'Noah' Set Visit: 28 Things We Learned About Darren Aronofsky's Epic

Considering that Darren Aronofsky's Noah centers on a flood of literally Biblical proportions, it seemed a bit ironic that our Noah set visit in October 2012 was delayed several hours by some routine autumn drizzle. But once we finally arrived on the Long Island set, it quickly became clear that the trip would be worth the wait.

Rising out of the nighttime fog was a massive cube-like structure — the famed ark. It was sitting in the middle of a field surrounded by trees, and though I wasn't more than an hour's drive from my own apartment, seeing it made me feel like I'd been transported to another time and place entirely. Aronofsky's films have never been short on ambition, and Noah obviously wasn't going to be an exception.

Over the course of that evening, we got to speak with Aronofsky and star Russell Crowe to learn just how this stunning passion project had come together over the course of many, many years. Hit the jump to find out what we learned.

When we arrived on the set, located within Nassau County's Planting Fields Historic Park, the cast and crew were on Day 46 of a planned 71-day shoot. Though it was late at night, energy was running high — thanks in part to Guns 'n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle," which was playing at top volume during each take. The filmmakers needed everyone feeling lively, because the scene being shot that night was an action-packed one.

Humanity had learned about the ark, and the skies were beginning to pour. 400 extras desperately stormed the structure as giant, angelic Watchers (really stunt people on stilts) tried to fend them off. Meanwhile, Crowe's Noah and his son Ham (Logan Lerman) were fighting through the mob to try and board the ark themselves.

Here's what else we learned on our trip to Biblical end times:

THE ARK:

The ark we saw on set was just a third of the ark we've seen in trailers. The other two-thirds were added in post-production.

The parts of the ark that weren't made out of computer magic were made, in a large part, out of Styrofoam. Many of the big, rough logs you see are just foam painted brown.

While Styrofoam likely wasn't used in Noah's original ark, Aronofsky otherwise tried to stick to the specifications spelled out in the Bible: "three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high," and so on.

... Which is also why Aronofsky's ark is a rectangle and not a boat, as is usually depicted in tellings of the story.

That's the whole point. It's just meant to survive. This is what it describes in the Bible. It gives you the measurements and it describes a rectangle. 300 cubits long by 75 cubits wide by 45 cubits high. And if you think about it, it had no reason to — it wasn't going anywhere. It was just about surviving the flood. So that was always the interpretation of artists and other films that doesn't really make any sense.

Plus, Aronofsky digs the visual symbolism of a rectangular ark.

For me it's kind of interesting because it actually looks like a coffin too. It's carrying the living through the death of the world. There's a lot of poetry and symbolism.

Aronofsky's ark was surrounded by some rather impressive bamboo scaffolding reminiscent of Mike and Doug Starn's 2010 Met installation "Big Bambú." In fact, the Starns actually built the Noah scaffolding themselves.

NOAH'S JOURNEY

Noah will be Aronofsky's sixth feature film when it opens this year, but it was supposed to be his second. "The first movie I pitched after Pi, my first film, was Noah," Aronofsky told us.

... But Noah's Ark, a little-remembered, poorly reviewed 1999 Hallmark TV movie starring Jon Voight, sank Noah. Aronofsky had set his project up with a producer when Noah's Ark came out, but the producer got cold feet.

After that, Aronofsky explains, "it sort of sat in my head since '98, for ten years, and then we eventually wrote a script for Universal and [set it up there] after The Fountain."

... But then Evan Almighty came along to drown that effort as well. "We finished the script, coincidentally, the same week that Evan Almighty came out," Aronofsky said. "So it wasn't really the best time to hand it to the studio."

What finally got Noah afloat was the comic book, which, ironically, Aronofsky had only made because he'd all but given up on the film. "We never thought the movie was gonna happen when we started the comic," he said. "[W]hen I announced the comic, that's when some people in Hollywood started to prick up their ears."

(If that story sounds weirdly familiar, that's probably because it's how The Fountain came to be as well.)

Noah is Aronofsky's first big-budget studio project, and he appreciated being able to use "less smoke and mirrors" in production. "This is the first time I've actually made a film that people want to make," he remarked.

CROWE'S JOURNEY

In between takes, a cheerful Crowe recalled the two promises Aronofsky had made to get him on board.

The first promise is, you will never have to wear a pair of sandals. And the second promise is, never at any stage will I require you to stand on the bow of the ship flanked by a giraffe and an elephant.

From what we could see, Aronofsky made good on his word. Crowe was wearing boots, and the rectangular ark had no bow.

Once Crowe arrived, he discovered that the role brought some special challenges. "I've never gone for a swim in 31.6 degrees off the coast of Iceland before. That was a very interesting experience," he said. "We found out later that night that that's actually the most dangerous beach in Iceland."

But even that, apparently, was easier than what came after. Asked what was the most challenging aspect of filming so far, Crowe immediately answered: "Lying naked on the beach after going for that swim in 31.6 degrees for a whole day. Getting so cold. So that was interesting."

Especially, he added, as the beach had stones that were " tiny and perfectly round" and would "get in places." So now when you see Noah, go ahead and picture Crowe trying to pick sand out of his butt between scenes.

SHOOTING

Noah's unique look came from the "primordial" Icelandic landscape, where the cast and crew had spent four weeks shooting the pre-flood scenes. The New York set was then designed to mimic the look of their Iceland set.

Even so, it was important to Aronofsky that he shoot in his home state: "We really wanted to shoot the film in New York. We wanted big things like this in New York." And now that he's pulled off such a large-scale shoot — with some help from the state — he's eager to tell people what New York can do. "I want everyone to come out here and see this because I want to brag about what New York can do. It's important for people to know."

One of the New York locations was a soundstage in Brooklyn, where the interior scenes of the ark were shot. It's "just spectacular," Aronofsky gushed. "Three-story sized set. It's incredible. Three decks, and catacombs, crossbeams, a furnace... It's intricate, it's very intricate."

Those three decks, by the way, were for three different types of animals: mammals, reptiles, and birds.

THE STORY

The Bible wasn't Aronofsky's only source material. Both he and Crowe talked about reading different texts from ancient times, and about looking at archaeological research on prediluvian human life.

("Prediluvian" means "before the flood." Maybe you knew that before I went on that Noah set visit. I didn't.)

Noah "isn't your grandfather's Biblical epic." Aronofsky told us, "I knew the first thing I wanted to do was get away from swords and sandals — well, I mean, not swords but sandals, and robes, and beards, and you know that stuff."

Noah isn't your Sunday school teacher's cute little fable, either. "There's a whole thing that people don't really think about as they think about toy arks and stuffed animals and stuff," remarked Aronofsky.

What it is is "the first apocalypse story," Aronofsky explained. "In the book of Genesis, it's Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and then Noah. So it's basically, God creates the world and then two stories later he destroys it. So it's like, you know, what's that all about? What caused him to do that?"

To turn a big, familiar event into a compelling drama, Aronofsky looked to another waterlogged epic for inspiration. "I think it's a similar thing like the other big boat movie, Titanic," he said. "How do you put a story in that? So we tried to come up with a real human family drama that would hopefully grip people."

And of course, there's the character of Noah himself. According to Crowe, what sets him apart from other people is "certain decisions about how he lives his life." He continued, "I'm trying to avoid the word 'pure,' but he has a simpler understanding of what is the relationship between man and earth and man and the Creator is supposed to be."

I'll close with this photo of myself and the other journalists on the Noah set, because... well, just because it's a lovely photo, if I do say so myself.

NOAH

Noah opens March 28.