I don’t think I’ve been this nervous for an interview in awhile. I’ve asked questions of the designer of the 2012 Olympic medals, well-known musicians, professional athletes, authors, and others. But to get time with Ari Handel, screenwriting partner of Darren Aronofsky and author of Noah, was a proposition that thrilled (and terrified) me all at the same time. Noah has grossed $50 million dollars in less than a week, but it’s also polarized people of faith (those who’ve seen it and those who haven’t). What could Handel’s inside look tell me about the story and our exploration of the themes in the film?
Why do you think that the story of Noah matters to so many people, from such different backgrounds and perspectives?
AH: The flood narratives are everywhere. There’s something iconic and mythical about the whole world being nearly destroyed and then we’re given a second chance. Maybe we deserve [a second chance] but we’ve got to work for it.
If Noah was alive today, what might he tell us about wickedness versus righteousness?
AH:That’s a good question. There’s a direct parallel between making sure we have dominion which we know we have over the earth and also being good stewards. We’re supposed to tend to everything and keep the garden. We’re living in the second chance that the world received through Noah.
I’ve been reading up on the midrash after seeing some interviews you’ve done about your exploration of the story. What did you hope that we’d hear or see in the version of the Noah story that you’ve written?
AH: Well, we want people to be entertained, I mean, it IS a movie. But if they come away asking questions about the movie and themselves, if they’re in dialogue with each other, and thinking about the subject matter and what it means for their lives, then I think we succeeded. We wanted them to be engaged.
I’ve seen in the production notes that you used the Book of Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, in addition to the Book of Genesis. How do you prioritize what works for your story when it comes to things that don’t agree?
AH: Well, we started with Genesis, and set out to not do anything that contradicted Genesis. The commentaries are there to draw on to take themes and questions that people have been asking about the Noah story for hundreds and thousands of years. Genesis wrestles with these big questions [about destruction and second chances] and we wanted to humanize those issues and make the audience empathize with them. We wanted people to grapple with these issues.
I’ve seen The Wrestler and Black Swan and their exploration of an obsession that can be for good or bad. How did you find and develop that in the story of Noah?
AH: Noah is given an almost unsurmountable job, to go build this giant ark. How could he do that? To do that and let everyone else die. What kind of power of will? What strength of purpose would you need? What weight would he have to carry? Those are things we wanted to convey through the story.
Watching the film and discussing it with my wife, we talked about how Noah gets the vision of what he believes the Creator wants him to do but he can’t fulfill it without his wife, Naameh. How did you decide on that relationship as key, especially when it came to working out justice and mercy?
AH: Look, we’re trying to find the relationship that would allow us to figure out who Noah is. We know they live in this time where Enoch walked with God and was taken up; it’s living memory. Noah is righteous. Naameh believes God has spoken to Noah and has complete faith in him. She’s the humanistic family foil. It’s not about a sense of right and wrong. It’s not justice or mercy.
So what is righteousness in the context of the story?
AH: Righteousness is the correct balance of justice and mercy. We don’t read that story and normally think about those who don’t survive. For all we know Na’el [Ham’s momentary love interest] might’ve been righteous. She might have been wicked. There’s wickedness in all of us. But Ham made the connection, so we care.
It grieved God’s heart- we know, because it says it right there in the Scripture- he didn’t lightly take the lives of all of those people. There was a baby born that day that didn’t make it onto the ark. It’s not black and white. God was prepared to let people who moved his heart to not be saved because that’s what needed to happen.
Last question: I read a few years ago that all stories boil back to a relationship between fathers and sons. How does that work in the context of the Creator and Noah, and Noah and his kids and grandkids?
AH: Well, fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters. Noah’s Genesis story starts and ends with a genealogy. We see at the end what his sons went off to do in the patriarchal system. It’s embedded in the patriarchal line passing down traditions.
You can view God as father, humanity as the child. What do you do when you’re raising a kid and he steals candy from the store? Do you punish him or not? If you punish him too sharply, you destroy his spirit. If you show too much mercy, then the kid grows up with no moral fiber.
You have to find the right balance of justice and mercy. And you see in Noah this deep deep love yet a feeling a need for destruction. That’s what’s so emotionally powerful in the story: God created everything, but for its best interests, he had to destroy almost everything he loved.
This interview was initially published at http://www.HollywoodJesus.com.