The Biblical tale of Noah's Ark isn't the likeliest of big screen blockbusters. But that didn't stop Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, Black Swan) from pitching it to a Hollywood studio.
"When I first went to the studio, I said, 'Hey, what's the only boat more famous than the Titanic?' " he tells NPR's Kelly McEvers.
Noah, directed and co-written by Aronofsky and starring Russell Crowe, hit theaters this month. To tell the story, Aronofsky says he went back to the texts, and interpreted from there. Still, he says, "First and foremost, it's about entertainment.
"You know, that's my job is to make something entertaining and thrilling and exciting," he says. "What I always try to do is do something different, and I think this is very different from the normal blockbuster."
On his interpretation of the story
I think most people think of the story as the guy with the long white beard and the animals two by two, and it's a jolly story, a nursery story for kids. But for me, I kind of sympathize with the people who didn't get on the boat, thinking maybe there's wickedness in me and I wasn't good enough. So I always found it as a very scary, a first apocalypse story.
On animals in the film
We really didn't want to work with live animals for a couple reasons. First, I don't believe in it. The other issue is, you know, exotic animals that are in captivity resemble more of a zoo than the actual animal kingdom.
I knew the only way we could do it was by working in the digital medium, and it's pretty hard. There's one shot in the film of the mammals, and because of all the hair and all the detail, it was the longest rendering shot that ILM — Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco — ever did. It took a million processing hours, and they said if it was one computer, it would've taken 38 years to create. So it was really complex and intense.
On adding drama to Noah's story
What we really wanted to do was to add dramatics to a story that ... doesn't have that much drama. But there is a really interesting character arc ... which is God's arc. He goes from a place of wanting justice — it's an angry God who is willing to destroy his creation even though it grieves him in his heart. And he gets of course to a place of mercy, to the first rainbow ... and forgiveness and grace.
And since Noah is very, very much along for the ride for the telling of the story, we decided to sort of assign that character arc to Noah.
On controversy surrounding the film
We knew that it would be an issue. In Islam there's a tradition of not portraying — really you're not supposed to portray any living form in art, but I imagine doing one of the prophets was potentially a bigger problem ... In the United States it seems like everyone who had issues with it, as soon as they see the film, are now embracing it, so that's a good thing.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Again, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.
The first real breakout film for director Darren Aronofsky was the acclaimed psychological thriller "Requiem for a Dream," based on a novel about four drug addicts who do not have a happy ending. Then there was "Black Swan," the twisted tale of a ballerina slowly losing her mind. That was a surprise box office hit. In his latest film, Aronofsky takes viewers on a different kind of ride.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NOAH")
RUSSELL CROWE: (As Noah) A great flood is coming. The waters of the heavens will meet the waters of the Earth. We build a vessel to survive the storm.
MCEVERS: Russell Crowe plays the title character in Aronofsky's new film, "Noah," a spectacle with a reported production budget of more than $125 million.
DARREN ARONOFSKY: The Noah story has never made it to the silver screen. And I was thinking, hmm, that's odd. Even if you're not part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, you have heard the Noah story. Everyone has a flood story. There's something elemental, mythical about water and our interaction with it.
MCEVERS: Darren Aronofsky's telling of the Noah story is dark - with giants, massacres and explosions along the way. And that interpretation has caused some controversy among religious groups and reviewers. It turns out Aronofsky's fascination with Noah goes way back to junior high.
ARONOFSKY: I had one of those magical teachers - my English teacher, Mrs. Vera Freed. And one day, she said, everybody just take out a paper and pen and write something about peace. And for some reason, I wrote a poem on Noah called "The Dove," and it ended up winning a contest for the United Nations. So Noah's kind of been this patron saint for me for 32 years.
MCEVERS: Well, what did you - what was it about Noah that struck you even back then?
ARONOFSKY: I think most people think of the story as a, you know, the guy with the long, white beard and the animals two by two; and it's a jolly story, a nursery story for kids. But for me, I kind of sympathized with the people who didn't get on the boat; thinking, you know, maybe there's wickedness in me and I wasn't good enough. So I always found it as a very scary - the first apocalypse story.
MCEVERS: Well, it's definitely got some darkness, the film. I mean, the ark in the film looks different than the image, you know, many people might have of the ark. You know, you kind of imagine this, you know, big, ornate thing. Can you describe your ark?
ARONOFSKY: Well, we went back to Genesis. And normally, everyone thinks of a boat with a keel. But the word ark actually means box, and the description is a box. I don't know the exact cubits, but I think it's something about 55 cubits by 75 cubits by - it actually gives actual numbers. The question is, what's a cubit? There are a few different types of cubits. There's the royal cubit; there's the Egyptian cubit. My production designer said, which cubit should we use? And I said, you know what? Use the biggest one. This is Hollywood.
MCEVERS: Nice. Going into the film, one of the effects that I was most curious about was, you know, how are we going to see all those animals coming onto that ark? And it's a pretty amazing feat of cinema to see the snakes slithering in, and all that stuff. Can you explain how you made that work?
ARONOFSKY: We really didn't want to work with live animals for a couple of reasons. First, I don't believe in it. The other issue is, you know, exotic animals that are in captivity resemble more of a zoo than the actual animal kingdom. I knew the only way we could do it was by working, you know, in the digital medium.
And it's pretty hard. There's one shot in the film of the mammals, and because of all the hair and all the detail, it was the longest rendering shot that ILM - Industrial Light and Magic, in San Francisco - ever did. It took a million processing hours. And they said if it was one computer, it would have taken 38 years to create. So it was really complex and intense.
MCEVERS: You wrote this story with producer Ari Handel. You said you went back to the Book of Genesis. What was some of the other research you did for developing this story?
ARONOFSKY: Well, outside of Genesis, there are other books from, you know, that are ancient books that deal with similar material; like the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilee, scraps from the Dead Sea Scrolls and, of course, there's tons of Jewish Midrash, which is commentary on the Bible. There was a lot to look at, you know, even though it's only four chapters long. So we tried to breathe, you know, 21st century digital filmmaking into that.
MCEVERS: My guest is film director Darren Aronofsky. His new movie is "Noah." I won't give everything away, but you did take a lot of license with the Bible. I mean, I know that's to be expected from Hollywood.
ARONOFSKY: I actually disagree.
ARONOFSKY: It's always about interpretation. All art that derives from a text is about interpretation. So everything in the film actually has a reason for being there. It's taking clues and sort of interpreting it into actual dramatics.
MCEVERS: Yeah. Like I said, I don't want to give too much away, but I mean, stuff like contemplating infanticide. I mean, that seems like a big risk to take with the original story from the Old Testament.
ARONOFSKY: But it's kind of assumed. I mean, if you think about it, you know, infanticide is written about, you know? God decided to destroy his creation. There must have been babies. There must have been children. So it's sitting there, you know, it's there in the text.
MCEVERS: The Noah story doesn't have a whole lot of drama and conflict in it naturally. You know, it's, like, you kind of, once you're on the boat, it seems like all that's over. So it seems like some of that conflict was put onto the boat. You know, these ideas of who can survive and who can't, got onto the boat.
ARONOFSKY: Well, what we really wanted to, was to add dramatics to a story that as you said, doesn't have that much drama. But there is a really interesting character arc - and I mean an arc with the letter C - which is God's arc. He goes from a place of wanting justice. It's an angry god who is willing to destroy his creation, even though it grieves him in his heart. And he gets, of course, to a place of mercy, to the first rainbow. And since Noah is very, very much along for the ride through the telling of the story, we decided to sort of assign that character arc to Noah.
MCEVERS: The film has caused some controversy. I mean, it's been banned in part of the Middle East. Did you anticipate that?
ARONOFSKY: Well, we knew that it would be an issue. In Islam, there's a tradition of not portraying - well, really, you're not supposed to portray any living form in art. But I imagine doing one of the prophets was, you know, potentially a bigger problem. But it's only a small ban. And in the United States, it seems like everyone who had issues with it, as soon as they see the film, are now embracing it. So that's a good thing.
MCEVERS: A Washington Post review says you'll love this film if you loved "Titanic" or "Gladiator." Was that, you know, your intended audience for this film?
ARONOFSKY: I mean, I did pitch - when I first went to the studio, I said, hey, what's the only boat more famous than the Titanic? (Laughter) So first and foremost, it's about entertainment. You know, that's my job - is to make something entertaining and thrilling and exciting. You know, what I always try to do is do something different. And I think this is very different than the normal blockbuster you normally see.
It isn't your typical superhero film, even though there is super-heroics in it. There's clearly, you know, environmental themes in the story. But, you know, if there's ideas afterwards for people to think about, I think they are the thematics of the film.
MCEVERS: Darren Aronofsky is the director and co-writer of the new film "Noah," which is out in theaters now. Thanks so much for your time today.
ARONOFSKY: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.