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Writer-director Darren Aronofsky at the White Box Gallery in Manhattan, NY. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times / March 6, 2014)

NEW YORK — It was easy to get lost on Darren Aronofsky's ark.

Inside a converted Brooklyn armory in late 2012, Aronofsky was shooting "Noah" on a massive vessel that matched the biblical dimensions of the boat, its rough beams lashed together and the hull sealed with pitch. In every corner of the three-story structure rested packs of ersatz animals — insects on one level, snakes and turtles in another corner and, around the bend, lions quite literally lying with lambs. "Animals are fragile. Please do not touch," a sign warned visitors.

It took production designer Mark Friedberg's team four months to construct the interior ark set for "Noah" (he built another, for exterior shots, near Long Island Sound) and much longer for Industrial Light and Magic and Look Effects to create living, albeit digital, creatures that would walk, fly and slither, two by two, into the ark.

Yet those tasks were ultimately footnotes in the film's epic journey to the screen, as Aronofsky and screenwriter Ari Handel labored to expand a brief but revered story into a full-length movie, all without estranging their financiers and the faithful, both of whom worried that "Noah" would be heretical.

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Opening March 28, the $130-million production marks a departure not only for Aronofsky, whose previous films, including "Black Swan" and "The Wrestler," were more modest undertakings but also for Hollywood itself, which in recent decades has exhibited negligible interest in overtly religious stories. The few scriptural hits, including Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and the recent "Son of God," were produced independently.

If "Noah" attracts a torrent of moviegoers, and early audience surveys here and abroad suggest it will, the film could bolster the prospects for the industry's unusually large religious slate, a roster that includes "Heaven Is for Real," "Exodus," "Last Days in the Desert" and "Mary."

But first Aronofsky's movie has to prove its doubters wrong.

"Once people start seeing the film, believers and nonbelievers will all be able to have conversations about it that I believe will be interesting," an exhausted but positive Aronofsky said after "Noah" had its world premiere in Mexico City two weeks ago. "But you have to go into the film recognizing that your expectations are going to be rattled."

An idea is floated

Nearly 15 years ago, as Aronofsky's experimental sci-fi story "Pi" was about to hit theaters, the filmmaker visited Culver City's Museum of Jurassic Technology. Dedicated to the Earth's history, the fanciful and scientifically creative museum was displaying a small diorama based on Noah's ark.`

Aronofsky easily could have walked past it, but the exhibit caught his eye — and imagination.

"It was a cool little sculpture," the 45-year-old Aronofsky recalled. "And I said to myself, 'It's strange that the biblical epic has been dead for 50 years.' This was clearly a true genre with some of the biggest movies ever made. But at the time the Old Testament hadn't been touched in years."

Soon thereafter, he successfully pitched his flood idea to producer Lynda Obst, but when a Jon Voight television miniseries called "Noah's Ark" came out — replete with an attack on the prophet from a "Waterworld"-like pirate ship — Aronofsky's "Noah" ran aground before he could even write it.

By 2003, after the filmmaker's "Requiem for a Dream" was completed, Aronofsky began working with screenwriter Ari Handel (a college classmate and former neuroscientist) on a "Noah" script. But it was not until after the director's long-delayed "The Fountain" was released in 2006 that Aronofsky started taking the story around town.

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It didn't start well. "Noah" briefly was set up at Universal but lost momentum when studio chief Stacey Snider departed and Universal's "Evan Almighty," a $175-million Steve Carrell comedy set on an ark, bombed in 2007. Rather than watch their screenplay perish, Aronofsky and Handel turned to Canadian comic book artist Niko Henrichon, who in 2008 began a painstaking effort to transform their script into a series of graphic novels (initially in French but now compiled into one English-language volume).

When Aronofsky's "Black Swan" became a commercial hit with more than $329 million in worldwide ticket sales and an Oscar winner for actress Natalie Portman, "Noah" suddenly had fresh energy. In early 2011 producer Arnon Milchan's Regency Enterprises agreed to share equally in financing the production with Paramount Pictures. Russell Crowe was cast as Noah, with Jennifer Connelly playing his wife, Naameh, and Logan Lerman (Ham), Douglas Booth (Shem) and Leo McHugh Carroll (Japheth) as their sons.

But what story would the movie actually tell?

From the start of his filmmaking career, Aronofsky had been drawn to obsessive, largely isolated people fighting forces both external and internal, demons real and imagined: Sean Gullette's tortured mathematician in "Pi," Jared Leto's drug addict in "Requiem for a Dream," Portman's mentally unstable ballerina in "Black Swan" and Mickey Rourke's past-his-prime athlete in "The Wrestler."