In a way, the figure of Noah stands over filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s whole career.
Brought up with a Jewish education, Aronofsky wrote a poem for a seventh-grade English class about the dove flying back to Noah’s ark. The assignment was for a United Nations writing contest (about peace) that Aronofsky won, and he wound up reading his poem aloud at the U.N. — an experience he credits with shaping his decision to become a storyteller.
Aronofsky says he has wanted to make a film about Noah since high school, and his efforts to get this film afloat stretch back over 15 years. Now, the director’s controversial take on Noah, played in the film by Russell Crowe, has generated some backlash, often among people who haven’t seen the film.
Not long ago, I wrote a blog post about the controversy that Aronofsky not only read, but forwarded to his followers on Twitter — including Crowe, who also tweeted it. I mention this because when I met Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, in a Manhattan screening room to talk about Noah, it was my first-ever interview in which the first question came from the filmmaker asking me about my work.
Aronofsky: Thank you for your very intelligent article — where did your take in that come from?
SDG: Well, I’m working on my second seminary degree. … I’m studying to be a Catholic deacon.
Aronofsky: I just found out we may actually get to meet the Pope.
SDG: Good luck! I know Russell’s been tweeting to him.
Aronofsky: I’m really excited about Pope Francis. His first homily was so beautiful — and he talked about themes we were interested in for this film. I mentioned that to Russell, and he said, "I’ll just tweet him." I guess someone who works with Russell is related to a bishop at the Vatican, who told Russell to tweet him if you want to get his attention. … So that might happen.
So when we saw your piece, we were like, “Yes! This guy understands exactly what we’re doing.” We just showed the movie to a bunch of the leading rabbis — we’ve been doing a lot of outreach to Christians, and we wanted to reach out to Jewish leaders, too. And they were like, “Well, this is part of the midrashic tradition.”
SDG: Tell me about the research you did for Noah. Did you research other versions of the flood story besides the biblical one?
Aronofsky: Sure. The flood story is in every culture. Years ago, when I was traveling with other movies, if I was in a culture that wasn’t primarily Judeo-Christian, I would always ask people, “Have you ever heard of Noah?” In China, they had their own flood story and their own name for Noah — in India and Japan as well.
I was always interested in other stories — but, for us, I think there was enough in the Noah story to build on. I don’t think we pulled on other stories in any way. It was just good to understand that there’s something elemental to the flood story that connects people all over the planet.
SDG: Any thoughts about what that “something” is?
Handel: There’s something about water. … It’s both chaos — the opposite of creation; destruction — but also cleansing and purification. That combination of characteristics is pretty powerful: destructive and cleansing at the same time.
SDG: What stands out to you as unique or specific to the biblical story, compared to other flood stories?
Handel: Those other stories, like the [Mesopotamian] Epic of Gilgamesh, often have the idea of survival. I don’t know if they’re as interested in goodness and wickedness.
SDG: Yeah, in the story of Gilgamesh, the gods basically send the flood because the humans are too noisy and are bothering them…
Aronofsky: That’s right.
Handel: And goodness and wickedness is very central to the Noah story and central to what we found interesting about it.
Aronofsky: When we first started looking at the Noah story, we ran into a bizarre question. Because the first story after Noah is the story of Babel. Right after God starts over again, human wickedness shows up again in the next story.
That’s such a strange thing — to go through that much pain, to destroy your creation; all those animals and people who didn’t get on the ark: It must have been such a painful decision. But then, in the next story, you have to go back and deal with the same thing again. Man tries, through his arrogance, to reach you. You have to smite them and spread them around the planet.
So that decision to allow people who had eaten from the tree to continue, even though they had the original sin in them, was a great starting point for us.
SDG: What about non-biblical Jewish stories for the Noah story — rabbinic sources, midrash, stuff like that?
Handel: Yeah. The Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, a lot of midrash. … Basically, we looked at anyone who had anything to say. There were so many questions that we saw posed in the text when we really started to look at it closely.
Aronofsky: You find really interesting ideas in rabbinic texts. There’s the word sohar [in Genesis 6:16], which rabbinic scholars have thought about for a long time. Some said it refers to a window; others have talked about this magic stone that glowed brighter during the day and darker at night. So we decided to follow the magical-stone idea, because it kind of fit into this idea that the antediluvian world was somehow different from today. It helped us build this fantastic world that was so close to creation. It was a different time from now.
Handel: And it was undone. It wasn’t like that world was flooded and then returned. You can read creation as the inverse of the flood story. The creation story has a lot of instances of things being separated out: God separated the waters in creation; here, they’re brought together. It’s almost like that world was eradicated.
Aronofsky: And there’s that midrash where they talk about the idea that the world was destroyed many times before. So there’s the idea that the Noah story is not the first apocalypse — that God had actually reset the world before.
Then there’s modern people, like Elie Weisel, who wrote a great piece on Noah …
Handel: Yeah, in Sages and Dreamers, Weisel asks how we are to understand Noah being “righteous in his generation.” Some people have said he’s incredibly righteous; others have said maybe he isn’t so righteous. And what does that mean?
SDG: The film takes us to a time when man’s understanding of God isn’t just pre-Christian: It’s pre-Davidic, pre-Mosaic, pre-Abrahamic. So Noah’s understanding of God may seem very foreign to us today. On the other hand, some nonbelievers reading Genesis argue that the Creator depicted there isn’t so good. How do you see the Creator in the story as you’ve told it?
Aronofsky: It’s a very good question. If you look at the story in Genesis, it begins with the wickedness of the world. And God forms this decision to start over again. And so, for us, the beginning of the story is about justice.
By the end, God makes a covenant and presents the rainbow as a promise that it won’t ever happen again. For us, that’s mercy. So the story has this transition from justice to mercy.
Noah in the text doesn’t have much of a character arc. He follows along with God. So we decided to give the same sort of path to Noah: of wanting justice at the beginning and eventually finding mercy.
There’s a lot of anger at the beginning. But I think it’s justified: God’s anger — in [the text and] in this film as well, because we do show how wicked man had become, as well as we could.
Handel: You mentioned how this is an earlier vision of God, and this is true — the laws are changing; the covenant is changing: what is expected and what the relationship is …
SDG: Like the postdiluvian dietary laws: Noah and his descendants are now allowed to eat animals, not just plants.
Handel: And there definitely is a transformation at this point in Genesis, of who God is to mankind: from a vengeful God, to a degree, to a merciful God.
But I also think, in the film, Noah is given every opportunity to come to this affirmative, merciful decision — God brings him there, but it’s given to Noah to decide. So I think there’s teaching going on and an attempt to find a higher consciousness; so that when we start again, we’ll start in a better place, with more of a possibility of doing a better job.
In some ways, it’s more of a kindness, although some things that are a kindness are actually quite difficult.
SDG: The movie certainly includes a very compelling depiction of human wickedness. But there’s also one character outside Noah’s family, right before the flood, who seems innocent. Is this a problem for God’s justice in the film?
Aronofsky: When you look at real people in the world, we’re all a combination of good and wickedness. That’s the reality. The worst thing you can ever have as a bad guy is someone who’s completely bad. Really, you want a bad guy who has a good argument. It adds to true drama.
For us, the rules of this world are set up very clearly. This is the fourth story in the Bible. The first story is creation. The second is the original sin. Right after that is the first murder. And then after that everything is wicked, and we go into the Noah story.
Noah and his family are [heirs] of the original sin, just like Cain and his line. But to make everything black and white would be flimsy entertainment that doesn’t capture anything about real people. … It makes it a myth, not something that’s real. And we wanted to try to understand this as something that really happened.
So, of course, there was wickedness, and we show it. But to say that there’s some goodness and kindness in some people isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it adds to the truth and complexity of the human situation. So that character — who knows? She could have stolen. She could have done anything. We don’t know anything about her.
We wanted the audience to understand how much it grieved the Creator’s heart to destroy his creation. And part of what grieved his heart, I believe, is that there was, say, an innocent baby who was born five minutes before the flood happened. Methuselah died in the flood. All those animals that didn’t get on the ark that were part of his creation [died too].
Handel: The image a lot of people probably have of how God feels even toward anyone who’s wicked is that there’s love there. So there’s no question that killing all these people, whatever they may have been, had to be incredibly difficult. We wanted to feel that difficulty. It’s very easy to say, “These are the bad guys; they should die. These are the good guys; they shouldn’t die.”
But as Darren said, you flip the page after Noah and his family are saved, and you’re at Babel. You’re at drunkenness and the cursing of Canaan.
Aronofsky: Noah’s a real human being in incredible circumstances, and through them, he becomes a prophet. And you identify with him. That’s my understanding of the Christ story: that he came down to experience life as a real man, and we can all identify with him.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.