Exclusive: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel on biblical accuracy and combining science and religion in Noah

My interviews with Darren Aronofsky: 1998 | 2014 pt 1 | 2014 pt 2 | 2014 pt 4

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and speaking to both Aronofsky and his co-writer/co-producer Ari Handel immediately after the screening. The following is part three of our conversation. Click on the links for parts one and two. The film comes out tomorrow night.

Warning: This section of the interview begins with a spoiler from the film’s third act.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the question of “accuracy.” It’s a word that comes up constantly in relation to Bible films, I think because people are afraid of creativity, and yet of course your film does definitely follow certain things like the measurements of the Ark, and yet on the other hand your film has only one wife for one of Noah’s kids–

Darren Aronofsky: Not true. I have all three wives. All three wives are on the boat. When the boat takes off, all three wives, two are in utero — I don’t know where you stand on that issue — but all three wives are on the boat.

I see. I see. So is [spoiler redacted]?

DA: It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t talk about that in the Bible.

It doesn’t talk about what in the Bible?

Ari Handel: It doesn’t say who those wives are, it doesn’t say anything–

DA: It just says they all go on the boat. That’s all it says! But there is nothing– It would be a hard task for you to find something that is actually contradictory to the original text, that can’t be a midrash.

That the film can’t be a midrash?

DA: Yeah. Come back at me. Think about it. Come back at me.

Noah being 600 years old, Shem being 98 or so?

AH: Here’s my answer to that. A lot of the patriarchs are very long-lived, and you can look at how to look at that. Noah dies at 950, and he has kids at around 500, the Flood comes at around 600, so he’s about– When he has those kids, he is at about five-ninths or 50 percent of his lifespan. So at about this time he should be middle-aged. And if his kid is 100 years old and you’re going to live to be about 1000, then you’re about 10 years old.

DA: One tenth.

AH: It never says in there that they get to be 100 and they just get more and more and more and more wrinkly. They lived a long time, maybe they aged slower too.

DA: Maybe the earth was spinning faster around the sun.

I was wondering if you were going to bring that up!

DA: Why not, though? I mean, what is a year? What is a year? How do you define a year?

AH: It’s miraculous. But what’s important is what are they like, are they children or are they men? And it seemed to us like it’s a much more interesting and dramatic story, and you can do more with it, if you take the route that they’re very young in comparison to their father, and they still have a lot to learn from their father and they still are being morally guided by their father. So casting them now as children allows an audience to feel that, which was I think certainly true of the characters most likely. He was the patriarch and they were the children.

DA: Go ahead. Something else that contradicts scripture.

Well those are the big ones!

DA: I think it’s more interesting, instead of saying it’s five or ten years, to say sure, Noah is four or five hundred years old in the film, it’s just about the relativity of time and the perception of time, and because we’re in a prediluvian world, there are rules that are very different. It’s a world when rainbows didn’t exist, it’s a world when the leviathan was on the planet, it’s a different time, a different place.

I think really our sense of time as it is now starts after the Flood. You get into Babel which is kind of a realistic story, and that’s understandable, and then you get into Abraham which is completely grounded in reality and is very historical, and Joseph is pretty historical, and then of course you get into Exodus which is an incredible historical document, and then you’re really into rules and laws. That’s, like, modern Judaism.

So it’s like, we’re in a time that’s before the Flood happens, it’s a time that’s very very different, a different place than home.

AH: And theologically, you really can read the Flood literally as an inverse of Creation, the way the waters of the heaven were separated in Creation and the waters come together in the Flood, so what we’re talking about is not just the world got filled up with water and got very wet — and I think this is kind of really what’s in the nature of the description in Genesis of the Flood — Creation was undone, and except for that Ark, what God had made was almost gone, and it was just that little bit left, surviving, it was an undoing of Creation.

So when the new world comes, it’s a new world, and maybe a slightly different world. And that’s part of the reason why it feels like that, is to make it feel different.

DA: It’s funny, on our call sheets, it said “New Eden” when we were shooting that day, and I was like, “Oh, we gotta correct that, it’s a new world, not a new Eden.” I was like no, it’s fine actually, because it sort of is a new Eden. That was how we saw it in those scenes.

One question I’m intrigued by is the question of cosmology. Some would argue that the early chapters of Genesis follow a very different cosmology than what we’re used to — a flat earth with fountains of the deep and so forth — and when I saw the trailer and saw those geysers shooting up, I thought that was fantastic, but then the trailer also showed a spherical Earth, and so, how was it combining those two things? What principle were you following there?

DA: Look, I think, you know– That’s a very very very good question. I never really perceived that, when I read Genesis, that it was a flat world. Where does it say that it’s a flat world?

It’s one of those things that biblical scholars have inferred from references to either pillars of the earth or references to the windows opening in the heavens, the canopy.

DA: That’s interesting. See, I always look at that as more, you know, it’s poetry, it’s beautiful writing, and so it’s a way of describing it. I didn’t really lock it down to sort of changing how we perceive the planet now. But that would have been a really interesting way to go, actually. If we had thought of that, we would have been like — because we were trying to invent the prediluvian world — we could have said, “Hey, the world was flat back then, so how are we going to represent that?” (laughs) We actually might have done something with that if we’d talked to you beforehand–

Oh no!

DA: –and then actually had the wrapping of the planet, which could have been an amazing CG type of moment, but we didn’t run into that, unfortunately, those ideas.

One thing I find really fascinating about the film is the way that you do combine the biblical sensibility with the modern sensibility, not just in that cosmological sense, but also in terms of your Creation story, with the evolution and the things smashing into the Earth and creating the moon and all that.

DA: I always thought it was very intriguing that the Bible got it pretty right, you know, of kind of what science is representing as out there, and that that connection was very very interesting, and that, hey, you know, maybe people aren’t so far apart here, and maybe there’s a way to sort of understand both sides of the argument, and sort of, y’know, start a conversation that way.

I mean for me, also, that sequence, I really wanted to represent the extensiveness of the cornucopia of the animal kingdom and of creation. That’s kind of what that is, trying to represent all the amazing creatures that were created, and landscapes and celestial objects that were created over those six days.

AH: All the work.

DA: All the work!

I revisited all of your features over the last week or two, just to sort of prepare for this screening, and I was struck by the recurring theme of purity or perfection, whether it’s Natalie Portman seeking perfection in her dance [in Black Swan], or in Pi you’ve got those Kabbalah guys who are basically saying, “No you can’t, you’re not prepared for God, you’re not pure.” What do you think motivates this recurring theme, or where is it coming from?

DA: I have no idea. I could give you my therapist’s phone number, if I had one, but I have no idea. It just comes out that way. And I don’t know if it’s really in the Noah thing. I don’t know. It’s for you to say.

Well certainly one could argue that he’s sort of trying to purify the Earth, he believes Earth would be purer without humanity for example, because humanity has ruined it.

DA: That’s interesting.

(laughs)

DA: I don’t answer those types of questions, because I try not to be too aware of it. It’s just things that I’m attracted to that I’m passionate about, that make sense to me, and that’s the only way I know how to kind of make things come to life.

Come back tomorrow for the final installment of this exclusive four-part interview.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Lee Woofenden

    Great interview! Lots of interesting tidbits about Aronofsky & Handel’s thinking in creating the various parts of the film.

    Still, the film really doesn’t pass the Biblical accuracy test on some key points. I’m not a Bible literalist. I do not believe there was a literal Noah, ark, or flood. These early chapters of Genesis contain mythic stories of the spiritual origins of humankind. However, you still have to read the story itself to gain meaning from it.

    It’s a nice gloss to say that all three wives were on the boat, but two were in utero. However, one of the movie’s biggest departures from the Bible text is that in the Bible, God speaks to Noah plainly and directly in words, while in the movie, Noah has to guess God’s meaning from dreams and visions. And in the Bible story, one of the things God says to Noah before the flood is that he was to take his sons, his wife, and his sons’ wives into the ark. This would make zero sense to Noah if his sons didn’t have wives at the time.

    It’s just too much of a stretch to have God speaking of future wives in utero, of whom Noah is unaware when he enters the ark. We would expect Noah to say, “Huh, God? What the heck are you talking about?” But there is no such confusion on Noah’s part. God is speaking of present realities known to Noah. If the future wives had been babies or in the womb at the time, God would have referred to them as such when he gave his instructions to Noah.

    Further, in the Bible story, by the time Noah gets drunk, Ham already has at least one son, Canaan, whom Noah curses as a result of what his father Ham has done (see Genesis 9:24-27). In the movie, Ham is still wifeless, and of course childless, when he commits the offense of seeing his father naked (a Biblical meme for harshly judging and condemning someone).

    About the likely age of maturity compared to the present, yes, there could be a certain stretching of the ages. However, even with lifespans reaching past 900 years, a 100 year old would not be a child or an adolescent. If you look in the genealogy in Genesis 5, the ages specified for when each man had his first child are from 65 years old to 187 years old, except for Noah himself, who is 500 years old when he has his first children. The Bible doesn’t specify at what age the average man would reach adulthood and the ability to father children. But we at least know that it would be younger than 65 years old. And according to the chronology of Biblical story, Shem, Ham, and Japeth are 100 years old when they entered the ark. So they would have been adults at that time. And it’s quite clear from the text that they were already married when they went into the ark.

    I suspect that the original storytellers thought of humans of that early era as growing up in a similar amount of time as in their own generation and experience, but continuing to live indefinitely in the vigor of adulthood, until God finally limited the ages of the coming generations and wiped out the remaining “old ones” in the flood. This was all an extended result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. At that time, God took specific action to prevent humans from living forever (See Genesis 3:22-24).

    I don’t have a problem with the movie not following the Bible story. It’s a Hollywood movie, isn’t it? But the idea that it actually does follow the Bible story even if it doesn’t seem to just can’t be sustained. In the Bible story, Noah clearly understands his mission and the reasons for it, and he is well aware that humanity is meant to continue from his lineage. This was all spelled out to him before the flood, and before he even begins to build the ark.

    It’s an enjoyable movie. It just doesn’t use an entirely Biblical plot, even if it does use Biblical themes in weaving its plot.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/filmchat Peter T Chattaway

      Thanks. And yeah, the bit about Ham and Canaan occurred to me not too long after the interview was over. So did the fact that, in the Bible, Lamech doesn’t die until his grandsons are in their 90s (cf. Genesis 5:30,32; note also Shem’s age in Genesis 11:10), whereas in the film, Lamech dies when Noah is still a boy and hasn’t given him any grandchildren yet.

      One other curious fact: The first mention of Noah’s sons, in Genesis 5:32, lists their names as “Shem, Ham and Japheth” — a pattern that is repeated in 6:10, 7:13, 9:18 and 10:1 — but 10:21 says Japheth was Shem’s older brother, and 9:24 says Ham was Noah’s youngest son. So the actual birth order of Noah’s sons would seem to be Japheth, Shem and Ham. But the film follows the better-known birth order suggested by all those other verses.


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