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Darren Aronofsky made Russell Crowe two promises before asking the actor to star in his giant adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah and the flood. Here's how Crowe tells it:
"First promise is you never have to wear a pair of sandals. The second promise is never at any stage will I make you stand at the bow of a ship flanked by a giraffe and an elephant."
Standing on the Long Island set of Noah, with an enormous ark that looks nothing like Sunday School illustrations looming behind him, Crowe was living proof that Aronofsky had kept his promise. The sandals and the big white beard were gone. In its place was a rugged man on his way toward a giant fight scene, soaking wet from take after take underneath enormous, oddly beautiful rain machines built for shooting at night. What's Crowe's version of Noah? "This one. A wet one."
Many of the exteriors in Noah were filmed in Iceland, which gives the film the unmistakable look immediately familiar in all of the trailers. But in September of 2012-- just a few weeks before Hurricane Sandy blew through--Aronofsky had come home, erecting a giant version of the ark in a park in Long Island, an hour outside New York City. On the night we visited the entire area was blanketed in a thick fog, making the sight of a rugged, ancient Ark all the more surreal. It's described in the Bible as "300 cubics long, by 75 cubics wide, by 45 cubics high." In person it's just… gigantic. To get to the set I walked past the Barclays Center, the sports arena that was brand-new to Brooklyn at the time. Aronofsky's ark was nearly as big, and maybe more impressive.
Being a night shoot that involved lots of extras--the scene was set once the rain had begun, and people were realizing that Noah had the right idea to build the ark after all-- and those unworldly rain machines, both Aronofsky and Crowe had precious little time to stop by and chat. But below is the time they generously gave us, with Aronofsky explaining how he told the studios he wanted to make something that's "not your grandfather's Biblical epic," something that became even more of a challenge when he first turned in the script, around the same time Steve Carell's Noah-inspired Evan Almighty became an expensive flop. But first up is Crowe, who describes the way that Aronofsky wooed him to the project, and the awe those rain machines can inspire in him-- at least, until the water actually starts to fall.
Noah opens March 28.
What's it like working there under those giant rain machines?
You have about two blissful seconds where you’re just swallowed by the beauty and you’re in awe of it, then you get wet. Sort of goes downhill from there, but that’s what I kind of keep in my mind every time before the take. I just look up so I get the joy of the beauty of the rain coming down.
So, what do you do in this one that you’ve never done before?
I’ve never gone for a swim in 39.6 degrees off the coast of Iceland before. That was a very interesting experience. We found out later that night, that that’s actually the most dangerous beach in Iceland.
What was it about Darren’s vision that made you so interested?
He called me and he said, "I want to tell you the name of the project that I need to do with you and once I’ve told you the name, I don’t want you to comment. I just want you to allow me to make you two promises. The name of the project is Noah. Don’t say anything. Two promises. First promise is you never have to wear a pair of sandals. The second promise is never at any stage will I make you stand at the bow of a ship flanked by a giraffe and an elephant." I said, "Alright," He came down, had a couple days of talking about it and I read it and I also saw all the previous ideas he had for it, so it was quite clear that it was going to be pretty spectacular.
Seems like a daunting task to take on this kind of character in sort of a new way, in sort of a new story.
That’s kind of what I liked about it though, because everybody has images in their mind when they hear Noah and none of this matches up to that, none of it at all. It’s kind of cool. I’ve been doing a lot of reading actually about prediluvial human life and it’s been quite enlightening. I didn’t realize quite what’s been found and discovered by archeologists.
They talked a lot about how the size of the ark is exactly how it’s described in the Bible. There seems to be a lot of accuracy in it, but you’re saying this isn’t the one we know in the Bible. Is it the look that makes it different or is it where this character goes and what he takes out of this journey?
The thing is, if you actually read the Bible, you can see there’s a whole lot more information in there than the way we interpret the bible, because there are single lines in the bible, which if you just take them at face value, they don’t make any sense whatsoever in the world as we see it or we know it or understand it. So that’s the major twist with Darren, because this world that exists pre-flood, is not the dusty sandy middle-eastern world of Christian understanding. It’s broader than that.
Have you researched beyond the Bible about what theological scholars say about Noah or different interpretations?
All of them. All of them. It’s very interesting. The thing is about Noah, every single ancient religious text has Noah. Every major religion shares all of the stories up until Noah. So, to me, that sort of, there’s something in it.
What’s your version? What kind of Noah are you?
This one. A wet one.
We’ve been here for like two weeks to shoot three minutes of film. It’s very, very slow, but it’s been good. It’s kind of cool, because we’re shooting at night. It’s like a controlled set. It’s almost like being on a sound stage, because [of the] lights, rain and just nighttime, as opposed to chasing sun and clouds and all that stuff, which is what we’ve been doing for the last two months. [Aronofsky walks off to direct a giant scene, in which Noah (Russell Crowe) and his son Ham (Logan Lerman) rush to the Ark while surrounded by hordes of people who want in. The rain has begun. At this point, they all know Noah was right].
Are you making models of the ark, to shoot it on the water?
That will all be CG work. I don’t think models on water work, because it looks like Battleship. Not Battleship the movie.
It's built like a tank.
Well that’s the whole point. It just had to survive. When it describes it in the bible, it gives you the measurements and it describes it as 300 cubics long, by 75 cubics wide, by 45 cubics high, but if you think about it, it had no reason to [look like a boat], it wasn’t going anywhere. It was just about surviving the flood. So, that was always the interpretation of artists and other films, that doesn’t really make any sense. For me, it’s interesting, because it kind of looks like [it's] carrying the dead. It’s carrying the living through the death of the world. There’s a lot of poetry to it, symbolism.
How much of the graphic novel that you are doing, tells the story of this film?
The graphic novel is based on the script that we finished four years ago. We took some of the art as it was happening and got Nico, the artist, to incorporate it. I let the artist do his own thing, but tried to inform him a little bit on what we were doing so some of the time, because once again, we never thought the movie was going to happen when we started the comic. We just started it and it seems that’s a good way, whenever I’m giving up on a project, I get a comic book going and somehow that starts the movie. When I announced the comic, that’s when some people in Hollywood started to prick up their ears and say, "What’s that thing?" The first movie I pitched after Pi was Noah, and I actually set it up with a producer in town, and then Jon Voight’s Noah came out. It’s a Hallmark movie and they were like, maybe we shouldn’t, and I was like "It’s not going to be anything like that." So it sort of sat in my head since ‘98 for ten years and then we eventually wrote a script for Universal and we set up at Universal, after The Fountain. We actually finished the script, coincidentally, the same week that Evan Almighty came out, so we were like, "Well we could either deliver it now and get paid or wait six months, but they’ll still be reeling, so we might as well just hand it in." So, it wasn’t really the right time to hand it in to the studio.
So why is the crew chopping wood right now?
Yeah, they’re making steps. We’re doing a huge fight scene tomorrow night, the next three nights, with Russell on the ramp. All these stunt men basically charge Russell and try to kill him, and he has to fight them of, so they’re actually creating small logs as more steps so the stunt men don’t go falling down, because that ramp is real serious.
Why is Noah the character to base a giant movie like this around?
I think it’s a similar thing, like you know, the other boat movie, Titanic, was how do you put a story into that? So, we tried to come up with a real human family drama that would hopefully grip people, because everyone knows how these things end. They knew the Titanic sunk and they know what happens in 40 days and 40 nights. It just a matter of, how do you create the drama to get people lost in it? It’s a human drama. He’s a great character and the way Russell is playing it is exceptional. It’s really great.
How did you choose to make the ark look like that?
There are a lot of different texts, and there are a lot of things written about it and a long history of people writing about it. So, you know, although our only source is not the Bible. There’s a lot of things that were written around, that exist back then and ideas that we tried to sort of jam with and turn into something. Everything is based on something. We tried to sort of ground it into our own sort of biblical mythology, but we all tried to tie it together with a visual look that’s based out of the landscapes we started in. That came out of Iceland, actually. The kinds of locations we chose in Iceland, created a sort of look for this universe and then we built, we turned this space into it and all of the colors here and all of the colors throughout the film, are colors that we found in the landscape in Iceland. It’s about capturing the essence of the story, the themes of the story.
Are you working with Clint Mansell again?
Is he here preparing, getting the vibe?
He’s doing something awesome.
Do you guys talk about it that early?
Oh, yeah. He came out to Iceland. We’re more talking about instrumentation and sounds. Like reinventing the biblical epic, we want to reinvent scores that would typically be a 400 piece orchestra, but we’re not going to do that, of course.
Was there something in the story that made the lava and the rocks of Iceland feel more appropriate than the desert, which is the traditional backdrop for Bible stories?
I just think it’s an amazing landscape which hasn’t been shot and there’s also a primordial feel and another universe feel. But there are so many different landscapes there, and I’ve been going there for many years, and I’ve always thought it was a great place to shoot. So we were able to base a whole world off of it, because I knew the first thing I wanted to do was get away from swords and sand, not swords, but sandals, and beards and that kind of stuff. I just wanted everyone to know this is not your grandfather’s Biblical epic. It’s a tagline sell it to the studio, because nobody really got it. Everyone was thinking that. You say Noah and they’re thinking what Steve Carrell looked like [in Evan Almighty], and I was like no, no, no. You know, look at the story. Look at what Noah did. Look at what actually happened. It’s the first apocalypse story. So, in Genesis, there’s Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and then Noah. Its the third story. So, basically God creates the world and then two stories later, he destroys it.What caused him to do that? There’s a whole thing that most people don’t really think about. They think about toy arks and stuffed animals and stuff.