In the beginning of their work together on “Noah,” director Darren Aronofsky made Russell Crowe a promise: “I’ll never shoot you on a houseboat in a robe and sandals with two giraffes popping up behind you.”
Decades after Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur,” Aronofsky has renewed the tradition of the studio-made, mass-audience Bible epic, albeit as a distinctly darker parable about sin, justice and mercy. While much of his “Noah” is true to Scripture, it’s nothing like the picture-book version many encounter as children.
It’s an altogether unlikely project: a $130 million Bible-based studio film made by a widely respected filmmaker (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) few would have pegged as a modern-day DeMille. In the lead-up to its March 28th release, “Noah” has been flooded by controversy, with some religious conservatives claiming it isn’t literal enough to the Old Testament and that Noah has been inaccurately made, as Aronofsky has called him, “the first environmentalist.”
The debate about “Noah” proves that it can be tricky to satisfy both believers and nonbelievers, and that finding the right intersection of art, commerce and religion is a task loaded with as much risk as potential reward.
A lot is at stake, and not just for “Noah” and distributor Paramount Pictures. In December, Fox will release Ridley Scott’s “Exodus,” starring Christian Bale as Moses.
On the heels of the recently released “Son of God,” the religious drama “God’s Not Dead” opened recently, and Sony is releasing the less straightforwardly Biblical “Heaven Is for Real” before Easter next month. The studio is also developing a vampire twist on Cain and Abel with Will Smith. In Lionsgate’s pipeline is a Mary Magdalene film, hyped as a prequel to “The Passion of the Christ.” .
Whereas “The Passion of the Christ” was largely made by Christians and for Christians, Aronofsky says his “Noah” is “for everybody.”
“It’s wrong when you talk about the Noah story to talk about it in that type of believer-nonbeliever way because I think it’s one of humanity’s oldest stories,” he says. “It belongs not just in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Everyone on the planet knows the Noah story.”
Paramount sought the approval of religious leaders, consulting with Biblical scholars in pre-production and doing extensive test screenings (during which Aronofsky and Paramount feuded over the final cut before an apparent truce).
But early criticism bubbled up online based on what Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says is an old, unused version of the script.
After seeing the film, Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, urged Paramount to advertise the film with a disclaimer. Moore acquiesced, adding a warning that “artistic license has been taken.”
Picturehouse founder Bob Berney, who as president of Newmarket Films distributed “The Passion of the Christ,” says balancing artistic license and faithfulness to Scripture is challenging.
“It’s a kind of a trap, and you have to be very careful,” says Berney. “At the same time, they are movies, and they have to be really good. I think the faith-based audience, the Christian audience, still wants a big, exciting movie.”