Ron Howard talks directing In The Heart Of The Sea

For a man with a long history of success recreating true stories, Ron Howard must have been pinching himself when he was approached by Chris Hemsworth with the script for In The Heart Of The Sea. Having worked together only two years prior on Rush, the pair had established a relationship that would ultimately form the legs for the production and lead direction of the film.

Originally in the hands of Barry Levinson and Mirimax, In The Heart Of The Sea presented a very clear set of challenges to anyone willing to tackle it. For one, the film was to take place almost entirely at sea; there was also the integrity of the original story Essex and some part Moby Dick, and the narrative imposed very strict regimes upon the cast of the film. To make things more delicate, Warner Bro’s (who had picked up the film) had been struggling to clear profits in the box office for the year, and were then banking on the prowess of the big names attached to the project.

Ron Howard was aware of the challenges he faced, but after losing two films to the sea previously, he felt compelled by the story and the cinematic opportunity within In The Heart of The Sea to once more brave the capricious waters.

“I don’t love the ocean.  It’s not a place I go for recreation, but I think there’s something about the power and the mystery of it that has always drawn me to thedramatic potential of it.  Many years ago, I tried to get a movie made about a Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior … but could never get the resources together.  Later, I came very close to making The Sea-Wolf, a Jack London drama set on the ocean … Didn’t quite come together. When this one came to me, it embodied, I thought, the cinematic potential that those movies offered as a drama. It also offered this chance to sort of demystify Moby-Dick … I was so surprised bythe script.  First of all, I had no idea that – to use a comic book term – there was an origin story for Moby-Dick”

The story that forms the skeleton of the film was not the Melville novel Moby Dick, but rather it’s own source of inspiration, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. The director was gifted the Melville novel as an interpretation of Essex, while finding his own interpretation was a process made simpler by the dramatic elements already existing within the story of Essex, as well as the added elements within Moby Dick. Howard was then subject to the structure of both stories, finding there wasn’t a whole lot that needed be submitted in terms of dramatic elements.

“I was kind of blown away by how the extreme behaviours that Melville wrote aboutin Moby-Dick – in terms of the whale and the attack – were not only in the accounts written by the crew of the Essex but in other accounts of sperm whales turning on their hunters.  So I didn’t have to invent very much in terms of the behaviour. Theintensity was there.”

Essex was the name of the American whaler-ship that was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, leaving the seven survivors to cannibalise the bodies of dead crewmates in hope of survival. First Mate Owen Chase, who is played by Chris Hemsworth in the film, was the one who made the original recordings of the events of Essex. These events shadowed much of the production of In The Heart Of The Sea.

The elements of hunger and desperation were particularly present when filming at sea and Howard found himself, along with the rest of the cast, become increasingly empathetic towards the Essex crewmembers as the shooting carried on.

in the heart of the sea

“I feel like out on the ocean was actually working for the actors.  And at the end ofthe day, I would apologize to everybody to say, I know this is tough.  They would just say, ‘Well, first of all, it’s just a fraction of what the real guys that we were playing went through, and we get that, and secondly, it’s good for the performances.  This is what we’re trying to play.’  But I did see the life kind of draining out of these guys”.

This was also one of the greatest challenges to the cast imposed by the narrative. To remain diligent in recreating the story of Essex, there were intense dietary and training regimes that needed to be upheld by the cast and crew. Having taken lengths before to keep the story authentic, Howard was determined to keep the cast on track, but found a resounding compliance from the crew made the process a lot simpler than he had originally imagined.

“In the early auditions, when the exercise regiments and the dieting began, I had to be aware and let people know that living up to this was a job requirement.  But, very shortly, particularly these Chris and Ben, and also Cillian Murphy, were so committed and dedicated to it that I didn’t have to keep watching it or pushing it as we went through the movie.”

The look of the cast wasn’t the only priority Howard sought to maintain when it came to creating an authentic feel to the film. There was a certain image Howard wanted to maintain, something reminiscent of the looming industrial revolution, and something that was synonymous to the tapestry Melville and Owens had created. Howard in response, felt a duty to make sure his cast were able to act and look like they were a part of the picture.

“Part of transporting the audience was to get the details right.  Whether people know right from wrong, they can kind of sense it … Everybody was in pretty much every shot, so there was a lot of improvisation not only of action, but even language and terminology, so the sailor school was just as important as the astronaut school and flight director school had been for Apollo 13

Where the film takes a lot from Essex, there was still a general application of Moby Dick to the final production. Having read the bridged copy in high school, Howard found himself in foreign ground with the unabridged version. Something that carries through each rendition of the events of Essex is the concept of divine retribution. There’s always a fundamental human anxiety that the crew experiences in each story (Essex, Moby Dick & In The Heart Of The Sea) and it asks how much can we take before nature will take back. Howard had considered the context to Melville’s novel, and reflected on how the industrial development has grown into what it is today. He appreciated Melville’s hindsight and has given his best efforts to recreate the experiences of both the author and the crew of Essex.

“Melville struggled with the book.  He knew about the attack.  He wanted to recount some of his own whaling experiences and so forth, and he wrote this book …  And I think the idea of the man versus nature – that compulsion, that drive, that modern, psychological component – seemed to come in later. I tried to make that evening its own kind of psychological gauntlet that was certainly not as intense as what thecrew of the Essex went through, but there were some interesting dramatic parallels and some insight into the creative process.”

In The Heart Of The Sea spent a decade changing hands before reaching Ron Howard and Chris Hemsworth and the result was one of tireless dedication.

The film has been released internationally and the DVD and Blu-ray is available now.

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