Rough Seas on 'Noah': Darren Aronofsky Opens Up on the Biblical Battle to Woo Christians (and Everyone Else)
This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Darren Aronofsky was a 13-year old in Brooklyn, he had one of those unforgettable teachers. Mrs. Fried dressed in pink and drove a pink Mustang; Aronofsky says she was "magical." When she assigned his English class to write about peace, Aronofsky produced a poem about the dove that wings its way to Noah aboard the ark in the Bible. When the poem won a United Nations contest, it sparked Aronofsky's nascent faith in his creative powers.
More than three decades later, the 44-year-old director is completing his epic take on the Noah story, a project he's contemplated ever since he made his breakout indie film Pi in 1998. At that time, he says, he talked to producer Lynda Obst about the idea, prompting her to ask, "Do you realize what you're getting into?"
He didn't. The making of Noah, with Russell Crowe as the lead, turned into a head-on collision between an auteur filmmaker coming off a career-defining success in Black Swan ($330 million global, five Oscar nominations) and a studio working to protect a major investment that is intended to appeal to believers of every religion as well as those without any faith. Paramount Pictures, in partnership with New Regency Productions, is shouldering a budget on the March 28 release of more than $125 million, by far the costliest movie Aronofsky has made. (His previous high was $35 million for The Fountain, which foundered for Warner Bros. in 2006. Black Swan was independently financed and cost just $13 million.)
The trouble began when Paramount, nervous about how audiences would respond to Aronofsky's fantastical world and his deeply conflicted Noah, insisted on conducting test screenings over the director's vehement objections while the film was a work in progress.
Friction grew when a segment of the recruited Christian viewers, among whom the studio had hoped to find Noah's most enthusiastic fans, questioned the film's adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character. Aronofsky's Noah gets drunk, for example, and considers taking drastic measures to eradicate mankind from the planet. Hoping to woo the faith-based crowd, Paramount made and tested as many as half-a-dozen of its own cuts of the movie. "I was upset -- of course," Aronofsky tells The Hollywood Reporter in his first extensive interview about the film's backstory. "No one's ever done that to me."
Both director and studio say that's now all behind them. "There was a rough patch," Aronofsky allows, but at this point, Paramount is fully supporting his version. Vice chair Rob Moore says the studio is launching an advertising campaign designed to communicate that this film -- an exploration of Noah's emotional journey -- flows in large part from Aronofsky's imagination.
Moore says Aronofsky's Noah is not in the more literal vein of the blockbuster Bible series produced for the History channel by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. "They've been very effective in terms of communicating to and being embraced by a Christian audience," says Moore. "This movie has a lot more creativity to it. And therefore, if you want to put it on the spectrum, it probably is more accurate to say this movie is inspired by the story of Noah."
At the same time, he says the film reflects "the key themes of the Noah story in Genesis -- of faith and hope and God's promise to mankind." The studio is aware that a vocal segment of Christian viewers might reject the film over accuracy. Still, Moore says, "Our anticipation is that the vast majority of the Christian community will embrace it."
The studio and its faith-based consultant, Grace Hill Media, have reached out to a number of key figures, with some success. Special trailers were screened to positive reactions at U.S. Christian conferences, including Catalyst, the Global Leadership Conference and Women of Faith: Believe God Can Do Anything. In January, Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston of Hillsong, a Pentecostal megachurch based in Australia and with outposts around the world, were invited to a screening on the studio lot. Ben Field, the church's head of film and television, who was there, says the pastors will support the movie. "If you're expecting it to be word for word from the Bible, you're in for a shock," he says. "There can be an opportunity for Christians to take offense. [But] we were pretty excited that a studio like Paramount would invest in a Bible-themed movie." On Feb. 4, Pastor Brian, at the church's Heart and Soul night in Sydney, spoke before a few thousand congregants and joked, "You'll enjoy the film -- if you're not too religious."
Still, big challenges lie ahead. Burnett and Downey attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 6 to tout their new Jesus film, Son of God, which hits theaters Feb. 28, and received an enthusiastic reception. By contrast, an informal poll by THR of attendees at the key gathering of religious leaders found little awareness that a Noah movie was weeks from release. Further, THR spoke with several people who saw an early test screening in Southern California's Orange County and who identified themselves as religious. One viewer, who declined to give his name because Paramount required him to sign a nondisclosure agreement, echoed the sentiments of others by criticizing the depiction of Noah as a "crazy, irrational, religious nut" who is fixated on modern-day problems like overpopulation and environmental degradation.
Moore, one of the few top Hollywood executives who identifies as a devout Christian, says he isn't worried. As reflected in the ad for Noah that ran during the Super Bowl, Paramount is selling amazing effects as well, especially to the foreign market. Already, Moore says, early tracking is encouraging overseas, where the studio intends to release the movie in 3D in 65 countries. "The one thing Darren hadn't done before is those big visual-effects shots," he says. "And he certainly did a great job to deliver spectacular visuals."
The Bible's account of Noah is not packed with detail. "From a storytelling perspective, the main points are that Noah is a man of faith who is picked by God, told to build an ark, builds the ark and survives," says Moore. When the studio did early polling to explore the idea of a Noah movie, it found that audiences thought they knew the story and didn't grasp what the movie might add.
But as anyone who has seen Aronofsky's hallucinatory Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream might have guessed, his Noah was never going to be the white-bearded figure of popular imagination. "We wanted to smash expectations of who Noah is," says Aronofsky during a break from finishing the picture. "The first thing I told Russell is, 'I will never shoot you on a houseboat with two giraffes behind you.' ... You're going to see Russell Crowe as a superhero, a guy who has this incredibly difficult challenge put in front of him and has to overcome it."
It's fair to say Aronofsky is singularly committed to his vision. Fox Searchlight production president Claudia Lewis, who released Black Swan, analogizes the director to Natalie Portman's obsessed character in that film -- "her drive, her perfectionism, her desire to give it all, never mind the consequences." In an email, Lewis adds, "It's a fierce artistic mind-set, slightly nerve-racking in audience previews (for him, not us, we're used to it!) but energizing and mesmerizing in its single-mindedness. I found it oddly endearing."
Aronofsky, who grew up in a conservative Jewish household, says his goal from the start was to make a Noah for everyone. For nonbelievers, he wanted to create "this fantastical world a la Middle-earth that they wouldn't expect from their grandmother's Bible school." At the same time, he wanted to make a film for those "who take this very, very seriously as gospel."
While he and co-writer Ari Handel dreamed up a world that included fallen angels with multiple arms and inventive, computer-rendered versions of animals, Aronofsky says, "I had no problem completely honoring and respecting everything in the Bible and accepting it as truth." Genesis describes the ark as a giant box, he says, and that's what he wanted for the film. "Of course, my production designer [Mark Friedberg] had a million ideas of what it could look like, but I said, 'No, the measurements are right there.' "
Aronofsky says Moore's Christianity is one reason he set up the movie at Paramount when there were other suitors: "It was written by two Jewish kids, and to get his reaction gave us the confidence that there was a bigger audience for the film." Moore concurs: "Certainly the conversations we had about the movie took place at a very different level than a lot of other people in terms of my understanding of the story."
To Paramount, Noah seemed like an opportunity to do what Warner Bros. had done in entrusting Alfonso Cuaron with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as he came off of Y Tu Mama Tambien -- take a chance on pairing an auteur talent with an important, big-budget project. At the same time, it represented an opportunity to go after the massive faith-based audience that drove The Passion of the Christ to $612 million in box office a decade ago (an audience that has since proved elusive for Hollywood).
But as work progressed, the studio wanted to do what studios invariably do when a lot of money is on the line: protect its investment. Aronofsky was vehemently opposed to test screening the film before it was done. "I imagine if I made comedies and horror films, it would be helpful," he says. "In dramas, it's very, very hard to do. I've never been open to it." The studio also insisted that test audiences are sophisticated enough to evaluate movies without finished effects in place. "I don't believe that," he says.
Aronofsky went to a few of the early screenings, but it was terrible to him that audiences were seeing an unfinished film. He compares his approach with the work of a sculptor: "You start with a big piece of clay and keep going and going and going." To show audiences an overlong, 2½-hour cut with only 20 minutes of music in place struck him as folly. (The final version of the film is 2 hours and 12 minutes.)
Tension grew as the studio became concerned about some of the feedback. One worry, says Moore, was that "significantly conservative folks who have a more literal expectation" from a movie about Noah might turn against it and become hostile. "There are some people where it's a very emotional experience of, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa -- a Hollywood studio is trying to tell a story from my faith, and I am skeptical,' " he says. "Not necessarily 50 percent of the people, but maybe 10 or 20 percent. And those people can be very noisy."
The screenings revealed a range of issues for that group. Some in the audience found the Noah character too conflicted. Some needed clarification that Noah's son Shem, played by Douglas Booth, was married to Emma Watson's character, Ila. "It was important for a Christian audience that you affirmed that these two were married -- which we took for granted," says Moore. That was easy to address by adding a line, but there were more complicated problems.
In some cases, Moore says, "people had recollections of the story that weren't actually correct." For example, there was Noah's ability to open and close the door to the ark. "People said the door to the ark is supposed to be so big that no man can close it. Well no, that's not actually what it says. What it says is that God ultimately shut the door of the ark when the flood comes, so it wasn't Noah shutting the door on the rest of humanity -- it was God making a decision."
And then there's the scene -- which actually is in the Bible -- in which Noah, back on land after the flood, gets drunk by himself in a cave. "But most people do not remember or were never taught the fact that after Noah's off the ark, there is a moment in the story where he is drunk," says Moore.
As Aronofsky worked on his version of the film, Paramount set out to make its own cut under the auspices of production president Adam Goodman. Moore says Goodman has demonstrated his talent for working with filmmakers to get the best version of a movie, citing last year's G.I. Joe sequel and World War Z as examples. "Both ended up being hits when they could have easily not been," he says. "When you're in a movie that's over $100 million, there is a level of process you go through because the stakes are so high."
Aronofsky, who went without final cut approval on the film in exchange for Paramount greenlighting a nine-figure budget, says he was confident the studio's efforts would fail. "My guys and I were pretty sure that because of the nature of the film and how we work, there wasn't another version," says Aronofsky. "That's what I told them … the scenes were so interconnected -- if you started unwinding scenes, I just knew there would be holes. I showed it to filmmaker friends, and they said the DNA was set in this film."
Further, he felt confident that he knew where he wanted to go with his film. "I'm a great closer," explains Aronofsky. "I've never reshot a frame, and I think that's very odd on big-budget movies. We're meticulous. We come from independent film, with limited resources." Aronofsky says with pride that he kept the project on track despite the complex effects and a life-imitates-art storm -- Superstorm Sandy -- that delayed filming on one of his two massive ark sets, in Oyster Bay, N.Y. "It was pretty hard to keep working," he says, adding that some of his crew who lived in the area had their lives upended. "But we still brought it in on time."
As the studio and Aronofsky worked on different cuts, producer Mary Parent was caught in the middle. "To Darren, I said, 'Listen, no one is impeding your process,' " she recalls. "'Try to embrace their process as best you can and have faith that they're going to do the right thing in the end.' Which they did." In fact, sources say the studio's versions tested no better than Aronofsky's. "They tried what they wanted to try, and eventually they came back," the director says. He adds, "My version of the film hasn't been tested … It's what we wrote and what was greenlighted."
Whatever happens with Noah, the story has had a happy ending in one respect. Aronofsky asked his mother, herself a retired schoolteacher, to track down Mrs. Fried. She found her in Florida, and Aronofsky invited her to the set. True to form all these years later, she arrived in a pink car, dressed in pink. Aronofsky gave her a cameo in the film. You can spot her playing a one-eyed crone in a scene with Crowe.
With the film poised to make headlines in the run-up to its release, Aronofsky says he hopes those who might have expected a certain version of the story will accept that Noah is for them, too. "For people who are very literal-minded, it would be great to communicate that the themes of the film are very much in line with the themes of the Bible -- ideas about hope, second chances and family," he says. "If they allow that, they're going to have an incredible experience with the movie. If they don't allow it, it's theirs to lose."
Paul Bond contributed to this report.