‘Noah’ Co-Writer Stands Up For His Story speaks

Neuroscientist Ari Handel switched fields to write with former suitemate Darren Aronofsky.

04/01/2014
Jewish Week Correspondent
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Ari Handel on set. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Ari Handel on set. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Ari Handel, co-writer of “Noah,” which hits theaters March 28, is a former neuroscientist who switched fields to make films and work with his former Harvard suitemate, writer/director Darren Aronofksy. Handel and Aronofsky co-wrote “Noah,” which has drawn controversy, with some religious critics and others charging the big-screen version strays too far from the original biblical story. Handel, executive producer of “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan,” and “The Fountain,” the latter of which he also wrote, made time to speak with Blueprint by phone.

Did it take longer for you to build the ark than it took Noah?

Nobody knows for sure how long it took Noah but I think they said 10 years. It took us six months in design.

Do you think Noah is weak because he doesn’t fight to save people?

I don’t know if he’s weak. It’s part of the story of what he was and that is in contrast to the story of Abraham. Abraham is an icon of mercy, whereas Noah is more of an icon of justice.

Some say you’ve hijacked the biblical story of Noah to promote an environmentalist agenda. What do you say to that?

I think environmentalism is a politicized issue. There is biblical evidence about the need to protect the land. Anyone who says this film is anti-biblical is not looking at all the evidence.

Why did you decide to give such a central role to the giants, known as Nephilim?

It’s right there in the text so they had to be featured. They were useful in terms of storyline but also to answer the question of how does Noah get the ark built. They are mythical and otherworldly.

In what way did your Judaism impact your filmmaking?

I’d say here there was my fascination with the story of Noah, midrash, and tradition and how you can take on the text and look at it closely. There are a lot of questions that are left unanswered and can be interpreted in different ways. As a storyteller, you look at it and wonder about how Noah lived when it doesn’t say it in the text.

There is a scene where we hear the cries of and see the people who are about to drown. Did you have any concern that audience would think you were portraying God as evil?

We’re telling the story, maybe in an evocative way, but the fact is that all the other people were wiped out. This is a film that doesn’t shy away from questions. You have to think about what kind of world are we living in and what sort of film are we making. We weren’t making a film just about Noah with his family and they’re happy and smiley and everyone is under one roof. There are a lot of things it doesn’t say in the text and you have to imagine how it might have been. Our goal was to create a film that would bring the Noah story to the 21st century that examines the truths that there was wickedness and destruction.

In the film, Noah sees another version of himself. Are you trying to say that everyone should guard against being taken over by his/her dark side?

One of the things we feel the story is about as a myth and as a parable is that there is goodness and wickedness in all [humans] and we’re trying to grapple with that. There are good people but that doesn’t mean they are totally good. After the flood, you flip the page and you have the story of the Tower of Babel and there is wickedness again.

Is it harder being a neuroscientist or a screenwriter?

They both present their unique challenges. Science is tough because no matter what, you have to look closely to solve the answers to difficult questions. In screenwriting, you create your own world and you have to be able to work in a collaborative [way] and also realize that there are things that will happen that are out of your control.

       What was the greatest challenge in making the film?

It was a huge undertaking from the sets to CGI to being in Iceland in extreme environments to making a film where you are not tied to expectations.

Were you surprised that there was criticism from some who hadn’t seen the film?

No, it makes a certain kind of sense when you look at it because there is such a religious divide. I think when people see the movie they will feel differently. 

editor@jewishweek.org

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