He's tackled washed-up pro wrestlers, mentally unstable ballerinas, paranoid mathematicians, time-traveling surgeons and hopeless junkies, but director Darren Aronofsky's biggest challenge to date is a man and his boat.
Due in theaters on March 28th, Noah is the highest-profile effort yet from the man behind Black Swan, Pi and Requiem for a Dream – and given the source material, that's to be expected. With a cast that boasts Russell Crowe in the title role and a family that includes Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins, Noah marks the return of the Biblical blockbuster.
Or does it? For one thing, it's designed to resemble a timeless, creature-filled fantasy world rather than the historical setting where the story of Noah, his ark and the flood God sent to cleanse the world of its sins took root – less Middle East, more Middle-earth. And for all the epic imagery and special effects, the emphasis seems squarely on Aronofsky's specialty, chronicling a talented, tormented individual struggling to stay afloat; this time around that struggle just so happens to be literal. For God's sake, the movie's theme song is provided by frequent Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell, avant-garde classical combo the Kronos Quartet and the high priestess of punk, Patti Smith – as seen in Rolling Stone's exclusive photo below. To hear Aronofsky tell it, neither big budgets nor potential controversy forced him to water his vision of the Flood down.
You've dealt with the big questions of life and faith before, going all the way back to Pi, but never on such a large scale. There must be frustrations and complications, but are there also advantages to working big?
When you do the story of Noah, you definitely need a big canvas. It's one of the greatest stories ever told, and it's one people that have been telling around the entire world since before recorded history. But when we first started working on the project, we were very clear not to have sandals and robes and long white beards. The first thing I said to Russell Crowe was, "I'll never shoot you on a houseboat with two giraffes standing behind you." I think the Noah story has become a story for children, but it's actually the first apocalypse story. It's a very, very dark story. And it takes place at a time before the world had rainbows! A time when everything was miraculous. That allowed us to imagine big.
For me, the pre-diluvian world has many fantastical elements. The Bible talks about these creatures called the nephilim, which were these giant angels that walked on the Earth during the time of Noah's life. It also talked about this giant beast, the Leviathan, that lived on Earth. And we're only ten generations from the Garden of Eden. It was a very magical, spiritual world – as different as, say, Middle-earth. We created this Biblical fantasy world and we wanted to make it like no world we'd seen before. The scope of the effects, in bringing this world to life, required that we work on a big scale.
How did Patti Smith get involved?
I've been friends with Patti for a long time, and I needed a lullaby for the movie because it's a big part of the story. I was telling Patti about my struggles, and it turns out she's studied lullabies and writes a lot of them. She was like, "Can I please write it for you?" And I said, "You're asking me that question?" [Laughs] I said "absolutely" with as much of a poker face as possible. She wrote this incredible lullaby that Russell Crowe sings to Emma Watson in the movie. It's really touching and beautiful.
Do you worry about the pushback this approach might get from people with a great deal of spiritual and emotional investment in the Bible?
The hope is that the film is for everyone. The film completely accepts the text, the four chapters in Genesis, as truth – just like if I was to adapt any book, I'd try to be as truthful to the original material as possible. It's just that there's only four chapters, and we had to turn it into a two-hour long narrative film. In the Bible, Noah doesn't even speak. So of course we've got to dramatize the story.
We tried to remain truthful to the themes and the ideas that are written, but to create a dramatic story for a 21st-century audience. I think people who are believers will see the ideas and the values that they're looking for represented in the film, and I think people who are non-believers, or come from different traditions, are going to be excited because it's not your grandmother's bible. It's something new, something big and something different.
The question of how suffering can exist in a universe created by an omnipotent and benevolent God is a tough one to grapple with. In a story like Noah's, where you're dealing with the wrath of God himself, you have to face it head-on.
That was a big part of it. As I said, most people think that it's a children's story, but if you really look at it. . . you know, it's the fourth story in the Bible, the first story being Creation, the second story being Adam and Eve's fall from the Garden and original sin and the third story being the first murder. Then it jumps forward ten generations and the entire world is wicked and the Creator is so upset with Man that he just wants to destroy it and start all over again. Everything is perfect and Creation is great, then one thing goes wrong and pretty quickly it's all fallen apart and you're willing to destroy everything to start again. That's a pretty dramatic place.
How does this affect the character of Noah himself? If everything's going to be wiped clean, he has to wonder why he's been picked to survive.
That's the theme of what we were doing. I don't wanna get too specific, because I don't wanna give too much away, but your finger's on the pulse.