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.