Released 15 years ago this month, Requiem for a Dream was the film that put Darren Aronofsky on the map and gave juicy and heartbreaking roles to Ellen Burstyn (an Oscar nominee), Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connelly. But it’s perhaps now best remembered for its score. Written by Clint Mansell and performed by the string group Kronos Quartet, the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, specifically “Lux Aterna,” has been used to promote movies ever since.
Don’t know that name? You’ve heard it anyway. “Lux Aterna” was used in the Sunshine trailer and was re-orchestrated as “Requiem for a Tower” for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer, among other uses. (It can also be heard in a video where Nicolas Cage, err, loses it.) “From a writer’s point of view, obviously I want people to hear my music,” Mansell says now. “I’m not particularly precious that it can only be heard in Requiem for a Dream the way it was written. This is the world we live in now, where music is digitized and you can [drop] it in everywhere and anywhere and take from it what you want.”
It was Aronofsky who suggested a string quartet. Both he and Mansell had initially been influenced by hip-hop music for the score (which is what Aronofsky listened to while growing up in Brooklyn, where the film takes place), but didn’t find the emotional heft they needed. Back to the drawing board, they poured over a number of Mansell’s other musical ideas, and what ultimately became “Lux Aeterna” played under a scene where Marion (Connelly) sleeps with her psychiatrist for money and throws up outside of his apartment just as a thunderstorm comes crashing down.
“It was completely different from anything else we’d seen or heard or thought,” Mansell says of the track, which he describes as a three-chord progression with a melancholic and slower groove. “It just changed the whole feel of the movie for us. It gave us our in, in terms of what the music was going to be like.”
Though it’s difficult to imagine this iconic score any differently now, Mansell did not go into the film with specific ideas about what he wanted to evoke through his music, which he says is “very intense” and probably “more emotional” than he anticipated when he started.
Rather, he reacted to what was presented to him. “I never try to enforce my ideas onto the film,” says Mansell, who has scored all of Aronofsky’s feature films, including Black Swan and The Wrestler. “I like to listen to what the film is telling me when I’m putting ideas against it. It’s sort of weird but to my mind, the score to a film is already written somewhere, and I’m the conduit that’s bringing it out. It’s paying attention to what the film is telling me, and I really just do what it wants me to do.” The film, he says, was telling him a painful story that might have salvation at the end of it — there was some hopefulness in the bleakness.
When pressed, Mansell attributes the track’s success to its stripped down nature. “There’s something pretty basic and fundamental about it,” he says. “It’s not over complicated in any sense shape or form. It just has an emotion and a movement that seems to be hypnotic or compelling I suppose. You have these transcendent moments that are created between the image and the music that are not indefinable but there isn’t an equation to make them happen. That to me is the beauty of art.”
Mansell acknowledges the success of “Lux Aeterna,” but he isn’t taking credit for its life after Requiem. Rather, he says he looks at it from a distance in a somewhat detached manner. And while he says the track probably made his career, he doesn’t believe that it defined what came next. “It’s been such a slow burn because Requiem was quite well acclaimed at the time, but it didn’t do a lot of business,” he explains. “It’s sort of grown over time and I’ve been doing other work so it’s just been sort of a pleasant byproduct for me rather than a milestone.”