Addicted to Noise Sound design, particularly on a modestly budgeted independent film like Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, is often part of the post process. But Brian Emrich, sound designer on both Requiem and Pi, Aronofsky's award-winning debut feature, says, "With Darren, I'm in while they're shooting - prepping and talking to him about it, seeing the dailies. During editing, I was doing temp sound effects, because it makes a big difference to have some kind of sound while you're cutting a movie. That kept me really close to the project, and gave me a lot of time for ideas, instead of being brought in at the last minute."
Released in October by Artisan Entertainment, Requiem for a Dream is based on a Hubert Selby, Jr. novel about addiction, and stars Jared Leto as a Coney Island junkie and Ellen Burstyn as his pill-popping mother. It takes its style from the high-and-low rhythms of drug-ruled lives, and includes an escalating series of what the filmmakers call "hip-hop sequences": montages of shooting up and pill-taking that focus obsessively on rituals of syringe and cotton, pharmacy bottles and glasses of water. Accompanying these sequences are hyperreal sound effects supplied by Emrich.
"Darren wanted to get a musical feel with those sequences," says the sound designer. "It was my idea to morph that stuff, to make it crazier as the movie goes on, and as the characters are getting more messed up. The visuals are pretty much the same, but I didn't want to just repeat the same sounds." Working with ProTools on a Macintosh, "I'd watch a little QuickTime movie while my sounds were going by on this program," Emrich says. "I might take one sound - it could be a pneumatic drill or air pump at a garage - and do several different versions, as if things are getting out of hand. There are all these weird plugins - you can warble or warp or reverse or cut and paste. But I wanted to keep it organic; I don't like hearing sounds and knowing it's digital."
For the repeated shots of Burstyn popping caps off her pill bottles, "I used the real sounds, and morphed them into weirder sounds," says Emrich. On the cut to pills hitting her hand, the sound designer used the thump of a drum machine. For the syringe sounds, he got very creative. "I went to my parent's summer house on a lake in upstate New York, and shot these toy rockets with solid fuel engines into the water. I had an underwater microphone, and got this bubbling sound as they went down. I could have taken it off a CD library, but this makes it your own." Thrown into the mix on many of the montages is a DJ-style scratching, just to help jangle the nerves.
As on Pi, Emrich worked with composer Clint Mansell, some of whose music is performed by the Kronos Quartet on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack. The film is so aurally dense, in fact, that it is often difficult to tell where Emrich's work leaves off and Mansell's begins. "When it comes to final mixing, it's always a battle," says Emrich, who is himself a composer and musician with such groups as Foetus and Congo Norvell, and under such aliases as Psilonaut and Furnace. "One wants to be louder than the other, and you try to come to terms through what's logical."
Unlike the super-low-budget Pi, for which Emrich did his own Foley and pretty much everything else, on Requiem for a Dream he worked with Sound Dogs Toronto. At the end, the team needed a mixing studio, and got the best - Skywalker Sound. "It was a great opportunity, and great learning experience for everybody," says Emrich. "For most of us, including Darren, it was only our second film, and we were working with Tom Johnson, the mixer on Titanic and Phantom Menace."
Still, Emrich's real base is his home studio in Brooklyn, where in addition to his music and sound equipment he has a 20,000-book library and insect collections, all carefully organized. "I think that's why Darren likes me," he says. "When he first came over here and saw how anal I am about my stuff, he said, `This guy is what I want.' "