Director's Chair: Darren Aronofsky - 'Noah'
Issue: April 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Darren Aronofsky - 'Noah'

HOLLYWOOD — Writer-director Darren Aronofsky, whose last film, 2010’s Black Swan, won Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations, first made a big splash when his debut low-budget feature Pi won the prestigious Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. He then quickly followed that up with 1999’s Requiem for a Dream. But his hot streak and momentum came to a screeching halt in 2002 when Brad Pitt dropped out of his expensive, ambitious sci-fi epic The Fountain — just weeks before shooting was due to start. Undaunted, Aronofsky recast and rewrote it, and its visually-stunning imagery and cutting edge visual effects helped pave the way for his latest massive production, Noah.

Based on the Book of Genesis’ story, this ultimate apocalypse scenario stars Russell Crowe as the ark-builder and an all-star cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Logan Lerman — and a lot of animals and water. It also stars a 500-foot-long ark and enough visual effects to keep a small army of artists and designers busy for years.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Aronofsky, whose credits include The Wrestler, talks about making the film, his love of post, the record-busting render of an ark shot done by ILM, and the irony of dealing with Hurricane Sandy during the shoot.

POST: It’s been four years since your last film, Black Swan. What took you so long?
DARREN ARONOFSKY: “When you do a huge film like Noah there’s just so much to do in pre-production before you even shoot a foot of film. You have to get the script right, and then there’s all the VFX and previs, and new stuff we wanted to do, and that took a while to figure out. And then post has been very long, so we’ve just been really busy working on this the whole time.”

POST: Why “Noah” and what sort of film did you set out to make? 
ARONOFSKY: “I was always very curious why no one had ever done this story, and why no one’s really done a biblical epic in over 50 years. And I was always interested in the challenge of taking on this story, as it’s something I hadn’t seen on the big screen, and I felt that with all the new technology that was available to me, that it might be possible to really do it justice. The story of Noah is one of the oldest stories mankind has, that’s been around since before history, and it’s still meaningful and immediate for a lot of people, so I felt it’d be very interesting to try and translate it to the big screen.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?
ARONOFSKY: “Doing The Fountain helped prepare me for this, even though we tried to do all the visual effects in-camera, while for this we obviously had to work in the digital realm and use the very latest technology for our VFX. Bringing the entire animal kingdom to life was a huge challenge, both in terms of using real animals and then VFX, and then we had to create the deluge — and that wasn’t just all the rain for 40 days and nights, but the waters of the deep meeting with the waters of the heavens. And everything that happens in the story is basically miraculous by today’s standards, so to bring that all to life took a lot of work and imagination.

“We shot for about five weeks in Iceland, for a lot of the exteriors, and then we moved back to Oyster Bay, on Long Island, New York, where we built the ark’s exterior. Then we built the whole interior on a stage in Brooklyn. We ultimately came in on-time and on-schedule, but it was a pretty rough shoot. Filming in Iceland’s hard because the landscape is so rugged and the weather is incredibly unpredictable, so you had to just work with it and kind of fight it. Once we got back to the States, the work was pretty straightforward, except that we ran into Hurricane Sandy right in the middle of our schedule. That had a huge impact on us and on the movie, and a lot of the guys. Some of our crew lost their homes, so it was emotionally very challenging.”

POST: All the visual effects were obviously crucial. How early on did you integrate post and VFX with the production?
ARONOFSKY: “Very early on, especially when you have these huge battle scenes and are destroying the world with the deluge. That all had to be previs’d, at Blind Squirrel and ILM, so months before we even started shooting we planned all that out so we at least had a sense of what we were about to get into.”

POST: Did you shoot film or digital?
ARONOFSKY: “On 35mm, although people assume it’s all digital because of the VFX. There wasn’t any pressure to shoot digital. The studio didn’t care, except about the final cost, and it was actually still cheaper to do a film this big on film. And creatively we wanted to work with film.”

POST: Did that cause other problems? 
ARONOFSKY: “(Laughs) You’re right. Even finding a loader for the camera department was really hard as most of them have moved on to digital, so just finding experienced film guys is trickier and trickier now. And then all the labs are closing down. Shooting film isn’t so easy now, and while I love it I know that it’s all going digital now.”

POST: Do you like post?
ARONOFSKY: “I love it as there’s a lot less pressure on you. On-set, every second there’s this big dollar sign and the meter’s ticking, while in post you actually get the time to think and try stuff and experiment with the pacing and structure of the movie. You’re not just racing to execute shots. There’s room to let it all breathe and to find the film within the coverage you have.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
ARONOFSKY: “We did it all in New York, at Sixteen19, a great company we’ve done a lot of work with. They helped us set up a few Avids in some random office space we rented in downtown Manhattan, and we cut the whole film there and we’ve been doing post for over 16 months now — far longer than the actual shoot. We probably spent about seven months editing.”

POST: The film was edited by Andrew Weisblum, who also cut Black Swan and The Wrestler for you. Tell us about that relationship?
ARONOFSKY: “He was my visual effects editor on The Fountain, which is where I first met him, and he sometimes came to the set, especially if we were doing a scene that had some challenging coverage in it. And sometimes I’d have him come so he could quickly splice some footage together so we could take a look at it while we’re on-set, and that’s become more and more possible with new technology. But I also like for him to not come to the set so that he has more objective eyes when he gets to the edit room.”

POST: How many VFX shots are there?
ARONOFSKY: “There’s probably about 1,300 — quite a lot. We were actually able to do quite a lot of the effects in-camera, as we were shooting in such amazing locations.”

POST: Who did them and how did you approach them?
ARONOFSKY: “It was a mix of ILM and Look in New York, who did Black Swan. And then we also had Mr. X, who did some work. I worked very closely with our VFX supervisor Ben Snow, who came out of ILM. We spent a lot of time discussing every single shot and what we wanted to accomplish, and then Dan Schrecker at Look and the guys at ILM went off and created the shots.”

POST: What was the most technically-difficult shot to pull off?
ARONOFSKY: “There were so many. In fact, the longest render of any shot ILM has ever done is in our film. It took over a million processing hours to create, and it’s this pull-through shot through the ark with all the animals in it. It basically shut down the whole ILM facility for a few days every time they rendered it, so we were only allowed to render it three or four times, and we had to make sure we got it totally right.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?
ARONOFSKY: “Sound design and effects and music are just huge for me, and I always consider the composer to be as important to the film as the DP or production designer, and even more so in a way as my composer, Clint Mansell, usually gets involved at a script level, and starts creating music from that and then keeps working on the score all the way through to the very end. This is a long film — 130 minutes — and he created about 120 minutes of music for it. And I’ve always been very interested in sound design, and I’ve been lucky to find Craig Henighan, who’ve I’ve worked with since Requiem. He knows what we’re looking for and spends a lot of time cutting sound. We’re mixing in Atmos at Deluxe in New York, which is a fantastic system, especially for this film with all the rain sounds. There are also a lot of natural and environmental sounds we use — birds and animals — so we’ve been able to do a lot of cool stuff with Atmos.”

POST: The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 
ARONOFSKY: “We’re right in the middle of it, at Technicolor-PostWorks New York in Manhattan, and I’m a big DI fan. The DP goes through it four times and I do it twice, and the process has completely changed the way films work, as you can do so much creative stuff now, like guiding the audience where to look in a shot, and cleaning up stuff that isn’t working.” [Editor's Note: Tim Stipan served as digital colorist.]

POST: Did it turn out the way you hoped? 
ARONOFSKY: “Yes, absolutely, but I’m always into letting the film evolve as you work on it and you face certain limitations, and that’s what’s so great about post. “

POST: What’s next? 
ARONOFSKY: “I have nothing lined up yet, and after Noah, I need to take a break and recharge my batteries.”