The 'Terror' of Noah: How Darren Aronofsky Interprets the Bible

The controversial director talks about his lifelong fascination with Noah's ark and why it's the messages of biblical stories—not the historical details—that matter.

When a seed is planted in the mind of a child, it’s impossible to predict accurately how it might take root and blossom in years to come. Surely whoever first told Darren Aronofsky the Bible story of Noah and the great flood had no idea how powerfully it would capture his imagination. Nor did he or she know that, more than 30 years later, Aronofsky would be a sometimes controversial, Oscar-nominated film director—or that the story of Noah would become his cinematic passion project.

Aronofsky’s Noah is an epic, $150 million-dollar feature film that has managed to raise the hackles of some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders (the vast majority of whom haven’t yet seen it) long before its official release on Friday. Some critics say Aronofsky strayed from the Bible story and took liberties with the narrative that they deem to be offensive and “unbiblical.”

Last Sunday, Aronofsky, who directed and co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Ari Handel, sat down with me in Los Angeles to talk at length about his own spiritual predilections, the inspiration behind his Noah, the research and biblical scholarship that went into reimagining a story held sacred by three religious traditions, and what ideas he hopes to sow into the minds (and hearts) of his audience.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Do you remember the first time you heard the Noah story?

I’m always talking about the poem I wrote when I was 13. But just last week, I was talking to my co-writer, and I kind of had a flash of a memory before that that I can’t place. I remember the feeling of being afraid, of terror. And I think hearing the story of Noah, I thought about, What if I was not one of the good ones to get on the boat? And I recognized that there’s wickedness in all of us.

When it’s taught to kids, it’s about the good man and his family. They don’t talk about the duality of original sin. What I think is the fascinating part of the story is the contradiction inherent in the story, which is that we are all descendants of original sin. Clearly, even if you subscribe to the idea that Noah is all good (which he’s not, he’s just righteous—which doesn’t mean good in theological terms, it means a balance of justice and mercy), why go through this act of destruction if the next story [in the Bible] is Babel, which is about how man’s hubris once again needs to be smited?

So, why go through this? What is the reason for it? To me, that’s what’s powerful about it. It’s meant as a lesson. It’s poetry that paints images about the second chance we’ve been given, that even though we have original sin and even though God’s acts are justified, He found mercy. There is punishment for what you do, but we have just kind of inherited this second chance. What are we going to do with it?

When I was a kid, growing up Catholic in CCD, I was shown the picture books with the rainbow and the animals and the ark. But I couldn’t get my head around, first of all, why God would do that? It was terrifying. Or how they would repopulate the earth with just Noah, his wife, his three kids, and their wives.

Well, that’s the old problem with biblical stories.

Yes. So your approach to the Noah story tapped into a really dark question I hadn’t thought about in probably 30 years: What kind of God would do that?

That's not the God of grace and mercy and love that I understand now. But that's part of the history and story. Right after the passage in Genesis that describes the destruction and the flood, God starts again and says, Well I won’t do that again, even though I understand that humans have a bent toward evil. So, was God having a bad day?

We constructed an entire film around that decision. The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up. [The first three stories in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, are the creation, Adam and Eve, and the story of Cain and Abel, which is often referred to as “the first murder.”] The world is wicked. Wickedness is in all of our thoughts. Violence against man and against the planet.

And so it was so bad that He decides that He is going to destroy everything and destroy this creation. So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.

Ari [Handel] and I always talked about it in terms of being a parent: If you are too just with a child you destroy them with strictness. If you’re too merciful you can spoil them. Finding that balance is what makes you a good parent. So that was an interesting character arc for us to see.

Maybe what made Noah righteous was that he mirrored, in some sense, God’s own heart about what was happening.

Sure. That’s another way of looking at it. And we completely connected that. Because really, Noah just follows whatever God tells him to do. So that led us to believe that maybe they were aligned, emotionally, you know? And that paid off for us when you get to the end of the story and [Noah] gets drunk. That was a huge thing; they didn’t teach us that in CCD either, did they? What do we do with this? How do we connect this with this understanding? For me, it was obvious that it was connected to survivor’s guilt or some kind of guilt about doing something wrong.

I mean, to get that drunk—and not just drunk, but it's the first mention of wine in the Bible, which is incredibly significant—but to get so drunk that you’re naked and have a falling out with your child and curse them. That, for some reason, was held onto. That’s part of the story that stayed in there for all time. That’s a huge clue to what this whole story is about.

I know you and Ari spent a great deal of time doing research on the biblical texts for the film. Do I also remember reading somewhere that when you were younger you attended yeshiva for a time?

Oh, no. That’s an old thing in Wikipedia that’s not really true.

I spent two days because it was a free room when I was in Israel [years ago] and somehow it got picked up that I was a yeshiva student. No. Far from it. I was a public-school kid in Brooklyn and I had a very, very basic Jewish education. It was more of a cultural thing than anything. Bagels and lox was my culture. But I’m more Brooklyn and New York than anything, in terms of who I am and what my identity is.

So when it comes to the biblical or theological study that you did for the film—

I think it’s more interesting when you look at not just the biblical but the mythical that you get away from the arguments about history and accuracy and literalism. That’s a much weaker argument, and it’s a mistake.

Because when you think about Icarus, you don’t talk about the feathers and the wax and how the wax attached to his body and how is that physically possible that he could fly with feathers on his arms. No. You’re talking about how he flew too high and was filled with hubris and it destroyed him. That’s the message and that’s the power. That’s power to have that idea. But when you’re talking about a pre-diluvian world—a pre-flood world—where people are living for millennia and centuries, where there were no rainbows, where giants and angels walked on the planet, where the world was created in seven days, where people were naked and had no shame, you’re talking about a universe that is very, very different from what we understand. And to portray that as realistic is impossible. You have to enter the fantastical. The Leviathan in the sea. It’s a different understanding of the world, and that’s OK. That’s not dangerous.

What happens is that you get nonbelievers, then, saying "That’s impossible, because all the species of the world would never all fit on the ark." But that’s the exact wrong argument, you know? And then you have other people saying, "Yeah, it’s possible by the grace and majesty of God." If you look at it as poetry and myth and legend, then you can actually use it to understand your world and who you are.

I think after the flood and after the Babel story, [the Bible] becomes more historical. I think the Abraham story is historical. And I think Moses is basically a slave-uprising document. And of course Jesus lived in recent history. But you’re talking about what’s described in the Bible in the Tower of Babel—people building a tower to the sky that went past the sun. I mean, it’s just very strange to argue about these things when it doesn’t matter.

Not being literal doesn’t detract from the power of the biblical story.

Right. It actually inspires it. I mean, you’re not going to cut the Cyclops out if you’re making a movie about The Odyssey, just because it didn’t exist. No. It’s one of the coolest things about that story. The cleverness of getting it drunk and blinding it. There are ideas in there that mean things and make it powerful enough to tell the story over and over again. The strength is in the making it into myth and legend.

You weren’t making a documentary.

Well, you can’t. You can’t. It’s impossible to understand what these times are because there are four chapters in the Bible. It’s just important that you don’t contradict any of it and that you study each word, and study each sentence, and try to use and extract as much juice out of that to be inspired to turn it into a vision that represents the spirit of it all. That’s the goal.

It’s like—not to compare me to Michelangelo in any way, I’m in awe of him—but you look at the Sistine Chapel and there’s the moment of the fingers almost about to touch the moment of creation—and that’s not described in the Bible that way. There was no finger-to-finger, E.T. moment in the Bible. But that’s how Michelangelo decided to draw it.

Then we look at all the art that depicts Noah’s ark, religious art for thousands of years in temples and in churches around the world, and there’s never an appropriate representation of the ark even though the exact proportions are described to the number in Genesis. It is the most specific element of the entire story, besides “40 days and 40 nights.” But the numbers are so important to the story that they’re in there. And yet that’s a very easy problem to do proportion. I mean, they had the technology 300 years ago. They had that technology 2,000 years ago, and yet it’s always drawn as a boat.

In our research we started to notice that 300 or 400 years ago, that the dove wasn’t always white. You see the white dove in [the works of] El Greco, which is 1500s, but then you go back before that and you start seeing doves that aren’t white. And you realize, Oh, that’s an interpretation from somewhere. We couldn’t actually find out the source, but you realize people have been interpreting this material for all of history.

That’s because the Bible is a living, breathing document.

It should be a living, breathing document. That’s what it should be.

Niko Tavernise / Paramount Pictures

So how long did you spend developing these ideas for Noah? Was it years and years? Did you start at 13 and just keep going?

That old poem, yes. We found it recently. My son is interested in baseball and was getting interested in baseball cards. So I thought, I think I’ve got some in an old box, and I went looking and said, Oh! This is the poem that I’ve been talking about. I showed it to Ari, my co-writer, and he said that thematically it was very like what we are talking about [in the film]. It was about how evil lives in men’s hearts and we have a choice about what we are going to do with it. And about our second chance.

And you were writing about that when you were 13?

Yeah. Which shows you that the man is formed pretty young.

Something in that story resonated with you, even at that age.

I don’t know why, but yes. And winning that contest sort of sent me down the path that, hey, I might be good at writing. [Aronofsky’s teacher entered his poem in a United Nations contest, which he won.]

What was the assignment? Do you remember?

Yes. Mrs. Fried. Mark Twain Junior High School in Coney Island, Brooklyn. She was a magical teacher. She said, “Everyone take out a pen and paper and write about peace.” I remember the moment like it was today. It’s not really a poem; it’s like a prose poem. It was written in 15 minutes. I mean, it’s not very good—it was written quickly at the beginning of a class.

Which class was it?

English. She was an English teacher. She also said during the course of that year, "When you write your first book, dedicate it to me." And she was a really wacky, original teacher. She wore all pink. She had a pink Mustang, and we all knew Mrs. Fried’s car.

When we did the comic book [a graphic novel version of the Noah story that Aronofsky wrote with Ari Handel], they asked if I wanted to dedicate it to someone and I said, "Yes, I actually do; I want to dedicate it to Mrs. Fried." My parents are both retired school teachers and I asked my mom whether she thought there was any way we could find out if Mrs. Fried is still alive and if we can find her. And she went through her connections at the Board of Ed and they found Mrs. Fried retired in Florida. I sent her an email and she got in touch. She didn’t remember me, but she remembered the red-headed girl who I was competitive with that sat next to me, who I remembered as well. She remembers the teacher’s pet, which I wasn’t in her class.

And then I invited her to set and she got all excited and showed up to the set in a pink Mustang. And then we put her in the movie. She’s the old lady with the one eye who, when Russell [Crowe] is going through the refugee camp and sees the animal, she comes out and goes, "You! YOU!" That’s Mrs. Fried.

[Watch an interview with Vera Fried about reconnecting with her student after 30 years and her small role in Noah here.]

So, talk to me about the tree of life/tree of knowledge theme that appears in several of your films.

It’s an image that I think is so powerful. The idea of what separates us from the divine is those two trees. It’s a great idea. If you look at is as a metaphor for how we’re separate from the animal kingdom, it’s also interesting. Clearly we’ve taken dominion over this planet. Clearly there is something that separates us from other mammals, to a certain extent. That is beautifully described through the idea of these forbidden fruits. And that’s interesting, the idea that the difference between good and evil is halfway to immortality. I just think they’re interesting metaphors. They’re poetic and interesting ideas.

Do you think you’ll continue to explore those ideas?

I dunno. We’ll see what happens. I’ve always been into the idea of the symbolic power of these ideas and what they mean for modern people.

How would you describe yourself spiritually now? I know how you were raised, but where are you now?

I think it’s always changing. I think I definitely believe. My biggest expression of what I believe is in [his film] The Fountain. And that kind of sums it up. And it’s hard for me to put it into words to describe. That’s why I made a movie about it. I tried to do it in sound and image and in dialogue and character. If people want to get a sense of what I’m thinking and doing, I still subscribe to the ideas in that movie.

Do you have a community of people that you identify with spiritually or religiously?

I think so. Look, with most of my friends, we’re always talking and feeling and debating, and seeing where it goes.

Your son is seven. When he sees this movie, what do you want him to take away from it?

It’s interesting: He said to me the other day, ‘Did you know that man is the only animal that kills [its own species] not for food, just to kill?’ And I was like, ‘Wow. Wheredja get that from?" And he didn’t say.

But that was a really interesting thing. There’s something about that wickedness—and that violence and the ability to do what we have done—that, for me, is such a clear, ecological message in Genesis. The first thing Adam is told is to tend and to keep the garden, in Genesis 2:15.

Then Genesis 6 talks about how we’ve filled the world with violence. [You can connect] that to what’s going on right now, with the knowledge that we’re living our second chance and yet, no matter where you stand on the spectrum, we all know the water is coming.

The irony is crazy, and not to take responsibility for creation when we’re this far up the river without a paddle—that’s why I welcome Pope Francis in his first sermon talking about how we are all stewards of creation. And now, it seems like he’s making a big part of his ministry about that—it’s really exciting. You have the Dalai Lama out there but there are really few voices [speaking up] …Obama made a great speech after the Deep Horizon tragedy. That was appropriate but still nothing is really happening. We are just so out of balance.

For me, there’s a big discussion about dominion and stewardship. There’s this contradiction [between the two], some would say, in the Bible, but it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. It can work together. The thing is, we have clearly taken dominion over the planet. We’ve fulfilled that. But have we been good stewards?

Leviticus, also in the Bible, talks about how every seventh year we’re supposed to give the land a rest. When’s the last time our land has gotten a rest? We’re way overdue for that jubilee. And I think that’s what I want. That’s why I made the film. For that reason.