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 and talking about the Pope:
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 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 said 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."
Thus began my interview about the movie, which opens March 28.
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, in the story of Gilgamesh, the gods basically send the flood because the humans are too noisy and are bothering them.
Handel: And goodness and wickedness is very central to the Noah story — and central to what we found interesting about it.
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.
The movie certainly includes a very compelling victim 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.
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."
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.
Next issue: Review of Noah.
Steven D. Greydanus is the
Register’s film critic.