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12 Addictive Facts About Requiem for a Dream

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Before The Wrestler and Black Swan, before The Fountain and Noah, there was Requiem for a Dream, the harrowing heroin film that brought Darren Aronofsky to the attention of mainstream moviegoers in 2000. (His first film, Pi, had been an underground hit.) Few who have experienced the film’s tragic stories of addiction have forgotten it, the images seared on our brains forever like the scars on a junkie’s arm. So let’s dive deeper into this turn-of-the-century masterpiece.

1. THE DIRECTOR WAS A NEWLY MINTED HOTSHOT, YET NOBODY WANTED TO MAKE HIS MOVIE.

Darren Aronofsky’s first movie, Pi, won the Directing Award at Sundance in 1998, and was nominated for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, earning him some serious attention within the indie world. When Pi also turned out to be a financial success—it cost $60,000 to make; sold to Artisan Entertainment for $1 million; and earned $3.2 million at the box office—Hollywood really sat up and listened. Financiers told the then-29-year-old filmmaker that his next project could be anything he wanted. But when he sent the Requiem for a Dream screenplay around, no one called him back. Turns out when Hollywood says “anything,” they mean “anything that’s commercially marketable.”

2. ARONOFSKY HAD A LONG HISTORY WITH THE BOOK’S AUTHOR.

The director was in college when he discovered Hubert Selby, Jr.’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, a controversially explicit look at life in one of the city’s neighborhoods. Aronofsky, a Brooklyn native himself, said he became obsessed with the book, and found Selby’s 1978 novel Requiem for a Dream a little later, when he was in film school.

3. THE NOVELIST AND THE FILMMAKER WROTE SEPARATE SCREENPLAY ADAPTATIONS THAT TURNED OUT TO BE REMARKABLY SIMILAR.

Selby supported Aronofsky’s desire to turn his book into a movie. Selby had actually begun writing an adaptation himself years earlier, but had lost it. Aronofsky said that when he was about three-quarters finished writing his version, Selby found his own old draft. Comparing them, Aronofsky was surprised to find they were “about 80 percent” the same. 

4. THE 20-SECOND CLEANING-THE-HOUSE-ON-SPEED SCENE CAME FROM A 40-MINUTE TIMELAPSE.

One of the film’s many trippy visuals is the scene where Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), jacked up on diet pills, cleans her apartment in fast motion. Using a timelapse camera and some tricky lighting effects to mimic the changing sunlight, Aronofsky had Ellen Burstyn bustle around while the camera very, very slowly panned across the set. Burstyn moved in a rapid, jerky manner, so it would look even faster when it was sped up. A single take took 40 minutes, and Aronofsky had her do it three times. That fake apartment was clean.

5. SOMEONE GOT HURT DURING THE SCENE WHERE HARRY AND TYRONE PLAY KEEP-AWAY WITH A COP’S GUN, WHO WARNS THEM THAT “SOMEONE’S GONNA GET HURT!”

Indeed, while Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans were tossing the gun back and forth, an errant throw caused the gun to hit Wayans in the head. That’s one of several reasons not to take a cop’s gun, even in a heroin-induced fantasy.

6. TAPPY TIBBONS WASN’T IN THE BOOK.

The charismatic infomercial host on whom Sara Goldfarb is fixated was Aronofsky’s invention. In the novel, Sara has the traditional housewife viewing habits: soap operas and game shows. But Aronofsky worried that showing clips of then-current programs would date the film, irrevocably marking it as a product of the year 2000. He wanted something less specific, something that could theoretically have been on TV anytime in the last few decades.

7. MARION AND HARRY’S LAST PHONE CONVERSATION WASN’T IN THE BOOK, EITHER.

Aronofsky wanted a way for those two characters to connect in the third act of the movie, when Harry (Jared Leto) has left town for Miami and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is getting involved in the sex-for-drugs world. (In the book, they simply drop out of each other’s lives.) The director and his actors wrote the scene together through improvisation. For added authenticity, Aronofsky shot both halves of the conversation simultaneously, on adjacent sets, so Leto and Connelly could really be talking to one another.

8. THEY USED REAL JUNKIES AS EXTRAS.

If the scene where a fresh shipment of heroin is distributed to a mob of eager junkies in the back of a supermarket seems particularly realistic, it might be because most of those extras were actual junkies.

9. ELLEN BURSTYN SPENT FOUR HOURS A DAY IN THE MAKEUP CHAIR.

That’s how long it took to apply the various prosthetic necks (there were four of them) that helped make the actress look older, heavier, thinner, or unhealthier, depending on the scene. There were also two different fat suits (a 40-pounder and a 20-pounder) and multiple wigs.

10. ARONOFSKY’S COLLEGE ROOMMATE PROVIDED THE SPECIAL EFFECTS.

Aronofsky credits one of his Harvard roommates, an animator named Dan Schrecker, with turning him into a filmmaker. Schrecker’s company, Amoeba Proteus, did the special effects for Requiem for a Dream (there are about 150 of them) and for most of Aronofsky’s subsequent movies, including Black Swan and Noah.

11. ARONOFSKY SAYS IT’S NOT A “DRUG MOVIE,” AND HAS A LIST OF THINGS IT IS INSTEAD.

“I was never interested in making a movie about junkies,” Aronofksy said in a 2000 interview. “I find junkies really boring.” So what is the film? “In a lot of ways, we looked at [it] as a monster movie. The creature was invisible; it lived in their heads. Addiction.” And what else is it? “It’s a punk movie where the audience is a mosh pit of emotion.” And what else? “Ultimately the film is about the lengths people will go to escape their realities, and what happens when you chase after a fantasy.” Anything else? “Mostly, it’s about love. More specifically, it’s about what happens when love goes wrong.” 

12. IT ALMOST HAD A HIP-HOP SOUNDTRACK.

Like a lot of Jewish kids from Brooklyn in the 1980s, Aronofsky grew up loving hip-hop music. Composer Clint Mansell said Aronofsky originally wanted Requiem for a Dream to have a score consisting of reworked classic hip-hop songs, much the same way his later film Black Swan would use music from Swan Lake. But none of the hip-hop they paired with Requiem had the right feel (and besides, Mansell said hip-hop “was never my strong suit anyway”), so they tried some instrumental pieces Mansell had been working on as samples.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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