Darren Aronofsky on Russell Crowe, Religion and “Noah“
Call him the master of the feel-bad movie: ever since Darren Aronofsky’s debut “Pi“ hit the screens back in 1998, the Brooklyn-born director worked hard to keep his reputation as an exceptionally gifted filmmaker with a knack for dark, psychological nightmare visions. From drug addiction (as seen in his sophomore effort, “Requiem for a Dream“, potentially one of the creepiest films ever) to physical (self-) abuse (“The Wrestler“) to career-induced breakdowns (“Black Swan“), Aronofsky’s movies have it all, as long as it has you leaving the cinema shaken, stirred, and properly disturbed.
After trying to dabble a bit in the mainstream biz (Aronofsky was briefly attached to “The Wolverine“), the director got his wish to do the biblical story of Noah, the Ark and the Great Flood. As a project the Russell Crowe-starring movie, mixing awesome visuals and philosophical WTF? bits with concessions to the Multiplex crowd, is a serious gamble: at a cost of an estimated 170-250 million dollars and under attack from evangelical lobbying groups even before shooting started, Aronofsky’s future Gollywood career and “bankability“ rests on “Noah“ to at least break even.
Dropping by to promote his film alongside most of his cast (Russell Crowe was suspiciously absent from the press junkets), Aronofsky in Berlin seemed enthusiastic and utterly unworried, though. Whether that’s him just being a pro or not really caring about the future too much (his films usually have a budget that wouldn’t even cover the catering bills at a Marvel movie) remains open to debate.
I’ll try to be as professional sounding as I can: What made you do a big Bible-themed blockbuster-type epic?
Aronofsky: Why do you say you need to try to sound professional?
Because I wanted to say “Why on God’s Green Earth“, but that didn’t seem so damn appropriate... Seriously – you’re known for smaller scale, psychological dramas, with the possible exceptions of “The Fountain“ and “Black Swan“ most of your films can be broken down to that. So in my mind, you’re probably one of the last directors to do something like “Noah“, an expensive, Multiplex-compatible film.
Do you think “Noah“ is a big budget action film?
Answering questions with another question, I see... okay: whether it’s you trying to give Paramount Pictures what they may want or need or whether they were downright pushing you, there are a lot of “trailer-friendly“ bits in “Noah“. At its core, it may be a slightly different film, but it’s still delivering a lot of potentially crowd-pleasing eye candy.
I think when you make a film of the Bible which describes miracles on a global scale you need to make a visual spectacle. So we knew if we were to make “Noah“ we needed to have big shots of all the animals getting on the Ark, two by two, of the great deluge, of the first apocalypse. Of creation of the planet and the universe. People would expect to see that. But, for me, at its core it was always the family drama, trying to examine the themes of mercy and justice, wickedness and forgiveness, of good versus bad.
Couldn’t you have done that on a smaller scale and without using a religious frame, say as a post-apocalyptic drama about a family stranded somewhere? Also, the story of Noah’s not exactly one of those big, colorful stories from the Bible, right?
Well, there’s not a lot of stuff about Noah in the Bible, only maybe four chapters, it’s a very, very short story. But everything in it is a miracle and all those miracles are iconic. People have been capturing them in religious art for thousands of years, but no one has tried to bring that story to the silver screen - ever - in the history of cinema. I think one of the reasons for that is that everything described in it is just so impossible to do without 21st century digital effects.
For me, the Noah story is one of the greatest stories ever told. And I can prove that by pointing out that pretty much everyone on the planet knows that story. It’s one of the oldest stories that we are still telling – it may not be as old as Gilgamesh, but more people know it and we’ve been telling it over and over again, turning it into toys, nursery rhymes... but the actual story is much darker and more intense, it is our first apocalypse story.
I thought there was something very elemental about the Great Flood. Even if you’re not part of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, your culture – whether it’s China, Japan, the Amazon or Maya – has a flood story. There is something about water, it’s great destructive power coupled with the life-giving and cleansing qualities of water, that connects with every person on the planet. So for me it was a way of communicating a lot of different ideas about what is happening in the world right now through this ancient story that we all know.
That’s a great pitch, but did you get everything you wanted for this film? And how do you get someone like Russell Crowe, who’s not exactly a small-scale character actor, for a project like this?
It was a very hard role to cast. First, you have to find an actor with balls big enough to take it on. But also finding someone who amongst all those miraculous happenings – the flood, angels walking the Earth, the Leviathan, a world without rainbows, a very different universe than the one we are living in right now – can ground that in reality without making it all feel ridiculous. And that was very hard. The thing that’s fascinating about Russell is that everything he does is truthful – when you put him into the Great Deluge he’s gonna do something that plays real. There are very few actors in the world who can do that.
But was he an easy sell to Paramount?
The studio loved the idea of casting him. They actually suggested it before I thought of it. And when they came to me with that idea I was like "That could work, let’s go meet him!“ And we did and we both liked the story, we liked each other, and then we took it from there.
Is it really that easy? To me, the "he liked the script and then we just did the film" thing always feels like a Hollywood myth.
Well, it’s not always this easy. Russell told me something at our first meeting that I felt was great: “I haven’t been this excited about a project since I got a phone call from my agent saying that Ridley wants me to play a 6th century Roman general.“ Hey, that’s a nice compliment, right?
So he was interested from the beginning. But Russell doesn’t suffer fools, as you can imagine, and he wants to make sure that he’s working with filmmakers. So he’ll put you through wringer, to make sure I knew what I was doing.
But Crowe does have a bit of a temper, doesn’t he? I remember Denzel Washington talking about his work on “American Gangster“ where Crowe and Ridley Scott yelled at each other a lot and got a bit physical during those arguments, too. I can respect someone being passionate and having a bit of a temper, but in a workplace setting you can basically do without arguments and fights like that, right?
I’ve heard about the Ridley-Russell thing. I don’t really work that way – on the set I’m not your father, I’m your friend. Sometimes Russell can be difficult and a bit challenging, but in general he was pretty easy, you know? He wants to know why everything’s happening, but that’s his right because he has to play it. So he pushes you, trying to make it more real and stuff... sometimes it just comes down to matters of taste – that’s where he probably ran into problems with Ridley. Ultimately, Russell gave me most of what I wanted, at the end of the day.
That sounds like it’s... enough.
You look at his performance in the film – he starts out pretty heroic but gets to a place that’s pretty dark. It’s pretty brave and bold of him to do.
I like that development: Noah goes from friendly eco-warrior and protector of his family and the Earth to this Old Testament guy, who feels he has to kill to fulfill his role. And you can kinda relate – not because you like him, but because you see the arc of the character. That raises another question: there’s only so much that you can do, especially for mainstream America, when it comes to religion. Isn’t it basically asking for trouble doing a story, doing a film like this right now? Maybe 10 or 15 years ago or in 10 years it might be easier, but with the American society being so divided and polarized right now...
I don’t think I would have gotten away with it ten years ago. Just look at Scorsese and his “Last Temptation“... I don’t think there’s any controversy once people actually see the film. I made it for believers and non-believers. I think believers will see values in it that aren’t contradictory with Scriptures and non-believers are not gonna see their grandma’s Noah. So I’m hoping that everyone comes out to see the film. You’re right, the US is a culturally and politically very polarized place right now. But what all those lobbying against me and the film miss is that I’ve been passionate about “Noah“ for a long time. For ten or twelve years we’ve studied that story, so we wanted to bring that story to life as scholars, all those ideas and themes and philosophical questions.
What’s interesting to me is that with “Noah“ you’re basically having it both ways: you're telling one of the bigger, more important biblical stories in a serious, straightforward way, but you also include a lot of sequences that add good counterpoints. Basically everything Noah’s opponent Ray Winstone's character says sounds reasonable. He’s not a bad guy, he’s offering a contrasting opinion.
There are things in the Bible that seem contradictory. In the Adam and Eve story, Genesis 2:15 there’s talk about how we should be stewards of Creation. But in another place it says we should “take dominion over it“. So many people have taken this later bit as an excuse to do whatever they want with Creation, completely ignoring the stewardship part. Now Pope Francis is talking about stewardship and ecology, which is a beautiful thing coming from the leader of the Catholic faith.
We wanted Ray’s character to be as reasonable as possible because that makes for the best kind of antagonist. Ray completely believed what he was saying as he performed it. And that’s great because it makes you better understand the choices between good and evil.
One more thing: again, you worked with composer Clint Mansell. What’s that like? Does it make work easier, because you’ve known each other for quite some time?
We’ve had a good trip together, we spend a lot of time working together, luckily we’re friends and not just collaborators. The music is a long process: Clint comes on during pre-production, writing some ideas and he’s there up to the end. He’s not working on a film as long as I am, but he’s there for a really long time.
But aren’t things sometimes more difficult, working with someone that you’re friends with and who you’ve been collaborating with a lot already?
No, I actually like that, it keeps you real. I continue working with a lot of the same people on projects. I like working with friends.
Noah / USA 2014 / directed by Darren Aronofsky / starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone