Noah interview round-up: co-writer Ari Handel

Two weeks ago, I posted a collection of interviews with Noah director Darren Aronofsky, and I have updated that post with new interview clips ever since. But in the meantime — especially as Aronofsky has gone overseas to promote the film — there have also been a number of interviews with his co-writer Ari Handel. So I figured I should start a post to collect those, too.

I interviewed Aronofsky and Handel together myself back in February, and I linked to a more recent interview with Handel in my post on the infamous snakeskin.

Handel was also featured prominently in a “faith leaders” video that I posted a couple weeks ago, and I have previously linked to interviews that he has done with Hollywood Jesus and Hugh Hewitt. See also the interviews that Handel and Aronofsky did together to promote the Noah graphic novel here, here and here.

And now for the new stuff. First, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to him at (or maybe just before) the film’s New York premiere two weeks ago:

“We never wanted to contradict anything in the Bible,” Handel told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s U.S. premiere in New York on Wednesday night. “So we started there, and basically what we wanted to look at were: What are the themes and questions that the story’s bringing forward that we should be grappling with? So we read Genesis very carefully to look at what we thought it was about, and then we tried to dramatize that and make it human.” . . .

Handel added that although Noah has a much bigger budget than Aronofsky’s previous films, at more than $125 million, the core elements are the same as those on his smaller pictures.

“The essential things are the same, which is you’re struggling to make everything as coherent as you can and make the story go together as well as you can,” Handel said. “There’s obviously more tools, and there’s therefore more complexity and more things that could go wrong, but fundamentally the concerns are the same.”

Handel also spoke to Catholic News Service shortly before the film came out:

“We worried about making the story work, looking at the Noah story in Genesis, grappling with it, grappling with what the themes were, and trying to make that dramatic, and trying to make that there for people to feel the things that are present in that text,” Handel said.

“We didn’t worry about the marketing and the selling, and who it’s for and all. We worried about making this story the right story and making it a powerful and effective piece of cinema.”

The Jewish Week spoke to Handel shortly after the film came out:

In what way did your Judaism impact your filmmaking?

I’d say here there was my fascination with the story of Noah, midrash and tradition and how you can take on the text and look at its closely. There are a lot of questions that are left unanswered and can be interpreted in different ways. As a storyteller, you look at it and wonder about how Noah lived when it doesn’t say it in the text.

There is a scene where we hear the cries of and see the people who are about to drown. Did you have any concern that audience would think you were portraying God as evil?

We’re telling the story, maybe in an evocative way, but the fact is that all the other people were wiped out. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from questions. You have to think about what kind of world are we living in and what sort of film are we making. We weren’t making a film just about Noah with his family, and they’re happy and smiley and everyone is under one roof. There are a lot of things it doesn’t say in the text, and you have to imagine how it might have been. Our goal was to create a film that would bring the Noah story to the 21st century that examined the truths that there was wickedness and destruction.

In the film, Noah sees another version of himself. Are you trying to say that everyone should guard against being taken over by their darker impulses?

One of the things we feel the story is about as a myth and as a parable is that there is goodness and wickedness in all man, and we’re trying to grapple with that. There are good people but that doesn’t mean they are totally good. After the flood, you flip the page and you have the story of the Tower of Babel and there is wickedness again.

Jacob Sahms spoke to Handel for another Hollywood Jesus interview:

Why do you think that the story of Noah matters to so many people, from such different backgrounds and perspectives?

AH: The flood narratives are everywhere. There’s something iconic and mythical about the whole world being nearly destroyed and then we’re given a second chance. Maybe we deserve [a second chance] but we’ve got to work for it.

If Noah was alive today, what might he tell us about wickedness versus righteousness?

AH:That’s a good question. There’s a direct parallel between making sure we have dominion which we know we have over the earth and also being good stewards. We’re supposed to tend to everything and keep the garden. We’re living in the second chance that the world received through Noah. . . .

Watching the film and discussing it with my wife, we talked about how Noah gets the vision of what he believes the Creator wants him to do but he can’t fulfill it without his wife, Naameh. How did you decide on that relationship as key, especially when it came to working out justice and mercy?

AH: Look, we’re trying to find the relationship that would allow us to figure out who Noah is. We know they live in this time where Enoch walked with God and was taken up; it’s living memory. Noah is righteous. Naameh believes God has spoken to Noah and has complete faith in him. She’s the humanistic family foil. It’s not about a sense of right and wrong. It’s not justice or mercy.

So what is righteousness in the context of the story?

AH: Righteousness is the correct balance of justice and mercy. We don’t read that story and normally think about those who don’t survive. For all we know Na’el [Ham’s momentary love interest] might’ve been righteous. She might have been wicked. There’s wickedness in all of us. But Ham made the connection, so we care.

It grieved God’s heart—we know, because it says it right there in the Scripture—he didn’t lightly take the lives of all of those people. There was a baby born that day that didn’t make it onto the ark. It’s not black and white. God was prepared to let people who moved his heart to not be saved because that’s what needed to happen.

For what it’s worth, Handel’s “there was a baby born that day” comment reminds me of how Jesus characterized life before the Flood: “People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark.”

Handel also spoke to Emma Koonse at The Christian Post last week:

The native New Yorker also explained why he thought “Noah” did so well in theaters during its opening weekend.

“Well, ultimately, at heart, Noah is a deeply powerful story that resonated with people,” Handel told CP. “A lot of the baggage people had with the story, deep down, made the film interesting and moving. Also, it’s a film unlike any other out there and people responded to it. ‘Noah’ makes people think and ask questions, and you aren’t sure exactly that to make of it, which isn’t that common. People like that challenge.” . . .

Given his impassioned work on “Noah,” Handel revealed his surprise over the widespread controversy sparked by the film ahead of its release.

“I was initially surprised because if you’ve seen the film, you’d see we are not disrespectful, not mocking [Scripture],” the writer told CP. “If anything, we took it very, very seriously. Where we went with the story may not be where others go, that’s fine. But to say that we grafted artificial ideas or a political agenda- we were just wrestling with the text.”

Finally (for now!), Patheos blogger David R. Henson spoke to Handel last week:

One of the things that leapt out at me as I was watching was just how fantastic and imaginative and bold the world you created for Noah was but also how faithful it was not just to the biblical text but to midrashic tradition and all the other things that have been written about it. How hard was it for you as a writer to balance those two demands of the actual biblical text but also the need to be imaginative and creative to bring this thing to life?

Ari Handel: I think we thought it was going to be hard, but then we discovered that it was easier than we thought because it turns out as you look at the midrashic texts and even when you do a close look at Genesis, the antediluvian world in Genesis is magical and fantastic. It’s funny because we don’t have that idea in our heads. We have the idea in our head that it’s set in Mesopotamia or ancient Judea but it’s not. It’s a really strange world. There are no rainbows. The sky and light are different in some way. People are living hundreds and thousands of years. There are sea monsters and giant monsters of the deep that are no more. Eden is located at a position that you could walk to across the world becuase there’s an angel with a flaming sword that won’t let you into it. These things sound more like Middle Earth than the hills of Judea. . . .

Given how faithful you guys were to the text and the tradition have you been surprised by the kind of pushback you got, particularly for evangelical Christians.

AH: I was not surprised that people would say, “Hey, wait a second.” Because sometimes unless you think about it carefully, it may seem we are contradicting something. I would hold that we’re not. But that may not be obvious. What surprised me, I think, sometimes was the vitriol of that. That people felt like we were being disrespectful, or antagonistic, or trying to mock, which is really not where we were coming from at all. Some of that has gone away as people have actually seen the film. For instance, people say, “God’s not even in the movie.” If you’ve seen the movie, to say God’s not in the movie, then we’re not even talking about the same thing. . . .

I love that you guys offer a really unflinching view of human wickedness and of our complicity in it. But this is something I can wrestle with in the text: Does God become complicit in that kind of cycle of violence by sending the Flood and causing that much destruction, and how do you deal with that?

AH: To be totally clear we don’t feel like we have all the answers. We want to find a way to raise these question in a visceral way for people. So if you’re asking my opinion about that, it’s complicated. We decided to view this a little as a test. Like God said, “I don’t know what to do about this, let’s see if you find mercy in your heart.”

I’m so glad you said that. It leads right into my next question because you guys have talked about that movement from justice to mercy, from punishment to mercy. What I found really striking is there are threads of mercy throughout your film. The Watchers take mercy on humanity and are punished for it. When Ham has mercy on Nael and he is kind of punished for that. And then Noah at the very end chooses mercy with the twins. And the question that I appreciate you all leaving open-ended was whether that was defiance of God. I appreciate you not answering every question but leaving it out there because I think it is more faithful to the text that way.

AH: In the Abraham story, when God destroys Sodom, Abraham says, “Please God be merciful.” And God learns something from Abraham. So, — I’m tiptoeing — because I know that is some Christian communities it may be a heretical thing to say that God can learn something from man, but when I look at the Abraham story, I see that. So I see no reason why God couldn’t put this decision in Noah’s hands, and say, “Here is a really good man. Here is a really just man. Here’s man who sees the wickedness of mankind as clearly as I (God) see it. I’m going to let him decide. And if he choses mercy, I’ll chose mercy.” I’m not saying that’s the only interpretation, but that’s an interpretation that we can play with.

And you see that a lot in the Hebrew scriptures with God changing God’s mind, and if you look at the original language, it actually seems to mean something like repentance. There is that present in the Scriptures. I appreciate you guys tackling that straight-on and not having it in a tidy bow.

As a writer myself, some of the most beautiful lines in the film were when your characters talked about the silence or absence of God. Were those intentional things you guys were wrestling with in the text and the silence of God and what’s the significance of that for the struggle you create in the film.

AH: It’s a funny thing because in the film we wanted to God to feel incredibly present — all the time, everywhere. And yet we wanted to have some amount of distance between God and people, because of where we are now. It’s obscure sometimes now. And that seemed like an interesting way to go, to capture the ambiguity of the relationship and the challenge of that relationship. At first, you’ve got God and Adam together and they walk in the garden. They were very close. In some ways you can see Genesis as a slow retreat of God from the world, as a physical presence. So there’s a little bit of that there too. By the time you get Moses, you can’t walk with God. You can’t even look up the face of God. So God is behind a burning bush or within a column of smoke. So this notion of a retreat. As this antedilluvian world changed with the Flood into our world I think we also wanted to feel some kind of distant in the way that our world is.

And that’s it for now. If I come across any more interviews, I’ll add them to this post.

April 18 update: Three weeks ago, Sojourners published an interview that Cathleen Falsani did with Handel during the junket in Los Angeles. A sampling:

CF: I know what Darren says about his interest in the Noah story and where it came from and how it started. I think it probably started even earlier than he’s aware. How did you come to it?

AH: I’m Jewish. Raised mildly observant. What that meant was I went to synagogue every Saturday for probably 10 years. …

I read all these stories. I read the Jonah story a million times and the Noah story. So I knew all these stories. They were in my mind. I didn’t read them for meaning. I read them for stories. I don’t even know if I was old enough to get some of these other things. But when Darren said, ‘What do you think about trying to tell the Noah story?’ I was immediately excited about it. You can pick it up and look at it and you notice two things: First you realize wow — this is everything that people want to make movies about. Good versus evil and the end of the world. All of that stuff is there. It’s got all that great stuff. But then it’s so much more of a darker, poignant, confusing story that we already know. We have the opportunity to dive really deep in a certain way into the story but also to uncover some things that people put aside in their daily life or their daily understanding of the story.

So much of what we get is the sweet, happy, animal-saving story, which it is. I don’t think it’s accidental that [the Noah story] wound up in the nursery room. Because we really didn’t want to think about some of the other things. ‘Let’s put it over there where it’ll be safe.’ It’s a really troubling, dark story.

Bill Maher has this whole thing where he says God is a genocidal so and so. And there’s not a lot to defend against that. I mean, everyone but eight people die. There’s a lot of destruction and death. I think you have to face that and then ask, ‘OK, what is this story telling us? What is this about? What does it mean?’

CF: The Watchers — the Nephilim — that’s also a part of the account that we often skip over. What on earth was that about? Angels had sex with human women and these were the progeny? What?

AH: It’s a crazy line, right? There were fallen angels and they saw that human women were beautiful and they had children with them.

CF: Horny angels?

AH: Right. And I suppose there’s some version of the story where we could have riffed off of that. But we’re PG-13. So we looked at that in a far more metaphorical way. Angels that loved mankind. What does that mean?

The Book of Enoch and The Book of Jubilees that talk about these guys; there’s a tradition that gets tied to the fallen angels and Satan, angels with hubris fell and they had anger with mankind. We thought it was far more interesting to think about angels that loved mankind. And we thought, let’s not think about that physically or sexually. Let’s think about that emotionally. What if you’re an angel and you see mankind born and you love mankind? And then you see the original sin and man is kicked out of the garden, expelled from the garden and they have to toil the soil. And all of a sudden we go from a lovely place to a really hard place. And you love them and God’s punished them. What if you felt pity for them and came to earth to help? So that’s the place where we started from. That’s the kind of love we talked about.

There’s a big theme in the film about mercy and justice and the balance. That allowed us to have a character, which is the Nephilim, who maybe had an excess of mercy. Where God was judging, the angels were being merciful. So the angels move from a place of mercy to a place of justice, the same way that Noah and God in the story move from a place a justice toward a place of mercy.

More interviews later, if I find any.

April 15 update: Handel addressed the ethnicity of the movie’s characters in another interview, and I have written an entire post about that here.

August 7 update: Now that the film is out on Blu-Ray, we’re starting to see interviews with the filmmakers again — including this one at CraveOnline, in which Handel discusses the berries and rock monsters, among other things:

Tell me about something really specific, like the berries Methuselah is obsessed with. Where did that come from?

That was a piece of writing, ultimately, of character building. Why berries particularly?

Sure.

Because they’re a simple pleasure, and because they are in some ways… you know, there’s a theme here about the value of the natural world, and the purity of the natural world, and the beauty of all of the things that have been created. In some ways, what’s more beautiful and perfectly delicious than a berry? And kind of fragile at the same time. But no, the berries are not mentioned specifically in Genesis.

If I find any more interviews, I’ll add them to this post.

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).


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