Credit: Jonathan Prime

From Backdraft to Apollo 13 to Rush, director Ron Howard has overseen more than his fair share of physically demanding and logistically nightmarish productions. So where does the filmmaker place his latest film, the historical seafaring epic In the Heart of the Sea (out Dec. 11) in the Ron Howard League of Testing Cinematic Ventures?

“Physically, right alongside Backdraft,” says the filmmaker. “Everything [on that film] was real world, real fire. There was an element of danger, and discomfort, and the mechanics of the filmmaking was complicated. This one was similar to me in that way. You could never take nature for granted, never take the water for granted, never take the stunts that we had to execute too lightly. And it was mostly in-camera, outside of our whale. So, I’d say those challenges were similar.”

In the Heart of the Sea stars Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, and Joseph Mawle, among others, as early 19th-century whalers who find themselves adrift in small boats after one of their prey destroys their ship. This real-life tale partly inspired the literary classic Moby Dick, whose author, Herman Melville, is portrayed in the film by Ben Whishaw while Brendan Gleeson plays an older version of Holland’s character. The film’s other main character is the giant mammal whose smashing of the whaling boat places the entire crew’s lives in danger. “I always say that our whale in this movie is not Jaws, our whale is much more King Kong,” says Howard. “If pushed too far, the reaction is as exreme as you’d expect.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You shot a lot of In the Heart of the Sea in actual boats on the water around the Canary Islands. What was that like?

RON HOWARD: It was a real logistical challenge and we had real safety concerns that factored into every day. It really became less a movie and more a situation where our actors were in the experience and our job was to capture it with as much intensity and authenticity as we could. That’s what (cinematographer) Anthony Dod Mantle and I tried to do. This was hours and hours of the actors literally being adrift and being trapped in those boats. It was a physical test, it was an endurance test, and an emotional test for them.

One of my jobs was to calibrate the day, understand where the actors were psychologically, and how that related to whatever scene was coming up next. There were times when I would jump from one scene to another, and one actor’s coverage to another, because I could see that something really real and emotional and intense was going to become available to us in the most organic way. I know they were using it as well and trying to take advantage of it. These actors showed so much respect for the story. It was pretty inspiring to watch. I had so much respect for their commitment, and their professionalism, and it made so many things possible, and elevated what we were doing in ways that the audience are going to benefit from.

And by that point, the cast’s diet had been cut down to just 500 calories a day, correct?

Yeah, it’s that, and it’s also the sun, and it’s the salt, and it’s being in a 20-foot whale boat adrift. You’re not on a stage and you’re not stepping off every 20 minutes to take a break. You know, it was hours out there at a time. Sometimes it’s a little cold, and sometimes it’s very hot, and the wind’s blowing. They had to look after each other, even in terms of actor things, like makeup and wardrobe. The usual crew of people looking after the actors weren’t available.

When their snack time came around — which would be this sad, little, carefully-calibrated snack of something green and a tiny little bit of protein nutritionally-designed — once at 10:30, and again at 2:30 or 3, they were absolutely ravenous. I could hear them, because I’d still have my ear phones on. All the talking stopped. They were really putting themselves through it. And, so, psychologically, this informed the movie, even though they were the first to say, “This is a tiny fraction of what the real men that we’re playing endured.” They never lost perspective on that.

How far away from the shore were you shooting?

Sometimes it would be a mile, sometimes it would be three or four miles. If the swells got too big, we’d be called in. We did have a couple of storms that moved in and we to get out quickly. One time, we moved in to our one bit of cover location that we had, which was a small building where we had some green screens set up, and a storm hit that was unexpected. We had a flash flood and there was only one road in and out of this little canyon. Nobody got hurt, so it’s easy to laugh at now — but the safety people said, “We’ve got to go!” From the time we started evacuating our location to the time we were getting in the cars and going out, which was 15 minutes, it was up to our knees and boulders were starting to come down from this hillside. Thankfully no injuries, but that was just a reminder of what nature can be.

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Credit: Jonathan Prime

Chris Hemsworth plays one of the two leaders of the crew, along with Benjamin Walker. Was he similarly one of the leaders of the cast?

Well, Chris is pretty soft spoken and he’s not showy about that leadership. But he knew it was going to be a challenge and led by example, as did Ben Walker, as did Cillian Murphy. So there were three actors that everyone else on the set respected. They were so dedicated to their workouts, so dedicated to the process, to the diets, so respectful of what this opportunity offered audiences and them as actors. They led by example, and if anybody was going off-course, I think there might have been a few quiet conversations from time to time where Chris or Ben or Killian would say, “Come on, man, we’ve got to do this.” I didn’t have to do very much of that, which I was grateful for.

When you say “off-course” what do you mean?

Well, not show up for workouts, or be seen in a restaurant with a slice of pizza in your hands. [Laughs]

So, the cast were eating virtually nothing every day and working out?

Yeah, they had to work out every day, even on shooting days. Because they had to lose the weight pretty fast and they had to lose it safely. They needed to keep burning the calories and we also needed that sinewy strength that was more of that era, as opposed to a kind of cut, buff look.

How much experience did you have filming with, and on, water prior to shooting this?

Cocoon had quite a bit of water. And then I also went a long way down the road prepping two water movies over the years. One was called Rainbow Warrior and it was about a Greenpeace event that had occurred in the ‘80s and I never could get the money together to make that movie. And then, about 15 years ago, I prepped and planned and devoted a lot of time and energy into trying to make The Sea Wolf (an adaptation of the Jack London story of the same name). And ultimately it was just cost-prohibitive and I didn’t feel we were going to be able to live up to the promise of that story.

So, I’ve given a lot of thought to working on the water. You know, I don’t vacation on the water. I’m a pale-skinned redhead, I get sunburned out there. I’m a little frightened of the ocean, in fact. But I just know there’s great drama out there. When this script, with Chris Hemsworth attached, came to me, and a studio like Warner Bros. believing in it, I thought, Well, this is my time to finally go to sea. And the technology has now made it possible to not end every day in disappointment, feeling like you didn’t get what you wanted. Instead, [you can] go out there and tackle the drama, create an opportunity for actors to create great performances, and deliver to the audiences what they should expect.

You can see the trailer for In the Heart of the Sea, below.

In the Heart of the Sea
2015 movie
  • Movie
  • 121 minutes