Noah: Aronofsky’s Personal, Audacious Biblical Epic

“Noah” opens on March 28, 2014

Darren Aronofsky has always been a filmmaker drawn to the most far-reaching stories and the boldest means of storytelling.

From the mathematician’s quest of his debut film “π,” to the bittersweet search for reconciliation of “The Wrestler” to the intense ballet world thriller “Black Swan,” he has become as known for his innovative visual approach as for his willingness to dig into such fertile subjects as mortality, love and the meaning of the sacred.

Handel says that Aronofsky was also the only director he could imagine taking on the visual risks of bringing audiences into an ancient world rife with both roiling chaos and divine presence.  “Darren was the right director because the visual challenges of ‘Noah’ are stupendous, so you need someone whose visual skills are equally stupendous. But you also need someone who can combine that visual majesty with emotional intensity and Darren has that unique combination,” he comments.

With Aronofsky’s visual skills in mind, the script did not hold back on scope, action … or the unexpected. “We wanted to bring a grandness and magnitude befitting a story that is so important,” Handel explains, “but within that, to also surprise people with some elements that defy their expectations.”

“For instance,” Handel continues, “in Genesis Noah is told to build an Ark and bring two of each kind of animal onto it.  There is no description at all of how he manages this task.  But Darren came up with a cinematically exciting and dramatic way for Noah to get the materials for his Ark and to find and gather representatives of all the animals on the planet.  These solutions are not in the Bible, although they don’t contradict it, but we felt they had a miraculous quality that fit with the spirit of the story.”

At the same time, Aronofsky says that he was interested in capturing more than just epic scope:  “What we did was to start with the actual text of Genesis, then expand that into a family drama.” 

“There’s actually very little explicitly known about many aspects of Noah’s story, Noah doesn’t even speak a word until he gets off the Ark,” says Handel, “so everything these characters thought and said was left open.  But if you look closely at the text there are hints.  Consider Noah getting drunk after he reaches the New World.  This is never explained in Genesis but to us it felt like an insight into Noah’s character that we wanted to explore and try to understand.  What kind of strain and difficulties must he have gone through that even after he has succeeded in his task he needed to turn to drink?  How do we reconcile the description of Noah as a ‘righteous man’ who, drunk and naked, curses one branch of his descendants to eternal slavery?”

Handel continues, “what might be the most painful part of the Genesis story: a Creator deciding that He must destroy most, if not all, of His own creation.  Surely there were children amongst those who were drowned in the flood?  Certainly there were plenty of innocent animals beyond the two by two?  If so, the deluge must have been about creating a clean slate despite those loses – something that must be painful for a just Creator who loves His Creation.  How do we dramatize that pain on a human level that we can all relate to?  Our greatest task was to figure out how to explore these questions in a compelling, cinematic way while staying faithful to the specifics of Genesis.”

At the heart of their screenplay was Noah’s resolve, and his very human attempts at perseverance, in the face of what seems a daunting mission.  When God warns him of calamity and commands him to save the animals, Noah does so with unquestioning faith — and without any of the disbelief some might expect.

“In many of today’s films, if a character says they’ve seen visions or heard voices the people around them might doubt their sanity at first. But Darren and I felt that was a modern way of thinking,” Handel explains.  “Noah lives in a time period where his grandfather was alive while Adam was alive, and Adam had actually walked with God, so Noah has no problem believing what God tells him. But the bigger questions for Noah are 1) how can you be sure you understand fully what you’re being asked to do and 2) how do you pull it off?”

Even just imagining the contours of Noah’s world – marked in the Bible as the tumultuous, sin-fueled time between the Fall of Man and the coming of the great flood – was a profound undertaking.  There are biblical references to an age of ferocious wickedness and of angelic “giants in the earth,” but scholarly specifics are limited.

“We know certain things about Egypt, we know certain things about ancient Judea – but there’s a lot less to go on about what the antediluvian world was like,” notes Aronofsky.  “We decided to not shy from that but to embrace that this is a world different from our own.”

In addition to Genesis, Aronofsky and Handel consulted texts including The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Enoch (a work ascribed to the great-grandfather of Noah) and the Book of Jubilees, as well as historical and modern analysis by theologians and historians.  Yet, they were always aware they would have to make a daring leap from that research to capturing Noah’s world on screen in a way that could captivate filmgoers of all backgrounds.  The risks were clear, but so too was their commitment to bring people closer to the inspiration of the story.

Summarizes Handel:  “When we set out to tell the story of Noah, we knew it would be daunting because the story is so meaningful on so many levels to so many people. But we jumped at the chance to do it for those very same reasons – because it is such an incredibly powerful story that means something so deep and fundamental.”

Adds Aronofsky:  “I think it will be very exciting for people to be reminded how amazing these stories are –so I was very focused on making this film equally available for believers and non-believers.”

For producer Scott Franklin, who has worked with Aronofsky on all of his films, the mix of Noah’s timeless themes with the adventuresome nature of Aronofsky’s style held out the promise of a movie that would be technically thrilling yet also deeply fulfilling.

“The film is multi-faceted,” Franklin says.  “It aims to stay authentic to the text as we know it, but fills in some details with imaginative context.  There is a definitely a big visual effects component.  But I think the heart and core of this movie is Darren’s original view of Noah’s story as a great family drama.  He brought such personal passion for this material.”

Producer Mary Parent, who most recently produced Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” was equally excited about Aronofsky’s approach.   “Darren has created something that reflects the genuine essence of the biblical story but at the same time also allows him to be the very modern storyteller that he is,” she observes.  “In the visual language of the film, you are going to see a lot of contemporary signposts, yet the result is something classic and epic.  He brings the performances, the level of filmmaking and the pure action-adventure that transports you into this world.”

Paren elaborates:  “One of the things that makes Darren a great filmmaker I think is his ability to push you to the limit, to take you to the edge, and in this case to take you inside Noah’s predicament. At the same time Darren tells a story that’s incredibly heartfelt.  Those things usually don’t reside together.”