When we first sat down, he verbalized what he was looking for more eloquently than any other director I’ve ever met. He was 30 years old, he had made one low-budget feature, but he was confidently and succinctly describing what he wanted. And the little things he was describing, the “this here, that there”, were just putting off little lightbulbs in my head. The vision was so surprising and detail-oriented, and it’s very rare that you see that in directors.