Rough Seas on 'Noah': Darren Aronofsky Opens Up on the Biblical Battle to Woo Christians

"I was upset — of course," the director says of Paramount testing alternate versions of the $125 million epic as he and the studio break their silence on efforts to appease a small but vocal segment of the faith-based audience: "Those people can be noisy."


The making of Noah, with Russell Crowe as the lead, turned into a head-on collision between an auteur filmmaker coming off a career-defining success in Black Swan ($330 million global, five Oscar nominations) and a studio working to protect a major investment that is intended to appeal to believers of every religion as well as those without any faith. Paramount Pictures, in partnership with New Regency Productions, is shouldering a budget on the March 28 release of more than $125 million, by far the costliest movie Aronofsky has made. (His previous high was $35 million for The Fountain, which foundered for Warner Bros. in 2006. Black Swan was independently financed and cost just $13 million.)

The trouble began when Paramount, nervous about how audiences would respond to Aronofsky's fantastical world and his deeply conflicted Noah, insisted on conducting test screenings over the director's vehement objections while the film was a work in progress.

Friction grew when a segment of the recruited Christian viewers, among whom the studio had hoped to find Noah's most enthusiastic fans, questioned the film's adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character. Aronofsky's Noah gets drunk, for example, and considers taking drastic measures to eradicate mankind from the planet. Hoping to woo the faith-based crowd, Paramount made and tested as many as half-a-dozen of its own cuts of the movie. "I was upset -- of course," Aronofsky tells The Hollywood Reporter in his first extensive interview about the film's backstory. "No one's ever done that to me."

Both director and studio say that's now all behind them. "There was a rough patch," Aronofsky allows, but at this point, Paramount is fully supporting his version. Vice chair Rob Moore says the studio is launching an advertising campaign designed to communicate that this film -- an exploration of Noah's emotional journey -- flows in large part from Aronofsky's imagination.

As anyone who has seen Aronofsky's hallucinatory Black Swan or Requiem for a Dream might have guessed, his Noah was never going to be the white-bearded figure of popular imagination. "We wanted to smash expectations of who Noah is," says Aronofsky during a break from finishing the picture. "The first thing I told Russell is, 'I will never shoot you on a houseboat with two giraffes behind you.' ... You're going to see Russell Crowe as a superhero, a guy who has this incredibly difficult challenge put in front of him and has to overcome it."

Further, THR spoke with several people who saw an early test screening in Southern California's Orange County and who identified themselves as religious. One viewer, who declined to give his name because Paramount required him to sign a nondisclosure agreement, echoed the sentiments of others by criticizing the depiction of Noah as a "crazy, irrational, religious nut" who is fixated on modern-day problems like overpopulation and environmental degradation.

But as work progressed, the studio wanted to do what studios invariably do when a lot of money is on the line: protect its investment. Aronofsky was vehemently opposed to test screening the film before it was done. "I imagine if I made comedies and horror films, it would be helpful," he says. "In dramas, it's very, very hard to do. I've never been open to it." The studio also insisted that test audiences are sophisticated enough to evaluate movies without finished effects in place. "I don't believe that," he says.

Aronofsky went to a few of the early screenings, but it was terrible to him that audiences were seeing an unfinished film. He compares his approach with the work of a sculptor: "You start with a big piece of clay and keep going and going and going." To show audiences an overlong, 2½-hour cut with only 20 minutes of music in place struck him as folly. (The final version of the film is 2 hours and 12 minutes.)

Tension grew as the studio became concerned about some of the feedback. One worry, says Moore, was that "significantly conservative folks who have a more literal expectation" from a movie about Noah might turn against it and become hostile. "There are some people where it's a very emotional experience of, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa -- a Hollywood studio is trying to tell a story from my faith, and I am skeptical,' " he says. "Not necessarily 50 percent of the people, but maybe 10 or 20 percent. And those people can be very noisy."

The screenings revealed a range of issues for that group. Some in the audience found the Noah character too conflicted. Some needed clarification that Noah's son Ham, played by Logan Lerman, was married to Emma Watson's character, Ila. "It was important for a Christian audience that you affirmed that these two were married -- which we took for granted," says Moore. That was easy to address by adding a line, but there were more complicated problems.

In some cases, Moore says, "people had recollections of the story that weren't actually correct." For example, there was Noah's ability to open and close the door to the ark. "People said the door to the ark is supposed to be so big that no man can close it. Well no, that's not actually what it says. What it says is that God ultimately shut the door of the ark when the flood comes, so it wasn't Noah shutting the door on the rest of humanity -- it was God making a decision."

And then there's the scene -- which actually is in the Bible -- in which Noah, back on land after the flood, gets drunk by himself in a cave. "But most people do not remember or were never taught the fact that after Noah's off the ark, there is a moment in the story where he is drunk," says Moore.

As the studio and Aronofsky worked on different cuts, producer Mary Parent was caught in the middle. "To Darren, I said, 'Listen, no one is impeding your process,' " she recalls. "'Try to embrace their process as best you can and have faith that they're going to do the right thing in the end.' Which they did." In fact, sources say the studio's versions tested no better than Aronofsky's. "They tried what they wanted to try, and eventually they came back," the director says. He adds, "My version of the film hasn't been tested … It's what we wrote and what was greenlighted."

Excited for Drunk Noah?

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