<i>Noah</i>: A Midrash by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel (Interview)

The apocalyptic story of Noah that Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky have rendered will disturb some people -- not because it is unbiblical, but because it is a biblical vision to which they object.
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This image released by Paramount Pictures shows director Darren Aronofsky, left, and actor Russell Crowe on the set of, "Noah." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Niko Tavernise)
This image released by Paramount Pictures shows director Darren Aronofsky, left, and actor Russell Crowe on the set of, "Noah." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Niko Tavernise)

When Darren Aronofsky was 13, he wrote a poem inspired by the biblical story of Noah that won an award from the United Nations and was part of a lifelong quest to bring the story to the big screen. After 10 years of trying to develop the project in Hollywood, Darren Aronofsky and co-writer and producer Ari Handel will introduce their interpretation of Noah to the world this Friday when the movie opens across the country.

Not surprisingly, there has been controversy around Noah that has featured the Sunday School crowd loudly declaring that they will refuse to see the film because it does not simply tell the story in the Bible. That is, of course, ridiculous. First of all, the Bible is never simple, and any depiction of it that doesn't acknowledge that complexity is doing the Bible a disservice.

I've seen Noah, and it is epic, mythic and wrestles with questions of God, creation and the role of humans within it -- in other words, it is biblical.

That said, the apocalyptic story of Noah that Handel and Aronofsky have rendered will disturb some people -- not because it is unbiblical, but because it is a biblical vision to which they object.

For instance, there is intense disagreement among Christians as to whether humans are meant to be guardians and protectors of the earth and all that is in it, or are meant to dominate and use it for our own purposes. This debate has reverberations within Noah, which takes a clear stance on that important question -- not in spite of the Bible, but because of it.

Another theological question that Darren and Ari bring to life is whether the God portrayed in Noah is ultimately merciful and loving, or vengeful, genocidal (my word) and demanding justice as a response to humanity's wickedness.

And, perhaps most importantly for religious people is the question of how to understand God's call, and follow God's will even when that call means doing something ridiculous or horrible. At the same time, what does it feel like when God has stopped communicating, and what do humans turn to as a guide?

These are questions that every serious religious person must wrestle with. The movie Noah offers that opportunity by breathing new life into one of the Bible's most dramatic and problematic stories -- one that has been dumbed down and domesticated for decades by cute songs and toy arks.

In the end, Noah is best understood as midrash on the Genesis story in the Hebrew Bible. Midrash is a valuable part of the Jewish tradition and is a kind of storytelling that explores the ethics and values in the biblical text. I had a chance to sit down with Noah's co-writer and producer, Ari Handel and Daren Aronofsky who co-wrote and directed this epic midrash, and this is what they had to say about it.

Paul: I love the idea of Noah, the movie, as midrash, you really studied the text?

Ari: We tried to read everything and talk to everything we could for guidance. Ultimately in the midrash tradition the text has purposeful lacuna; it has questions that are posed in the very words, so the closer we read it, the more questions arose from it.

At the heart of it is the big question -- why is Noah spared? Why do we have wickedness punished at the beginning of the story and almost the very same words are used to say that wickedness will not be punished in the future? What does that change and how to understand it?

People have been grappling with these questions for a long time so we wanted to look and find those answers. Also, we wanted to populate this world in a mythical sense and look for ways to color the world and give it back breadth and magic.

Paul: What is the role of the apocalypse in your thinking of Noah? Did you look at apocalyptic or end-times literature?

Darren: Not as much. The apocalyptic nature of the story is right on the top. We went more to the midrash when we were trying to get underneath. The apocalypse is the story on the face of it -- it is the destruction of everything.

Ari: It is the first apocalypse story.

Darren: We looked at how the genre is dealt with in film and there is a whole world of that out there with all these post-apocalyptic movies and we didn't look for that aesthetic. We wanted to do something new.

Paul: But it is an apocalyptic film...

Darren: Yes.

Paul: How did your Jewish identity play into making this film? I know you are talking to a lot of Christians, but Jews exist.

Darren: Well, it is very much our tradition to do this. Jews have been looking at the Old Testament for thousands of years and talking about it. And we'll use the biggest stories in there to try to understand the smallest problems of life and the biggest problems of life.

Commentary is something we Jews have been doing for a long time. We've been doing post-modern literature before it was around. Taking apart texts in all different kinds of ways and trying to make sense of it. Respecting the text, and looking at the text and trying to understand it as we move forward. That's how we approached it.

If you look at the genealogy of the 10 generations of Cain and 10 generations of Seth, a lot of the names leading up to Noah are repeated. So, we thought, 'Hmm, maybe we just ignore that and say Noah is a descendent of Cain, the original murderer.' And then we said, 'No, let's honor what the text says and make Noah a descendent of Seth, and that there was a split and that Adam had three sons Cain, Able and Seth.' And it worked out well because it allowed us to have Cain's line and the descendent of Cain and the idea that Seth's line was the priesthood that was there to defend creation. Most people forget about Seth and that Noah is a descendent of that line.

Paul: If you were giving this film as a sermon, what would its title be?

Ari: Noah.

Paul: C'mon, at least give me a colon.

Darren: Noah: What It Means To Be Righteous

Paul: (Turning to Ari) Would you give the same title?

Ari: I think it is about the wickedness of man.

Paul: That's yours? 'Noah: The Wickedness of Man'

Ari: But that's only half of the story.

Darren: The other half is the goodness

Ari: This is about mercy and justice.

Darren: It could be Noah: Mercy and Justice.

Ari: The story is a movement from justice to mercy, the balance of wickedness and goodness. Every character in the film has goodness and wickedness in them because every human being has wickedness and goodness in them.

Paul: There is that moment when Noah fails to follow through on that horrible thing that he thinks God is calling him to do (no spoiler here). This film is about someone who hears God's voice, and that can be scary. How do you think people hear God's voice after 10 years working on this story?

Darren: It's all within the story -- there is a father-son relationship going on that is Noah and his sons and Noah and his creator. That is the emotional core of the film how they related to each other. I tried to figure out that truth in the text and then dramatize that truth in a film.

Ari: That is a big question but the film grapples with that. Tubal-Cain saying (to God), 'Why don't you converse with me?' You look at Noah trying to understand; all the characters are asking in some ways that question. The film comes at it with a different angle and turns it over so we have different ways of looking at it, but it is in there, what we think is in the movie.

Darren: We hope the film is for everyone that it is a great piece of entertainment first and foremost. We want people to let go of all their nervousness and expectations first and foremost and come and see an entertaining film and then hopefully have a conversation afterwards. All we are trying to do is make a great piece of entertainment.

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