Brian Godawa is the author of the Chronicles of the Nephilim series, screenwriter of To End All Wars and The Visitation, and blogger at Godawa.com. But who is Brian Godawa and why does he care so deeply about Noah? This week, the author/speaker/theologian sat down to discuss the upcoming Russell Crowe thriller and the intersection of faith and art. Portions of this interview initially ran at HollywoodJesus.com.
Give us the brief Godawa bio. What’s your theological background? How did you end up hooked on the intersection of faith and film?
I’ve always loved movies, because they have been so powerful at moving my soul through drama. Studying Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker helped me to understand how art, such as storytelling, incarnates a worldview, not like a preached sermon, but like a lived incarnation.
I come from a Protestant Evangelical background, but have also come to realize the poverty of imagination that haunts that tradition, so I have had to listen and learn from those outside that tradition to understand imagination within my faith better.
My book Hollywood Worldviews was my attempt to help other religious people understand how movies and worldviews intersect. And my book Word Pictures is my attempt at opening the eyes of other Evangelicals to the importance of imagination in their faith.
Before Darren Aronofsky launched his efforts toward Noah, you’d already written and published the first of the Nephilim novels, Noah Primeval. Why is Noah so important to you?
Like Aronofsky, I have always loved Noah as a primeval sacred story. But unlike the atheist director who told us he reinterprets it with an environmentalist agenda, I have seen it as a statement about God’s image in mankind as ruler over nature. Humanity is so important to God that our evil done against each other is a violation of that image of God, such that he would destroy the entire environment to start over. A kind of re-creation.
But also, Genesis 6:1-4 had always been the strangest passage in the Bible to me. Sons of God coming from heaven to mate with women and the birthing of giants. That was so weird that I decided to study it more, and what I discovered was a storyline of a war between the “seed of the Serpent” and the “seed of Eve” that ran through the whole Bible. So I just had to write that story and share it with the world. It became the eight-novel series, Chronicles of the Nephilim. Six volumes are completed and all of them have been Amazon category best sellers.
You haven’t seen the Noah film but you were granted access to the script, right? How do scripts of films usually compare to the final product?
I got a hold of an early script over a year ago or so. I wrote a blog analyzing the script that went viral when Paramount’s test screenings started to go bad with religious people. I guess they were scouring the internet for negative statements about it and used mine without referencing my positive statements.
I was careful to note that often times the final movie can be very different from the script. It may not be as extreme or as negative as the script was. Plus I understand that there was some positive influence that some Christians had on the development of the story. But we will just have to see how much. But the process is all part of the conversation.
You’ve taken a true story, that of Ernest Gordon as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, which is not only one of my favorite films but also a testament to faith in the midst of struggle. How did you end up working with Gordon and that story?
Well, it was my first movie produced. I had been trying every way possible to get my scripts read in Hollywood. Cold calling, contests, agent queries, etc. But I happen to meet a pastor at my church who quoted Schaeffer and Nietzsche in a sermon and I realized we are worldview buddies! Turns out he had the rights to To End All Wars for twenty years and couldn’t get it made. I came on and wrote the script, and as soon as the director got involved, it really came together. I never met Ernest, but I was grateful to hear that when he saw the movie he said we got it right. Finally WWII POWs got their “real” story told like those at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan.
I appreciate films that are faithful without being preachy. I found TEAW to fall in that category. What was your writer’s intent in telling the story?
All storytellers have a point of view and are communicating their worldview. But good storytelling tries to be honest about other views within that context. Not propagandistic. It gives a fair voice to the opposition.
Good art adds ambiguity because life doesn’t provide all the answers. Good story gives even the enemy a human face. That is what I tried to do while capturing the theme that I saw in Ernest’s story about the progression of loving ourselves to loving our neighbors to loving our enemies.
And it was a testimony of that universal honesty that the Japanese decided to distribute the film in their country because they said we were fair in our portrayal of the Bushido warrior code In a very real sense the story is about East vs. West, but both sides are partly right and partly wrong, because there is a kingdom that is superior to both. A kingdom above both.
Based on your experience, what does a screenwriter or director do when forced to choose between real plot points and timelines? What should the average audience be looking for when discerning the difference between “a true story” and “based on a true story”?
All storytelling, involves creative license to make the story work. We choose some things and exclude others based on our particular take. We aren’t omniscient, we can’t tell everything. And we only have a couple hours or a few hundred pages. So we telescope time, combine characters, make changes we need to fit a proper plot structure.
Even the Bible does this. The story of Noah tells us almost nothing about Noah. It says more about the Flood than about him. And that is because the writer is focusing on his main points he wants to communicate.
Every story told is only from one or a couple points of view, whereas reality has so many other views to account for. So I think “based on” is a fairer description than simple “a true story.” But the rule is that the more your adjective pulls away from the basic “true story” the more creative license you are taking. Thus, “based on” is a little more loose with the “facts,” while “inspired by” can be so loose as to only have broad or general similarities to the original.
Why have some evangelical Christians felt the need to “defend” or “protect” the story of Noah, before ever seeing it, and instead of considering what they might learn from another’s perspective?
Well, I certainly understand the impulse to protect our sacred story. After all, our sacred stories are what give meaning to our lives. So if we feel someone is playing with that meaning, or changing it or subverting to reinterpret it through a hostile paradigm, then it makes sense that people would be upset.
After all, wouldn’t pro-gay marriage people be upset if people who supported Proposition 8 told their stories about Harvey Milk or Philomena or Dallas Buyers Club? Would Lord of the Rings fans have been upset if Peter Jackson had not stayed true to the original spirit of Tolkien’s saga? Of course they would. They don’t want their sacred narratives being altered by someone outside their camp. Just like everyone else.
But we must be careful not to assume we have the repository of absolute interpretation either. After all, Christians have been very wrong about some things in the Bible. Take the Galileo dilemma or all the End Times speculators who have been proven wrong for over 150 years in their prognostications.
Chances are, if an atheist like Aronofsky loves the Noah tale, even if he spins it differently, his respect for the story will no doubt create some helpful insights or challenges.
Does our characterization of the Noah story matter to what Christians can get out of stories like Aronofsky’s Noah? Does it matter if we read the Noah story as myth or historical truth?
While I do take the Noah story to be basically historical, I don’t believe you have to believe it is literally true to learn the lesson the story teaches about God. I know many who think it is myth, but respect the story and believe it teaches the same truths about God that I think it teaches: Among other things, that mankind is created in God’s image and that God judges evil and that therefore we should be wary of our own lives as we live them before God.
What do you hope audiences will find when they go to see Noah? What are you hoping for as a fan of film yourself?
I am hopeful that the movie will cause many people to go back and “read the book,” to get acquainted with the original version that God himself has given us. God’s Word has a way of changing lives.
I am already excited by the fact that I now see everyone talking about something that NO ONE would ever usually talk about in polite secular company. I also believe that there is tremendous potential of this movie getting people to realize that there is a God who judges, and that we deserve it, but that he also is a God of mercy and new beginnings, of redemption.
What would it take to get you into the screenwriter’s chair again? The director’s? What’s next for you personally?
In fact, I have a script that some producers are trying to raise money for about Jezebel from the Bible. It’s like Cleopatra meets Scarface. I have a horror film I should be directing this year. I have a documentary on political correctness and academic freedom called School’s Out that we are trying to raise the funds to complete. It’s all done, just need to pay for some things. I have a low budget thriller about human trafficking called Hope Rises that is in post-production. And I am continuing the write my Chronicles of the Nephilim for a growing fanbase who are in love with “all things Nephilim.”
Thanks for taking the time to talk about film. We look forward to hearing your thoughts after you’ve seen the film.
I plan to blog on the movie immediately after I see it on opening day. Thanks for having me!