Happy Days are here again as Ron Howard's Heart is in the Sea
The real life epic behind the classic Moby Dick has been made into a spectacular film by Ron Howard. Anne Marie Scanlon meets the director and cast
Ron Howard's working life began at the age of five, two years later he was famous as Opie in the popular US TV series The Andy Griffith Show. In his teens, Howard became a household name throughout the world, as the ultimate nice guy Richie Cunningham in the popular 70s sitcom Happy Days.
Despite being an acclaimed and award-winning director for the past four decades, the shadow of Richie Cunningham has been hard to shake off. Meeting Howard in person it's easy to see why. At 61 Howard is spry and under his trademark baseball cap still looks like Richie. He is also as warm and engaging and as all round 'nice' as his on-screen character ever was.
Having just seen his new movie In the Heart of the Sea I am a little taken aback by Howard's admission that he's no great lover of the ocean. At the age of 7, while filming a guest slot on a show, where his job "was to get thrown off the boat by a wave" he had an experience that put him off open water for life. "I was really scared," Howard admits, "and I opened my eyes under there and it was really just that 'BLUE' you know. I got to the surface screaming 'Dad Dad'. Fortunately, my character had a Dad!" he adds laughing.
The ocean in his new film isn't exactly a friendly place. The film based on the book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick recounts the true events upon which Herman Melville based Moby Dick.
The film features an outstanding international ensemble cast - Aussie Chris Hemsworth, Corkman Cillian Murphy, up-and-coming young English actor Tom Holland and American Benjamin Walker. "I'm the only American in this great American classic!" Walker laughs. "Everyone's like 'how's your accent so good'? Because it's my accent!"
Walker is quite unlike his character, the stuffy, snobby and repressed Captain George Pollard. Pollard is put in charge of the Essex much to the chagrin of Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) an experienced seaman and whaler who had been promised the captaincy. Joining the pair on the doomed voyage Cillian Murphy plays Matthew Joy an alcoholic determined not to drink and Tom Holland plays Tom Nickerson, a boy on his maiden whaling trip. (Brendan Gleeson plays the older Nickerson recounting the events to Ben Whishaw's Melville).
All of the cast are united in their praise of their director, "He's a lovely, warm individual," Cillian Murphy says. "We all wanted to do whatever Ron was asking of us, because we all love his films and we're mad about him as a person, he's terrifically genuine." Murphy goes on to say that "Ron wanted to do the film as authentically as possible."
Howard was so detailed in his approach to making In the Heart of the Sea that the cast were able to work on a full-size replica of the Essex ship and even the whale had a backstory. "We went to sailor school," Walker elaborates, "learned about the different parts of the ship. We went to Cornwall, Nantucket, we rode whale boats, we did knot tying … I did all this work and then as captain, I don't really do jack!"
Tom Holland adds "we were given a huge, huge stack of books (to read). The amount of research we were given was so helpful in that when we came on set we knew exactly what we were making and that's what makes the film so authentic".
The often spectacular 3D effects enhance the authenticity that Howard was after - there were times I actually felt a bit seasick. During the scene where the young Nickerson has to go inside the head of a dead whale I had to look away as it was so grim. "That was very lifelike and very real," Holland explains with a grimace. "It smelled real to me, it was pretty gross inside and there was very little acting required."
The 3D is such an integral part of the experience that I'm amazed when Howard reveals that he shot the film as a 2D movie. "I don't necessarily love the 3D experience all the time," the director says, "but I was impressed by what it did - not just for the action, but also for the immersive aspect to it." Walker adds that 3D can "give a movie the depth of a play, it can make you feel like you're in the conversation." Or on the ship where whalers are gutting and slicing a massive whale. Spectacular but not pleasant.
Growing up in Australia Chris Hemsworth has spent plenty of time "surfing and diving but never on boats, they just weren't my thing. Navigating my way around a ship and learning the lingo was a whole new thing - it was a bit like 'doctor speak' where the words mean absolutely nothing (to me). It's like learning another language but we did know a bunch of phrases so that in scenes when we were moving we could improvise."
Hemsworth previously worked on Rush, a biopic about race car driver James Hunt, with Ron Howard and it was he who took the script for In the Heart of the Sea to the director. "I was swept up in the scale of it and rarely do you read something that properly transports you to another place and it had that effect on me. I was looking for a drama and a more character-driven piece and this script had that."
In simple terms the script is the story of a long fruitless whale hunting expedition, a shipwreck and the subsequent fight for survival endured by the remaining sailors adrift in tiny boats.
However the story also contains many complex themes including the class system and ecology, all as relevant today as they were 200 years ago. Cillian Murphy cautions that those themes are there if the audience chooses to see them. "Films should not be prescriptive," he says, "no film should ever push. It's a big blockbuster movie but if you want to see it from the other perspective you can."
Much has been made of the severe diet Howard placed his actors on while filming so that they could accurately portray the starving sailors. "Of course, inevitably when you've got loads of men together it gets competitive," Murphy explains and goes on to say that despite the lack of food all the actors remained realistic about their experience.
"We had to remember that we were feeling a tiny, tiny, tiny version of what those guys felt," Murphy explains while Walker adds "I feel bad complaining about "oh I didn't get to eat a lot" - these were real people, it's the smallest fraction of what they experienced. It's like," he puts on a whiney voice, 'I had this great part in a Ron Howard movie and my fingers got pruney.' Uptown problems."
In the Heart of the Sea opens in cinemas nationwide on 26th December.
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