Last Sunday in Los Angeles, Cathleen Falsani sat down with Ari Handel, a screenwriter and frequent collaborator with Noah director Darren Aronofsky, with whom he co-wrote the film and the graphic novel, Noah, upon which it was based, to discuss some of the extra-biblical elements of the $150 million movie.
Longtime friends Handel and Aronofsky were suitemates at Harvard University. Before becoming a screenwriter and film producer, Handel was a neuroscientist. He holds a PhD in neurobiology from New York University. He was a producer on Aronofsky’s films Black Swan, The Wrestler, and The Fountain (which he co-wrote with Aronofsky), and had a small role as a Kabbalah scholar in the director’s debut film, 1998’s Pi.
Editor’s Note: The following Q&A contains some spoilers about the film. It has been edited for length.
Cathleen Falsani: Where did the inspiration for the female characters, in particular Noah’s adopted daughter, Ila, played by Emma Watson?
Ari Handel: The idea of coming across her as a child — I think that came to us in a certain way, that there was something interesting about Noah having a special love for her, like a different kind of love, maybe, for his own sons. … And then, in a biblical world, in a world where being a mother and birthing is so important — this is a story about new beginnings, essentially — that she would be barren became a really defining characteristic. How does a barren woman feel in this particular situation?
And obviously the notion of barrenness and infertility is a very biblical concept and it fits right in with the Noah story because it’s all about the death of life and the birth of new life; it’s all about second chances and next generations. So I think she came out of those places. She ends up also becoming, as you see, in some ways a different kind of a voice — a humanizing voice — that is able to bring Noah back from his despair.
CF: And the divine reversal of how she becomes pregnant, that’ s also very biblical.
AH: Yes. Abraham and Sarah. We see that many places in the New Testament as well. So that felt appropriately biblical. But to place that on someone who is, at that point, still very innocent and kind of unaware. She’s caught up, really, in the concerns of a young woman about her husband and what kind of family she can give him and what their love can be. She starts in this place where a lot of the kids do where they are thinking about personal concerns and then they grow through it. She grows through it and she becomes a life-giver.
CF: Through the years, when I’ve thought about Noah, which wasn’ t very often, I would get stuck on the mechanics of how his family would repopulate the world from just eight people on the ark. How would that work?
AH: The incest issue.
CF: Yes. So, Ila helped a lot with the gene pool.
AH: A little bit, at least.
CF: A little bit. Yep. But then, what happened to Ham? Where did he go? Did you think about what happened to Ham after your story left off?
AH: We did. We knew what happened to Ham and that he had to go off on his own because we know that Ham and Noah had a falling out at the end of [the] Genesis [account], and that his line was cursed. We also wanted to show that the first story after Noah was Babel. So there was this notion that — when you read this story as a kid — there are good guys (only eight of them) and bad guys (everybody else) and that the bad guys were really, really bad and the good guys were really, really good. So God killed all the bad guys and started the world again with only good guys. But then you flip the page and you’re at the story of Babel, which calls into question how that evolved from just ‘good guys.’ So Ham walking away and Noah saying, ‘Some things cannot be unbroken,’ is the idea that, look, the fractures, the pains, the scars, the problems that we have as people, they made it on the ark and they came out. And this family that started out so loving and beautiful, through this process, like all families really do, became scarred. And some of those scars come not because people are wicked in a superhero-movie kind of way. Some of those come out of love in the way that families find pains and difficulties with each other.
CF: Right. Here you have a family that survives an actual apocalypse, but all of our families survive personal apocalypses and we come out limping.
AH: That’s right. And we do the best that we can. …
We have been given a second chance. That was our first chance. We are now living in the second chance now. And how are we doing with it. How are each of us doing with it? And what choices are we making in terms of justice and mercy, and caring for this world and caring for creation and for each other? How are we doing?
And it’s not easy for any of us with those fractures and those things that are broken. We all have that. I think that’s why we ended it that way, to capture that complexity.
CF: I know what Darren says about his interest in the Noah story and where it came from and how it started. I think it probably started even earlier than he’ s aware. How did you come to it?
AH: I’m Jewish. Raised mildly observant. What that meant was I went to synagogue every Saturday for probably 10 years. …
I read all these stories. I read the Jonah story a million times and the Noah story. So I knew all these stories. They were in my mind. I didn’t read them for meaning. I read them for stories. I don’t even know if I was old enough to get some of these other things. But when Darren said, ‘What do you think about trying to tell the Noah story?’ I was immediately excited about it. You can pick it up and look at it and you notice two things: First you realize wow — this is everything that people want to make movies about. Good versus evil and the end of the world. All of that stuff is there. It’s got all that great stuff. But then it’s so much more of a darker, poignant, confusing story that we already know. We have the opportunity to dive really deep in a certain way into the story but also to uncover some things that people put aside in their daily life or their daily understanding of the story.
So much of what we get is the sweet, happy, animal-saving story, which it is. I don’t think it’s accidental that [the Noah story] wound up in the nursery room. Because we really didn’t want to think about some of the other things. ‘Let’s put it over there where it’ll be safe.’ It’s a really troubling, dark story.
Bill Maher has this whole thing where he says God is a genocidal so and so. And there’s not a lot to defend against that. I mean, everyone but eight people die. There’s a lot of destruction and death. I think you have to face that and then ask, ‘OK, what is this story telling us? What is this about? What does it mean?’
CF: The Watchers — the Nephilim — that’ s also a part of the account that we often skip over. What on earth was that about? Angels had sex with human women and these were the progeny? What?
AH: It’s a crazy line, right? There were fallen angels and they saw that human women were beautiful and they had children with them.
CF: Horny angels?
AH: Right. And I suppose there’s some version of the story where we could have riffed off of that. But we’re PG-13. So we looked at that in a far more metaphorical way. Angels that loved mankind. What does that mean?
The Book of Enoch and The Book of Jubilees that talk about these guys; there’s a tradition that gets tied to the fallen angels and Satan, angels with hubris fell and they had anger with mankind. We thought it was far more interesting to think about angels that loved mankind. And we thought, let’s not think about that physically or sexually. Let’s think about that emotionally. What if you’re an angel and you see mankind born and you love mankind? And then you see the original sin and man is kicked out of the garden, expelled from the garden and they have to toil the soil. And all of a sudden we go from a lovely place to a really hard place. And you love them and God’s punished them. What if you felt pity for them and came to earth to help? So that’s the place where we started from. That’s the kind of love we talked about.
There’s a big theme in the film about mercy and justice and the balance. That allowed us to have a character, which is the Nephilim, who maybe had an excess of mercy. Where God was judging, the angels were being merciful. So the angels move from a place of mercy to a place of justice, the same way that Noah and God in the story move from a place a justice toward a place of mercy.
… Some people were like, ‘Why do you have rock monsters?’ They’re not rock monsters. They’re beings of light. Their basic emotional state is that they’re trapped on Earth when they want to be in heaven. So what’s a better, visceral evocation of that than to have an internal core of light that is encased and encrusted in the very earth itself that shackles them and they can’t get past. It’s the light that rises.
They also do another thing for us, which is by being this kind of in-your-face, what-is-that-doing-in-this-movie, they help us create this world, which is the antediluvian world. It’s not the hills of ancient Judea because it wasn’t. And not a desert-y kind of thing.
The flood is a discontinuity. There was a world, which is very different from our world. No rainbows. What was the sky like? People living hundreds of years. Giants walking the earth. Leviathans swimming in the seas. Eden actually has a physical location in that world. You could actually get there and there was an angel there with a sword stopping you. That world feels more like Middle Earth than the ancient city of Ur where Abraham was born.
And that world was not just flooded, if you look at the way Genesis describes creation, it was undone so it could really be a different world. So to have these fantastical rock monsters in it helps us show you what a mythical, strange place it was.
I hope it gets people talking.
Cathleen Falsani is an award-winning religion journalist and author who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture. She is the author of five books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and the forthcoming Disquiet Time: Rants, Raves, and Reflections on the Good Book By the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels (October 2014). Learn more about Cathleen on her blog and website, incubate:spirit.