Some months ago, I devoted one of my weekly “Bootleg Files” to a film called The Noah. If you never heard of “The Noah,” that is understandable: the movie has barely been seen anywhere. If it is one of the most obscure movies ever made, it is also one of the most devastating.
“The Noah” is basically a one-person film starring Robert Strauss as a career soldier who lands on a deserted island following a nuclear war. It appears he is the sole survivor of the apocalypse. In his solitude, his sanity slowly begins to fray and begins to have conversations with voices which he names Friday (played by Geoffrey Holder) and Friday-Anne (played by Sally Kirland). The soldier’s grasp on his reality deteriorates steadily and he is taken to given classroom lessons to phantom students and holding military maneuvers in the rain while barking orders to invisible soldiers. His sanity returns abruptly when the radiation detection badge he brought with him signals the atomic cataclysm he escaped arrived, dooming him to a slow death by radiation.
The only thing more stunning than “The Noah” is the story of its creation. Shortly after my initial essay was published, the filmmaker Daniel Bourla contacted me. In this exclusive interview, Daniel Bourla recounts the rise and disappearance of this lost gem of independent cinema. (And with luck or divine intervention, maybe a distributor will read this interview and move to bring “The Noah” into the release it deserves!)
What was the genesis (no pun intended) of “The Noah.” Specifically, where did you get the idea of the story, the style in which it was made, and the notion of casting Robert Strauss?
The birth of this film occurred in 1964, while in Israel with Carl Foreman conducting a seminar on screenplay-writing at Hebrew University. There were many screenplays submitted at the time but almost all quite unrealistic from a country with practically no previous film production background: 700-page scripts, casts of thousands, etc.
At one such meeting, I made a comment that “if one really had something to say in a film, he could do it with one man and a fly in a room”. The same evening, testing my theory, I begun writing “The Noah” – finished it in four nights.
From day one, I was fully aware of the dangers and traps of such a film. I needed to translate the metaphysical and symbolic nature of the story into something real and urgent and to avoid turning it into a childish parable or a melodramatic thrill a la “Twilight Zone.” I envisioned it as a black-and-white film (essential for the use of a viewer’s imagination) and with no star for the role of Noah that could stamp self-importance into it. It was meant to be a study of absurdity, a satire of human nature but above all the story of one man in an island that carries with him our entire civilization (as viewed by him). I wanted Mickey Rooney for the role of Noah.
As I had just signed a long-tern contract to head the first film studio in Israel, I was not free to pursue production of “The Noah” until 1967, when I finally traveled to the US to meet Rooney.
Mickey Rooney loved the story and felt that this would be his big opportunity for a comeback. Unfortunately, no one wanted Mickey Rooney. Not even his close friend, Richard Quine, who, after reciting the story to him, asked me for another meeting, but only to introduce me to Irving Lazar, who, after also hearing the story, promised full financing – if I would forget Rooney, use a star (Jack Lemmon was mentioned) and do the film “properly” with a big budget and in color (turning the characters of Friday and Friday-Anne into visible persons was also mentioned).
Producers who became interested in producing “The Noah” at the time included Sidney Glazer (“The Producers”), Ely Landau (“The Pawnbroker”), Robert Chartoff (“Rocky”), Robert Aldrich. However – even though some did buy the B&W concept, there was no agreement on the actor for the role of Noah (Aldrich wanted Robert Morse, Glazer went as far as signing Zero Mostel for it – finally using him for “The Producers”).
If I did not succumb to the big budget temptation was mainly due to Dalton Trumbo, with whom I had become close at the time. He loved the story of “The Noah” and fully agreed with me that it had to be done my way. He also tried to raise financing for my film, on my terms, but was not successful.
At the end, I did find a producer who was willing to do “The Noah” on my terms, Louis de Rochemont III, and I immediately set out to scout for a location.
When we were ready to begin production, it turned out that Mickey Rooney had signed a long-term engagement for a show in Lake Tahoe and would not be available for months. While in L.A., I saw Robert Strauss in a street one day and – without even knowing that he was an actor – I proposed the role to him. He had a great face and that was enough for me.
“The Noah” is an emotional shattering experience, with Strauss’ character descending into madness, coming back to his senses abruptly, and then serenely sitting back to await a slow death by radiation. As a director, how did you get Strauss to plumb the depth of his talents to create such a remarkable performance?
I never really thought of Noah as “descending into madness” – even though this is correct. I visualized Noah as a normal person – with one slight malfunction of his mind: the creation of Friday and Friday-Anne as a defense mechanism in coping with his loneliness. It is after the expulsion of his two imaginary creations that the pattern of “God” takes over Noah’s mind and he proceeds with his civilization of illusion: the Little Boy (In the beginning there was nothing); his “civilian population” (Tower of Babel); religions, and, ultimately, his fall back into what he knows best: the Army. Noah regains his senses (sanity) when he destroys his already extinct world once more, and his subconscious mind finally accepts the unacceptable: the utter loneliness of the last man on Earth.
It is at the very end, when Noah lowers the flag to half mast and sits outside his porch, in his class-A uniform, waiting for his death, that I wanted this film to raise an ultimate question: Did Noah play God or when he dies – and all memory of the human race dies with him – man’s God dies too?
As for Strauss’ performance, I cannot fully explain it. He never really understood the story and he fought my direction on every step. Our relationship became so bad that from one point on, we spoke to each other through the cameraman. It was admittedly difficult for Strauss to perform with no other actor facing him (not even a voice, as everything was dubbed after the shooting) but I utilized his extremely expressive face to achieve the results that I wanted and this meant take, after take, after take.
There was only one shot in the film that I was happy with the first and only take: the very long and continuous shot of Noah’s night inspection of his troops in the rain. This really great performance was given after a long fight and my angry declaration that I was stopping the shooting and I was getting another actor to do the film. Still, in retrospect, there must have been something deep into Strauss that – regardless of our fights and disagreements – fitted as a custom-made glove my visualized character of Noah. Strauss, who died in 1975, to my regret, never saw the finished film.
Where was “The Noah” shot? And when was production completed?
“The Noah” was shot in Puerto Rico in 10 weeks in 1968. Actually, eight weeks of shooting with a two week break in between, waiting for Strauss’ face to return to one unified color after shaving his beard (the bearded scenes were shot first).
Unfortunately, most of the money that was raised for the film (less than $80,000) was used for the shooting (the biggest expense being Strauss’ salary) and there was no money left for editing and the placing of the film’s elaborate sound track. “The Noah” remained in its cans until 1973, when some funds were found to complete it and then it took six months for editing and the addition of its sound track.
A side comment on a question that has not been asked: the soundtrack of the film. There is not a single voice in the second part of the film that has been placed in it indiscriminately and, although most are virtually lost in the plethora of sounds that overwhelm this part, quite a few have interesting backgrounds. Two examples:
I was searching for Hirohito’s surrender announcement and was informed that the Japanese army felt so humiliated by their Emperor’s surrender that the tape of the announcement was destroyed. How I found a copy of the tape is a long story but I did include Hirohito’s voice in the film – following Truman’s announcement of dropping the A-Bomb on Hiroshima: “a military base.”
I wanted a Polish-speaking man to record on tape a command for a cavalry attack against German panzers and I visited a Polish bar. While I was explaining what I wanted to the bartender, a man, sitting next to me, informed me that the actual commander of this attack was now living in New York. I did locate the one-armed former cavalry colonel and it is his own voice giving the command in the film.
(During the film’s editing stage, the head of Decca’s London Records at the time saw the film at the moviola, became very excited with its prospects and proposed to make a quadraphonic record of the film’s soundtrack. This recording was produced by Decca in London in 1974 and – to the best of my knowledge – still exists.)
What happened to “The Noah” after production was completed? Did the film have any theatrical or festival screenings? And has it been shown on television or released on home video anywhere?
When “The Noah” finally gained its soundtrack, I was financially exhausted and needed to earn money for my family, which never really understood my turning down lucrative Hollywood offers for no-money-earning “integrity”. Furthermore, I was under the impression that the film had lost its timing. It was meant to be an anti-war film for the revolution of the 1960s, and by 1974 the revolution was dead and buried. Nevertheless, in my then innocence, I took “The Noah” to Cannes film festival for a screening, with $76 in my pocket. I may have been innocent but not blind. When I saw the market atmosphere of Cannes, I didn’t even bother opening the film cans. I took my $76 to the casino, turned them into $270, had a nice French dinner, returned to the casino, transformed the $270 (minus dinner cost) into $1,700 – and I used that cash as a deposit for the purchase the U.S. distribution rights of a funny porno film that I had seen.
This porno film by Lasse Braun (“Penetration”, re-titled “French Blue”) was released in 1975, grossed over $760,000 only at its New York opening in the first three weeks and was actually reviewed by Roger Ebert.
After this, “The Noah” was almost forgotten, as I became deeper and deeper involved in more lucrative (but also challenging) ventures: US distribution of foreign films; formation of a Pay-TV project in Italy with Franco Cristaldi (“Amarcord,” “Cinema Paradiso”); advisor to Silvio Berlusconi; defying the Greek government’s TV monopoly by establishing and operating the first private TV station in Greece – and other Noah-type Quixotic undertakings.
In a 1997 trip to New York, I met Jerry Carlson of CUNY-TV (the television station of the City University of New York), who heard the story of the film, asked to view a VHS, and subsequently ran “The Noah” three times at CUNY-TV. As for film festivals, I never did submit “The Noah” to any – mainly because of their entry rules limiting submissions to recent productions of no more then a year or two prior to festival date.
What is the current status of “The Noah”? Will it ever be released?
I seriously doubt if it will ever be released theatrically, but maybe a company would be interested in releasing it on DVD. If anything, regardless of its merits, this film is one that should be viewed in film schools, as the only truly one-man feature film in existence.
What are your current projects?
I have been involved with film in all my adult life but I never considered myself as a film director needing to do films. “The Noah” was just a challenge: a test of my ability to tell a story with the absolute minimum of props – and interesting enough to hold a viewer’s attention for over 100 minutes.
I never thought of doing another film after “The Noah.” Recently, however, I did finally come up with a missing third story for a Greek trilogy that I wanted to film long ago but had only written the first two stories. It is a low-budget film that I would like to shoot digitally in Greece, but I doubt if I can get the financing for it.
The film production scene is no longer the one that existed in the 60s and 70s, when a filmmaker could tell a story personally (no script) to various producers. Now one cannot even submit a screenplay to a production company, unless through an agent, and it is questionable if any production company would be interested in any story that does not depend on stars or special effects, or has substance that may place an undue burden in a viewer’s mind by leading him to participate or think.