Photograph: AF archive/Alamy On a bitter March morning, Darren Aronofsky meets me for tea (“I’m already coffeed up,” he confesses) at a corner table in a West Village café. His new film, Noah—a startlingly creative and sincere take on the Bible story (starring Russell Crowe in tortured form)—has already gathered prerelease heat, due to nervous religious groups, testy screenings and a leaked-script incident. Reportedly budgeted in the neighborhood of $130 million, it is the biggest dare of the director’s career. The 45-year-old Aronofsky, Brooklyn-born and an easy chat, seems happy to plunge into the debate he knows is coming.
Are you sure it wouldn’t have been easier to do a Wolverine movie? Noah seems like an amazing gamble for Hollywood.
When I got to Hollywood after I made Pi, one of the first things I set up was the Noah story with [producer] Lynda Obst. She asked me, “Do you know what you’re getting involved in?” And I said, “Yeah!” But I was a very young filmmaker then. I’ve been trying to make this since the beginning of my career. For years, I was pitching the Bible genre as a great one to reinvent with 21st-century technology.
What’s the root of your obsession?
When I was a 13-year-old—a seventh grader in junior high—I had this magical teacher who said, “Take out a piece of paper and write something about peace.” And I wrote a poem about Noah, which ended up winning a contest. A few weeks later, I was reading it over the PA system. It was the first time I ever did something with my writing and won something.
That can’t be the whole story, though. Aren’t there dangers to taking on this material?
Well, I think we’re seeing some of the dangers now. There’s definitely a controversy brewing, mostly in the United States. And a literal interpretation of the Old Testament simply doesn’t exist. There’s no way you can turn a four-chapter story into a feature-length film without some interpretation. For instance, Noah doesn’t even speak in the Bible, not at all. If you cast Russell Crowe, you’re not going to do that. Just casting white actors is an interpretation alone.
Do your interpretations go too far? You have Noah interacting with CGI angels and, it could be said, misunderstanding God.
There’s another way of looking at it—that Noah is being tested. I hope audiences come to it willing to let go of their clichés. Because that’s always been my goal when I make movies. For secular people, they’re not going to see their grandma’s Bible movie. But for religious people, you’re still going to see the ideas of the core story, represented through imagination in a way you didn’t expect.
As the director, who do you identify with more, Noah or God?
[Laughs] Actually for me, the main emotional arc of the story is God’s arc. At the beginning of the story, He is fed up with mankind and truly aggrieved by our wickedness. He wants justice. By the end, there’s the rainbow, where God finds mercy and promises he will never destroy the earth again. So for me, that was a real arc—uh, arc with a c, not with a k.
It would be great to know exactly how you convinced Russell Crowe to do this picture in the first place.
I said, “I promise you I’ll never shoot you in a houseboat with two giraffes sticking out behind you.” And when I went to the studio, I said, “Don’t think about robes, sandals and long white beards.”
Noah opens Friday March 28.