An extraordinary adventure with a lot of heart, a lot of soul
Moby-Dick is fiction; however In the Heart of the Sea brings to life the powerful saga that would fuel Melville’s defining and enduring novel.
It is one of the greatest seafaring tales of all time: the Nantucket whaling ship Essex was attacked by a leviathan—a white whale of singular size and intent—leaving only a few of its crew to overcome near-impossible odds and live to recount their experience.
But in the almost 200 years since that harrowing voyage, the truth faded into history, eclipsed by the celebrated novel it inspired, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Now, with acclaimed director Ron Howard at the helm, the legend of the Essex, her courageous crew, and that mythic white whale comes to the big screen for the first time in the epic adventure In the Heart of the Sea.
Moby-Dick is fiction; however “In the Heart of the Sea” brings to life the powerful saga that would fuel Melville’s defining and enduring novel.
Howard says, “The true story of the Essex is fantastic. It’s visceral; it’s rich and cinematic at its core, with lots of twists and turns along the way. And though the film is set in the past, it touches on ideas about relationships, survival, humanity and nature that are relatable and thought-provoking, and connect to our own sensibilities about who we are as people.”
Howard initially received the screenplay from actor Chris Hemsworth when they were working together on “Rush.” Hemsworth, who stars in the film as Essex First Mate Owen Chase, remarks, “I loved the script from the start. ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ is about heroism and people being tested beyond their limits in absolutely every way. I was also captivated by the psychological thriller aspect of the whale turning the tables on them. There is something incredibly mysterious about how this animal is portrayed—why the whale goes on the attack, which was unlike anything the Essex crew had ever encountered. The hunter becomes the hunted.”
Benjamin Walker, who plays the role of Essex Captain George Pollard, posits that the mortal clash between the whalers and the whale is only one component. “There are three great trials encompassed in this story: man against man, man against nature, man against self. How can you overcome those trials and survive? That’s the question of the movie. But there’s beauty in that; you see the endurance of the human spirit.”
Howard acknowledges that when Hemsworth initially approached him about the project, “I didn’t know anything about the Essex and didn’t know the script was based on events that were very real. But when I learned this had actually happened, it was mind-blowing. I instantly began to visualize a movie that would be raw and intense…a movie that I would want to see, which is the crucial litmus test for me.”
The extraordinary journey of the Essex and her crew was chronicled by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. The author and historian, who calls Nantucket home, had a long-held fascination with the industry that had put the small Massachusetts island on the map. “The book grew out of my curiosity about how it was back in the day when Nantucket was the capital of American whaling. This was a story that got under my skin.”
Philbrick’s detailed account of the ill-fated voyage had a similar effect on the filmmakers and cast. Producer Paula Weinstein attests, “The book was absolutely riveting; I couldn’t stop reading it, and when that happens, then you know it’s going to be a project you can be passionate about. I also found the subject matter to be very contemporary. You could just change the clothes and the setting and it would become as current a story as you could find right now, exploring timeless themes of ambition and sacrifice, men and their fathers, women and their husbands, animals and nature, and life and death.”
Howard’s producing partner Brian Grazer offers, “It’s experienced through the perspective of men doing what they believe is right and worthy, and we see the moral complexity of that. But it’s all beneath the surface of a seagoing action drama that is extremely dynamic.”
“It’s not only a tale of these men and the journey on which they embark,” says producer Will Ward, “but it’s also an incredible story of survival and the lengths a man is willing to go to save his own life and the lives of others. While reading the script and researching this world, what astounded me was that these guys did this for a living. They sailed out in the open ocean on these 80- to 100-foot vessels for years at a time, and when they spotted whales, they would go after these mammoth beasts in small rowboats. It’s really unbelievable.”
In recent years, modern society has come to understand that whales are sentient beings, with highly developed intelligence and emotions.
But screenwriter Charles Leavitt, who also shares story credit with Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, points out that you have to view the livelihood of these men through the prism of times past. “This is not a movie that glorifies whaling; on the contrary, it shows how brutal it was,” he states. “The whaling industry of the early 19th century was essentially the oil industry before someone figured out how to drill a hole in the ground to get oil from the earth. Whale oil lit the lamps of America and Europe. They rocked their babies to sleep in cribs made out of whale bone; their furniture, women’s corsets, and a myriad of other essentials were by-products of whales. But the lives of the men on board these whaleships were expendable, nothing more than entries on a company balance sheet.
“The story has been described as ‘man versus nature,’” Leavitt continues, “but the fact is there should really be no ‘versus’ because humans are a part of nature. However, that was unfortunately not the prevailing attitude of Western society at that time. They believed man had dominion over nature and that included all animals. Whales were nothing more than a commodity to be harvested.”
“The audience’s ability to understand the culture of these whalers relies so much on Ron’s talent for creating a world cinematically,” Grazer observes. “He is particularly good at humanizing characters and making them multi-dimensional. So you will see all the different sides of these men as they metamorphose while struggling to survive on this vast ocean.”
Weinstein concurs that the film could not have been in better hands. “I cannot say enough about the experience of working with Ron. He is the most extraordinary director—strong and clear, hardworking and collaborative and inclusive. As a producer, it isn’t hard to hand over a project if you are handing it to a master filmmaker, and Ron brings that and so much more to the table.”
The cast, led by Hemsworth, shares her sentiments. “Ron has the biggest heart of anyone I know and has the best work ethic,” says Hemsworth. “As a filmmaker, he is always pushing the envelope. You look at the movies he’s done in his career and you can’t put them in a box—from huge comedies to compelling dramas to big action, he’s done it all, and done it with integrity and intelligence. ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ was a demanding endeavor for all of us, and when you go through something like that, you need to be arm-in-arm with one another, and supporting each other. He constantly kept us on our toes, but that’s what you want as an actor—to be challenged and inspired.”
Walker affirms, “Ron likes things to be spontaneous and fast, so he expects you to be prepared when you get to the set. I respected that and responded to it. He shot with multiple cameras on every take because he wanted to capture how capricious life and death could be for these men on the ocean, and I think you can feel that when you’re watching the movie; it’s almost seems like you’re part of it, like you’re hidden on the mast and witnessing these events going on around you.”
Howard reveals that is always his goal, noting, “When I go to the movies I want to be transported, and I saw ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ as an exciting opportunity to transport audiences. I wanted to take them on a ride in a really vivid, cool way. I realized that telling the story the way it should be told was full of challenges, but they were challenges that could now be met. We could put it on the big screen in a way that was convincing, exciting and lived up to the promise of what the film could offer.”
To carry moviegoers effectively to another place and time, the filmmakers recreated the Nantucket of the early-to-mid 1800s at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden in England. They also shot pivotal scenes on the open waters off La Gomera, one of the smallest Canary Islands, with many of the actors getting a taste of 19th-century sailing on a full-size replica of the Essex.
“It really is an amazing adventure,” Howard says, “but one with a lot of heart, a lot of soul and interesting ideas to express. And who better to express those ideas than our remarkable cast?”
“In making ‘In the Heart of the Sea,’” Howard reflects, “I wanted the period to fall away, for people to relate to the characters and be swept up into the drama as it’s happening. I used everything I’ve learned over the course of my career to try and transport the audience into this world and take them on this ride. By experiencing the adventure, they will hopefully connect even more deeply with the human side of the story…and the human story of the Essex can inspire us in entirely unexpected ways for generations to come.”