Academy Award winner Ron Howard talks about his latest film, the big-screen adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea.”
“This was the hardest film I’ve done since Apollo 13,” says Ron Howard, sipping coffee in the old Hawden & Barney Oil and Candle Factory inside the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Oak barrels are set behind him, along with the hulking timber of Nantucket’s old whaling industry. There could be no better setting to discuss Howard’s latest creation, his big-screen adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, due out in theaters December 2015. “There was obviously a lot of thought given to possibly trying to shoot here,” he says. “But the sad reality was that for us to retrofit, to roll a place as dynamic and specific and particular as modern Nantucket back 190 years, we might have been welcomed in, but we would have been booted out in just about no time.”
Howard comes across with all the warmth and earnestness of his iconic early roles as Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham. Indeed, the sixty-year-old has enjoyed happy days throughout his career, rising from child star to blockbuster director without the faintest whiff of scandal. He married his high-school sweetheart, raised four well-adjusted children, and has ascended to the highest ranks of Tinseltown with box-office profitability as his trademark. If there were ever a role model for making it in Hollywood, Ron Howard is it.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the drama of the sea,” the director says. Two prior attempts at seafaring films never set sail, but Howard discovered a “tremendous and irresistible opportunity” with In the Heart of the Sea. “When this story came to me, it came with Chris Hemsworth attached, and I had already done Rush with him,” he says. “At first I read [the script] and didn’t know it was a true story, then I discovered that, and it became three times as enticing to me.”
In the Heart of the Sea tells the saga of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which left port in 1819 only to be sunk by a massive bull sperm whale in the South Pacific. For more than ninety days, the surviving crew floated and sailed in whaleboats, battling starvation and dehydration that ultimately forced them into cannibalism. “I was fascinated by the complexity of the human drama in this,” Howard says. “I was fascinated by the transformation that some of the characters go through and some don’t during the course of their survival.” He continues, “What takes this into the realm of the unexpected, really surprising kind of story on a human level, is that an individual who endures this kind of test has no way of gauging or comprehending what it adds to this sort of ‘human story’ that might inspire. So in this case, had there been no Essex and no survivors, would there be a Moby-Dick? Would we know who Herman Melville is?”
To help his actors understand the unimaginable toils of surviving ninety days at sea, Howard brought aboard author Steven Callahan, who survived seventy-six days adrift on the Atlantic. “We had him around talking with our actors about those details and reminding us in a way that being able to convey the most extreme versions of the human experience has real value,” Howard says. “It’s not only what it means to you and your family to endure when adversity is so extreme, but it’s also what it says about human beings, what it adds to the human story.” To get into their roles, Chris Hemsworth, the Thor star who plays first mate Owen Chase, and his fellow actors subsisted on five hundred to six hundred calories a day, with frequent fifteen-hour fasts. “It was a combination of physical, psychological, and technical challenges,” Howard says.
Actors and crew battled seasickness, fatigue, and dehydration, filming in giant water tanks in Warner Brothers Studios in southeast London and on a tall ship filming the whaling sequences around the Canary Islands off the coast of North Africa. Wind and weather complicated filming on the open ocean. Storms rolled in and on one occasion actors and crew needed to be evacuated. “It was a very ambitious project…a labor of love,” Howard says. “We all had this feeling that this was a rare opportunity in this environment, this movie climate, to do something that’s bold, that is this fresh…It was a lot to live up to.”
Helping Howard live up to the challenge was Nantucket’s own Nathaniel Philbrick, whom the director praises as a truly gifted storyteller in his own right. Philbrick won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for In The Heart of the Sea in 2000, and sold the rights to the film a year later. “I must admit, after more than a decade of not much happening, I had begun to have my doubts about the story ever becoming an actual movie,” the bestselling author told me in an earlier interview. After corresponding over phone and email throughout the winter of 2013, Philbrick and Howard met at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where they ate lunch with screenwriter Peter Morgan in the captain’s cabin of the historic whaleship Charles W. Morgan. “They were asking me quite specific questions,” Philbrick said. “It went from the characters to the connection, to Melville, to very specific questions about what it was like on Nantucket.” They drilled into the motivations of each character, the Nantucket expressions they would use, and tried to “wring every last bit of anguish” from each scene. “You can’t make a movie without taking liberties — look at any movie,” Philbrick said, when asked about the script’s historical accuracy. “The big concern for me was that they be true to the spirit of the book and the essence. And they have been.”
Philbrick got to see this spirit firsthand that following November when he and his wife Melissa traveled to Southeast London, where Howard had recreated downtown Nantucket with “all the muck and mire” of the 1820s. “There we are, an hour outside London, it’s drizzling, we’re outside, and we’re basically on Easy Street as if it were 1819. You know Old North Wharf is Old North Wharf with a whaleship tied up next to it!” Philbrick laughed. “And of course, then Ron asked, ‘Would you like to be in it?’” The author ended up as one of the thirty Quakers in the scene. “Our version of the island will be this industrial epicenter, a hub, and a place of leadership and purpose, and ambition to maximize what was possible, to stretch the human capabilities,” Howard says. “It’s less about the nature of the town, and more about it as a place where at one time in our history the economy was basically fueled.”
“I want my audiences to have an experience and be swept up in it,” Howard says. “Whether it’s fires [Backdraft], or a boxing ring [Cinderella Man], or a mathematician’s mind [A Beautiful Mind], or a space capsule [Apollo 13], or a Formula 1 cockpit [Rush]—I want people to feel it.” Indeed, Ron Howard has an extraordinary ability to transport audiences and shed a unique light on the human spirit. For Nantucketers, his latest creation will take us back to a world that is both foreign and familiar while exposing a far broader audience to the rich history of this island.