It's after midnight on Oct. 3, 2012, day 47 of production on darren Aronofsky's Noah. The cold evening hours have been filled with rain and mud in B.C.-era clothing, no less and the extras assembled on the Oyster Bay, N.Y., set are getting lethargic as they wait for a heavy fog to clear. So Noah decides it's time for some cardio. Russell Crowe stands in front of the throng, barking orders and leading by example. ''Jumping jacks!'' he shouts. ''Touch your toes! C'mon, everybody, let's go!''
The results are immediate: A new electricity zips through everyone, including Aronofsky, who laughs from behind the safety of his monitor. Overhead, the rain machines reboot, manufacturing a deluge of, yes, biblical proportions. Action begins again. ''It was intense and very physical,'' recalls Emma Watson, who plays Noah's adopted daughter alongside Jennifer Connelly as Noah's wife and Logan Lerman as his son. ''But I've had so much practice on Harry Potter films being wet and cold that I could deal.'' Filming was so exhausting, Watson says, that one of her costars dozed off in the middle of a scene. ''Sleep deprivation was a very prominent feature of the shoot,'' she says, laughing. ''Darren does not compromise.''
Sixteen months later, Aronofsky is surely wishing for the days when he had only weather and a couple of drowsy actors to worry about. As he puts the finishing touches on the reported $125 million epic by far his most expensive project in a career dominated by auteurist hits such as The Wrestler and Black Swan there's been a different kind of storm to face. A small but vocal group of Christians has raised alarms that Noah might stray too far from the original biblical story, and The Hollywood Reporter has detailed a struggle between the director and Paramount over the film's final cut. Both Aronofsky and the studio say any tension is well behind them and both confirm that the version hitting theaters on March 28 is entirely the director's. As far as the public goes, though, there's still no telling how choppy the waters may get.
The first warning flare went up last fall. In a widely circulated review of an early draft of the screenplay, Christian author Brian Godawa faulted Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel for turning Noah into an ''environmentalist wacko.'' More recently, Variety linked Noah to a survey by the North Carolina-based Faith Driven Consumer an organization that petitioned to get Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson back on the air after his suspension claiming that 98 percent of FDC respondents were ''not satisfied'' with a faith-themed movie ''which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood.''
To be clear, the respondents had not seen Noah and were not asked about the film specifically. Paramount execs dismiss the FDC survey as unscientific and note that the studio's own polling shows that 83 percent of Christians are interested in seeing Noah. ''There's no question that there are certain groups of people that want something to be a literal execution of the story and aren't interested in any creativity,'' says Paramount's vice chairman, Rob Moore. ''But there are a lot of people who are very intrigued by a movie that encompasses the biblical themes but is an entertaining work.''
Aronofsky says he has nothing but respect for the story of Noah and even used the good book's measurements (300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits) to construct his movie ark in Oyster Bay. ''For us, it was never a question of trying to contradict or reinvent the material,'' says the director, who was raised Jewish and has felt a personal connection to Noah since the seventh grade, when he won a poetry contest for his verse about the ark builder and recited it at the United Nations. ''Noah's been kind of this patron saint in my life. We made sure everything we did in the film would respect the written word.''
Still, the Bible doesn't provide much material for a feature-length movie beyond the familiar Sunday-school elements: the building of an ark, that bout of bad weather, and the rainbow-and-olive-branch denouement. The Noah story fills just five chapters in Genesis, and the hero doesn't get a single word of dialogue until after the flood. ''Since there was so little story there,'' says Aronofsky, ''we had to be more inspired by it.''
So he and Handel used passages from Genesis to help build a psychological portrait of Noah and his family, many of whom aren't even named in the Bible. ''For instance, the first thing that Noah does after they get to land is get drunk,'' says Aronofsky. (Here's the passage: ''And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.'') ''We were like, 'Why is that the first thing that happens? Why would you get drunk after the world was just spared?''' In the end, Aronofsky imagined his hero as a flesh-and-blood man besieged by doubt and survivor's guilt. ''He's really not a jolly character in the Bible,'' explains Aronofsky. ''That's just the way that it has been turned into a kids' story.''
Seems fair enough, but some of the faithful clearly prefer their biblical heroes blemish-free, which Paramount discovered when it tested the film for both believers and nonbelievers. (There were as many as five different versions of the film screened, some over Aronofsky's objections.) ''We went through a process and got a lot of information,'' Moore says. ''You try things. Some work, some don't. Ultimately there was a lot we all learned about what would make the most compelling movie that would hopefully appeal to the biggest audience. And that's what we believe Darren has created.''
Aronofsky confirms that he was battling the studio to release his cut of Noah ''Of course I was,'' he says, ''like on any movie'' but points out that conflict is an inevitable part of filmmaking. ''You're always discussing and debating,'' he says. ''When you make a film this expensive, everybody wants it to be Iron Man.'' Besides, he adds, ''in the end, all that pressure to make the film better made the film better.'' The olive branch has been passed. Rainbow pending.
(Additional reporting by Josh Rottenberg and Nicole Sperling)