On Noah and Faith: A Conversation with Ari Handel

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Darren Aronofsky’s Noah opens this weekend. There’s already been a good deal of controversy over the film, largely from religious leaders who’ve not yet seen it. Some of the criticism was invited by Aronofsky, a self-described atheist who called his own film “the least biblical biblical film ever made.” But we caught an early screening, and the irony is that the film not only falls squarely within the tradition of interpretation and commentary on the Genesis story, it’s also a deeply moving and profoundly spiritual meditation on the story’s meanings. Ari Handel, who produced and co-wrote the script with Aronofsky (he also collaborated with him on The Wrestler and The Black Swan) joined us recently to discuss the film and its criticism from certain quarters.

Paste: Right from the start, I really want to get into the mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of the film, mostly by people who haven’t seen it. I’m curious how it must feel, after spending 11 years working on this and pretty painstakingly researching it, to have people attacking it without even seeing it?
Ari Handel: Ultimately, it’s obviously a story that’s very familiar, and people have associations with it and expectations of it. So I guess if they haven’t seen the film and don’t know what we’ve done, I can see how there may be some reaction to the possibility that we’re not going to honor something or take something seriously, or that we’re going to be mocking in some way or come in with some agenda. But since none of that is really the case, I think that all goes away. So I guess it’s not that uncomfortable, or that surprising, as long as people then give it a chance, and make up their minds about it after they see it.

Paste: It will be interesting to see, once the film is out and people actually see it, how quickly that controversy goes away.
Handel: I think there certainly will still be a conversation. People will still relate to certain aspects of the film and not others. There’s a lot of things to discuss, different ways to look at this story. But then at least it will be a dialogue that’s about the film and the story, not about fears about the film.

Paste: I started out saying the film was not a retelling, but more of a re-imagining. But I eventually landed on the label “a meditation.” Then I read an interview with Darren where he talked about seeing the film squarely in the tradition of midrash, in Jewish thought. That seems to me a perfect description.
Handel: Yes. The exact meaning of “midrash” is complicated, but it basically is commentary. In the Jewish tradition, you look at a text in the Bible, and there are clues there, subtle details that raise questions. And they’re there for a reason, the thinking goes. They’re there to make you ask those questions. They’re there for more stories to tell, and to invent, and to imagine, that would shed light on those questions. And these midrash interpretations aren’t meant to be absolutely, exactly what happened. They’re meant to be a hypothetical, what may have happened, to illuminate an aspect of the story, and those take place in dialogue with other midrash and other commentaries. It all takes place within the grounding of not contradicting the text in any way, but within that context it’s looking for other interpretations and trying to understand things more deeply. We took that pretty seriously.

But there’s also another way that we think about this which is similar, which is that a lot of those midrash discussions can get kind of out there. They operate kind of on the level of myth. These stories are so old, and so primal. There’s a lot of potency to the Noah story, in the same way that, say, the story of Icarus has a lot of potency.

Paste: Speaking of mythic elements, without being too spoiler-ish, there’s one specific element of your film that might raise some eyebrows among people who consider themselves more orthodox. But when you go back and read the actual passage, there’s not really a more reasonable interpretation of that language. There are some really puzzling things about the Genesis account that, instead of glossing over, you take seriously. Which I actually think is a more reverent approach to take.
Handel: Are you talking about the Nephilim?

Paste: Exactly.
Handel: Look, the Nephilim are there in the Bible. And they’re almost famous for being a part of this strange sentence at the beginning of the Noah story. To deny their existence, not to use them, seemed wrong. We wanted to find out how to use them. But also, they served a couple of purposes for us. First, just in storytelling terms, now we had a way to have builders for the ark. We had a way to defend the ark. And there actually is commentary that supports that, if you look at some extra-Biblical commentaries. There are some people that said the Nephilim were involved in those things. But they also serve a thematic purpose for us. There’s a lot in this story, and it comes straight out of Genesis, about mercy and justice. Whether mankind should be punished or saved. By bringing the Nephilim into the story, we were able to bring them into that as well. They too have to deal with punishment and forgiveness. They too relate to man in terms of punishment and forgiveness.

If you’re talking about the form they take, which does have a kind of fantasy element or mythic element, that was very purposeful. One thing that struck us very early on is that when you read about the antediluvian world in those chapters of Genesis, it’s very otherworldly; it’s not like our world. And the flood comes and wipes all that out, and we start again, but there was a lot going on that was different. No rainbows had ever been in the sky, so the physics of the sky and light may have been somehow different. We’ve got people living a thousand years. We’ve got fallen beings walking the planet, and flaming swords, and Leviathans in the water. We really wanted audiences to feel that, and not think that this is a story that takes place in the hills of ancient Judea, in a desert, with someone with sandals and a robe. To really bring to life the idea that this was a different world. In some ways, a more primal and mythical world. And that helped us do that.

Paste: Another thing the Nephilim have in common with Noah and other characters in the story is that not only are they experiencing these themes of justice and mercy, they’re also sort of actively, to borrow another Biblical analogy, wrestling with God over those issues. That’s something I’ve always responded to in the Jewish tradition, the emphasis on the “come let us reason together,” struggling back and forth with God. It seems to me that that’s what you and Darren are doing in this film. There’s that great Biblical image of “ruminating,” and the film felt to me like you were really ruminating over, really chewing up, the huge issues the story brings up and huge questions it asks us. Does that resound with you at all?
Handel: Absolutely, because we started this process by reading the story and looking at those questions. And I imagine that they’re questions that almost anyone who reads the story might ask. Why did almost everyone get wiped out? What was so special about Noah? If Noah was so much better than everybody else, how come he’s getting drunk at the end and cursing his son’s line to eternal slavery? If everybody that got off the boat were the good guys, and wickedness was eradicated, how come when I flip the page I’m at the Tower of Babel?

If you look at those things, it makes you start to think that maybe something else is going on in this story, about human nature and wickedness and goodness. It makes you want to grapple with those questions. So we wanted to give a lot of those questions to our characters and make them feel them. Like any story that’s resonant and has universal things to say to us about the human condition, you’ve got to get messy a little bit and grapple with it, and bring those issues to the surface. If you make it easy, you’re not doing them justice, because they’re not easy questions. They’re hard questions.

Paste: I don’t want to make any assumptions about yours and Darren’s faith or lack thereof. But to have people who see themselves as inside a certain community of faith and you guys to be outside of it—even if that’s true, it seems to me, what more could you dream of, from inside whatever faith community you identify with, than to have people that you see as outsiders come in and treat seriously these texts that are sacred to you, and the issues that are central to your identity? What could be a more productive connection between those cultures than to have that conversation?
Handel: I agree with that in this sense, and I put it another way. The Noah story is a fundamental story. It goes deep in our culture, and in the Judeo-Christian culture obviously, but in many other cultures as well. There’s something very fundamental to the story. So you can have believers of whatever denomination, and you can have non-believers, and actually they should all be wrestling with the same ideas here. The ideas are universal. This whole notion that there are certain things we can talk about if we believe one thing, and certain things we can talk about if we believe another, I don’t think that divide needs to be there.

The notion of whether we need to struggle to figure out what the right way to live is, is there goodness and wickedness in all of us, and what do we do about it, what is the right way to treat ourselves and others when they fall short of our ideals of what best behavior is, to treat them with judgment or mercy or some combination of both, what do we need to do to get a second chance and how do we use our second chances when we have them, how do we have hope when there’s a lot to be hopeless about, those are universal questions. And these stories, which if you look at them through a mythical lens and think about them like parables that resonate on a deep level to ask us these questions… I think a lot of the stuff happening in the antediluvian world resonates on that level. It doesn’t have that same level of historicity as you have when you’re talking about Moses in Egypt, or even Moses or Abraham. So I think those kind of stories, even more than others, do resonate on that universal, archetypic level. And I think anyone who’s taking them seriously is going to grapple with some of these same fundamental questions.

And we wanted to do that at the same time as making something that was an entertaining story as well. The Noah story is a great story in that way, because it does plumb down into these really interesting dramatic depths, but at the same time, you’ve got an imminent apocalypse, and you’ve got good versus evil, and you’ve got all these other elements of classic cinema right there in the story, alongside these more provocative and intriguing notions that make you think.

Paste: I’m glad that you mentioned the other flood narratives. Someone reminded me this weekend that one scholarly reading of the Genesis flood account is that it was, in some sense, a reaction to and commentary on other Near Eastern flood narratives which tended to be even darker and focused on overpopulation.

Paste:And yet, in the Judeo-Christian story, God’s purpose is different. You have that great line in the movie: “Fire consumes all; water cleanses. He destroys all, but only to start again.” And I love how that played out in the film through a concern with the idea of generations and family, and specifically with fertility. Fertility is so elevated and almost sacramentalized in your film. And I thought that was so beautiful, because that really is the hope of the new beginning, the miracle of childbirth.
Handel: One of the main things we wanted to do was say, what is dramatically at stake in the Noah story? And how can we bring that to a very human level, so that we can empathize and sympathize on a more human level? So if you ask yourself, what does it mean from a higher level to say, human beings are going to be wiped out, but a new kind of human will be born? That’s kind of like a child being born, on our level. There will be death, but a new baby will be born. And in the same way, what does it mean for a creator, a patriarch, to consider destroying something that he made and loved? What does it mean to be in that position, where your heart is grieved by the situation but you still feel that it’s necessary? That’s really where the Noah story starts, is God thinking of destroying something he loves. How can we relate to that on a human level? And that’s the climactic scene with Noah on top of the boat. It’s an attempt to find, in a human world, that emotional tragedy that the Noah story sets between a creator-father figure and his child. And all those things came out of the story, and how to dramatize those central emotions as much as you can.

Paste: And what we see as Noah’s triumph, he sees as his greatest failure. That’s part, I think, of what makes him such a broken man at the end of the film. A man who has loved and cherished life so much, and then seen so much of it wiped away, and bearing the responsibility of survivor’s guilt… anyone who doesn’t understand why he’d be getting drunk, naked, watching the waves come in, is just not understanding the character, I think.
Handel: Or maybe hasn’t looked at that part of it that carefully. There’s a lot of the focus in the story, as people remember it as kids, on who made it on the boat and how great that was, and all the positive side, and there’s very little focus on the negative side. But once you really imagine what it might be like to be a person in those circumstances, I think it does become immediately apparent how difficult that might be.

Paste: I also loved how un-didactic the movie was. I liked how it both constructed and deconstructed several different worldviews. Some people have complained that the film supposedly has an overbearing environmental message. And certainly there’s a lot there about man’s care for the earth and respect for animals and things like that, which I find to be completely Biblical. But then also, that is shown to be taken too far, and turns in on itself and turns into something a lot darker. And then the whole question of humanism, which is beautifully embodied in Noah’s wife, who defends and focuses on the sacredness of the human, but in Tubal-Cain’s case we see the dark side of all that. Noah’s faith in God is a beautiful thing, but it also turns dark.
Handel: Yes. Again, what is the story trying to resonate about? From the very beginning to the very end, it’s talking about the wickedness and the goodness in the hearts of men. Mankind is almost destroyed and the world is almost destroyed because of us, and yet we’re allowed to go on. We’re allowed to continue to make mistakes. So there’s a meditation in that story about what to do with goodness and wickedness in mankind. It was important to us that Noah is not universally perfect and good in all ways. He gets lost, and he has to struggle, and he has to suffer, and he recognizes that he’s human and has his own shortcomings. Even the bad guy sometimes makes a lot of sense. It would be a lot easier to say, look, the flood’s going to come, and there’s a bunch of these terrible orcs that need to die. And then there’s all these great people over here, and they’re going to live, and the world’s going to be very merry ever after. But we know that’s not the case. This isn’t about us good guys and those bad guys. This is something about humanity being on trial. We need to see that there’s something more complicated there, good and bad in all people. I think that’s why you see that kind of complexity.