Screenwriter Ari Handel, On The Making Of Noah
HH: I’m very much looking forward to this hour, because last week, I was able to see a screening of the new movie, Noah, which premieres next week, at Paramount Pictures lot with the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt and my daughter. We go to see it together, and with four or five other people, and afterwards got to talk with one of the studio execs about it. And as I was leaving, I turned to my friend, Jonathan Bock, who is with Grace Hill Media, and I said you know, you offer me a lot of interviews, a lot of actors and the director. I really want to talk to the writer. And so Jonathan went to work and he found Ari Handel, and he brought him to the radio studio to talk to me today via the phone. Ari Handel, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show. It’s great to make your acquaintance.
AH: Thank you, it’s nice to be here. Thank you for trying to look out for the writer. It’s very kind of you.
HH: Well, I was sitting there, I was watching the movie, and I gather after enough screenings, you know that there’s a little conversation going inside of everyone’s head who’s ever heard of or read the Noah story. And I began to think of the fellow who sat down to say I will tackle if not the best known story in the world, the second best known story. Adam and Eve might have a little bit of an edge. When did you start this?
AH: Well, first of all, just to be clear, I co-wrote this with the director, Darren Aranofsky, so we wrote this together. And we started, you know, working on it, the first draft that I, the first piece of writing and draft that I have in my computer are 2003. So…and that’s even just when it was electronic. Prior to that, we were probably working on paper and pencil. So it’s been at least ten years, eleven years that we’ve been working on this.
HH: Wow. Is there anything else in the computer that’s even older than that?
AH: I’m sure, but not this project.
HH: So the other thing I found out as I was doing my research to talk to you is that you were originally a neuroscientist.
AH: Yes, yes.
HH: Okay, we’ve got to do the biography before we do the picture.
AH: All right.
HH: Walk us through your life, Ari. Where did you, where were you born? Where’d you grow up?
AH: Well actually, I mean, I was born in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places. But I only lived there for a year. My father was studying in Zurich. And then I grew up in a suburb outside of Boston called Newton, Massachusetts.
HH: I know Newton well, home of Wellesley and through which the Boston Marathon, which I have trudged through, runs, you bet.
AH: Exactly. So I lived a block from Heartbreak Hill.
AH: I saw a lot of people in the hard part.
HH: In the agony.
AH: And we’d do it every year. Exactly. We used to go every year, and we’d hand out water, et cetera, and watch people go up Heartbreak Hill.
HH: And Newton public schools?
AH: Newton public schools.
HH: And undergraduate years?
AH: And then undergraduate years, I went to Harvard, still in Boston, and that’s where I met Darren. We were suitemates.
HH: Which house were you in?
AH: Dunster House.
HH: I’m sorry to hear that. I’m a Winthrop guy.
AH: Oh, really?
HH: Nevertheless, so you were studying…
AH: Well now they don’t have that anymore. Now, the houses are, I think, randomly selected, so they may have lost their character that they had in our day.
HH: And that is in fact true. I just went back for my 35th reunion, and they told us that sad story. I think that is a bad thing.
AH: Me, too.
HH: Dunster had the intellectual…Adams and Dunster were the artistic houses. Winthrop always won the Strauss Cup for jocks.
AH: Yeah, but Winthrop was cool, though.
HH: Yeah, we liked it. So you were there, and what were you majoring? Computer science or neuroscience, what?
AH: Well, I mean, I went through, I started as a Russian literature major, and I had a little bit of a falling out with the Russian literature department, and then I ended up thinking I was going to do neuroscience, and so I became a neurobiology major.
HH: Now what does a neurobiology major do when they graduate? Do they go to medical school?
AH: Well, they stop, and they go why did I do that?
AH: And then they ask what they’re going to do. So what I did was I applied to, actually, to tell you the truth, what…I had a couple of things. I went and I did an internship at Nova, WGBH.
HH: You bet.
AH: And I got interested in, because I was interested in science journalism, and I became interested in science education, because I felt both those things, I felt that you know, a lot of people are scared of sciences in America, and we could do a better job of teaching them and communicating them, because they’re not as off putting as some people think. It’s just a matter of teaching them well. And so I got interested in that, and then I decided, and this is where I made one of my dumb mistakes, I decided like well, if I’m going to teach it, I should probably really know what I’m talking about and go to graduate school in science and become knowledgeable not just with what they teach you in college, which is essentially science history is what I guess I’d call it…
AH: But I actually learned the practice and the art of science, which is a different piece altogether. So I decided to go to graduate school to do that. And everyone said to me you don’t want to do that. That’s like, you know, if you’re going to…you don’t want to spend that much time immersing yourself in graduate school if you’re just going to go into another career, and I didn’t listen to them.
HH: Wow, from Russian literature, which is endless reading, to neurobiology, which is endless studying, did you have any fun at all until you were 40?
AH: I did. I did have some fun.
AH: But I like immersive things, and that’s what, ultimately, that’s what I did on Noah, too, because I got…
HH: Oh, expand on that. That’s interesting. So when you do a dive, you want to do a deep dive into something for which the depth is there, no shallow water.
HH: Oh, how interesting.
AH: I just like that part. I like the research.
HH: Now tell me a little bit about your religious background as well. Did you grow up in any kind of a faith community?
AH: Yeah, well I’m Jewish, and I was raised Jewish, bar mitzvahed, and I went to Synagogue every Saturday. So…and I was sort of conservative egalitarian/reform, so you know, not super orthodox in any way.
HH: Did you belong to Hillel at Harvard?
AH: I went to some events at Hillel, but I don’t think I was an official member.
HH: And I have to ask, though I am not Jewish, I always ask my guests who are and who have been bar mitzvahed, do you remember what you read when you were bar mitzvahed?
AH: I do. It was part of, it was part of the Ten Commandments, but not the best part.
HH: Okay, so it wasn’t the best part, and it was not Noah.
AH: It was not Noah.
HH: You did not read Noah when you were…
AH: I wish. I wish.
HH: So when did the…
AH: Maybe my son will get that. I’ll have to, no, he won’t, either. He’s in the wrong part of the year.
HH: So Darren Aranofsky, the director of the movie, and you were suitemates at Dunster? I did not realize that.
AH: That’s right.
HH: And did you, at that time, talk to each other about being in pictures?
AH: Well, I was in, when we met, I was a Russian literature major, and he was a sociologist, so not really, although eventually, yes. He went into the arts, and he became a filmmaker while we were still at school, and you know, I was one of, all of your group of friends, you know, worked to help him make his little, his film projects at school.
HH: This is fascinating. What year did you graduate?
AH: I was Class of 1991.
HH: Okay, so if they lined up the whole Class of 1991 and they said pick the two least likely filmmakers of an epoch involving Noah, would you and Aranofsky have been the two guys that would have been the least likely people to do this?
AH: Probably not. There was some, like, mathematics guys who have only slept during the day, and they’re awake all night, and like you’re like, who’s that guy, and then it turned out that they, in their down time, they were lecturing for the math department.
HH: Okay, they would have been least likely.
AH: There were some of those, too.
HH: When did the spark go on that you were going to throw in with the motion picture stuff?
AH: Well, when, so I finished by PhD. I went to NYU and got a PhD in neurobiology, and so I was there for basically eight years. It took me a long time to get the PhD done. And then I knew about halfway through it that I wasn’t going to go on, I didn’t think, to do a post-doc and become an academic scientist. There was plenty that it wasn’t quite for me. And so when I finished, I stopped. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I took a little time off. I was doing some freelance statistics and computer programing for a friend who had a hedge fund, and I was just trying to find my way. And then Darren and I started writing something together that to me was a little bit of just a way to pass the time, and that ended up becoming a film called The Fountain, which…
AH: …but it took quite some time for that film to get made, I think, I don’t know, seven years or something from when we started. And so by the time we actually got it made, I’d been working in the film business for seven years. And so here I am.
HH: So when you were in the film business…
AH: That’s the way these things happen.
HH: When you walk into a lot and you’ve got a PhD in neurobiology, is that like a calling card? Or do people look at you like you know, you might be homeless and making it up?
AH: I think it makes up for the fact that you have no idea about anything about the film industry, so you throw that out there and they take a step back a little bit and go okay. You know, there’s a little bit of respect that comes with something that’s foreign and they don’t understand.
HH: Yeah, well that is, that is way off of the map. So you and, you start writing and The Fountain comes along, and thereafter, The Black Swan. I mean, you’ve got these amazing credits. When did you actually say, or did Darren say to you, let’s do Noah?
AH: Darren said it to me, and I don’t actually remember the exact year, but I would say it was around then, around 2003, I would say.
HH: Wow. Okay, when we come back from break, my guest is Ari Handel. He is the screenwriter and producer, along with Darren Aranofsky, of the movie, Noah, which opens everywhere next week, and you cannot drive around L.A. without seeing Russell Crowe glaring at you with the rain falling on him. It’s going to have a huge open. It’s going to be very controversial. And it is both stunning and surprising, and we’ll talk about why and the research that went into it, and the choices that Ari Handel made when he dove into writing a script that will in fact be both stunning and controversial.
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HH: Ari, when you go to the five books of Genesis that are the Noah story, which is what I did after I saw the movie, and I don’t think I’d read them probably in 20 years, that’s what’s going through your head through the movie is what’s in, what’s out. How did you approach the first sort of few drafts of the screenplay? And to what extent did those chapters, five, six, seven, eight and nine, play into it?
AH: Well, we started with those chapters, obviously. I mean, we sat down and we read them very carefully. And we’d read them before, of course, but probably like you, we’d read them in our childhood, and maybe occasionally since. But we weren’t like deeply familiar. So we sat down and looked at them and sort of said okay, now where’s the movie? And what is the movie? And how do we tell it and what is the story all about? And I think we read it a lot closer than we’d ever read it before. And…
HH: Go ahead.
AH: Well, and you know, immediately, certain things come to mind when you read it that way. I mean, the first one, the thing that comes to mind is you realize how much less is there than you might think in terms of details.
AH: Especially like, for instance, you know, I was surprised to notice that Noah himself does not speak a word that is written there until after the ark lands. So you know, it just sort of says God said X and Noah obeyed. And God said Y and Noah obeyed. So there’s very little insight to what he’s thinking, what he’s doing, the relationships between him and his family, et cetera. So all that stuff had to be figured out if you’re going to have a film and you need a character arc. And there’s a lot of things to do there. So we started with that, but then also, we started to look at a careful reading of the story, and what kind of questions it raised. And it raises a lot of really interesting questions, that if you dive into them, it starts to bring you to some interesting places.
HH: It certainly does, and the very first question, though, is whether or not Noah is a thoroughly good man. Now he’s a righteous man, and how did you come up with what righteous meant?
AH: Yeah, so it says Noah is a righteous man.
AH: And there’s actually been, it turns out, I mean, if you start to look at the commentaries over the years, and of course, this is Genesis. There’s a tremendous body of work and commentary and thought that’s gone around the text and about the text for quite a long time. There’s been a big debate of what that means, because it says Noah was a righteous man in his generation.
AH: And people have brought attention to that phrase, in his generation. And there have been people who argued that if he was a righteous man in such a wicked time, think of how righteous, how more righteous he would be if he was in more of a modern time when it wasn’t so wicked. And others have said the exact opposite, that he was only a righteous man in comparison to all the wickedness around him. In the current milieu or some other ones, he would not be considered quite so righteous as it were. So there’s lots of ways of thinking of that. You know, there’s certain clues. We know that the second thing that Noah does after landing is he gets drunk, so drunk that he ends up lying naked. And the first thing he says, the first words that are recorded for him, are actually cursing his son’s line to slavery.
AH: So there’s certain things there that make you go well, that doesn’t seem like the most righteous person I’ve ever heard of. So there’s some indication that righteousness might not be exactly what we would think of it. And then we came across this notion which is both in Thomas Aquinas and also you see it in a lot of Jewish scholarship, which is that righteousness is actually the proper balance of justice and mercy. And that seemed really interesting to us, because the Noah story is so focused thematically on justice and mercy. It starts with God providing this telling Noah that He has judged mankind for their wickedness. It begins with justice and ends with a rainbow where God says despite man’s wickedness, I will no longer try to destroy them. So there’s a movement from justice to mercy.
AH: In Genesis, and so we tried to, so this idea that justice and mercy in the right balance is what it means to be righteous. That seems like a really interesting dynamic to give to the Noah character.
HH: So for purposes of giving your sense of what righteousness in his own time is, who do you think is a righteous man in his own time today?
AH: Well, that’s a hard question, because you know, it’s really hard to say, to be truly…to know that, you’ve got to kind of know not just what somebody says, but what they think and who they are on the inside. It’s a hard question. I’m not sure I could answer.
HH: Would you think Mandela was a righteous man?
AH: Sure, I would, you know, those kinds of people, the Gandhis and the Mandelas.
HH: Well, I’m not too sure about Gandhi. I would argue, because he foreswore violence and didn’t, there’s an argument there. But I would think John Paul II and Mandela, and there are a few of them running around. But it’s a tough word. And so how long, how would you guys resolve that? I mean, how would you actually talk to each other about that?
AH: Well, we tried to talk about what should, you know, what are the struggles and the challenges that Noah should face? And what is his journey going to be so that he ends up grappling with this notion of justice and mercy? And by justice, you know, I really mean an eye for an eye, that an indiscretion or a wrongdoing is punished. And by mercy, you know, we all know what that means. That means that an indiscretion or a wrongdoing is let off the hook. And you know yourself, I think all of us who are parents, understand the tension between those two poles, because you know, if you have a kid and the kid does something, and you’re always strict with them, you’re always just with them, you…that’s not great parenting, because you end up destroying them a little bit through over-strictness. But on the other hand, if you let them get away with everything, if you forgive everything that they do, then you start eroding their moral fiber in some ways.
HH: Now of all the…
AH: But these really, sorry, go ahead.
HH: Of all the controversies surrounding the movie, many of which are silly now that I’ve seen it…
HH: What do people think about how you got Noah? My wife, by the way, though you nailed Noah, and thought Russell Crowe was the only guy who could play him at the end of this, so I pass that along.
HH: But how was the general reaction?
AH: Well, here’s the thing about the Noah story. As you said, it’s one of the best known stories in the world. But the common conception of it is actually very simplistic and one-sided to a degree. When…and by common, I just mean in pop culture…
AH: …which is kids toys…
AH: …and the mural for the veterinarian, and the animal cracker box, which is basically a kindly man who saves a bunch of animals, and it’s cute and it’s sweet. And part of that, part of that story is that Noah is pure good. He’s just really, really good.
HH: Yeah, he’s got a white beard and a cane.
AH: And he saves the animals, and it’s a happy story and everything comes out well. But in reality, you know, we’re talking about a story where all, almost all the life on Earth is wiped out by a God who’s grieved to His heart that He has to do it. and it’s a very dark story.
HH: And there are some very dark scenes. When we come back from break, we’re going to talk about some of the very dark scenes, because if you do just pause for a moment and think about the world filled up with water, and how many bodies are floating in it, that is not something you really have ever considered, I think. At least I hadn’t. I read the book like a Catholic does, which is you know, get me the Cliff Notes.
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HH: For your background, Ari, I’m a fairly serious religious character, and I want to St. Paul’s every week at Harvard, and I’m a sort of Catholic Evangelical. So I take this…but Catholics read the Bible very differently. And my friend, Mark Roberts, is a year after me at Harvard, Class of ’79, PhD also at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He reads it much more closely.
HH: But there’s one line in these five chapters. The Nephilim were on the Earth in those days, and also afterward when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown. I defy anyone to tell me what that means. And so what did you do with it?
AH: Well, the very, it’s actually a famous line for being so mysterious and strange. So what we did, because what are the Nephilim? Nephilim means fallen ones…
AH: …in a literal translations, although it’s sometimes described as giants. It’s translated as giants. We went and we looked at what other people have said about this in the past. And so we went to some extra Biblical material like the book of Enoch and Jubilees, where they really talk about fallen angels, and fallen angels coming down and teaching mankind some arcane and scientific arts and things, so we took that notion and said great, let’s embrace that notion of fallen angels. It actually becomes pretty interesting to us, because it allowed us to expand on our themes of justice and mercy. But it also starts to help us describe this antediluvian world in a very, in a very other-worldly way. And the antediluvian world actually is other-worldly in lots of ways. Not only are there Nephilim, but we’ve got people living 600, 900 years. We’ve got leviathan floating the seas. We’ve got flaming swords. We’ve got skies that don’t produce rainbows. It’s a very strange and other-worldly world, and we wanted that to come across.
HH: And that is really why I tell everyone I’ve told, it’s both stunning and very surprising, because even pre-modern history like Herodotus and fairly accurate old history like Thucydides and some of the legends, they’ve got minotaurs and stuff like that, but it’s all still, you can connect it up to modernity somehow. You’re dealing with, really, premodern modern stuff.
AH: Well, don’t forget, the flood, I mean, within the context of the story, the flood came, and not only did the waters cover everything, but you can really look at the flood as an undoing of creation in the same way that creation brought the waters of the heavens and the waters of the earth apart as part of the beginning of what was done in those days of creation. The waters of Heaven and the waters of Earth are brought together in the flood. So it’s not just that the Earth is flooded, it’s that creation is undone and remade again. So it’s a different world, and we wanted it to feel that way.
HH: And so, did you have this…
AH: So people, sorry…
HH: How quickly did you settle on this? I mean, when did you decide that’s how we’re going to do it?
AH: Pretty early on, because we got to that line about the Nephilim, and we knew we had to deal with it. We couldn’t ignore it. How are we going to handle it? And that helped us get into this kind of tone, and we thought that tone was a really interesting one, and would be a really interesting one for modern audiences, because we’d be taking a Biblical epic, we’d be doing something that was grounded in the text, but that was completely unexpected and would let people see the story in a new light they hadn’t seen before, but not one that was just arbitrary, but one that came from Genesis.
HH: And you know, to everyone who’s had a, and I want to talk in our last segment after the break about the controversies, the various controversies, I don’t know how anyone can have an argument with anything unless they have an airtight argument for what Chapter 6, Verse 4 means. I mean, that’s, you have to fill that with meaning, right?
AH: I mean, I think so. I think…and I think that’s only one of the more obvious places where questions are raised that you really need to grapple with. There’s others.
HH: Now did you, in the course of this, since it went on for 12 years, and you made Black Swan, and you’ve been doing other stuff like that, have you just been continually reading in Old Testament or Torah theology and scholarship?
AH: I mean, not full time by any means, but sure, you know, we looked at a lot of material, and we had a lot of conversations with a lot of people to try and grapple with these questions and sort of see what other minds had come up with.
HH: Would you track down people like Adin Steinsaltz, who I’ve interviewed before, or other great theoreticians of Torah? Or would you stick to popular…
AH: No, some of them. We had Bible scholars and Kabbalists of all sorts, not just…of all sorts, people looking into different…
HH: How interesting.
AH: People who looked at Kabbala, people who look at legend, people who were really, you know, really more looking at Talmud or other more traditional ones, we tried to look everywhere to see what people had to say.
HH: There’s got to be a book in this, not just a movie, just a book in making Noah.
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HH: So Ari, we’ve got one segment left, about eight minutes, and I try very hard not to give away spoilers in the movie. I understand the movie’s tracking very well, and it’s going to have a big opening, and everyone’s very excited about it. But I am curious how you’ve been reacting to the various controversies, like as I said earlier in the interview, many of which are just stupid, having seen the movie, but some of which will come from heartfelt, deeply-felt religious beliefs which may or may not be rooted in a deep reading of the text. So how have you been dealing with those?
AH: Well look, basically, you know, everything that we did came from close reading of the text, and everything that we did is grounded in some fashion in the text, and came from us looking at the questions and the themes that are in the story. So as soon as people, I think, hopefully see the film, and look at the film, I think a lot of these things will go away. But there’s also going to be always different ways that people can look at the Noah story. It’s a story that a lot of people have a relationship with. So you know, we’re not going to expect everyone to love it, although we hope that many people will. So it’s just a matter of putting this out there, these ideas, and seeing how people react to it.
HH: Is anyone angry with you for just simply trying? I mean, this is, I’m so glad you tried it. I hope you come back and do it again, because it’s fairly spectacular in parts, and there are other parts of the Bible that I would like to be seen made with the best talent and the best budgets available. But at the end of a long process like this, are you putting it down saying no more Bible stories for me? Or are you saying let’s rush back in sometime?
AH: Well, I don’t know if the next thing I do is going to be a Bible story, because it’s nice to take a break. But it is interesting, I mean, I think there’s a certain portion of the religious community that doesn’t, isn’t going to want to see these things, these stories, translated into the film media, and anything that is not explicitly in the text shown. And that’s inevitable that some people feel that way. And actually, on the other side, there’s some people in the secular world who will just sort of, without having looked at it, right off the cuff kind of say look, if it has anything to do with the Bible, I’m personally not interested in it. So hopefully, we can erode a little bit of that line and say look, these stories are powerful, powerful stories that speak to all people about issues that are philosophical, religious, ethical, existential, that everyone should be interested in, and that are also entertaining, because the Noah story also has literally good versus evil, and literally the end of the world is at stake. So all the stuff that goes into a great movie is right there along with these more profound questions that are embedded deeply into the story, so…
HH: I simply cannot imagine a person of genuine faith being other than excited that this movie got made and enjoying it. Now they may have arguments with different parts, and they will learn things. I had never, I actually had never noticed the name Tubal-Cain every. I feel embarrassed. I just had never notice it. But I have one question which isn’t a spoiler…
HH: But I suppose it could be, in someone’s eyes, so if someone doesn’t want to hear the last three minutes of this, turn off the radio and go see the movie, and later you can come back and listen to it on the Hughniverse. Here’s my little spoiler.
AH: You’re not going to tell them about the rainbow, are you?
HH: I’m not going to tell them about the rainbow. I’m not going to tell them about the unicorn getting left off, either, or anything like that. No, there’s one character who doesn’t get to the boat, and I was surprised that this character doesn’t get to the boat.
HH: How hard, was that like an argument? Or was that…
AH: This is what this is about. At some point, if you’re going to do the Noah story, you’ve got to look at the fact that the characters who made it onto the boat had to deal with the fact that nobody else did, and that’s a painful idea. And no one wants to think about the people who didn’t make it onto the boat. People want to think about the people who did make it onto the boat. But the fact that people didn’t, and that hurts, well look, we know it grieves God’s heart to do this, and it must have grieved Noah’s heart and his family’s heart that these people didn’t make it on. There’s a lot of pain and suffering involved in this. It’s not a light idea. It’s a heavy idea. So we wanted to really make the audience feel that, and feel it not by having like a really mean, evil, nasty person not make it on, who we don’t have to have empathy for, but feel it for someone who we do have some empathy for, because these are all human beings.
HH: Oh, that makes sense. Now I get it. There’s an amazing scene where, and you would never think about this, at least I hadn’t again, and I’m not exactly Mr. Deep Thinking about Genesis, but you hear the cries of the people not on the boat.
HH: That’s pretty powerful stuff, and it drives home that same point.
HH: But I hadn’t thought about it in the context of this character. So last question, just a very practical one.
HH: Where do you expect this to do the best? In the West or in the East, in the cultures where storytelling is still a wonderful thing and they’re open to all sorts of stories? Or in the cynical West where a story of first stories might actually resonate with people?
AH: Well, I’m hoping it’s going to be, it’s going to go and be liked everywhere, because actually, the Noah story is a universal story, as I said. Flood stories are universal, regardless of what your religion is, or how religious you happen to be. The story is filled with drama, and the story is still, is human emotions and questions that concern all of us. So I think it’s going to go over well everywhere, but you know, I’m not a sociologist nor actually a box office analyst. I just try and make the stories good.
HH: You are a neurobiologist, though, so you ought to be able to predict how people will react to this thing. And last question, did you ever get sick of this project? If it’s been more than a decade, did you walk away from it for a while and just say I’m done with this, I’m not doing this?
AH: No, we never did that. We never did that. But we got, we were fortunate enough to get breaks away from this as we made other films. But this one held on. You know, it’s a fascinating, fascinating story, and it rewards…
HH: Last question, is Aranofsky your best friend?
AH: We’ve spent a, we’re very good friends, and we’ve spent a tremendous amount of time together over the last ten years. So yeah, probably functionally, he is.
HH: Okay, and your next project?
AH: I don’t know, yet. We’re going to, first, rest.
HH: First, rest. Well, you certainly earned it. Congratulations. I hope you have a great opening next week.
AH: Thank you.
HH: It’s a fascinating film and a great conversation.
AH: Thank you.
HH: Ari Handel, good to talk with you.
AH: Very nice speaking with you.
End of interview.