Set Visit : In The Heart of the Sea

Nantucket. In our modern times this small island which lies 30 miles off of the coast of Cape Cod is mostly known as the opening line of ribald limericks, yet if you scratch the surface of history and go back to the early 1800s, Nantucket was, as Director Ron Howard describes, “The Saudi Arabia of the moment. Its oil was lighting the world”. Howard’s latest film ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, starring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland, will likely put Nantucket back on the map for many viewers with the true story that inspired Herman Melville to pen the now classic ‘Moby Dick’.

It is cold, damp day that Moviehole finds itself on the docks, or rather an amazing recreation of it at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire. Our guide is the ever intrepid Mary Hunter, Senior Publicist and Project Supervisor at Warner Bros Pictures, who successfully navigates us around barrels, up rigging, onto boats, past weaponry and into interviews. The first thing that really has an impact on me is the dedication to authenticity that has gone into the set design. Behind me are lodging houses, taverns, warehouses and right in front of me is a full size whaling ship, The Essex, rocking disconcertingly on the sea. Littered around the dock are the paraphernalia of the whaling industry, including 1700 barrels in total we are told, built by the two remaining Coopers in the UK. This film is going for authenticity on a grand scale.

Its going to be a bit difficult to report on this set visit without venturing into spoiler territory, so please consider this a warning. I’ll try my best to keep to details that you will already know if you have seen the trailer, and will not discuss who (if any) survives. If you’ve already read the best-selling book on which this film is based, then you’ll be happy to know that very little has been changed. In fact, reading the book will probably just make you want to see the film more, its one hell of a story.

We take a small boat out from the dock and climb the rope ladder up onto The Essex. Historically, at 88 feet long she was small for a whaling ship, but had a legacy of making very profitable voyages thanks to a large cargo hold to carry the oil harvested from its hunting expeditions, . It was considered a “lucky” ship, but for the 20 man crew who set out on what they expected would be a routine 30 month expedition in the summer of 1819, it was anything but. Shortly after setting out, The Essex took a tremendous battering from a storm, sustaining damage which called into question whether they should continue. The young Captain Pollard (played by Benjamin Walker), being ambitious and wanting to prove himself to the expeditions financial backers, decided to continue onwards. 5 weeks later they reached their destination, an area off of South America which had previously teemed with whales, but now had been overfished by rival ships. Passing ships told them that the distant waters of the South Pacific were the new hunting grounds to aim for, so they resigned themselves to a longer than expected voyage in search of riches. What they found there no-one could have expected.

My first question for director Ron Howard is an awkward one, but it was playing on my mind and I had to get it out of the way in order to be able to discuss anything else; “How do you create a feeling of empathy between the audience watching this film and characters on screen who are engaged in an occupation [whaling] that we would find abhorrent today?”. He thinks carefully before answering and then states “By Industrialising it. I think people understand that, and by talking to a number of historians and whale protection groups there is a tremendous distinction that is made from this period. By not romanticising (the industry) but dealing with it in a very clear-eyed way, it makes its social point in a way that’s entirely consistant with how modern audiences would feel about the then and the now of the whaling industry.”. It is an answer that I’m not entirely convinced by. I appreciate that film has an important role in interpreting history, society and culture to modern audiences, and when mixed with concessions towards the need to be entertaining, the results aren’t always a true representation of historical fact, but I suppose they don’t always have to be. For example ’12 Years A Slave’ successfully showed a time when an industry (Slavery) was socially acceptable, and the film used the modern viewer’s enlightened morals to create an immediate feeling of horror, sadness and a need for justice. But in that example, we were not asked to identify with the slave masters. What I find very interesting with ‘Heart of the Sea’ is that we are being asked to identify with crew aboard the whaling ship, and indeed root for them, hoping for their survival rather than their comeuppance. I can’t help but wonder if the film will get us on their side by playing down the reality of the slaughter of these magnificent and intelligent creatures.

The South Pacific was indeed abundant with whales, and whilst most of the crew piled into smaller rowboats to chase and harpoon a family of whales that had surfaced nearby, first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) remained onboard The Essex and noticed something strange. A huge whale, some 85 feet in length and rivalling The Essex herself, rose from the depths and pointed itself towards him. What followed was a sustained fight back from nature towards man, unheard of in maritime history and unbelievable to the men involved. The whale rammed the ship at full speed, like a huge battering ram, causing irreparable damage, forcing the crew into their small rowboats, with minimal provisions and thousands of miles from land.

“This is a Badass whale” Howard explains, “It has a reason to be angry. These people are hurting his own kind. The actual survivors of The Essex all had a supernatural feeling about the whale. They wondered if it was punishment. Who was controlling that whale? Was it Satan? God? They couldn’t believe that a creature could turn on them in that way, it was so unexpected, so unheard of, so it really is a case of nature fighting back through this whale. I hope that quality, that mystery, is interesting in our story.”

We discuss how the effect of the whale will be achieved. Personally I always love model work and practical effects over CGI. We have passed through many phases of the CGI vs Practical Effects debate. As an audience we have been amazed at the initial spectacle of ’Terminator 2’ and ‘Jurassic Park’, then as CGI was used in ever increasing amounts a debate started to form around its quality versus practical effects. The Star Wars prequels opened a new discussion centred around when CGI should be used, as George Lucas relied heavily on ‘Digital Sets’ when they could have been built practically, the old fashioned way, and that created a disconnect not only with the audience, but also with the actors who sometimes complained that they had nothing to interact with. The debate became a question of whether films suffer when they are aren’t grounded in physicality. We may have now reached a point where CGI is considered only to enhance practical effects, or used only when it will produce a better result than practical effects can achieve (the latest Star Wars film, ‘The Force Awakens’ being the obvious example). “I love analogue when its useful” interjects Ron Howard “The cars in ‘Rush’ (his previous film with Chris Hemsworth) where far more in-camera, analogue cars, but we had CG support as well”. What he seems to be aiming for is a balance. Obviously any film fan’s mind will venture to ‘Jaws’ in a conversation like this. If you look at ‘Jaws’ closely and footage of Bruce The Shark out of the context, he does look a little clunky. The genius of Spielberg (and editor Verna Fields) is that they managed to work around the limitations of the model, so the absence of the shark, and the audience’s suspense of its arrival, are key components of our enjoyment of the film. I wonder what kind of film Jaws would have been if the shark had been able to be seen for larger periods of time or was made today with advances in CGI? “The technology is stunning!” Howard enthuses. “We’ll be mixing it with some whale footage. Its much more effective for an audience to capture their imagination, to let them loose themselves in an adventure, particularly an adventure like this”.

We then discuss why this story appealed so strongly to Howard and the origins of the project. “Well I’ve always loved history and I love great human interest stories, but I’m always following my own curiosity. when I find a personal connection with a story, fact based or absolute fiction, a story that I feel I can express myself through, that I would enjoy collaborating with others on, and more than anything a movie that I’d like to see, and share with other people, then I choose that story. I found that this story was something which spoke to me, that I could share creatively with others. Chris (Hemsworth) brought the project to me, and I thought ‘You’d be a perfect Owen Chase’. I had a fantastic experience directing him on ‘Rush’, I’m thrilled with that movie, and thrilled with his work in it. I was both flattered by the gesture but more importantly fascinated by what I thought its entertainment factor was, the very special range of entertainment possibilities. At first I didn’t know it was a true story. I didn’t know that Moby Dick was inspired by real events, beyond the fact that Melville had been a whaler himself. I think its going to surprise a lot of people, in a lot of different ways.” I must confess that I was surprised at Hemsworth was the one that brought the story to Howard, and with that in mind tracked him down for an interview.

Meeting Chris Hemsworth is an enjoyable experience, he comes across as laid back and friendly as you’d imagine. The kind of guy that gets along very well with the crew (Fact. A friend of mine worked on ‘Rush’ and had nothing but nice words about him). Of course, he’s also ‘Thor’ and I thought I might have some difficulty seeing past that role, but the Hemsworth that greets us is markedly less ripped. On working with Ron Howard again, and the potential of the kind of pairing that we have seen with Scorsese/ DeNiro or Scorsese/ DeCaprio he says “I like him, seriously, if not more than last time. He’s the best. Once you develop a rapport with someone, and a shorthand, it becomes easier. On movie sets you spend 4 or 5 months with someone, living in each others pockets and Ron is one of the most generous and collaborative people, and one of the most smartest filmmakers, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather go through that experience with.”

Hemsworth plays ‘Owen Chase’ in the film, the ships 1st Mate, and provides a counterpoint to Captain Pollard in many of the key decisions that steer the ships fate. When the crew evacuate the sinking Essex for the smaller boats, Chase takes command of one of them. With increasing tension, the chain of command is questioned, whilst rations dwindle. He explains that he’s currently “Getting lean, staying lean. Reducing body fat. Trying to get rid of some of the Thor bulk that I had left over. In about a month we’ll really crank it up and we go into a much lower diet, a couple of bowls of vegetables (a day). There comes a point where you can’t really train, because you don’t have much energy…we’re going to go down to five or six hundred calories a day for a few weeks. I’m sure I’ll feel like eating someone!”. It might be an effect of the lowered food intake, or perhaps the effect of spending all day shooting on the water as Hemsworth reports “I wouldn’t even call it sea sickness, but I get home and I feel there’s this kind of vertigo going on, and I close my eyes when I lie down at night and there’s still this bit of swaying”. We discuss the difference between the character he plays and earlier cinematic portrayals of Captain Ahab (who was based on Owen Chase) “The real person, Owen Chase…he is his own character, a more personable human being, and we do take it in different directions. Its much closer to the true incident, as opposed to Moby Dick. Its a lot grittier, especially as Ron is approaching it, and how they’re shooting it. There is a reality to it. Its not a Swashbuckling, seafaring adventure. Its in the trenches basically, exploring the industry of the time, when there wasn’t much other work around, and this was a means to an end. Its was harsh and brutal and epic”.

In approaching the role Hemsworth did considerable research “I read the book (The Heart of the Sea) and read Owen Chase’s journal entries, and other books set during this period, but you know, you get all sorts of inspiration from many different avenues and I let it be a pretty organic process. But even if I plan to say ‘this is who the character is’, by the time I get onto the set, it always changes anyway, and there’s certainly a comfort in working with Ron, because I’ve done that before with him, but that’s part of the fun, the mystery of it. I find that characters take on a life of their own and you get dragged along with it. They take over, regardless of any plans I had at the beginning”. With a hearty laugh and a smile Hemsworth gets pulled back onto set.

I then meet up with Tom Holland, who plays Thomas Nickerson in the film, and soon to be seen as ‘Spider-Man’ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following on from Hemsworth’s comments about the difficulties of filming on the water, I feel like its a good line of enquiry to break the ice. “Its nice. So far we haven’t actually had to go in the water, we’ve been on the boat, but there’s a few days where we’re going to be swimming around and all that kind of stuff. I got used to the water at the start of the shoot. The boat is really great and the set is so incredible, you can forget that you’re in a water tank and believe that you are at sea, which is really helpful as an actor. There have been those times where its too cold, and I want to go home, and I’m wet and its 2 in the morning and I’m tired, but I guess thats part of the job!”. He reveals that the auditioning process was “very, very special. I read the script and I loved it, and obviously I knew who he (Ron Howard) was, and I was very excited about getting the chance to work with him, and then my agent said ‘he’s willing to Skype with you’, and I thought Brilliant! Amazing!. So, we had this Skype meeting and we spoke for about an hour about the script, and about me, and what he was planning on doing, and we got on really well, and then maybe a week of two later I got a call saying ‘You can have the part – its all yours!’” He says that the rehearsal and training process for the film was very hands on, with the cast being sent off for a six week sailing school, to get an idea of the skills needed to man a ship, then about two weeks of rehearsals on sound stages but “Its was really difficult to get these scenes together without actually being on the boat, then we had a week on the boat just for rehearsals which was really beneficial”. In regards to the first meeting between the actors playing ‘Thor’ and ‘Spider-Man’, Holland had this to say: “Chris is such a sound guy – he’s so nice. Me and Sam (Keeley) are such big Marvel fans, so meeting him for the first time was quite a big thing. He’s always cool, and we always have such great conversations, and he’s such a great guy to work with”. Its a shame that at present there are no plans for them to reunite in a forthcoming Marvel film, as Hemsworth isn’t scheduled to appear in ‘Captain America: Civil War’, and whilst Spider-Man is an honorary member of The Avengers in the comics, as of yet he hasn’t been mentioned for the cinematic roster.

As the sun sets over Leavesden studios, we watch Ron Howard directing an action packed scene, where the crew of ’The Essex’ have transferred to smaller, more agile rowboats to give chase to a pod of whales. Harpoons and spray are flying through the air, and you can feel the energy and adrenaline coming from the cast and crew alike. As I leave the studio I consider myself very fortunate to have seen a brilliant director at work, and looking forward to watching ‘In The Heart of the Sea’.

– James Lee Kennett

Dangerous Men

Nicki Minaj series casts young Nicki