Exclusive: Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel on universal truths and specific traditions in Noah

My interviews with Darren Aronofsky: 1998 | 2014 pt 1 | 2014 pt 2 | 2014 pt 3

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 four of our conversation. Click on the links for parts one, two and three. The film comes out tonight.

One last question — for now, I guess, because I’d love to talk even longer–

Darren Aronofsky: Yeah, yeah, you could always come over to our dorm room. (laughs) I feel like I’m back in college. This is sophomore year at college, is me and Ari and a bunch of guys talking. I love it.

Watching Pi again actually made me feel like I was back in college too, there’s a lot of that stuff.

DA: Yeah, exactly.

In a film like this, I can’t think of a better way to word this than how do you balance the fantasy with the prophetic? The idea that on the one hand, I think you yourself have made a comparison between this and the Lord of the Rings movies, it has some of that sort of prehistoric feel to it, but at the same time, you are trying to say something about the world and the way it is today, so that’s what I mean by the prophetic, the sense of speaking to the way the world is now.

DA: I don’t think so.

No? You have that montage with all the armies, and there’s certainly a modern-day connection there.

DA: Well, we certainly tried to capture the history of violence, and how do you create, how do you communicate to an audience the wickedness of man. It’s a very hard thing to communicate to an audience, especially when you’re doing a PG-13 film that’s for all audiences, you want to do something that kind of connects–

Ari Handel: And the universality of the wickedness. It’s very easy to show that Tubal-Cain is the bad guy, and there’s another bad guy, and that guy’s a bad guy, but how do you show the universality of the wickedness of men? And that device which Darren came up with does that.

DA: It just tried to show the generations upon generations of war, of warfare, and weaponry, and violence, man against man violence, and you know, I mean, it’s interesting because there’s been talk about is this an environmental message film? It’s not. We had to define what is the wickedness of man, because that’s the only clue we were given when we read Genesis, was that God was upset because of the wickedness of men. So we looked at before that, before he was upset with the wickedness of men, what were the rules. And there are three rules, right?

AH: You can come up with three. Don’t eat of the apple, the tree at the centre of the garden. That was the first rule, broke that. Second one was, “I give you every green plant as food,” so eat plants, not meat, until the Noah story, but before that, that’s the other one. That’s why we have that in the film. And the third one is, it’s not clearly stated, “Thou shalt not kill,” except when Cain kills his brother, God gets extremely upset and there’s a consequence. So man-on-man violence, violence against animals or in terms of consumption, and disobeying the will of God. Those are the three.

DA: Also, there’s one other interesting note that a lot of people don’t think about, that is after the Noah story, is the Noahic laws that are established, and one of those laws is “don’t eat live flesh,” so there’s this strange– It’s not “don’t eat flesh any more,” it’s “don’t eat live flesh,” so that kind of pointed to certain ideas of what the wickedness of man might have been before Noah, ’cause that kind of said that maybe people were eating live flesh before. So there were clues about the wickedness of man, so what we decided to do is demonstrate that wickedness of man. Noah was entrusted to save creation and be a steward of creation and take care of the animal kingdom.

AH: Adam was.

DA: Adam was, and then Noah had to actually build the Ark to actually save it.

You just reminded me of another possible inaccuracy.

DA: Go ahead.

AH: Good work, Darren!

(laughs)

DA: No, I’m happy to– I know we talked about it. I know we talked about it, so please.

You have the animals going in two by two, do you?

DA: Oh, you mean the seven? They’re on, they’re in the background, and you don’t really see them, and I can point out where we have seven and seven in the big animal shots, but it’s interesting because there’s kind of these– First the story describes two by two, and then it describes the seven later on as an addition, so we just used it as an addition.

So actually we did represent it in one of the big CGI shots, but we didn’t really feel like we wanted to make a big point out of it! Because it was literally– You might be the only person in the audience who actually points it out as an inaccuracy! Most people don’t think of that, so we did represent it in the film, but it’s only in a visual way.

AH: Plus getting into what is clean and what isn’t at that point wouldn’t have been defined yet, because they’re not even defined until Leviticus, so we don’t even know what is clean and what isn’t. So it’s a weird– and only one of those sort of mentions of it.

DA: But when you see it again in the big shot overhead that comes down and sees the Ark, all walking in it, there’s two patches of where I have seven of one animal, of two different species of animal, so you’ll see it there.

That came to mind because you mentioned the idea that there was no meat-eating before the flood, and normally the distinction between clean and unclean is the clean ones are the ones you can eat.

DA: That comes in Leviticus, which is three books down. And actually, it says in the Garden of Eden, it says you are given plants to eat. It doesn’t talk about eating meat, ever. It says your food is the plants. That’s in Genesis 2:15, right? 2:16, about? It’s right in there. The only time it talks about what’s for food is that. It doesn’t ever talk about eating animals, because in the Garden they were eating plants, and then the first story after is Cain and Abel, so.

This is a bit geeky, but I have to ask you, do you know about source criticism? Not film criticism, but source criticism with regards to the Bible–

AH: J and A and that stuff?

J, E, P, D, that stuff.

AH: Yeah, yeah.

The idea that the parts of Genesis that use “Elohim” for the name of God come from a different source than the parts that use “Yahweh”. It’s been argued that there are two completely separate Noah stories that are actually quite complete that have been sort of interlaced.

AH: That’s right.

DA: But I didn’t want to say that, because I think it offends certain people who believe that it’s written by hand, so we don’t talk about that.

AH: But we’re aware of that.

DA: And that’s kind of the seven animals and the two animals, because some people would argue that [the part of the Noah story where the clean animals come in groups of seven is] a rabbinical thing, and the other one [the part of the Noah story where the animals come two by two only] is more of an ancient story.

For us, none of that stuff mattered, and we were into that. We didn’t care, authorship or that, because we treated Genesis as the word of God, as complete truth. We were trying to bring that story to life so we didn’t want to contradict anything. We wanted to represent everything that was there and let it inspire us to tell a dramatic story with the themes and the ideas that are in there.

So, y’know, once again going back to the drunkenness, the second thing he does after they get to land is he gets drunk and has a falling out with his son, so that completely gave us a complete narrative arc to think about. What is that story between Ham and Noah that eventually leads to that? Sure you could say it’s that one incident that happened on the beach, or maybe it’s an incident that goes back to their childhood, when Ham first plucks the flower and is a more rebellious, inquisitive kid, and how do you deal with that as a parent, when you have that type of issue.

And sure, you can call that not in the Bible, but it’s so interesting to try to bring that to life for a modern audience, and use dramatics to kind of tell that story, that ultimately leads to the same thing, which is [spoiler redacted]. The story is sort of represented correctly.

AH: And in the midrashic tradition, you see things like that are clues. A story like that is a mystery, a clue that invites you to look for meaning.

DA: Within our tradition, as being Jews, a long tradition of thousands of years of people writing commentary on it, where literalism is a different school and people actually look at it for clues and try to apply it to lives now, and to your present, and so for us in our tradition, there isn’t anything we’re doing that’s sort of out of line or out of sync, but within that, I think you don’t want to ever contradict what’s in there.

In all the midrash tradition, the text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and it is the word and it is the final authority, but how you decide to sort of interpret it, you have that possibility to open it up and open up your imagination to be inspired it.

AH: And there’s puzzles in there, with meaning to be found.

DA: Yeah. So that all the things that seem to contradict, the things that don’t make sense, actually do make sense. And that extends all the way through Kabbalah and all through people actually then trying to turn the words into numbers and trying to understand the things mathematically, all different ways of trying to understand the text but sort of assuming that what’s in the text is there for a reason. But what it actually means can be seen in lots of different ways. It’s part of our tradition to do this.

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).

  • John Doman

    Excellent!

  • Jonathan David White

    Sir, I just stumbled on your writings on the Noah movie and I can’t get enough. Thank you very much for sharing your passion with the world!


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