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 The Independent Critic's Interview With Ari Handel, Co-Writer of "Noah" 
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In the beginning, Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky were suitemates while attending Harvard University.

It was good. They both knew it could be even better.

Aronofsky was, not surprisingly, studying film. Handel started out studying Russian Literature and would eventually find a home of sorts studying biology and neuroscience. After college, Handel did an internship at NOVA and found himself surrounded by filmmakers and documentarians. After his internship at NOVA, Handel went to TERC (Technical Education Research Centers), an organization that created collaborative projects for students in science. Handel continued his studies at New York University, and while his friends were off studying film he was becoming a neuroscientist with a PhD in neurobiology from NYU. While he's collaborated with Aronofsky from the very beginning and had a small role as a Kabbalah scholar in Aronofsky's "Pi", it was only after Handel had finished his PhD that he began seriously contemplating film and, in fact, began tossing around the ideas that would eventually become his first co-writing effort with Aronofsky, "The Fountain."

It's fairly well known that "Noah" has long been a vision for Aronofsky, though to listen to some currently outraged theological types you might think that he cooked up the idea for the film some Saturday afternoon just to tick off the Christians. In fact, Aronofsky became interested in the story of Noah at the age of 13 when he penned a poem inspired by the biblical story of Noah that won an award from the United Nations. It has been over the past nearly 15 years that both Aronofsky and Handel have worked to bring "Noah" to life, an effort that has involved a survey of literature so extensive it would likely make even the most hardcore seminarian sweat.

It shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise that the resulting "Noah," which opened #1 at the box-office this past weekend, has proven to be wildly controversial. In all likelihood, that "controversy" helped fuel the film's somewhat unexpectedly lofty box-office numbers as the $125 million film snagged nearly $50 million here in the U.S. and another nearly $30 million in international receipts. I myself have rather enjoyed watching social media over the past few days as the film has been called everything from "challenging" to "epic" to "the worst movie of the year" and nothing more than a "Gnostic experiment."

Yikes.

I was admittedly more than a little intimidated when offered the chance to chat with Ari Handel, the film's co-writer and executive producer, for a few minutes as the film enters its second weekend and prepares to go head-to-head with the year's first big superhero flick, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." After receiving two death threats and more than a few hate mails over the past week as a Christian minister who dared to give the film a positive review, I simply couldn't pass up a chance to chat with the man responsible for creating one of the most challenging. inspiring, entertaining, and complex portrayals of a biblical story to be released by Hollywood in years.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You've got to be feeling great. You had a great first week with Noah. The film opened up #1 at the box-office. Is that a surprise for you? Did you really have any idea of what to expect?

ARI HANDEL

How do you know how people are going to react? You don't. What you do is you try to make the film as strong as it can be or as you feel it can be. You get it to be as honest as it can be and with as much integrity as you can and put it out there and hope that people respond to it. It is very gratifying to see that a lot of people have come out to see it and that people are talking about it actively and with such passion.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Was there every a point where you were writing the film or when you were working on the film when you thought to yourself "What am I doing?" Hollywood's certainly adapted biblical stories before, but this film is truly different on just about every level. It's bold and risky and approaches the film from far more than what I would call the traditional biblical perspective. This really is new in many ways.

ARI HANDEL

Well, we started with that. We started with "Let's do something new here. Let's take this story. Let's be completely respectful. We're not going to make it into a comedy or a joke. Let's be completely respectful. We'll take the power, the miracles, the fundamental moral questions and dig through all those things fully, but also let it be the miraculous, epic 21st century film that it can be at the same time. Let's grow expectations in every way of what a Bible epic can be without letting go of the questions that a Bible epic should be grappling with. Let's not oversimplify it by giving everyone the story that they think they already know. Then, let's make people ask questions, surprise them, maybe even concern them not really with what we have to say but with the questions that are embedded in the story." So, we knew that's what we wanted to do.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Have any of the responses so far really surprised you? I mean, do you pay attention to press and social media? I'm a social media junkie and I've been watching it over the past few days and I've truly been amazed at the comments, feedback, and critiques that have come in truly across the complete spectrum. I've seen people who've appreciated the film's perspective. I've seen people who've been challenged. I've seen people who've been entertained by it. I've seen people who've called it the worst film of the year. I've seen people who've simply sworn off the film due to its perceived lack of biblical foundation. I've seen a couple writers on the more extreme end who've honestly accused you of being downright evil and devil worshipping.

ARI HANDEL

Yeah, I know. It's really been all over the map. I guess the most surprising thing is how all over the map it is and it's not just one person or some aspect of the far right evangelical, but it's actually people from every cut of life. There are some of them who really, really appreciate what we're doing and some of them don't. It's interesting. So, that's surprising. I think people who come at it, as you say "devil worshipping" or anti-God, those I think there's really something else going on besides engaging with the film and besides engaging with the filmmakers or engaging with what they think Hollywood is or something else. There isn't a lot of devil worshipping in the film and we take Genesis very seriously. We take the Bible very seriously. I do think there's more going on there than just a open-mind toward the film. I guess that's not that surprising either.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I suppose that is part of what you get from going for something so unique with this film. It is a risky approach. It is an approach that I think some people find scary or challenging or offensive or worse.

ARI HANDEL

It also challenges some people because of the meaning that some other people have put on the story, and some people appreciate that and some people resist that. Ultimately, that's actually okay because now we have a dialogue and a dynamic and people are talking about it and grappling with it. That's great.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You've kind of done just such that kind of thing with most of the films, if not all of the films, that you've worked on with Darren (Aronofsky). I mean your scripts and your films have always done a rather extraordinary job of weaving together spirituality and science and humanity and finding a way to peacefully co-exist. Though, I suppose, saying "peacefully" might be a stretch.

ARI HANDEL

Yeah, I think all those things interest us so they keep coming back together in a different way.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I obviously know that the film is open now and there's been a lot of publicity about the fact that this film has been a vision of Darren's for many years and you've worked on it with him for the majority of those years, but I've still at times sensed this interesting attitude and I'm not really sure that people fully realize how much of your life you've invested in researching and creating this film. Can you speak a bit about the journey that you went on in researching, writing, and creating Noah?

ARI HANDEL

Sure. The first thing was that we started with Genesis. We had to figure out "What's the story here? Who is Noah?" We're told nothing about his internal life, what he thinks, or what he says. The only thing he says in Genesis is cursing his son Ham, but we're also told that he's a righteous man. There's immediately a moral question. What does it mean to be righteous? Who's good and who's wicked? What does that mean? Why does God wipe out everyone except these people, but then you turn the page and you have the Tower of Babel. All of a sudden, people seem to be being wicked again. What does that have to tell us? We knew that we needed to engage with all these questions - both moral questions and theological questions. Then, we turned to books. We thought "We can't be the first people asking these questions." There's thousands of years of people grappling with this story from every aspect. We delved very deeply into biblical commentaries, biblical exegesis, legends, and Jewish Midrash. We went places and we talked to people to try to find ways of approaching these very books. We drew off all of that to try to create our world and our story in an effort to bring those questions to people and humanize them so that people could feel them and do so within the context of a pop film.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I would imagine that you're getting a lot of people telling you their interpretation of everything that unfolds in Noah. For me, one of the most powerful aspects of the film, especially through the lens that you chose to use, is how closely it resembles a creation story. While I suppose that's something I knew intellectually, as I've been reflecting upon the film I've found that sense of creation coming back to me time and again. I also really appreciated, even when I didn't necessarily have the same understanding, the way you approached the person of Noah.

ARI HANDEL

If you start to look at the sources I was talking about, the commentaries and the exegeses, there's a huge strain in there of looking at the Noah story as a creation story. Just to give you a few examples...For one, actually the description of the flood with the waters of the Earth and the waters of the heavens coming together is an invert of the description of creation. The flood is not just water covering the world. It's an unmaking of the world. The world is unmade and almost unmade entirely except for the ark. So, in some ways the Noah story is made an invert of creation. If you look, Noah has three sons and Adam had three sons. There's a lot of parallels between those characters.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's exactly what I mean. It's why I'll also be going back to see the film again, because it's like all your films in the sense that there's all those little pieces of dialogue and imagery and story that comprise important elements to consider. I think it's why when someone really embraces an Aronofsky film, they tend to go back to see it more than once. It takes more than once to really pick up all the pieces and to figure out how to integrate those pieces.

ARI HANDEL

That's what happens when Hollywood makes you wait ten years to make a film!

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Well, it sounds like it was worth the time invested and the wait. (Pause). I'm aware that we're at the end of our time and I promised the rep that I would end on time and I think we've even gone a little over. I truly appreciate your time.

ARI HANDEL

Thank you. I enjoyed it.

"Noah" is in theaters nationwide. For more information on screening locations and times, check your local listings. For more information on the film itself, be sure to visit the "Noah" website. "Noah" stars Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, and Douglas Booth. The film is directed by Darren Aronofsky and co-written by Aronofsky and Ari Handel. "Noah" is distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Interview by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic
Copyright 2014

 

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