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Interpreting Noah For The 21st Century

Interpreting Noah For The 21st Century

Neuroscientist-turned-filmmaker Ari Handel talks about making "Noah" and rooming with a big-shot director.

Ari Handel, a neuroscientist whose career path ultimately took him to Hollywood, is the co-writer, with director Darren Aronofsky, of “Noah,” which opened last week. (It was the top-grossing film last weekend, with a haul of $44 million.) Handel was the executive producer of “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan,” and “The Fountain,” which he also wrote. Handel and Aronofsky, it turns out, were suitemates at Harvard. In a phone interview, Handel spoke about the challenges in making the film, which he also produced, and the critics who say the film strays too much from the Bible. This is an edited transcript.

Q: Did it take longer for you to build the ark than it took Noah?

A: Nobody knows for sure how long it took Noah but I think they said 10 years. It took us six months in design but it took him longer.

Do you think Noah is weak because he doesn’t fight to save people?

I don’t know if he’s weak. It’s part of the story of what he was and that is in contrast to the story of Abraham. Abraham is an icon of mercy whereas Noah is more of an icon of justice.

Some say you’ve hijacked the biblical story of Noah to promote an environmentalist agenda. What do you say to that?

I think environmentalism is a politicized issue. There is biblical evidence about the need to protect the land. Anyone who says this film is anti-biblical is not looking at all the evidence.

Why did you decide to give such a central role to the giants, known as Nephilim?

It’s right there in the text so they had to be featured. They were useful in terms of storyline but in also to answer the question of how does Noah get the ark built. They are mythical and otherworldly.

In what way did your Judaism impact your filmmaking?

I’d say here there was my fascination with the story of Noah, midrash and tradition and how you can take on the text and look at its closely. There are a lot of questions that are left unanswered and can be interpreted in different ways. As a storyteller, you look at it and wonder about how Noah lived when it doesn’t say it in the text.

There is a scene where we hear the cries of and see the people who are about to drown. Did you have any concern that audience would think you were portraying God as evil?

We’re telling the story, maybe in an evocative way, but the fact is that all the other people were wiped out. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from questions. You have to think about what kind of world are we living in and what sort of film are we making. We weren’t making a film just about Noah with his family, and they’re happy and smiley and everyone is under one roof. There are a lot of things it doesn’t say in the text, and you have to imagine how it might have been. Our goal was to create a film that would bring the Noah story to the 21st century that examined the truths that there was wickedness and destruction.

In the film, Noah sees another version of himself. Are you trying to say that everyone should guard against being taken over by their darker impulses?

One of the things we feel the story is about as a myth and as a parable is that there is goodness and wickedness in all man, and we’re trying to grapple with that. There are good people but that doesn’t mean they are totally good. After the flood, you flip the page and you have the story of the Tower of Babel and there is wickedness again.

What was the greatest challenge in making the film?

It was a huge undertaking from the sets to CGI [computer-generated imagery] to being in Iceland in extreme environments to making a film where you are not tied to expectations.

Were you surprised that there was criticism from some who hadn’t seen the film?

No, it makes a certain kind of sense when you look at it because there is such a religious divide and I think when people see the movie they will feel differently.

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