Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ Launches Into A Storm

By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY — A lot of people think they know what the real story of the movie “Noah” should be.

They are likely some of the same people who think they know what the real story of the man Noah is.

Darren Aronofsky, the director of the new movie about the man and the great flood, is ready to rain on what he believes is their misinformed parade.

“Noah has been turned into a nursery school story,” said the director and co-writer of “Noah,” which had its world premiere in Mexico City on Monday night. “And it’s not a nursery school story in the Bible. It’s the end of the world.”

Rarely in recent years has a movie generated as much polarizing opinion before its release as “Noah,” a $130-million drama set to arrive in U.S. theaters on March 28. The film stars Russell Crowe as the man who builds a giant ark as God wipes a sinful mankind from the planet; Jennifer Connelly plays his wife, Naameh, with Anthony Hopkins as his grandfather, Methuselah.

The movie is the target of a fatwa from a leading Egyptian Sunni Muslim institution because Noah is mentioned in the Koran and therefore not suitable for artistic depiction. Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have banned the film, with other Middle Eastern countries expected to follow. Closer to home, where in theory there is more religious tolerance, “Noah” has already been attacked by the Christian right for its creative license.

Paramount Pictures, which co-financed “Noah” with New Regency and is distributing the film, believes much of the censure has come from people who haven’t seen the film and were responding to secondhand accounts of an outdated screenplay.

One conservative Christian organization, the National Religious Broadcasters, threatened to boycott the film unless Paramount put out a marketing disclaimer. Without telling Aronofsky, the studio decided to modify advertising materials by saying the movie was “inspired by” the story of Noah rather than be seen as literal scripture.

At the center of the storm stands a weary Aronofsky, whose strongly personal films include “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler” and who is a veteran of tough battles with studios and executives over the years.

The 45-year-old filmmaker has been thinking a lot about Noah ever since he wrote a prize-winning poem about the Bible story called “The Dove” when he was 13.

He and screenwriter Ari Handel have been working on the “Noah” script for a decade, burying themselves in research — “I read everything,” said Aronofsky, who can pass for an armchair religious scholar — and consulting with an array of Jewish and Christian theologians.

Now that the 2-hour-17-minute film has been screened, the result of their investigations is obvious: “Noah” is one of the most overtly spiritual movies any big Hollywood studio has made in years (both the current “Son of God” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004 were independently produced).

“The creator made Adam in His image, then placed the world in his care,” is one of the very first lines of dialogue in the film.

And even if Crowe has the lead role, the real star of the movie is the concept of original sin.

Audiences seem intrigued by the premise. Two weeks ahead of the film’s domestic debut, moviegoers’ interest is strong.

The forthcoming debate around the film will likely focus on how the filmmaker has expanded the Noah story into a full-length film. As Aronofsky points out, the Genesis tale of Noah, for all of its enduring power, is fleeting in the Bible, and Noah doesn’t speak until a dove returns with an olive branch. That doesn’t make for much of a movie.

“When you really look at the story in the Bible, there’s very, very little information,” Aronofsky said. “It’s four chapters long. No one speaks until the end. And the Noah character doesn’t really have an arc — with a ‘c.’ But the more you read it, the more interesting clues there are. There are many, many hints at things.”

Photo: Edinburgh International Film Festival via Flickr

‘12 Years A Slave’ Puts Spotlight On Hollywood’s Approach To Race

By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Was it ultimately a race about race?

The best picture Oscar is meant to honor the year’s greatest achievement in film, and 12 Years a Slave had no shortage of supporters before winning the top honor Sunday. But for all the film’s artistry, the undercurrent of many 12 Years a Slave conversations hinged on race and how Hollywood has for decades given short shrift to one of the most inglorious chapters in the nation’s history.

The film’s distributor anchored its awards campaign around the line “It’s time,” easily interpreted as an attempt to exhort members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into voting for the movie because it was the right thing to do.

The film’s director, British filmmaker Steve McQueen, said repeatedly during the long awards season that Hollywood appeared more comfortable making Holocaust movies than slavery stories. And in her opening monologue, Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres even joked that if McQueen’s telling of the enslavement of Solomon Northup didn’t take the top Academy Award, voters could be branded as “racists.”

Whether or not Oscar voters were motivated by fear of looking racially insensitive, or to correct a perceived historical wrong, can never be known. But one top Oscar strategist said that Academy Awards voters have a long history of honoring movies that take on the subject of race relations.

“Look at ‘ A Soldiers Story ,’ ‘ In the Heat of the Night ,’ ‘ Ray ,’ ‘ Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner ’ and ‘ Sounder ,’” said Tony Angellotti, reeling off the names of films that collectively garnered 30 Oscar nominations with nine wins. “This kind of socially aware vote for a movie that spotlights racism is rooted in the academy’s DNA.”

All the same, two Oscar voters privately admitted that they didn’t see 12 Years a Slave , thinking it would be upsetting. But they said they voted for it anyway because, given the film’s social relevance, they felt obligated to do so.

In winning the best picture honor, 12 Years a Slave became the first feature directed by a black man to collect the definitive Academy Award, capping a remarkable year for people of color in Hollywood. The Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o from 12 Years a Slave won for supporting actress, Gravity filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron became the first Latino to win the directing Oscar and 20 Feet From Stardom , a look at African-American back-up singers, was named top documentary feature.

Even if they didn’t win any Oscars, 2013’s most acclaimed films included the civil rights tale Lee Daniels’ The Butler , the Jackie Robinson story 42 and the South African biography “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

Though most Oscar ceremonies carry a bit of suspense, the tension inside the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night was palpably different.

Would Gravity , an apolitical thriller about a space accident, return to earth with the best picture? Or would Oscar voters endorse 12 Years a Slave , a film that many feared was so unsettling they put off viewing it until the last moment, if they watched it at all? Or as DeGeneres said in her opening monologue, “Possibility No. 1, ‘ 12 Years a Slave ’ wins best picture. Possibility No. 2, you’re all racists.”

When Will Smith opened the envelope and announced the winner, there was almost an air of relief inside the cavernous theater before the A-listers and others rose as one in applause.

“I think the African-American community is glad the film was chosen as best picture because that is a validation of African-American history and the pain and suffering within that history, and the survival of that history,” said Brenda Stevenson, who teaches African-American history a UCLA. “In that way, it does help to heal.”

Stevenson, who teaches parts of Northup’s memoir in undergraduate and graduate courses, said that 12 Years a Slave ‘s win is a milestone in part because the award proves that a story illuminating the horrors of antebellum slavery can “resonate with a large audience.”

Made for $22 million (with rebates reducing its final cost to close to $18 million), the film has grossed more than $50 million in domestic release, and its Oscar glory will undoubtedly boost its box office prospects, even though it’s set to be released on DVD this week. Executives at distributor Fox Searchlight believe the Oscar victories could bring several million dollars more in ticket sales.

AFP Photo/Joe Klamar

Steve McQueen Has Tirelessly Promoted ’12 Years A Slave’

By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Not long after Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last August, a friend cautioned the British director that his movie was “more important than you.”

It turned out to be far truer than anyone, including McQueen, might have guessed.

Nearly half a year after McQueen’s searing retelling of the 1841 enslavement of Solomon Northup was first shown to moviegoers, 12 Years a Slave remains the year’s hot-button movie, with McQueen the thoughtful and sometimes stubborn voice at the center of the conversation.

“I feel I have to be the spokesman for the movie, and I feel I have to put myself out there,” McQueen said. “Yes, I have to sacrifice a bit of my family, too. And they understand that.”

No matter how long and enthusiastically people talk about Gravity or American Hustle , the context of the discussion rarely transcends Alfonso Cuaron and David O. Russell’s storytelling artistry. But like fellow best picture nominees Philomena and Dallas Buyers Club , McQueen’s film, based on a real life and real issues, focuses on a subject with teeth and staying power. Notwithstanding its period setting, the subject underlying 12 Years a Slave sparks soul-searching about race, complicity and reconciliation.

McQueen’s passion for the topic not only fueled his desire to make the independently financed film but also has sustained him through the seemingly endless awards season, which now stretches from Labor Day to March 2, when the Oscars are finally handed out. What might be a burden to some, in other words, has become for McQueen an opportunity to participate in thoughtful salons around the globe.

Since its initial showing, the 44-year-old filmmaker has crisscrossed the planet to support and discuss his film, a powerful and often difficult-to-watch account of how Northup was drugged, kidnapped and sold and bartered to a series of slave owners, culminating in an overseer so inhumane his name — Epps — is still to this day Southern shorthand for ruthless behavior.

McQueen’s efforts have yielded not only surprisingly strong box office returns of more than $110 million globally but also nine Oscar nominations, including one for director.

All of that comes at a price: It’s cost McQueen the chance to develop another movie and, among the missed family milestones, being with his daughter in Amsterdam on her 15th birthday.

But as the British director said with no evident weariness or regret, “It’s been extraordinarily rewarding.”

One of the unfortunate paradoxes of the Academy Awards season is that it effectively takes the year’s most celebrated filmmakers and, owing to the promotional necessities of awards campaigning, sticks them on the sidelines for half a year as they talk up their movies. Some writers and directors try to work in off hours, only to find their creative energy has been swallowed in the maw of festival premieres and awards dinners.

“It’s kind of all-consuming, to be honest,” said McQueen, who in the last six years directed the features Shame and Hunger , in addition to numerous videos and short films. “You can’t really focus.”

For McQueen, the potential pain of not being able to return to work has been more than offset by the exchanges around his film. A woman from Kenya recounted at a screening at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles how she had been sold into slavery in Abu Dhabi, and at a premiere in New Orleans the director candidly shared his own feelings of recognizing as a young child the particular shame of slavery for people who are black.

“It’s just so stimulating,” McQueen said in an interview conducted for KCRW’s The Business. “So it never gets particularly tiring. Because you are talking about something which is as relevant today as yesterday.”

The neck-and-neck nature of this year’s best picture race — 12 Years a Slave , Gravity and American Hustle all are considered potential victors for the top Oscar — has meant that the people behind the three films have missed few opportunities to tout their work.

Because Fox Searchlight, the distributor of 12 Years a Slave , can’t match the big-studio advertising blitzes behind Warner Bros.’ Gravity and Sony’s American Hustle , much of its marketing has hinged on personal appearances by McQueen and his actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.

“We don’t have a lot of money,” McQueen said. But the publicity generated by 12 Years a Slave’s Oscar nominations, which trail only Gravity for the most this year, has helped bring people into theaters, a difficult task given how graphic the film is.

“This helps us tremendously in getting people to see the movie, in getting people to talk about the movie,” McQueen said. “But we’ve been very lucky that we’ve come this far. It is gratifying when you don’t have the funds that other people have.”

McQueen, who recently became a patron of the long-standing human rights organization Anti-Slavery International, is particularly pleased that the memoir upon which he and screenwriter John Ridley based 12 Years a Slave has been a bestseller for months.

He believes that the film’s success will pave the way for other, seemingly risky productions. (McQueen’s film, like the best picture nominees Her , American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club , The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena, was financed outside the studio system.)

“I so hope that the studios understand that people want to see challenging films — films that are not sort of blockbusters,” McQueen said. “I wish that they could understand that they can actually make money. And that will be so healthy. Come on, guys, it makes sense.”

While McQueen would obviously like to see 12 Years a Slave walk away with a lot of hardware at the Oscar ceremony, for now he’s grateful that the film has prompted talk about slavery and race.

“It can change people’s lives, change people’s perspectives. Art — movies — can actually do that. Crazy, but true,” McQueen said. “It’s been actually extraordinarily rewarding talking to people. Having these kinds of passionate debates about where we are now, where we want to be in the future, and who and what we are as a society.”

At McQueen’s urging, Fox Searchlight will soon announce a partnership with Penguin Books and the National School Boards Assn. to send DVDs of 12 Years a Slave and copies of Northup’s memoir to every public high school library — more than 30,000 campuses — in the United States. The movie and book will be available at the start of the next school year.

Even if McQueen shows no outward signs of exhaustion, it’s clear the nearly half-year grind has taken a toll.

“There’s been a lot going on,” McQueen said. “I feel I just need to take a break and come back, hopefully, with something that can make me have the passion I had when I was making 12 Years a Slave.

Photo: Cornerhouse Manchester via Flickr