Probably one of the more anticipated movies this month–for many different reasons and depending on your religious beliefs–is Noah, Darren Aronofksy’s long-awaited follow-up to the Oscar-winning Black Swan, which also returns him to the world of epic big screen filmmaking for the first time since The Fountain.
As it happens, this writer was lucky enough to have been on the set of Aronofsky’s The Fountain nearly eight years prior, so when Paramount Pictures invited ComingSoon.net out to Oyster Bay, Long Island in early October 2012 to see what Aronofsky was doing, we knew we’d be in for something special. We were driven out to Long Island where the production had set up shop at the Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park where they were on night shoots, this one being a particularly dark and foggy night as we arrived there close to midnight. Having taken over a large section of the Arboretum, the production had completely cleared the field of grass, laying down black rocks that would match the terrain in Iceland where they had previously shot.
As we arrived on set, it was hard to miss the ark looming over everything else, six stories high and taking up a good portion of the field. By now, you’ve probably already seen pictures of the ark in, but it was made up of large trees bound together and covered in black pitch. Along the side of the ark was scaffolding constructed made out of bamboo that seemed to be rather haphazard, but in fact, it was the work of a duo of artists called the Starn Brothers whose Big Bambu installations had appeared everywhere in recent years. They actually had worked with the production designer and many different experts to build the ark to spec according to bible, but also make something that actually would float.
They had gone to a lot of great lengths to create the rain that would eventually turn into a flood with what was being dubbed the world’s largest rain bar configuration. They had also created an irrigation system of ditches but there were still lots of large water-filled holes all over the field. Once the production was done, they’d have to put the whole field to back to where it was before.
Little did they know that just a few weeks later, Hurricane Sandy would hit the East Coast of the United States nearly destroying their set and yet, the ark was still left standing.
While his crew were setting up the next scene, director Darren Aronofsky would come over to chat with us, at first mostly asking us about what movies we’d been seeing lately and telling us about some of the European films he’d been watching himself.
“To do this in New York is insane,” he said jovially when we got around to talking about the production. “They don’t make movies like this in New York,” Aronofsky admitted to us, telling us that producer Scott Franklin played a pivotal part in New York offering rebates on film and television productions all the way through post.”
Eventually, we got around to talking about the designs for the ark and how he tackled the well-known biblical tale:
“There are a lot of descriptions actually–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, although our only source is not the bible. There’s a lot of things that exist back then and ideas that we tried to sort of jam with and turn into something, so everything is based on something.”
“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, it wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “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 a coffin carrying the dead. It’s carrying the living through the death of the world. There’s a lot of poetry to it, symbolism.” Aronofsky mentioned that they’ll use CG to put the ark on water rather than using models.
The scene we watched them shoot takes place after the ten-year gap in which Noah has built his ark, and the rains are starting to come causing the people to panic that the prophecy of a flood was coming true and everyone is trying to get space on the ark, while Noah is trying to save his family. The angry mob was mostly made up of extras with a few stuntmen thrown in for the more unruly bits.
“They’re in the freezing cold for five hours and they don’t get paid that well so those are pretty hard jobs,” Aronofsky said about his extras. “The group that’s made it this far are just people who are really enjoying it, but it’s just not as glamorous being on a movie set as people think.” He also joked that they had spent roughly two weeks shooting what would end up being roughly three minutes of the film.
As we watched the shooting commence, Logan Lerman’s Ham ran through the crowd to the ark with Russell Crowe running after him. Helping to hold the mob back so that Noah can get his family to safety are two giant “Watchers,” beings who walked the earth during those times, although they were represented by giant faces on sticks that would be replaced with CG. Apparently, the Watchers also helped Noah to build the ark.
As it turns out, Noah was an idea that Aronofsky was pitching as far back as Pi but since it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, he decided to do it as a graphic novel, similar to what happened with The Fountain. “The graphic novel is based on the script that we finished four years ago, but the (movie) starts with the flight of the dove, the next episode that’s coming out in October, so you’ll see more, but we took some of the art as it was happening and got Nico, the artist, to incorporate it, but his designs for the costumes and makeup and all that stuff–like I did on “The Fountain”–I let the artist do his own thing, but tried to inform him a little bit on what we were doing. We never thought the movie was going to happen when we started the comic. Whenever I’m giving up on a project, I get a comic book going and somehow that starts the movie, but it actually probably started again, because when I announced the comic, that’s when some people in Hollywood started to prick up their ears and say, ‘What’s that thing?’ Then Jon Voight’s ‘Noah’ came out, it was a Hallmark (Channel) movie and they were like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t,’ but 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’ and we actually finished the script, coincidentally, the same week that ‘Evan Almighty’ came out. 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.'”
“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 the locations we chose in Iceland created a sort of look for this universe and then 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 and then we built all of that stuff out of it. It’s about capturing the essence of the story, the themes of the story,” Aronofsky told us and he talked more about the Iceland location which already will give the movie a different look from most desert-based biblical 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. 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 and it’s amazing. 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 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, and I was like “No, no, no.” Look at the story. Look at what Noah did. Look at what actually happened. It’s the first apocalypse story. It’s the first apocalypse. So in Genesis, there’s Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and then Noah. It’s the third story, so basically God creates the world and then two stories later, he destroys it. So what’s that all about? 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.”
When we arrived on set, it was unclear whether we’d have any time to talk to any of the actors but Russell Crowe walked over on his own volition fairly early on and when asked about working in the manufactured rain, he replied, “When it first comes out, it looks like fireworks, and you have those two blissful seconds where you’re just swallowed by the beauty and then you get wet. It sort of goes downhill from there, so that’s why I just keep in mind the entire time before the take, I just look out so I get the joy of the beauty of it.” The rain probably wasn’t as bad as Crowe having to go swimming in freezing waters off the coast of Island earlier in the shoot.
The actor told us how Aronofsky first approached him about playing the iconic biblical figure. “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. My two promises: the first promise is that you’ll never have to wear a pair of sandals. Second promise is that never at any stage would I require you to stand on the bow of a ship flanked by giraffes and elephants.’ I was working in New Orleans at the time, so he came down and we talked for a couple days and I read it and I also saw all the previous ideas he had for it, so it was quite clear it was going to be spectacular.”
“What I kind of like about it is that everybody has images that go into their mind when they hear the word ‘Noah” and none of this matches up to (those images), none of it all,” Crowe continued. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading actually about prediluvian human life and it’s been quite enlightening. I didn’t realize how much had been found and discovered over time.”
“There’s a huge story here, it’s not just the flood,” Aronofsky would tell us later. “That was the big invention that we worked on for a long time was trying to represent what we thought the big ideas of the original book were about and then trying to turn that into a dramatic story. I think it’s a similar thing as the other boat movie, ‘Titanic,’ which was how do you put a story into that? 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?”
This is clearly going to be a bigger scale film than Aronofksy’s last two films Black Swan and The Wrestler, both which were produced independently, but Aronofsky was undaunted by working on a bigger budget film with a studio. “It’s the same thing as any film,” he said. “I think there was more pressure on ‘Black Swan’ then there is on this film, because Paramount are true to their word. When you’re working in the independent phase, it’s tricky because when you make a film like this, the money is what it is. This is the first time I’ve made a film that people want to make. Paramount and Regency both got the movie.”
“There’s a myth of Kubrick having the whole thing in his head and they come, and maybe he did,” he continued. “I don’t know on a scale like that that happens with so many craftsmen you have to work with, what’s available and what materials are realistic, like the cost. What can we afford? Where we can manufacture them? It just puts you into so many boxes and then you just try to make the best decisions with those boxes. As it’s getting made, it’s actually being made; it’s not just reproducing what’s in your head, and it happens moment by moment. We’ll see it shot and there are 500 people there and you realize that 500 people can’t do what you wrote down on paper. There’s no way to do it because there are huge limitations. They are not stuntmen so if I have them actually touching each other, then they all get a stunt bump which turns into astronomical numbers, so you can’t do it. What can you make them do and where can you put the camera.”
Aronofsky’s frequent musical collaborator Clint Mansell is once again doing the score, but the filmmaker promised it won’t be the typical 400-piece orchestra one might expect for a biblical epic as they’re trying to reinvent the genre in every way, including the music.
The entire time we were on set while they weren’t shooting, crew members were chopping wood nearby. We were told the next day they would shoot a scene of Russell fighting off the angry mob on the ramp up the front of the ark, and the wood was being chopped to create steps that would make it easier for them to do action on the ramp.
But before we left set, there was a huge booming noise. Apparently, one of the hoses from the water rig had blown putting a damper on the rain-making rig. Again, maybe like the impending Hurricane Sandy, it was a sign of things to come?