Ron Howard’s epic In The Heart Of The Sea is released in UK cinemas on Boxing Day, starring Chris Hemsworth (Avengers) the story that inspired Moby Dick is a thrilling tale of man vs nature.
We’ll be bringing you a review next week, but in the meantime you can get a flavour of the movie with this insightful Q & A with Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker (George Polllard), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Ron Howard, writer Charles Leavitt and author Nathaniel Philbrick.
QUESTION: Ron, what drew you to want to make In the Heart of the Sea?
RON HOWARD: It was a combination of things. I’ve long had an interest in doing a movie set in the ocean. There were sequences from Splash and Cocoon on and underwater, and I was comfortable enough. I don’t love the ocean. It’s not a place I go for recreation, but I think there’s something about the power and the mystery of it that has always drawn me to the dramatic potential of it. Many years ago, I tried to get a movie made about a Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, which had been confiscated at one point. I wanted to tell that story but could never get the resources together to tell that one. Later, I came very close to making The Sea-Wolf, a Jack London drama set on the ocean. Powerful. Didn’t quite come together.
When this one came to me, it embodied, I thought, the cinematic potential that those movies offered as a drama. It also offered this chance to sort of demystify Moby-Dick, because I had no idea the mythology was inspired by real events, and the screenplay was really strong. When I found out it was a true story and went back and sort of reconciled the two, I was impressed by the adaptation. And – last but probably most important – was that Chris Hemsworth brought it to me. We had had such a good experience on Rush, and I just had so much respect for Chris, and thought he was really born to play Owen Chase. I knew I liked working with him; I knew what he could do with it; and I knew it was going to be a tremendous challenge. But with Chris in that all-important leadership role, not only would we be in good shape in front of the camera, but also I knew behind the camera that the challenges could be met.
QUESTION: Since so many people know the story of Moby-Dick, and not many people know the story about the Essex, what was the biggest preconception from Herman Melville’s novel that you wanted to dispel with In the Heart of the Sea?
CHARLES LEAVITT: The biggest preconception about Moby-Dick … Well, first of all, the true story of the Essex was all in Nathaniel’s incredible book. The whale basically smashes and sinks the boat on page 100, and then the rest of the story about the Essex is really this incredible survival story. So, what I had to do was figure out: if this was the story that inspired Moby-Dick, how do you keep the whale in the movie, in a way. By integrating this fictional account of Melville coming and interviewing the cabin boy, Nickerson, many years later, I imagined that the real story is part of it, and then Melville’s imagination takes over, writing Moby-Dick. So that was the puzzle that I had to try and solve with the book, originally.
RON HOWARD: In reading about it, and then going back and reading Moby-Dick, and then meeting with marine mammal specialists, I was kind of blown away by how the extreme behaviors that Melville wrote about in Moby-Dick – in terms of the whale and the attack – were not only in the accounts written by the crew of the Essex but in other accounts of sperm whales turning on their hunters. So I didn’t have to invent very much in terms of the behavior. The intensity was there.
QUESTION: Chris, can you talk about your physical transformation for the harrowing later scenes in the film.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: From the very beginning, we all had somewhat of a goal of where we wanted to get to, which was to look as skinny and beat to hell as we possibly could make ourselves look. So we started on one diet of a few thousand calories, and then each week or two we’d reduce that intake, until the last couple of weeks, when it was down to 500 or 600 calories, or something, which is a pretty ugly sort of an experience, you know? And it led to some interesting mood swings and inconsistent patterns of emotion – many of which my wife can vouch for – which were negative. But, what was kind of great about it was that we were all doing it together, so I reckon it helped form this great bond and camaraderie between us, one that we might not have got, or found in such depth in, if we hadn’t had that experience together.
QUESTION: What was your toughest day filming on the ocean?
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: The toughest day. Actually, the stuff on the ocean I kind of loved. It was difficult on the whale boats, because logistically getting on and off them was so tricky. And that was when we were at our hungriest. You were just sitting in the hot, beating sun; you’re either soaking wet or dry; you’ve got the beards glued on and falling off, and it was kind of uncomfortable. But I’ve got to say, being out in the ocean, and at that period of the shoot, I did kind of love it as well, as challenging as it was.
The hardest stuff, I thought, was in the tank in London. We thought the stuff on the ocean was going to be trickier, but I think the stuff in the studio ended up being more challenging, because you’re dealing with all the machines and so on. It basically felt like a theme park from hell – being shot with water cannons and flipped out of boats; Ron was on the loudspeaker and we couldn’t even hear. Whereas, with the ocean, we just had to adapt to whatever the environment was, and sort of get on with it, which was nice.
RON HOWARD: I feel like out on the ocean was actually working for the actors. And at the end of the day, I would apologize to everybody to say, I know this is tough. They would just say, ‘Well, first of all, it’s just a fraction of what the real guys that we were playing went through, and we get that, and secondly, it’s good for the performances. This is what we’re trying to play.’ But I did see the life kind of draining out of these guys. I remember saying to Ben, ‘We’re going to have to shoot a thing over here,’ and I looked over and Ben, who’s an unbelievably hard worker, was just staring down, just lost, you know?
And even by the end, when we were doing the stuff on the desert island, the little pathetic snacks that everybody would relish so much when they came out were just kind of a cucumber with some olive oil and an almond on it. But it was interesting, because everybody would just take it, go over and hunch down, eat it quietly, and kind of savor it. I felt both terrible and fabulous about it [laughs].
QUESTION: Ben and Tom, how was the diet for you? Were there any cheaters?
TOM HOLLAND: Oh yeah, of course [laughs].
BENJAMIN WALKER: It did get kind of competitive by the end. We tried to make it as fun as possible by keeping an eye on who was cheating and who wasn’t. In much the same way as Ron was saying, it did kind of make our jobs easier. We were miserable, cranky, emotional, and then, eventually, really kind of jaundiced, translucent and faint. And if you could remember your lines, it was usually pretty good.
TOM HOLLAND: The diet wasn’t really that bad for me because obviously these guys have got to eat way more than I do. We were on the same diet throughout the whole thing, so I didn’t really have it that bad. I was kind of lucky [laughs].
RON HOWARD: Exactly, for a while we were saying, ‘Don’t lose any more.’
TOM HOLLAND: But, no, even though it was difficult, we were doing it for all the right reasons because these guys we were playing really went through this. So whenever something was difficult on set, it felt right. I guess the diet kind of makes the movie really what it is at some point.
QUESTION: Were you really eating those hardtack ship biscuits?
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Can I say something about that? The hardtack was amazing; it tastes like gingerbread or something.
TOM HOLLAND: Yeah, it was so good.
BENJAMIN WALKER: It was heavenly, buddy.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: They were props, so you’re not meant to eat the props or the set food. And it comes out, and they’ve got this little box of it, and in the scene we have to break off a piece, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is delicious.’ So, in between the scenes, I was thinking, ‘This is awesome.’ Then the props guys would say, ‘We don’t have much, stop eating it.’ We’d say, ‘It’s fine,’ and then just keep sneaking more and more of it [laughs]. And then later, once I’d eaten, I’d had a taste of it and thought, ‘This tastes horrible.’ So in that state of being starving, it was delicious, but it probably wasn’t to anyone else.
TOM HOLLAND: I was lucky during that scene because I was the first person to take a piece, so I would just take the biggest piece from the pot.
RON HOWARD: And there were a lot of takes [laughs]. ‘Could we do another one, Ron? I think I can do a little better.’
TOM HOLLAND: ‘Just one more take.’
QUESTION: Ron, you talked earlier about leadership. Can each of you talk about how your own leadership abilities informed your directing, and how Chris’s informed his performance?
RON HOWARD: Well, that aspect of my job varies from movie to movie and cast to cast because my job is to channel everybody’s efforts and fulfill possibilities of the story. And in doing so, I’ve learned over the years to identify fairly early what various actors need. It’s not always cohesive and consistent, but I try to create an environment where the talented people in front of and behind the camera can inform it, and I shape it. So it’s a little bit more like being an editor-in-chief of the talents that they have to offer here.
Early on, I had to let people know that this was important. In the early auditions, when the exercise regiments and the dieting began, I had to be aware and let people know that living up to this was a job requirement. But, very shortly, particularly these Chris and Ben, and also Cillian Murphy, were so committed and dedicated to it that I didn’t have to keep watching it or pushing it as we went through the movie. I could concentrate on helping them create, despite the difficult circumstances, and to give great performances and fulfill the possibilities of these scenes, and it wasn’t just the leads. There’s an element of it that’s ensemble, and everybody kind of had their moment or two or three. I felt like the whole group was really inspired in the way that they would acknowledge that this was a scene built around another character, and they were there with the emotions and the support to make it happen. So, to be honest, I will never forget the commitment that these guys, and the entire cast, made on behalf of the characters they were playing in this movie. It was really inspiring.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: It’s interesting, I remember Ron saying, early, before we started shooting, ‘You’re going to need to be the example. Everyone’s going to be hungry and tired and so on, but I need you to help lead the charge and keep everyone positive.’ And I actually turned up late in the piece. These guys had already been together for probably three or four weeks, and I’d been shooting something else. So I definitely felt a little anxious about being the new guy at school yet having to play the kind of leader of that group. But I’ve got to say, I didn’t need to do any of that because there was already such a commitment from everybody. Everyone had the same passion and excitement, and wanted to the story justice. I felt like a part of a great, tight unit.
RON HOWARD: Of course, little did I know, he was sneaking frickin’ hardtack on me [laughs].
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: It’s because I was fed, yeah [laughs].
QUESTION: For the actors, what were your fisherman skills before you did this film? Have you learned or changed with this film in terms of your relationship with fishing?
BENJAMIN WALKER: My relationship with fishing was mostly cold beers on ice sitting on the dock in Georgia, swatting mosquitoes, so this is very different. I think I’ve always been a catch-and- release kind of guy, but we did go to sailor school. As far as Pollard’s concerned, it was great for me because all I had to do was boss everybody else around. That’s also part of the fun of doing movies – you get to learn a skill. You get to learn about a time period. You get to immerse yourself in an aspect of history that maybe you didn’t know anything about, and understanding this time and industry, understanding this time in America, was exciting. And maybe we can learn from the mistakes we made in the past and apply them to the future.
TOM HOLLAND: Ron was so adamant about making a film that was authentic, so the fact that we went to this sailing school and really did learn how to sail the ship was really important to the movie. This whole film is set on a boat; even if you’re not in the scene, you’re in the background because these sailors are working a hundred percent of the time. So it was really important to Ron, and to the rest of us, that when we were in the background, we were doing what it is these guys would be doing. And the people who taught us were real sailors, and we had them on the ship – you see them in the film – and they were always there to give a helping hand, to make sure we were doing everything right, and we didn’t look like idiots, really.
RON HOWARD: The authenticity, to me, was as important in this movie as it had been on others, like, for example Apollo 13, where part of transporting the audience was to get the details right. Whether people know right from wrong, they can kind of sense it. It also was one of those situations where, as Tom was saying, everybody was in pretty much every shot, so there was a lot of improvisation not only of action, but even language and terminology, so the sailor school was just as important as the astronaut school and flight director school had been for Apollo 13, or the boxing training for Cinderella Man or other movies that I’ve made which were inspired by real events.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Just in regards to fishing, I remember turning up and asking, ‘Okay, who’s going to teach me to harpoon a whale? Who’s the professional who’s going to show us that?’ And there was, thankfully, no one who put up their hand, but a lot of it was just trying to work out what would be functional and so on because there wasn’t someone on hand who could teach us that, anyway.
RON HOWARD: There were a couple of silent movies that depicted it at a time when there was still whaling, and harpoons were still used, so we had that as research, and there was a tremendous amount of research to build around the truth.
Back to the whale behaviors again, it wasn’t just what Melville wrote, or just what these guys put in their journals about the whale attack; there were also all of these etchings and drawings made by people who had actually been eyewitnesses to those kinds of terrifying moments.
QUESTION: Nathaniel, what does it feel like to hear your book being talked about and adapted into a screenplay, then seeing it told on the big screen?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Well, it’s kind of surreal. For me, it began when my wife and I flew out of Nantucket in the 21st century and a day later were in Nantucket in 1819 outside London. It was like an out-of-body experience – it’s just amazing. And to have Ron involved in this, I was confident from the start that there would be some real integrity applied to it. The fact that the actors went to sailing school? That’s just the kind of thing that really eased my concerns. I knew there would be a real attempt to try to connect with the material as it happened, and then apply their own artistic vision to it. It’s been an immensely satisfying experience.
RON HOWARD: There’s another book that I want to recommend, by the way, anybody who’s interested. Which is, ‘Why Read Moby-Dick?,’ which Nat wrote. It’s a great little book, and I found it incredibly helpful because it deals, of course, a lot with Melville, but it also draws some other connections between the book and writing the book, and some of the themes – what was going on in Melville’s own life and the story of the Essex.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: What was cool was that Ron would call me up every now and then and have very specific questions about Moby-Dick – versus the Essex – and you can see it visually in the movie. That was really neat.
RON HOWARD: Nat suffered through a day of shooting. If you know exactly what you’re looking for, and when to look, you can see him.
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: Yeah, but I have hair [laughs].
QUESTION: Ron, could you contrast Herman Melville and your inspiration for making this movie in terms of the issues of his time and the issues that inspire you today, such as the environment? Melville as well was interested in the brutality of the Industrial Revolution, and the class conflicts we see on the ship.
RON HOWARD: Much of that is present in Nat’s book, Why Read Moby-Dick? When you read about Melville, what was interesting and enlightening to me was that, even in the journals kept by the survivors of the Essex, there was a kind of a question in their minds: was this some sort of divine retribution? This whale turning on them – this was nature turning on them, in the shape of this whale. No one had ever seen anything that fierce occur. So, between what’s written in Moby-Dick, what we know Melville’s concerns to have been as a writer, it was interesting to me that, even while this was an industry that was accepted, it was one of the central, driving components of the economy and human culture. It was doing a lot of good. Crime rates were going down because the streetlights worked better in major cities. But there was this underlying sense of: ‘Is this brutality moral? Is this really the right thing?’
Of course, at that point, our sensibilities were much different, but there’s an easy, contemporary parallel to draw. I thought it was interesting, of course, to say, ‘Well, that was the energy industry then; it was big business; it was about money and power and everything that goes with it. And lo and behold, the energy industry today is vital and central and controversial, in terms of what price are you paying for the positives that go with this kind of energy. So it wasn’t lost on me. It was there in the script to begin with, and very important to the producer, Paula Weinstein. And it was there in the writings of Melville as well. I thought it gave the movie an added measure of complexity and intelligence that was interesting.
QUESTION: Charles, how long did it take you to write the screenplay … because you’re dealing with a lot of material.
CHARLES LEAVITT: It took me a while. First of all, even after reading the book, research alone after that took months. I mean, writing the script took almost the shortest time because you have to do so much research first. It’s pretty much 99 percent thinking and research, and then it took me about four to six months to actually write the script.
QUESTION: I imagine this movie is going to get some people to finally get around to reading Moby-Dick. Nathaniel, when did you first read it?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: I first read it as a senior in high school, at Taylor Allderdice, in Pittsburgh. That’s when it started for me. And I’ve now read it twelve times, so – yes, it’s my personal Bible.
TOM HOLLAND: We were given a huge stack of books when we first started prep, which we had to work our way through, and Moby-Dick obviously was one of them. Admittedly, I didn’t finish it – I was ordered to the film – which I’m not necessarily that proud of. But it was a tough one.
TOM HOLLAND: Yeah, it wasn’t it comic book.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Ron said, ‘Here are the interesting bits,’ which I read. But there’s a reason for that: In the Heart of the Sea was the Bible for me, and Moby-Dick was a fictionalized version of it.
QUESTION: You still haven’t read it.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: No. I mean, yes [laughs].
RON HOWARD: For me, it was my junior year of high school, John Burroughs High School in Burbank. When I went back and read it again, as I began research for In the Heart of the Sea, I realized that he’d gone easy on us, and I’d read the abridged version. The unabridged was even more useful for me because the stuff that they kind of leave out for anxious high schoolers is a lot of the whaling material and the detail.
The interesting thing that you also find out – and I wanted to reflect this to a degree in the scenes between Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson – that Melville struggled with the book. He knew about the attack. He wanted to recount some of his own whaling experiences and so forth, and he wrote this book. And people – Nathaniel Hawthorne among them, apparently – said, ‘Boy, it’s pretty thin, pretty weak,’ and practically sent him to bed. He was a psychologically intense, somewhat troubled guy, and he went back, reviewed what he knew about the Essex, read a lot of Shakespeare, and invented Ahab. And I think the idea of the man versus nature – that compulsion, that drive, that modern, psychological component – seemed to come in later. So I thought it was sort of interesting to try to parallel, in a way, the journey of Melville and senior Nickerson, in terms of having the courage to come to terms with the truth about oneself and make acknowledgments that are painful. I tried to make that evening its own kind of psychological gauntlet that was certainly not as intense as what the crew of the Essex went through, but there were some interesting dramatic parallels and some insight into the creative process, maybe.
QUESTION: Ben, did you read it?
BENJAMIN WALKER: I read the Cliff’s Notes in high school. Aced the test. But I got the same stack of books, and I was looking at Moby-Dick, or Why Read Moby-Dick? And I read Why Read Moby-Dick?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK: It’s a lot shorter.
BENJAMIN WALKER: It motivated me to read Moby-Dick, and I wish I’d read it in high school, I have to say. I would have learned a lot, and it probably would have kept me out of some trouble, because it takes forever.
CHARLES LEAVITT: Hampton Township High School, junior year – also outside of Pittsburgh. I had an English teacher named Mr. King, who regarded Moby-Dick as the Bible, and we spent almost the entire year parsing it.
QUESTION: That’s how long it takes.
CHARLES LEAVITT: At first – it’s true – it was like torture for me. But then, eventually, I sort of understood what my English teacher was trying to get at, and the importance of the book. So it kind of entered my DNA at age 16, and I really did not read it again until many decades later, when I was given the chance to adapt this book.
QUESTION: Tom, Chris’s character has a mentor/mentee relationship with your character, Thomas Nickerson. Did you have any kind of mentor/mentee relationships with the other actors on set?
TOM HOLLAND: I think the lucky thing for me is that, my character, Thomas Nickerson, is completely in awe of Owen Chase. When you first meet Chase, He’s this big guy. He’s fearless, brave, and Thomas Nickerson’s this little kid who’s completely wide-eyed and new to this world. And when I walked onto Ron’s set, I was the new kid. I’d never been on a film this big and I was completely in awe of Chris for the first, like, two weeks, so there was no acting required. I then realized that he’s just a big kid, and he’s really good. Working with Chris was great, and working with everyone was great, really. It was a really great experience, and you always learn a lot from a job like this because you’re so invested and involved with the film. So there’s a lot that I took away from this experience.
QUESTION: Is there a particular lesson that you would say you learned from one of the other actors?
TOM HOLLAND: I think the most important lesson I learned from this film was actually from Ron, which is that that you could never be too prepared. In everything that you do, the more preparation that you do, the better is the process of making the film. And reading the books, and learning to sail, and getting into shape, and losing the weight, I really think is what makes this film what it is. For me, yeah, the most valuable lesson from this film is, you can never be too prepared.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: That’s why he didn’t read Moby-Dick.
TOM HOLLAND: See I learned my lesson. I was learning it on this film.
RON HOWARD: This answers your question about how tough of a taskmaster I am.
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Yeah, it’s not like we were going to have a test. I’ve got three kids, so…
QUESTION: Chris, with the popularity of your Thor films, are you always looking for something that might be different? And can you talk about why you brought this project to Ron?
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Sure. Whether it’s Thor or whatever, I’m always looking to do something different, that contrasts the last thing I had done – more for my own interests, and what I’m passionate about. I think the only way you can truly do something justice is if you are in love with the material and have a strong, passionate opinion about it. When things start to feel familiar is, I think, when it gets sort of dangerous, you know? You get lazy.
In terms of this project, I loved a lot of the stuff that Ron was talking about, about why he was attracted to it. This was set on an epic visual, adventure scale, but at the heart of it there’s this beautiful drama about these relationships between the men and the horrific circumstances that they’ve endured and the effect it had on them; who they were prior to these events, who they were after. There were a lot of complexities, and interesting character traits and ideas, and questions it raised. But, very simply, I just loved the script. I try and hold on to that first impulse, before I sort of dissect it and ask why. I just remembered being swept away in the story, and then still thinking about it afterwards.
QUESTION: So you got the script originally?
CHRIS HEMSWORTH: Yeah. Paula Weinstein was talking to my manager, Will Ward, who is a producer on the film, and they brought it to me, I think, around the time I’d done Snow White. Then we shot Rush, and Ron said to me, ‘Look, if anything else comes up, if you have anything you’re interested in, let me know.’ And I said, ‘Oh, actually I do. I have this, and if you’re not sick of me, let’s go again.’ And, thankfully, he shared the same.
RON HOWARD: I was so surprised by the script. First of all, I had no idea that – to use a comic book term – there was an origin story for Moby-Dick. I like American history, and thought I knew something about history. And, as I said earlier, it was not only perfect casting but a chance to surprise audiences – to offer something that had that scale it’s got adventure, it’s got action, but it also had some of the ideas and raised questions within the drama. It was just such a great combination of things that I felt, ‘That’s a movie that I’d like to see.’
In The Heart of the Sea is released on Boxing Day.