Famous for his eclectic body of work, director Ron Howard sets out once again to tackle a new beast with “In the Heart of the Sea,” this time in the form of a mammoth whale. On Monday night, The New York Times celebrated this Friday’s release of “In the Heart of the Sea” with a TimesTalk between Howard and Charles McGrath at The TimesCenter. The Academy Award-winning director articulated his attempt to bridge the gap between an old-fashioned whaling picture and an immersive, state-of-the-art cinematic experience. Howard also detailed how the grueling filmmaking process eventually came to reflect the brutality of the true story that the film was based on.
Based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick, “In the Heart of Sea” tells the harrowing real-life story of the whalers of the Essex that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” The film stars Chris Hemsworth in his second collaboration with Howard after “Rush,” as well as Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland and Cillian Murphy as the members of a crew pushed to the absolute extreme when their ship is rammed by a murderous bull whale.
Considering that a whaling picture has not been made on this scale in over 50 years, Howard offered an explanation for his decision to embark on the project. “I don’t want to make a movie that’s just like something else that someone saw a month ago. I’m always looking for movies, more today than ever, that demand to be seen on the big screen, that can transport audiences in interesting ways. This particular story was a very ambitious one, but I thought that audiences deserve our ambition.”
Only after working with Hemsworth on “Rush” did Howard become aware of “In the Heart of the Sea.” Howard remembered how surprised he was when Hemsworth asked him to read the script he was circling, “At first, I didn’t even know it was based on real events, I just thought it was an interesting retelling of ‘Moby Dick,’ which I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into that territory. But when I found out that that was the event that inspired Melville to write ‘Moby Dick,’ I read it again and it was a completely different experience reading it and thinking about the fact that this had occurred. But I was also surprised by a lot of the modern themes and ideas that make you think that the world hasn’t changed that much after all in 180 years.”
From “Splash” to “Apollo 13” and “Cinderella Man,” Howard has established himself as one of the most adaptable directors of our time. Yet, even so, Howard admitted, “I think this was probably the most complicated movie that I made and I was very grateful for all my past experiences that I could play. Unfortunately, every movie is kind of its own animal, it takes on its own set of factors and challenges. In some way, you always feel like you’re starting over, and I suppose that’s the good news. I always say that it’s the medium that can’t be mastered and that’s the good news.”
Needless to say, shooting a film in open water and onboard a ship presents an endless list of challenges. Rather than trying to do the impossible, Howard managed to harness some of the difficult conditions to evoke the kind of adversity faced by the actual members of the Essex. Howard explained that this kind of production is “entirely antithetical to what you try to do when you’re staging scenes and making a movie. Even if it’s supposed to look spontaneous and naturalistic, even if you’re using natural light and environment, you’re actually trying to control things as best you can, stage it and achieve these very particular objectives. And it’s really hard to do the ocean. I think if you go at it with that in mind, you’re going to be stymied and it’s going to be very expensive and you’re also not going to achieve your goals so it’s going to be a lose-lose proposition.”
Despite the fact that the story takes place in 1820, Howard was adamant that he felt the film could possess a sense of immediacy and modernity.
Speaking about the visual references for “In the Heart of the Sea,” Howard noted that while he looked back to many familiar images from classic films, he also included footage from reality television, sports and nature videos in his style guide in order to augment the intimacy and intensity of the film. “I had Ridley Scott’s ‘White Squall,’ I had ‘Jaws’ of course, ‘Master and Commander’ clips, Huston’s ‘Moby Dick,’ but I also had stuff from ‘Deadliest Catch’ because they get a lot of drama out of being onboard with those guys. I had a lot of stuff from ‘Whale Wars’ and Greenpeace videos and also boat racing. I wanted that sort of modern aesthetic in this movie.”
Howard admitted that that he might never have come onboard had he not been confident that the digitally-rendered whale at the heart of the film’s story would be visually believable and convincing as a character in its own right. Howard explained, “CGI is evolving like everything else in technology, but I wouldn’t have made the movie had I not seen ‘Life of Pi’ and also the first reboot of the ‘Planet of the Apes’ movies, where I actually believed that photorealism in the digital world had actually reached the point where you could create a character that could be present.”
Howard went on to add, “By the way, we didn’t exaggerate the size of the whale, based on the accounts from the Essex, he was 100 feet long, an absolute mammoth. I didn’t want there to be this suspension of disbelief that I think that people are a little less willing to do today than they were at the time of John Huston making ‘Moby Dick’ or Steven Spielberg making ‘Jaws’ and I wanted something that was really immersive. So on the one hand, it’s this kind of classic big screen adventure story, but on the other hand, I wanted something that really felt authentic and really wasn’t popcorn, that was urgent and immediate and forces you to start wondering what it’d be like to be there, what would you do.”
Outlining his approach to the period aspect of the film, Howard pointed out that at the time there was a massive market for whale oil and the ships were major investments and that “These ships, they were like spaceships, they were technological marvels of their time and they were floating factories.” As a reflection of that, “In the Heart of the Sea” begins with a romantic air through the perspective of the young cabin boy played by Tom Holland.
Yet this romance is evidently short lived, and Howard explained why he did not shy away from portraying the sheer brutality at the heart of whaling. “While I wanted the movie to begin on a kind of romantic note, more from that boy’s point of view like he’s off on the adventure of his life, and I kind of shot it that way and played it that way, with a little flair and a sense of fun, in the first whale hunt that changes. It’s really through his eyes that we begin to see the truth of this, the brutality of it.”
“Certainly on a political level, I’m not interested in trying to romanticize whaling then or now, but I also wanted to look at it in a clear-eyed way and say this is how it worked then. This is what they did.” Howard continued. “And when the whale attacks, it’s not the shark in ‘Jaws.’ I actually like to say it’s kind of like King Kong, it’s a force of nature embodied by this giant, mammoth creature.”
“In the Heart of the Sea” opens on December 11.