by Monique Akonor
English novelist, poet, & playwright D. H. Lawrence called Herman
Melville’s Moby Dick “the greatest book of the sea ever written.”
But while most of us, know the story of the great white sperm whale
that attacked and sunk ships— there were two actual events that served
as the genesis for Melville’s tale. One, was the alleged killing in the late
1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick— rumored to have twenty
or so harpoons in his back from various whalers and to have attacked
ships with premeditated ferocity… The other, was the sinking of the
Nantucket ship ‘the Essex’ in 1820… But the Essex story was more
than just raw material for Melville. She also had her own story to tell . . .
And now award winning director Ron Howard brings her incredible
story of survival to the big screen.
“A survival tale peels away the niceties and comforts of civilization”
Nathaniel Philbrick, Author
For Nathaniel Philbrick, it all began when he and his wife flew out of
21st century Nantucket… “A day later we were in Nantucket 1819 out-
side London”, said Philbrick. The story of the Essex was known as the
story that inspired the climax of Moby-Dick. [But], it seemed to Phil-
brick that the Essex was something more than the raw material for Mel-
ville’s miraculous art; it was a survival tale that also happened to be an
essential part of American history. “I was trying to figure out, what
really happened,” Philbrick added.
A historic tale brought to life . . .
The Essex story is really this incredible survival story. Ron Howard
(“A Beautiful Mind”) was so surprised by the script. “First of all, I
had no idea there was an origin story for Moby Dick. I thought I
knew something about history—I like American history!”
Many years ago, Howard sought to get a movie made about “Greenpeace:
The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior,” but never got the research together
to make that one. Later, he was very close to making “Sea Wolf,” the
powerful Jack London drama set in the ocean, [but that] didn’t quite come
together. So when this script came to the director, it embodied everything
those movies offered—drama, cinematic potential—and as an added bonus,
it also created the opportunity to demystify the mythology of Moby Dick.
Howard: “I thought the screenplay was really strong, and I was really im-
pressed by the adaptation. But most importantly, Chris Hemsworth brought
it to me. We had such a good experience on Rush, I have just so much
respect for Chris, and the fact that he really wanted to play Owen Chase.
I knew what he could do with it . . . I knew it was going to be a tremendous
challenge; but, with Chris in that all important leadership role…
it could be met.”
At the heart of this story is this beautiful drama, with complex relationships
between men and the horrific circumstances that they had endured. Who they
were prior to the event and who they were after the event and the effect that
that had on them. “There were a lot of complexities and interesting character
traits, ideas and questions that the story raised. I just loved the script. I
remembered being swept away in the story and then still thinking about it
afterwards” added Chris Hemsworth
On authenticity . . . .
Howard: “My job is to channel everybody’s efforts and to fulfill the possi-
bilities of the story. And in doing so, I’ve learned over the years to identify
fairly early what various actors need. Which is not always cohesive and con-
sistent,” explains Howard. “I tried not to put my stamp on the movie. But I
tried to create an environment where the talented people in front and behind
the camera could inform and I shape it. So it’s a little bit more like being an
editor -in -chief. Early on, I had to let people know that this was important.
In the early auditions when the exercise regiments and the dieting began,
it was a job requirement to live up to this”
Authenticity was just as important in this movie as it had been on others…
For example, in Apollo 13, part of transporting the audience was to get the
details right. There was a tremendous amount of research. Journals about
the whale attacks, -etchings and drawings made by people who had actually
been eyewitnesses to those terrifying moments. The cast even attended sailor
school and really did learn how to sail a ship. “Even if you were not in the
scene, but you were in the background it was important, because these sailors
were working 100% of the time.” added Tom Holland (“The Impossible”)
The physical transformations . . . . And that 500 calories a day diet!
Chris Hemsworth: “We all had somewhat of a goal that we wanted to get to,
which was as skinny as possible and as beat the hell as we could possibly make
ourselves look. So we started out on one diet, a normal 3000 cal and then each
week we would reduce that intake until the last couple of weeks, when it was
down to 500 or 600 cal – which was pretty ugly of an experience. What was
great about it was that we were all in it together so there was this great bond
between us -one we may not have found in such depth, if we had not had that
Benjamin Walker: “It did kind of make our jobs easier; we were miserable,
cranky, emotional and then eventually kind of jaundice, translucent, and faint
(laughs). And if you could remember your lines you were usually pretty
Tom Holland: “Even though it was difficult we were doing it for all the right
reasons. Everything these guys went through was real— so whenever something
was difficult on set it felt right. I guess the diet really made the movie what it
is, at some point.”
Ron Howard: “Out on the ocean, I was actually working for the actors. But I
did see the life kinda drain out by the end, when we were doing the stuff on the
desert island, the little pathetic snacks that would come out that every body
would relish so much (which was sort of a cucumber with some olive oil and
an almond on it or something). But it was interesting because everyone would
take it and go over and kind of hunched down and eat it quietly and savor it. I
felt both terrible and fabulous(laughs). . .these guys and Cillian Murphy, were
so committed and dedicated. It wasn’t just the leads, there’s an element to it
that is just ensemble and everybody had their moment (or two, or three). I felt
that the whole group was really inspired. They were there with their emotions
and the support to make it happen. I will never forget the kind of commitment
that these guys and the entire cast made on behalf of this movie.
It was really inspiring.
In the Heart of the Sea opens December 11.