More uppers than downers in the Requiem for a Dream script

Spoilers ahead.

Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

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Why I chose this script

This is another one of my favorite films for its sheer emotional impact. Especially in the early part of his career, Aronofsky was one of the most unapologetic film makers around. His films put audiences through an emotional wringer and I wanted to look for traces of that crushing pressure in the Requiem for a Dream script.

Not all scene description is made equal

The scene description or action parts of a script are one of the defining characteristics of screenwriting. They are words which we as writers spend a great amount of time on, only to watch them be subsumed into camera angles, blocking, set design, score and all other aspects of the final film.

The dialogue is usually what critics focus on when evaluating the quality of a script, but there’s a lot of quality to be found in scene description. I, myself, have focused in on the action in a number of previous posts. In Zero Dark Thirty I looked at hiding character in description. In Warrior I highlighted questions around unshootable action and the writer/director prerogative. In Gravity I picked out instances of suiting the prose to the situation.

So even if the scene description is intended to ‘disappear’, it deserves attention and there are good and… less good ways of writing it.

The Requiem for a Dream script contains some stellar scene description, and other examples that I was less enthused by. The first example I made a note of was a short action sequence as Harry (Leto) and Marion (Connelly) escape from the Seacoast Tower.

Harry, who’s already inside, looks at his girl’s mischievous eyes.

HARRY

Marion!

Harry gets it. He smiles. Then, Marion yanks the wire.

ALARMS SCREAM!!!

Harry and Marion bolt to the -

TOP FLOOR

- where both elevators charge the top floor.

MARION

They’re coming.

Harry grabs Marion’s hand and pulls her down the hallway.

Dead end.

Harry and Marion squeeze against the doorway — fighting the urge to crack-up. Then:

PING! — the elevator. A Security Guard charges out.

Harry and Marion hold their breath. The Guard heads straight for the staircase.

Then our criminals charge –

THE ELEVATOR

– and in black-and-white video make out all the way down.

THEN:

EXT. SEACOAST TOWER – DAY

Harry and Marion burst out of the front door laughing, alarms ringing behind them.

This is a great example of keeping pace in the action, you can see how even the cuts and sluglines are woven in to keep up the momentum. This is not an action based story, so to come across this excellently written sequence in the Requiem for a Dream script was a pleasant surprise.

In general, though, Aronofsky’s description is probably best described as economical. Even sparse at times. Sometimes I really liked the irreverent way that worked to communicate his thinking, such as:

INT. MARION’S APARTMENT – DAY

(Post-sex) + (pre-sleep) = (intimate talk)

HARRY

You know something? I’ve always thought you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

MARION

Really?

I also liked when he didn’t feel the need to include any description of the scene/shot at all:

Then, we look into her face as she screams. Air bubbles shoot to the surface.

CUT TO:

EXT. I-95 – MAYBE GEORGIA

CUT TO:

INT. PONTIAC VENTURA

Tyrone still drives.

But at times his brevity was also jarring, like when Tyrone (Wayans) gets lucky:

INT. TYRONE’S NEW PAD

Alice and Tyrone make some crazy love. Arms flail, teeth bite, mouths scream. Some crazy love.

CUT TO:

For reasons I won’t go into here, you could make a very good argument for saying that this impersonal way of portraying (or thinking of) sex is in keeping with Tyrone’s character. If Aronofsky intended for that to be the case then he could’ve hung a lantern on how this was just another ‘fix’ for Tyrone and I would’ve kept right on reading. The only thing that gave me pause was doubting whether Aronofsky meant for the act to come across as impersonal, maybe even perfunctory.

 

Creating character voice on the page

So the Requiem for a Dream script contains some great learnings for scene description, what about the dialogue? As I mentioned, dialogue is one of the things that gets picked apart a lot. One of the biggest criticisms of starting screenwriters is that their characters tend to sound the same.

If you want to see an example of how to avoid that trap, pick up a copy of the Requiem for a Dream script. Aronofsky is crystal clear about his characters’ voices from page one:

He tries to stop his mother, Sara Goldfarb, from locking herself in the closet.

HARRY

Ma! Ma! C’mon, Ma!

SARA

Harold. Please. Not again the TV.

She slams the door closed and Harry talks to the shut door.

HARRY

Why do you haveta make such a big deal out of this? Eh? You know you’ll have the set back in a couple of hours.

Even when there is a significant overlap in two character’s voices, the differences still shine through to make each voice distinctive. For example, Harry Goldfarb’s voice belies his Brooklyn Jewish background, but is still distinctive from his mother Sara’s (Burstyn):

HARRY

I don’t know why I do those things. I don’t really want to do them. It just sort’ve happens, I guess. I don’t know. It’s all kinda goofy somehow, but I really do love ya, Ma, and I want you to be happy so I got ya a brand new TV set. It’s gonna be delivered in a couple a days. From Macy’s.

Sara squeals, but Harry wards her off with his hands. She sits down, grins and grinds her teeth.

SARA

Oh, Harry, you’re such a good boy. Your father would be so happy to see what you’re doing for your poor, lonely mother.

Harry leans over and gives her an honest, open and perfectly beautiful kiss.

SARA

You see that, Seymour? You see how good your son is? He knows how lonely his mother is living all alone, no one to make her a visit…

Harry’s background shapes part of his voice in the Requiem for a Dream script, but his drug-riddled present also has an obvious impact. You would expect there to be some overlap between him and his partner in intoxication – Tyrone. There is some overlap, but Tyrone’s voice is very different to Harry’s and at times, I felt, wandered past distinction and into parody:

TYRONE

Ahm glad ah doan’t have no one laying that kind of heavy motha shit on me, Jim. You honkies are too much with that guilt shit.

Honestly, though, you’re better off going too far in creating voices for your characters because it’s easy for an actor and director to dial it back in production. But a script full of characters that all sound the same isn’t even going to make it into production, so don’t hold back.

Also, don’t forget that the responsibility of capturing the vernacular of a region or sub-culture rests on you, the writer. An actor can learn how words are pronounced in their character’s home town, but you have to make sure those words would be used there in the first place. For example, would your most recent protagonist call a carbonated beverage soda or pop?

Capital punishment

Something else I picked up on while reading through the Requiem for a Dream script was the relative lack of capital letters. It first struck me as a negative thing, because Aronofsky doesn’t even use capitals to introduce new characters:

EXT. SARA’S APARTMENT – HALLWAY – CONTINUOUS

Waiting for Harry is Tyrone C. Love, young twenties, leaning against the wall, playing skillfully with a yo-yo.

There’s a lot of disagreement about many conventions of screenwriting, but the practice of introducing characters with capitals seems to be one thing that everyone agrees on. Well, everyone but Darren Aronofsky if this script is anything to go by.

The point of the practice, as I see it, is to set readers’ minds at ease. Let them know that they don’t need to try and recall who the character is and how they relate. It has a genuine use, which is why I was disappointed to not see it used in the Requiem for a Dream script. But after a while, the shortage of caps started to grow on me.

Look back at the first excerpt I included, where Harry and Marion escape the tower. Other than the sound effects (which some writers capitalize at all times as a production aid) there is very little in the way of emphasis through capitals. Pervasive use of capitals starts to annoy me fairly quickly in scripts, so I was happy to see them used sparingly in the scene description. When they’re overused it starts to feel like you’re reading a comic book and every punch should land with a KA-POW!!!

Cut back to reality

I’m going to touch on this one really quickly. At one point in the story we follow Harry into a daydream which ends with a snap back to reality. This is not an uncommon device to use in story-telling, and I really liked the way it was handled in the Requiem for a Dream script:

The Cop chases Tyrone.

Harry and Tyrone laugh as they toss the gun back and forth just over the frustrated Cop’s head.

The Cop slips and falls on his ass and we -

CUT BACK TO:

REALITY. FIVE MINUTES EARLIER -

WAITRESS

Anything else? Huh?

Tyrone butts Harry. Harry looks up at the Waitress who stares at him. The towering Cop looks over as well.

The master scene format

The Requiem for a Dream script does something else which I really like, but which I don’t see used all that much – the master scene format. The idea is simple, you establish a master location for a sequence of scenes and use abbreviated sluglines as you move around the location. In Requiem for a Dream, it looks like this:

INT. ARNOLD THE SHRINK’S MANHATTAN CRASH PAD – HALLWAY

At the front door Arnold, wrapped in a sheet, hands Marion some money. She leaves and he quickly locks the door. Down the hallway and into –

THE ELEVATOR

– as anger, disgust and who knows what else billow up inside her. Her eyes begin to tear. Then –

ON THE STREET

– she leans against the building and vomits.

In my own writing I use the format described here – INT. APARTMENT/LIVING ROOM – DAY followed by INT. BEDROOM. I don’t think there’s One Right Way to do it, but I think this method makes it clear what you’re doing.

The benefit of the master scene format, as I see it, is it just gets sluglines a bit further out of the way. After a while your eyes start to gloss over them anyway, but I’m a fan of anything that reduces their footprint, even if it’s only a little.

Done on the page isn’t done

So what about the point I raised in my motivation to read this script? Did I feel as emotionally drained from the experience of reading it as I did from watching the film? In short – no. I mean the electric spark of that emotional wringer is there, but paper doesn’t conduct it as well as celluloid. You could take that as damning evidence against the Requiem for a Dream script, but I saw something else in it.

It’s no secret that writers are often walking baskets of insecurity, tenuously held together with caffeine and misdirection of self. Even if we weren’t, when you spend as much time on any one piece of work as we typically spend on a script, you tend to get too close to see its impact. This can lead to despair when a script is finished and you just can’t tell if it’s any good.

So the lesson I want to take away from the Requiem for a Dream script is to have a little more faith in the words on the page. Just because it’s Done on the page, doesn’t mean the experience of watching the film is going to be there too. There’s a long journey still ahead and if it results in a movie with as much impact as Requiem for a Dream, then you did a helluva job.

In summation

Even if your scene description is intended to disappear into the finished product, it deserves just as much love as your dialogue. Your characters’ individual voices should be established clearly and early and it’s your responsibility to make sure that regional or sub-cultural dialects are captured in your word choice. Do use capital letters to introduce characters, but maintain their value by using them sparingly for emphasis. There are creative ways to use cuts and sluglines to jump out of a daydream. The master scene format is a great aid in condensing sluglines. If your words on the page don’t give you a thrill of emotion, take heart – they could still end up becoming a film like Requiem for a Dream.

Tell me your thoughts about this post. Be kind & Play nice.

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