A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
God gave Noah some very specific instructions on how to build an ark. But it seems there was no such clear voice of authority when it came to the making of Darren Aronofsky's epic movie based on the Bible story.
Multiple sources say that with test screenings of various versions producing worrisome results, Aronofsky and Paramount have been at odds over the version of Noah that is set for release March 28. It's not clear whether Aronofsky -- whose most recent film, 2010's Black Swan, grossed $329 million worldwide and won an Oscar for star Natalie Portman -- has held on to his right to final cut. Aronofsky and his reps did not respond to requests for comment, but Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore says the film, which stars Russell Crowe as the seafarer, is going through a "normal preview process" and the result will be "one version of the movie that Darren is overseeing."
In recent weeks, the studio has held test screenings for key groups that might take a strong interest in the subject matter: in New York (for a largely Jewish audience), in Arizona (Christians) and in Orange County, Calif. (general public). All are said to have generated troubling reactions. But sources say Aronofsky has been resistant to Paramount's suggested changes. "Darren is not made for studio films," says a talent rep with ties to the project. "He's very dismissive. He doesn't care about [Paramount's] opinion."
The auteur director of films including The Wrestler, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky hasn't been associated much with big studios or big effects pictures (a minor exception is The Fountain). But with Noah, he's in deep with both. Paramount is splitting the cost, now past the original $125 million budget, with Arnon Milchan's New Regency.
The use of visual effects has been so extensive that in some scenes, only an actor's face is in the final image. The film relies on effects to create the flood, of course, but in addition, Noah doesn't feature any real animals. Aronofsky said the creatures in the film are "slightly tweaked" versions of those that exist in nature, and there also are fantastical beings in the mix. The director recently told DGA Quarterly that Industrial Light & Magic had said it did the most complicated rendering in the company's history for the film -- "a nice badge of honor," he said.
Beyond the visuals, a major challenge has been coming up with an exciting third act that doesn't alienate the potentially huge Christian audience (in the Bible, Noah and the ark's inhabitants survive the flood that destroys the earth). Some in the faith community already have expressed skepticism about the result, especially after writer Brian Godawa in October 2012 obtained a version of the Noah script and posted his summary online under the heading, "Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Environmentalist Wacko." (Aronofksy has in the past described Noah as "the first environmentalist.") Among his conclusions is that Noah will be "an uninteresting and unbiblical waste of a hundred and fifty million dollars that will ruin for decades the possibility of making a really great and entertaining movie of this Bible hero."
Mark Joseph, who has consulted on the marketing of films including Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and Ray says he hasn't been to a screening of Noah but fears it is "an example of a director not listening to those voices that would have been warning of the dangers of veering too far away from the biblical text. The director is there to serve the studio and the audience, not veer off into directions that go against the core audience's beliefs -- at least if the goal is to get them to come to the theater." More hopeful is Ted Baehr, whose Movieguide.org publishes reviews from a Christian perspective, holds out hope that the film will pass muster.
Paramount obviously hopes to woo the faithful; in July Aronofsky screened Noah footage for the church-based Echo conference in Texas. Some tweets from audience members suggested that the sneak peek was well received.
Moore says the studio knew going in that the film would be complicated and "allowed for a very long postproduction period, which allowed for a lot of test screenings."
While Aronofsky "definitely wants some level of independence," he adds, "he also wants a hit movie." The bottom line: "We're getting to a very good place, and we're getting there with Darren."