Noah: Screenwriter Ari Handel on Rock Monsters & Berries
It may seem like long ago, since it came out a month before the big summer blockbuster glut, but Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is still the strangest big budget movie of 2014. The director of Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan brought forth a sweeping, gorgeously shot and very unusually adapted version of Noah and the Ark, one of the most popular stories from The Bible’s Book of Genesis. Sure, animals make their way to a big wooden boat and God cleanses the Earth, but where did the Rock Monsters come from? What was that thing with the berries? Why did the movie stop halfway through to explain how the universe was created by both God and science?
Those were the questions on my mind as I interview Noah producer and co-writer Ari Handel, who has been collaborating with Darren Aronofsky for over a decade. His answers are below. Noah is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and more.
CraveOnline: The thing that I think struck the most about your take on Noah is that, all discussion of religion aside, both you and Darren Aronofsky seem to think that The Bible is a pretty cool book. Does that make sense?
Ari Handel: It does. I think that’s right. I think the story, especially in early Genesis, are amazing as fundamental stories and I think that they retain a lot of power that means something to people, whether they actively consider themselves religious or not. They’re powerful, mythical stories. So we wanted to make something that took advantage of that and would speak to that power regardless of the audience.
What was it about Noah that made you gravitate towards that story, as opposed to say, Jonah and the Whale, or Sodom and Gommorah, or any of the other big stories from Genesis.
Well, a couple of things. First of all it’s a story that hadn’t been done, which was pretty amazing to us, and then it spoke to us. I think there was something in the sense of a world that was troubled and needed to be wiped out, cleansed and reborn again that we felt was very interest and you could work with it. And the themes of redemption and hope, and what is the role and the value of mankind in the world, those are great things to explore. So I just think it’s incredibly powerful. There are high stakes and a lot of visual potential, and a lot of meaning there. That was interesting to take on.
Now the story in The Bible is not very detailed, so you had the freedom to take some liberties and expand it into a movie. Were there any parameters you set for yourself to let you know if you were going too far from the material, or if something didn’t feel like Noah anymore?
The first sphere of this was Genesis, and the actual literal words, and trying to understand what we felt the story was and what the story was about, and what the story was wrestling with, and making sure that we were wrestling with those things. You’re right that the Biblical story itself is short and not that detailed in many ways, but there’s also a great religious tradition […] of interpretation of how you read between the lines and build something out of that. In places where there may not be an actual literal description of something there might be clues of ways to think about what has not been explicitly stated. So we tried to draw on that tradition as well, and then where that tradition didn’t have answers for us we then tried to stay in harmony with the way that tradition worked and ask ourselves those same questions. What is the text telling us? What could this be about? What might this mean? What things could explain this conundrum or that conundrum, to make us understand how these characters feel? A great example of that is Noah getting drunk. The fact that Noah got drunk, the Bible doesn’t tell us why but it indicates something about his emotional state and what he might have gone through emotionally to get there. So then we had to ask ourselves the question: what could we make our character go through that would be resonant with that emotional state that we know he had? […] So we tried to stay within those kinds of parameters.
In terms of the ways the characters behave in an extreme situation, that’s pure logic. I get that. But I want to ask you about a different element that I thought was awesome, but I didn’t know where it came from.
The fallen angel rock monsters. At what point did you decide that you needed those in the script? Like, “This script is okay, but if it had fallen angel rock monsters it would really sing.”
Well there’s a very famous line in the Noah story, right near the beginning, which speaks about the Nephilim, and it’s always been a mystery. What are these creatures? They’re referred to in different ways but “giants who walk the Earth” is a common translation. What were these giants? Well, one interpretation in the literature is that they were fallen angels. So that became very interesting to us. We felt that we needed to address them, because there they were, this great unanswered question, so we wanted them to be fallen angels. In terms of the form they took, that also has its antecedent in various kinds of literature. There’s a notion. What is the form of an angel? Well, these guys have six wings, six arms in part because the Seraphim have six wings. There’s other things like that, of what does it mean to be an angel trapped on Earth? Well, an angel trapped on Earth, like trapped within stone, is metaphorically resonant. All these things came ultimately in the way I just described, starting with the text, starting with what’s clearly in the text, and then build out an interpretation that is coherent within the text and the commentary around the text and then the world that we’re creating around that.
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?
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.
It feels like it’s the midway point when you go through the story of the creation of the universe, as told by Genesis and science. It feels like that’s a break in a two-act structure, because after that the movie is told in a different way and gets very dark. Was that always the idea, that as soon as the doors close on the Ark you were going to go back to the beginning of all things?
Well, no. I mean the idea of that ultimately was… Our central character Noah is in a difficult situation in terms of trying to weigh the things of value. Some of those things are very obvious to all of us; the value of human life and the value of family. On the other side of that is the value of the rest of creation, and what The Creator’s will is about the rest of creation. So it was important at some point to show what was on the scale there. What was at stake? What is the beauty and magnificence that are trying to be saved on the other side of this equation? And that sequence of how The Creator created everything was the right way to show that, to show that beauty and that majesty.
Portraying that in a manner that appears, from what we know now, to be scientifically accurate… was that like a hand across the aisle to audience members who are atheistic, or agnostic, or don’t believe in Creationism? Was that a way of saying they could enjoy the movie too, or did you have something else in mind?
No, I think… I don’t know exactly what “hand across the aisle” means. I think that we have different explanations and that those explanations can live side-by-side, integrated together, and both those explanations touch very deeply in different ways upon the beauty and majesty of the created universe. So when you look at the details shown of galaxies and how they’re forming, I think that helps you see and appreciate the wonder and spectacle of the world around us. So it just helps us demonstrate what we are trying to demonstrate with the scene. And at the same time the poetry of Genesis is incredibly moving insight into the same thing.