The Message

03.27.14

‘Noah’ is a Global Warming Epic About the Battle Between Religion and Science, Says Cinematographer

Darren Aronofsky’s longtime DP, Oscar nominee Matthew Libatique—who also shot Iron Man and Iron Man 2—says the Biblical epic offers a stern warning about climate change.

The battle lines have already been drawn when it comes to Noah, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s staggeringly ambitious $130 million adaptation of the Noah’s Ark story from the Book of Genesis.

Conservative pundit Glenn Beck, the blowhardiest of the blowhards, claimed it might spread “dangerous disinformation” (he hasn’t seen it). It’s been banned in Pakistan, Bahrain, Qatar, U.A.E., and Indonesia, for allegedly contradicting the teachings of Islam. While Pope Francis reportedly gave the film the Vatican’s blessing after a brief tête-à-tête with the film’s burly star, Russell Crowe.

For those who’ve actually seen the film, however, one thing is undeniable: it looks stunning.

There are gorgeous desert vistas. Rolling mountains. A large-scale battle sequence straight out of The Lord of the Rings. Montage after stunning montage depicting everything from the story of Adam and Eve to the creation of the universe. And the giant, coffin-like ark itself, which the production crew erected in Long Island—and which weathered its own storm, courtesy of Sandy.

Noah’s stunning imagery is thanks to Matthew Libatique, longtime director of photography to Aronofsky. The two met while studying at the AFI Conservatory, and the Filipino-American from Queens has worked on every Aronofsky film save The Wrestler, earning a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for Black Swan. He’s also served as the DP for Iron Man and Iron Man 2, as well as a host of music videos, including Justin Timberlake and Jay Z’s “Suit & Tie.”

Libatique sat down with The Daily Beast in New York to discuss the controversial Biblical epic, criticism over its accuracy, the film’s “environmentalism” message, and much more.

I understand Darren had been working on the script since before you began filming The Fountain, but when did he bring Noah to your attention?

Back then. We’re very close and have known each other for twenty years. Right between Requiem and The Fountain, he told me, “Oh, there’s this thing called The Understudy about this young woman in the theater who loses her part to her understudy,” and that turned out to be Black Swan. The same with this. It was an idea that Darren had been kicking around for a while—about ten years.

What were the earliest conversations like as far as the look of the film goes? As the film progresses, you go from these beautiful desert vistas to a much darker, grimmer look.

Our earliest conversations were about how we were going to cover the scenes, and the movie’s palette. Zohar was a key element in understanding the color of what we were going to do light-wise. Everything’s rooted in the narrative.

“The fact that we’re still in a society where people are denying climate change is happening is insane. Science and religion have always been in conflict.”

Unfortunately, your source material here is only a few pages long, so the look really had to completely spring from the imagination.

This is the first time I’ve ever made a movie with no references. I didn’t have any. But we scouted Iceland and it’s just stunning. There are these beautiful vistas and the atmosphere’s so clear that you can’t tell the distance between mountains. Ultimately, this film is a road movie and it’s episodic, and it jumps off in Iceland which serves as the catalyst for the movie since it was born out of naturalism. The things that are up to discussion in terms of the Biblical accuracy—that seems like an oxymoron, “Biblical accuracy”—the naturalism was going to help the film be rooted in something that people could feel connected to.

Darren really wanted to capture the moss, and the geothermal quality of it. It feels like the beginning there—like a land untouched by man. That was the largest them of the film: environmentalism. In the marketing of the film they shy away from it. I don’t know why it’s a taboo thing to say “environmentalism” cause you’re going to scare off half the population because they’ve been told “environmentalism” is a bad thing? The idea that we have to stay away from the issue because we’re going to polarize half the audience speaks to how fucking dysfunctional we are.

What is the film’s environmentalist message?

I love the environmentalism allegory. It hasn’t been talked about much because of this fear. But one of the things I appreciate about the film is its statement and about how timely it is with climate change. People are wholeheartedly denying climate change because they’ve been told to deny it. So the fact that we’re still in a society where people are denying climate change is happening is insane. Science and religion have always been in conflict.

And the story of Noah really sees these two things—religion and science—in conflict.

I think that’s what we’re dealing with in our world, and that’s why the film’s important. If you think about the conflict between science and religion, it speaks to that. One of the great characters in the film is Tubal-cain. I’ve seen things written that he’s a shallow, thinly written villain. I disagree. Listen to the man’s words! Those are not Marvel lines, man. He bites the head off a lizard and Ham says, “What are you doing? That was precious! There’s only two of them!” And he says, “There’s only one of me. You have to seize it. The Creator’s created this for us—to take dominion over all the things that He created, He created man.” That idea is happening now. Nobody says it. John Boehner doesn’t say it. But that’s what he fucking feels. It’s insane.

It’s funny to hear people attack the “accuracy” of Noah. He lives to be 900 in the Book of Genesis. Obviously this stuff didn’t actually happen as written.

I know! And whose interpretation is accurate? This is a Muslim prophet, a Christian prophet, a Jewish prophet. Those three factions are in conflict at all times. Those are three of the major religious factions in our world, and they can’t agree. So don’t tell me it’s not accurate. That’s retarded!

You had to create not one, but two creation stories here. There’s the Biblical creation story that opens the film with Adam and Eve, and then the montage midway through the film illustrating a more scientific creation of the universe.

To be honest, I had a lot to do with the Adam and Eve segments and the Cain and Abel, but the creation story at the center was a standalone piece that was created by ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), though it was born from Darren’s imagination. It’s a beautifully written sequence, Russell’s voiceover, juxtaposed with Clint Mansell’s music, and the imagery.

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Matthew Libatique (right) on the set of "Noah." (Niko Tavernise/Paramount)

And your team actually erected this giant ark out in Long Island.

That ramp had a severe pitch to it and we had to shoot battle scenes on that ramp, so everyone had to be tied off. But the production designer had an intellectual take on that ark, and it was difficult to work on the interior and exterior, but it was architecturally stunning. It looks like a giant coffin. What I love about that is you get a sense that there’s still danger, and that you don’t know if they’re going to survive. Is it based on a real story? It’s based on a story. A real story? I don’t know, to be honest. So you go into it thinking: The animals are going to survive, because we’re here! But the design of the ark lends an element of drama to the film.

There’s an epic battle sequence in the film involving The Walkers—rock monsters—and what looks like thousands of people storming Noah’s Ark.

We ended up shooting night-for-day, where I’d shoot at night and light it for day. I had 17 32,000-watt balloons rigged to 100-foot rain bars, and four cameras in the rain. It was a massive ordeal. We had 350 extras, too, and shot that in the Planting Fields Arboretum in Upper Brookville, New York. I talked to the Waterworld people and the people who did The Flood, because we were curious about how to handle all the water. “What do we do about the water?” So we got a compressor and we would literally pump air into each of the four cameras so we could blow water off the lenses. It was absolutely mad! Rain’s never easy in films.

You guys went through a lot during filming. Superstorm Sandy damaged the giant ark and some of the sets you built out in Long Island.

Nothing with Darren is easy, you know? He’s uncompromising. Sweetest guy, but he’s uncompromising as a filmmaker. I’ve known him since the first day of film school at AFI, and he’s mellowed out a little bit. As he’s gotten older, he’s had a kid, and is a man, but he’s the same dude. He wants to put every cent on the screen, and I think he’s extremely special in that way. I think he’s going to get more and more intense as time goes on because technology has afforded us the ability for other people—directors—to know workflows, and they’re trying to streamline their films. Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Darren. They know what’s going on and want to put every cent up on the screen. People think if you have a bigger budget you have the luxury of time, but that’s not true, because you end up just throwing more money at it. I heard someone say that the visual effects budget of Noah was bigger than the budget of Black Swan, which cost around $12-14 million, and that’s true!

You’ve worked with Aronofsky a bunch and also worked with David Fincher on the music video for the Justin Timberlake and Jay Z song “Suit & Tie.” Are they similar directors?

They’re very similar. David has a lot of technical knowledge—he speaks the technical language. Darren doesn’t speak that language, but Darren is uncompromising and strict in his visual language. The only difference, really, is that David speaks that technical language on the set that other people don’t know. But they’re both very inspiring.

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Russell Crowe is Noah in "Noah". (Niko Tavernise/Paramount)

I’m curious about you and Darren’s DP/director relationship. Did you have any disagreements on Noah?

I can’t remember many, to be honest. We’ve come a long way. We used to fight incessantly. We’ve always had a creative-but-combative relationship with each other, even in school, but we just like working together. And Darren really is brilliant. I would never tell him that because he’s a good friend—and he’s so full of shit, too—but he is. I love the guy. The Fountain was one long fight, The Wrestler was divorce, and then we reconciled on Black Swan. But The Fountain was a tough movie for both of us. Everything happened. It got shut down in Australia, we made it for $35 million, which was less than half of what we had when we began. This was a three-time period film that we made for $35 million! It was the most high-pressure situation I’ve ever been in, and we ended up not getting along so well. I was going through a divorce; he’d just had his first kid; he was working with his partner at the time, Rachel Weisz. A lot of stuff was going on. But it wasn’t aesthetic stuff, we just argue about silly things. He had this big New Yorker article come out and I said to him, “Hey, did you really say in that that working with me was like being in a bad marriage?” And he said, “Yeah, I did.” And I said, “Well, fuck you, man!” [Laughs] 

We’re seeing more and more cinematographers directing features, like Christopher Nolan’s longtime DP Wally Pfister, whose film, Transcendence, is out next month. Do you have any desire to direct?

I want to be remembered as one of the greatest cinematographers there ever was, and I’m not there yet. But I realized I wanted to do this at 20. It was the closest thing to not having a regular job that really made sense to me, and incorporates things that I love: imagery and technique. I used to work at a Tower Records and shot a film after-hours there. I bought this 16mm camera and rented a doorway dolly, and had some track, and I kept doing all these shots but never spoke to the actor about his performance. My girlfriend at the time said, “Maybe you shouldn’t direct.” I was like, “Why?” And she said, “You don’t give a fuck about the director at all! You just keep shooting, and shooting, and shooting.”

And then, when I saw Do the Right Thing, it inspired me to no end. Ernest Dickerson is the reason why I’m a cinematographer. Then someone turned me on to Last Tango in Paris and The Conformist, and the relationship between Bertolucci and Storaro, and then I saw Platoon and was interested in Oliver Stone and Bob Richardson. I saw all these director-cinematographer relationships and said, “I want one of those.” I go to AFI and meet Darren Aronofsky the first day. I was sitting next to him by accident. I recognized his accent and said, “I’m also from New York. I’m from Queens.” And we hit it off the first day and became friends.