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.
"The first time I read it, I got scared," the director says. "I thought, 'What if I'm not good enough to get on the boat?'"
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."
"Noah" is a culmination of the shift brought on by Mel Gibson's independently produced "The Passion of the Christ," which awakened Hollywood with its unforeseen $612 million box office haul in 2004. In the time since, Hollywood has carefully developed closer ties to faith-based communities, (Sony and 20th Century Fox have set up faith-based studios targeting evangelicals).
Yet the debate about "Noah" proves that it can be tricky to satisfy both believers and non-believers, 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 Friday and Sony is releasing the less straightforwardly Biblical "Heaven Is for Real" ahead of Easter next month. The studio is also developing a vampire twist on Cain and Able with Will Smith. In Lionsgate's pipeline is a Mary Magdalene film, hyped as a prequel to "The Passion of the Christ" and co-produced by mega-church pastor Joel Osteen.
When Jonathan Boch started his company Grace Hill Media in 2000 to consult Hollywood studios on reaching the faith community, the two "really didn't know each other," he says. Since then, films like "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "The Blind Side" have benefited from outreach to churchgoers.
"Over the course of those 15 years, you've seen the faith community go from almost pariah status or fly-over status to now being seen as an important market," says Boch, who consulted on "Noah." ''In my mind, what we're seeing is another renaissance where the greatest artists are telling the greatest stories every told."
Though Hollywood largely swore off the Bible epic when films like 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told" flopped, the revival dovetails recent trends. Figures like Noah are globally recognizable, and thus easier to market. They come with no licensing fee, and, often, plenty opportunity for flashy special effects. "Noah," which is being released in converted 3-D overseas, is perhaps the oldest apocalypse story.
The story fascinated Aronofsky as a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn. He recalls a poem he wrote about the tale as a 13-year-old — and a teacher's subsequent encouragement — as his birth as a storyteller. Whereas "The Passion of the Christ" was largely made by Christians and for Christians, Aronofsky says his "Noah" (which was advertised during the Super Bowl) 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."
The Genesis story is only a few pages, with more details on the dimensions of the ark (which Aronofsky held to) than who Noah was. He's instructed by God — "grieved" in his heart by what mankind had become generations after creation — to build an ark and fill it with two of every animal. After the flood, Noah is referred to as drunk and then banishes his son, Ham — all clues for Aronofsky on the pain of Noah's burden.
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 (which Aronofsky penned with Ari Handel).
"It has been a very interesting journey," says Moore. "It's been highly chronicled along the way, much of which was based upon either speculation or hearsay or old information."
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."
"Darren, as an artist, had some sensitivity about what that meant in terms of what we were saying the movie was or wasn't ahead of time, versus letting people experience it for themselves," says Moore. "But there was such a group of people who had concern about it."
"For the vast majority of people, the controversy will go away," he says.
Johnson still has mixed feelings about "Noah," calling it "a great plus, minus": neither worthy of the boycott that Roman Catholics held for Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," nor a film like "The Passion of the Christ" that will have churches sending busloads to theaters.
"They got the big points of the story right," says Johnson. "It's so counter-cultural today in America or the West to talk about sin, right and wrong, and particularly the idea of judgment — and that is so serious in this film."
Johnson adds that, among other reservations, "the insertion of the extremist environmental agenda is a problem." Aronofsky disputes that.
"It's in the Bible that we are supposed to tend the garden," the director says. "To say there's no ecological side to the Noah story when Noah is saving the animals just doesn't make sense to me."
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."
All the conversation — both negative and positive — may lure audiences to "Noah," which Moore says will do its biggest business internationally, even though the film has been banned in many Islamic counties where it's taboo to depict a prophet. He and Aronofsky believe they have a rich history of artistic ambition on their side.
"It's strange that the conversation for a little bit has turned into a controversy about literalism," says Aronofsky. "What is literalism when it comes to interpreting and making an artistic representation of the text? Is Michelangelo's David a literal interpretation of what David looked like?"