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Director Darren Aronofsky Explains His Take on Noah

By Janet Rae
Contributing Writer - Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is known for dramatic portrayals of obsessive characters, a trademark clearly seen in Black Swan for which he received an Academy Award nomination in 2010. But, the story Aronofsky has wanted to tell for quite some time is of Noah and the Great Flood. His new Paramount Pictures feature, Noah, began as a passion project years ago with his longtime friend and screenwriting partner Ari Handel and it finally comes to fruition this Friday, March 28.

Noah presents an inspirational story of courage, justice, mercy, sacrifice, redemption and hope. Academy Award winner Russell Crowe portrays a man of God chosen to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world. For the first time in cinematic history, Noah's story will take over theaters in an epic presentation, inviting audiences to experience the emotions and traumatic, yet adventurous, journey of Noah and his family.

It's not the predictable presentation most Christians might expect given the Sunday School version to which we have grown accustomed. There are a few surprises that unveil in Noah, particularly related to its inclusion of giants, known as Nephilim.

Recently, Aronofsky and Handel sat down with to explain their somewhat controversial interpretation of Noah's story. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

What brought you to the final conception of making those giants a part of the movie?

Aronofsky: The Bible to start talks about the Nephilim, so we knew we had to deal with that because Genesis 6… there is very little in there and we had to take everything and respect everything that was in there. When you're interpreting something that's four chapters long into a two-hour long movie, you have to kind of almost study almost every word.  And we even went back to the Hebrew and went into all the particulars back into the written word and what it related to and what it meant. So when it talked about the Nephilim, we spent a lot of time thinking about that, how to bring that to life. And there is a lot of Jewish Midrash. Midrash is discussions and writings about that text that have been done for thousands of years. Also [we used] a lot other sources like the Book of Enoch that talk about the Nephilim.

So there were a lot of places to draw from, to think about, to develop the characters. Of course, we had to use imagination for it. But we really wanted to try to take the big themes of the film. The ideas of mercy and justice and trying to figure out how to create story for these characters that related to those themes. It's kind of a flip. Where Noah goes from justice to mercy. The Nephilim move from mercy towards justice and sort of bring those themes alive.

When did some things come to you that ended up in the final version versus once you had a commitment to make the movie?

Aronofsky: It's been a very long process of development. It's a hard question to answer because when you cast Russell Crowe the project changes. You cast Emma Watts and the project changes. Filmmaking is collaboration. So everyone who comes on brings something. And that's the beauty of it. It's a huge collection of artists of all different expertise and possibilities. So it's constantly evolving and in the moment you're making decisions based on all the research you've done. The 10 years of research [Ari and I] did. The emotional connection we had.

I had with the material since I was 13 or even younger. You're just trying to pull on that truth that's inside of you to say, ‘OK, that's probably the best decision in this moment to make it feel real'. So it's hard to say how things change.

What was it that made you connect with the story of Noah?

Aronofsky: For me, you probably read in the production notes about that magical teacher I had when I was 13 years old, Mrs. Freed at Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island, Brooklyn. She said one day, take out a paper and pen and write something about peace and I ended up writing the poem on Noah called “A Dove”. It ended up winning a contest for the United Nations. I didn't know it was a contest for that. So I don't know why I wrote about Noah.

The one other memory I had recently when me and Ari were talking is, I had an early memory that was before that of hearing the Noah story and I just remember being scared, actually. That even though it's become a parable for kids and like a nursery story and there's the animal cracker box of Noah Ark and the play mobile set when you really look at the story it's actually very, very scary. It's the first apocalypse story. And as a kid I remember thinking about what if I'm not good enough to be on the boat? I have wickedness and sin and would I actually get on the boat? What would it be like if I didn't get on it?  So from the beginning, I think I saw that side of the story.

What does the story mean to you now? Has it changed?

Handel: Changed, I don't know. Clarified. You know because the big thing for us was to ask ourselves, what is the story about? Because it almost started with a question. The story poses a lot of questions and the biggest question is this notion of how do we get saved? Who deserves to be on that boat? … Are the people going to be judged or are they going to be treated with mercy?

The story is book ended with God seeing the wickedness of mankind and judging it. And at the end, acknowledging the wickedness of mankind and promising not to try and destroy it again. So that question of “why”, I think that confounded us from the very beginning. Especially when you turn the page and you see Babel and you look at Noah who supposed to be a righteous man and he's drunk and he's cursing his son's line.

So all those questions, they started as confusions. But as we worked on it harder and harder and harder, we started to see that this was a meditation … asking us to grapple with this idea of mercy and justice and goodness and wickedness and how we're to deal with them.

The film shows the traumatic impact of this apocalyptic event on Noah's family. What was that process like in developing that trauma within the storyline and the characters?

Well, it comes out of the themes that are in the story. We tried to humanize it, to put ourselves as writers into that position and say if this was happening, what would go on? How would that feel? … Because I think that makes it more powerful for people when you can understand it as a person.

That's the beauty of cinema and the beauty of storytelling. That's the most beautiful power of cinema is to take people and to experience human emotion. We had to do that. We had to figure out how Noah and his family would go through this and what it would mean to them.

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