The West

Russell Crowe. Picture: Niko Tavernise

It was easy to get lost on Darren Aronofsky's ark. Inside a converted Brooklyn armoury in late 2012, Aronofsky was shooting Noah on a massive vessel that matched the biblical dimensions of the boat, its rough beams lashed together and the hull sealed with pitch.

In every corner of the three-storey structure rested packs of ersatz animals - insects on one level, snakes and turtles in another corner and, around the bend, lions quite literally lying with lambs. "Animals are fragile. Please do not touch," a sign warned visitors.

It took production designer Mark Friedberg's team four months to construct the interior ark set for Noah and much longer for special-effects gurus Industrial Light and Magic and Look Effects to create living, albeit digital, creatures that would walk, fly and slither, two by two, into the ark.

Yet those tasks were ultimately footnotes in the film's epic journey to the screen as Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel laboured to expand a brief but revered story into a full-length movie, all without estranging their financial backers and the faithful, both of whom worried that Noah would be heretical.

The $US130 million ($140 million) production marks a departure not only for Aronofsky, whose previous films, including Black Swan and The Wrestler, were more modest undertakings but also for Hollywood itself, which in recent decades has exhibited negligible interest in overtly religious stories.

If Noah attracts a torrent of moviegoers, and early audience surveys here and abroad suggest it will, despite outrage from both Islamic states and the American Christian right, the film could bolster the prospects for the industry's unusually large religious slate, a roster that includes Heaven Is for Real, Exodus, Last Days in the Desert and Mary.

But first Aronofsky's movie has to prove its doubters wrong. "Once people start seeing the film, believers and non-believers will all be able to have conversations about it that I believe will be interesting," Aronofsky said.

"But you have to go into the film recognising that your expectations are going to be rattled."

Nearly 15 years ago, as Aronofsky's experimental sci-fi story Pi was about to hit theatres, the filmmaker visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California. Dedicated to the Earth's history, the fanciful and scientifically creative museum was displaying a small diorama based on Noah's ark.

Aronofsky easily could have walked past it but the exhibit caught his eye - and imagination.

"It was a cool little sculpture," the 45-year-old Aronofsky recalled. "And I said to myself 'It's strange that the biblical epic has been dead for 50 years'. This was clearly a true genre with some of the biggest movies ever made. But at the time the Old Testament hadn't been touched in years."

Soon thereafter, he successfully pitched his flood idea to producer Lynda Obst but when a Jon Voight television miniseries called Noah's Ark came out - replete with an attack on the prophet from a Waterworld-like pirate ship - Aronofsky's Noah ran aground before he could even write it.

By 2003, after the filmmaker's Requiem for a Dream was completed, Aronofsky began working with screenwriter Handel (a college classmate and former neuroscientist) on a Noah script. But it was not until after the director's long-delayed The Fountain was released in 2006 that Aronofsky started taking the story around town.

It didn't start well. Noah briefly was set up at Universal but lost momentum when studio chief Stacey Snider departed and Universal's Evan Almighty, a $US175 million Steve Carell comedy set on an ark, bombed in 2007. When Aronofsky's Black Swan became a commercial hit with more than $US329 million in worldwide ticket sales and an Oscar win for actress Natalie Portman, Noah suddenly had fresh energy.

In early 2011 producer Arnon Milchan's Regency Enterprises agreed to share equally in financing the production with Paramount Pictures. Russell Crowe was cast as Noah, with Jennifer Connelly playing his wife Naameh, and Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem) and Leo McHugh Carroll (Japheth) as their sons.

But what story would the movie actually tell? From the start of his filmmaking career, Aronofsky had been drawn to obsessive, largely isolated people fighting forces both external and internal, demons real and imagined: Sean Gullette's tortured mathematician in Pi, Jared Leto's drug addict in Requiem for a Dream, Portman's mentally unstable ballerina in Black Swan and Mickey Rourke's past-his-prime athlete in The Wrestler.

Noah, in many ways, represented a similar thread in that narrative tapestry but his story was unavoidably constrained by His story: Aronofsky and Handel didn't want to trample on the Bible but they had to fashion a two-hour tale out of just several Genesis verses in which Noah barely speaks.

"I've read it a million times - sitting there bored in the synagogue," said Handel, who co-wrote The Fountain with Aronofsky and is now his producing partner.

"And it has everything you could want a story to have - literally good versus evil."

That foundation needed a structure on top of it. So Aronofsky and Handel fashioned an action story that generously quoted from the Bible, set against a global apocalypse, including giant, mythical beasts - inspired by the Nephilim of the Old Testament that help Noah construct his massive vessel.

"We knew we had to be faithful to the text - we couldn't contradict it," Handel said. So he and Aronofsky, consulting theologians and reading countless texts, turned to the Jewish tradition of Midrash, which creates stories to fill in gaps and construe meanings from the biblical narrative.

The Bible's account of the ancient man instructed to save two of every species before God eradicates a sinful mankind prompted profound questions about character and setting that the Bible didn't answer.

Wherever they could, Aronofsky and Handel looked for signposts. The Bible says that right after the floodwaters receded, Noah is seen naked and drunk, and his son Ham is cursed. "That was a huge clue about what the drama of the film might be," Aronofsky said. "What type of character, after the so-called victory of survival, suddenly gets drunk?"

In other words, was Noah wrestling with survivor's guilt? What had prompted tensions with the family?

Both new parents, Aronofsky and Handel started talking about justice and mercy and how that shaped raising their children.

"If you're too just with a child, you can destroy them with strictness," the director said. "But if you're too merciful with the child, you can destroy them through leniency. Being a good parent is about balancing those two things.

"And if you look at what the word righteous means - when they describe Noah, they say 'righteous in his times' - it actually means a balance of justice and mercy.

"So we wanted Noah to understand the wickedness of man at the start of the film and want justice. And over the course of the film, like God, come to mercy and thus become righteous."

'Once people start seeing the film, believers and non-believers will all be able to have conversations about it that I believe will be

interesting .' Darren aronofsky

The West Australian

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