NEW YORK — It was easy to get lost on Darren Aronofsky’s ark.
Inside a converted Brooklyn armory in late 2012, Aronofsky was shooting “Noah” on a massive vessel that matched the biblical dimensions of the boat, its rough beams lashed together and the hull sealed with pitch. In every corner of the three-story structure rested packs of ersatz animals — insects on one level, snakes and turtles in another corner and, around the bend, lions quite literally lying with lambs. “Animals are fragile. Please do not touch,” a sign warned visitors.
It took production designer Mark Friedberg’s team four months to construct the interior ark set for “Noah” (he built another, for exterior shots, near Long Island Sound) and much longer for Industrial Light and Magic and Look Effects to create living, albeit digital, creatures that would walk, fly and slither, two by two, into the ark.
Yet those tasks were ultimately footnotes in the film’s epic journey to the screen, as Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel labored to expand a brief but revered story into a full-length movie, all without estranging their financiers and the faithful, both of whom worried that “Noah” would be heretical.
Opening Friday, the $130-million production marks a departure not only for Aronofsky, whose previous films, including “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler,” were more modest undertakings but also for Hollywood itself, which in recent decades has exhibited negligible interest in overtly religious stories. The few scriptural hits, including Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and the new “Son of God,” were produced independently.
If “Noah” attracts a torrent of moviegoers, and early audience surveys here and abroad suggest it will, the film could bolster the prospects for the industry’s unusually large religious slate, a roster that includes “Heaven Is for Real,” “Exodus,” “Last Days in the Desert” and “Mary.”
But first Aronofsky’s movie has to prove its doubters wrong.
“Once people start seeing the film, believers and nonbelievers will all be able to have conversations about it that I believe will be interesting,” an exhausted but positive Aronofsky said after “Noah” had its world premiere in Mexico City two weeks ago. “But you have to go into the film recognizing that your expectations are going to be rattled.”
Nearly 15 years ago, as Aronofsky’s experimental sci-fi story “Pi” was about to hit theaters, the filmmaker visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Calif. Dedicated to the Earth’s history, the fanciful and scientifically creative museum was displaying a small diorama based on Noah’s ark.’
Aronofsky easily could have walked past it, but the exhibit caught his eye — and imagination.
“It was a cool little sculpture,” the 45-year-old Aronofsky recalled. “And I said to myself, ‘It’s strange that the biblical epic has been dead for 50 years.’ This was clearly a true genre with some of the biggest movies ever made. But at the time the Old Testament hadn’t been touched in years.”
Soon thereafter, he successfully pitched his flood idea to producer Lynda Obst, but when a Jon Voight television miniseries called “Noah’s Ark” came out — replete with an attack on the prophet from a “Waterworld”-like pirate ship — Aronofsky’s “Noah” ran aground before he could even write it.
By 2003, after the filmmaker’s “Requiem for a Dream” was completed, Aronofsky began working with screenwriter Ari Handel (a college classmate and former neuroscientist) on a “Noah” script. But it was not until after the director’s long-delayed “The Fountain” was released in 2006 that Aronofsky started taking the story around town.
It didn’t start well. “Noah” briefly was set up at Universal but lost momentum when studio chief Stacey Snider departed and Universal’s “Evan Almighty,” a $175-million Steve Carrell comedy set on an ark, bombed in 2007. Rather than watch their screenplay perish, Aronofsky and Handel turned to Canadian comic book artist Niko Henrichon, who in 2008 began a painstaking effort to transform their script into a series of graphic novels (initially in French but now compiled into one English-language volume).
When Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” became a commercial hit with more than $329 million in worldwide ticket sales and an Oscar winner for actress Natalie Portman, “Noah” suddenly had fresh energy. In early 2011 producer Arnon Milchan’s Regency Enterprises agreed to share equally in financing the production with Paramount Pictures. Russell Crowe was cast as Noah, with Jennifer Connelly playing his wife, Naameh, and Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem) and Leo McHugh Carroll (Japheth) as their sons.
But what story would the movie actually tell?
From the start of his filmmaking career, Aronofsky had been drawn to obsessive, largely isolated people fighting forces both external and internal, demons real and imagined: Sean Gullette’s tortured mathematician in “Pi,” Jared Leto’s drug addict in “Requiem for a Dream,” Portman’s mentally unstable ballerina in “Black Swan” and Mickey Rourke’s past-his-prime athlete in “The Wrestler.”
Noah, in many ways, represented a similar thread in that narrative tapestry, but his story was unavoidably constrained by His story: Aronofsky and Handel didn’t want to trample on the Bible, but they had to fashion a two-hour tale out of just several Genesis verses in which Noah barely speaks.
“I’ve read it a million times — sitting there bored in synagogue,” said Handel, who co-wrote “The Fountain” with Aronofsky and is now his producing partner. “And it has everything you could want a story to have — literally good versus evil.”
That foundation needed a structure on top of it. So Aronofsky and Handel fashioned an action story that generously quoted from the Bible, set against a global apocalypse, including giant, mythical beasts — inspired by the Nephilim of the Old Testament that help Noah construct his massive vessel.
“We knew we had to be faithful to the text — we couldn’t contradict it,” Handel said. So he and Aronofsky, consulting theologians and reading countless texts, turned to the Jewish tradition of Midrash, which creates stories to fill gaps in and construe meanings from the biblical narrative. The Bible’s account of the ancient man instructed to save two of every species before God eradicates a sinful mankind prompted profound questions about character and setting that the Bible didn’t answer.
Wherever they could, Aronofsky and Handel looked for signposts. The Bible says that right after the floodwaters receded, Noah is seen naked and drunk, and his son Ham is cursed. “That was a huge clue about what the drama of the film might be,” Aronofsky said. “What type of character, after the so-called victory of survival, suddenly gets drunk?” In other words, was Noah wrestling with survivor’s guilt? What had prompted tensions with the family?
Both new parents, Aronofsky and Handel started talking about justice and mercy and how that shaped raising their children.
“If you’re too just with a child, you can destroy them with strictness,” the director said. “But if you’re too merciful with the child, you can destroy them through leniency. Being a good parent is about balancing those two things. And if you look at what the word ‘righteous’ means — when they describe Noah, they say ‘righteous in his times’ — it actually means a balance of justice and mercy.
“So we wanted Noah to understand the wickedness of man at the start of the film and want justice. And over the course of the film, like God, come to mercy and thus become righteous.”
To help dramatize how mankind had fallen, Aronofsky cast the Earth as a character, using exteriors in Iceland to show the planet as barren. The world, and everything in it, was in need of new stewardship, and that environmental message resonated — in mostly the wrong way — with conservative critics. The deluge of doubters ultimately included his own studio.
The film’s physical production wasn’t particularly smooth. In late 2012, Hurricane Sandy briefly shut down production, with the homes of some New York crew — including producer Scott Franklin — directly in the storm’s path. “It brought us together,” Franklin said, “to go through something like that.”
But the real trouble was on the horizon, when Paramount grew anxious that “Noah” might offend some on the religious right and started testing its own cut of the movie while Aronofsky raced to finish his. Franklin said that even with unfinished visual effects and a rough score, Aronofsky’s version tested better than Paramount’s, even though the studio’s had fewer missing pieces and was more polished.
Paramount again blindsided its filmmakers by agreeing in late February to add a disclaimer to “Noah’s” marketing materials without giving Aronofsky a heads-up.
The move came after several Christian groups, including the National Religious Broadcasters, objected to how Aronofsky was interpreting scripture.
Jerry Johnson, the president and chief executive officer of the NRB, wrote in two blog posts after seeing the film that he found “some” parts of the film to be “commendable,” but his praise was tepid.
He was far more vigorous in attacking “Noah,” complaining that a scene about evolution “will be a concern for many” who are creationists, that “secondary biblical details are blurred” and that Aronofsky’s Noah is so dark in some places “that you do not want to like him.”
Several other religious leaders and interested parties have been far kinder to the film, including representatives from the American Bible Society, Catholic Voices USA, the Christian Film and Television Commission and the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
Designed to appease people like Johnson and prepare moviegoers for some of Aronofsky’s inventions, Paramount’s disclaimer notes that the film was “inspired by the story of Noah” and that “artistic license has been taken.”
Aronofsky, who is both an atheist and a biblical scholar, knows that no matter how thoroughly he researched his film and for all of his attention to biblical detail — if you look closely there are seven pairs of some “clean animals,” as Genesis has it, in addition to the single pairs of other creatures — some will nevertheless find fault.
“I don’t want to contradict the text. You don’t take the Cyclops out of Homer,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. There is no disrespect. We are taking the story and making it mythical.”