In the Heart of the Sea -Winter 2015

by: John Stanton

photography by: Jim Powers

Oscar-winner Ron Howard wasn’t the first director to try to bring Nat Philbrick’s National Book Award-winning “In the Heart of the Sea” from the page to the big screen. But he was the only one to succeed.

Howard’s telling of the story of the ill-fated Nantucket whaleship Essex – stove by a whale in the Pacific Ocean, on the other side of the known world in 1820 – is due in cinemas in early December.

Philbrick and Howard, both wonderful storytellers, talked with John Stanton about the challenges and joys of bringing this Nantucket epic to life.

Nat Philbrick sat at a small table in the Nantucket Whaling Museum, politely waiting and sometimes adding a comment or two, while Ron Howard answered questions at a press conference about his film “In the Heart of the Sea.”

As the questions dropped off and public-relations handlers from Warner Bros. Studios began suggesting time was up, Howard talked about the differences between the story of the ill-fated whaling ship Essex on the page and the way it will play out on the big screen. In the film the tale is told in flashback, as an older Thomas Nickerson, played by Brendan Gleeson, recalls the tragedy to a young Herman Melville, played by Ben Whishaw. Melville, of course, did not visit Nantucket until after his book was published.

“My father is a retired English professor and taught ‘Moby-Dick.’ He said to me that Melville was always shamelessly taking from the story of the Essex, so maybe it’s about time for the Essex to take from

‘Moby-Dick’,” Philbrick said, bringing some chuckles out of the gathered foreign press.

Philbrick said that any anxiety about seeing his book in the hands of Hollywood has been defused by all the years when it looked like it was never going to happen. The book was originally optioned by the German production company Intermedia, which declared bankruptcy in 2008.

A script based on the book kicked around Hollywood but never found any real traction, until the actor Chris Hemsworth brought it to Howard, who had recently directed him in the film “Rush.”

“At one point I had a brief phone conversation with Edward Zwick, who directed ‘Glory’ but beyond that nothing took hold,” Philbrick said. “I had gotten so convinced it would never happen, that it sort of relaxed me. Having Ron Howard attached to it really eased whatever fears I had left. If you have the best possible people involved, all you can do is step back and let them do it. It would be folly for me to try to second-guess this process. I am simply a very interested spectator in all of this.”

The next day Howard – who won the Oscar for best director for his work in “A Beautiful Mind,” and made such films as “Apollo 13,” “Cinderella Man,” “Backdraft” and “Rush” – sat down for a one-on-one interview.

Philbrick – who won the 2000 National Book Award for “In the Heart of the Sea” and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book “Mayflower” – also sat down for an interview. His latest book “Bunker Hill” has been optioned by Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street Films. He’s just wrapped up a book that is a follow-up to “Bunker Hill” and begins with the arrival of the British invasion fleet in New York Harbor.

Howard shot “In the Heart of the Sea” in London and at Leavesden Studios, in Hertfordshire, as well as on location in the Canary Islands. It is slated to hit theaters in December.

The I&M: As a director, are you more focused on the cinematic potential or the narrative power of a book?

Ron Howard: “I’m more focused on the narrative, although I recognized in this story some very exciting cinematic possibilities, and some things that really haven’t been done yet, using all the latest cinematic tools. But what attracted me was the set of characters, their perspective on the story, and in the screenplay adaptation it had this other perspective of Melville discovering the story, which of course is not in Nat’s book, but adds anther component. In a way it makes it kind of the origin story of ‘Moby-Dick’.”

Nat Philbrick: “I think visually. So I am using historical sources to try and create a sense of how life was lived in the past. When I write I am trying to create a picture in my own mind as to what happened as best I can. What fascinates me is how different the past was and yet how universal so much of the human experience is. That’s the dynamic tension I’m always trying to figure out.”

I&M: At what point in the process does it become your story to tell as the director, as opposed to the story Nat told in the book?

RH: “Almost right from the beginning. The filmmaker has to decide what are the ideas, the themes, that can be expressed in this story and what’s most relatable to my audience. You have to make it cinematic, you have to take some creative license. I read Nat’s ‘Why Read Moby-Dick’ and it was very valuable thematically. I wanted to imbue this movie with some of those qualities that Melville must have identified in the story of the Essex as well. I think the reason a guy like Nat writes in a way that makes you feel you never knew the story before, is the same reason people will say to me that they knew what happened to the crew of Apollo 13 and still found the film suspenseful.”

NP: “When I write I’m wrestling with the source material and trying to tell a narrative. But in the end it’s just me. A director has the script to fine-tune, the actors, the location, the sets, an art director. It was really going to the set when I began to realize how complicated this is. It’s so unlike the writing process and yet it’s Ron’s vision and every person contributed to it. Ron’s the ringmaster trying to coordinate all these different rings. It’s just a very different animal from what I do.”

I&M: Much of the book is about the crew in little whale boats, waiting to be either rescued or to slowly die of thirst and starvation. It seems like making that cinematic presents a challenge.

RH: “It does, but it’s a challenge I faced before. The inside of the command module in ‘Apollo 13’ was sort of about as big as these two easy chairs we’re sitting in. I found the claustrophobic nature to be compelling cinematically. While that is only 20 or 30 minutes of our movie, it’s a very intense, emotionally wrought, psychologically complicated and dramatic section. Outside of the occasional wide shot that just tells you what small dots they are on the ocean, I chose to be trapped in their world with a camera. It gives it a kind of intimacy and intensity.”

NP: “By telling the story through flashbacks, it’s a way of breaking it up. You can also see that the suffering had a terrible immediacy, but when the older Nickerson is telling the story years later (to Herman Melville) you can also see the personal cost it had on him. It just gives it an added resonance which I think is very moving.

“Melville is very important to me personally as well as a writer, and so I got very excited when I heard Ron was taking it in that direction. The fact of the matter is anyone coming to this story comes to it in the context of that great novel, even if they never read it. So I think that’s absolutely appropriate. I now have a much better appreciation than ever of the compromises that have to be made if it’s going to be a good movie.”

I&M: A great deal of the book explores the themes of leadership. Is that a theme you kept in the film, as well?

RH: “We built on that idea and moved it front and center. What was motivating each of these guys was something a little more personal, and some might say petty, than what the astronauts were feeling. Chase was angry and wanted to prove he was deserving of being captain and not first mate. Pollard was young and inexperienced, trying to live up to a family name in the whaling industry. Both were ambitious to prove something to others and to themselves. Those aren’t really noble goals.

They were ambitious enough that after the knockdown they didn’t go back. That would just be too embarrassing. I thought that was very modern and intriguing. Then I surmised that they were forced to reevaluate what made them tick after the crisis and sitting in the whaleboats with nothing to do except think about who they were and why they were where they were.”

NP: “I haven’t seen the film yet, just some clips Ron showed me over the winter. So I don’t know where he takes it, but the book is about leadership. It is basically about the dysfunction at the center of the Essex. You have a captain who is really wired as a subordinate even though he is trying to be a captain, and a first mate who really thinks he should be the captain. That creates so much of the human drama of living with the consequences of what happens.”

I&M: You said at the press conference that the timing of this film works in your advantage as director, because 13 years ago the cinematic technology was not in place to allow you to tell this story the way you wanted to.

RH: “CGI (computer-generated imagery) allows a director to put what they want, what they see in their heads, onto the screen in ways that are seamless and authentic. For a while that’s been great for those universe creators and fantasy filmmakers, but hard to get to the level of authenticity so you really feel like you’re taking your audience in a sort of real-world adventure in a meaningful way. And suddenly that’s possible.

It’s expensive, but not obscenely so. You can make a case to a studio that the investment is within the realm of feasibility. That’s exciting for somebody like me. If you look at (the documentary) ‘Down to the Sea in Ships,’ they shot on a real whaling ship but because the cameras are so limited everything is distant and kind of just recorded. It’s not really a visceral experience. I really wanted to put people in the whaleboats, put them on the Essex, let them experience it.”

NP: “The other aspect of this book is the whale. For me as a writer it was the thing I had to really learn about. It is the great mystery. You can see how Melville was really obsessed with those creatures, not only in their own right but in the iconic mythic things they embody. Ron’s use of CGI and the scenes I’ve seen makes it so compelling. It gets me excited to see it on the big screen.” ///

John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His most recent film is “Wood, Sails, Dreams.” He is currently working on a film about the challenges to the island scalloping industry. This story was originally published in The Inquirer and Mirror, Oct. 16, 2014.

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