‘The Whale’ screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter: ‘The hardest thing is having faith in other people’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

Acclaimed playwright Samuel D. Hunter began the journey of adapting his award-winning play “The Whale” almost exactly 10 years ago to the day, he just didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. It was November 29, 2012, when director Darren Aronofsky saw a production of “The Whale” in New York City and shortly afterward reached out to Hunter about turning the play into a film.

“When we first started getting together, we were kind of feeling each other out and figuring out what exactly this wanted to be,” Hutner tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview of his initial meetings with Aronofsky. Hunter was initially concerned that a film version of “The Whale,” which focuses on the final days in the life of a morbidly obese English teacher named Charlie (Brendan Fraser) as he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink), would expand the play beyond its claustrophobic setting: Charlie’s small apartment. But Aronofsky was adamant “The Whale” stays within those walls. 

“I was really hoping that he would make that decision, because every time I ideated about opening it up in the traditional way of sort of like adding characters, adding locations, it just kind of felt like, this is not what the story wants at all,” Hunter says. “It’s really a story where we want to just live with this person.”

Hunter and Aronofsky spent the next 10 years working on the film together and their collaboration didn’t stop once Hunter finished his adaptation. “I was on set the entire time for production, working very closely with Brendan and Darren, which is an incredible gift, and probably will never happen to me again,” Hunter says of the experience.

“The Whale” debuted at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year and won immediate raves for Fraser in a comeback performance that has the beloved ‘90s star ticketed for awards recognition. Fraser’s open-hearted work, Hunter says, allowed him the freedom to recontextualize some elements of his original stage play. 

“As a writer, I really had to challenge myself and kill my darlings. Be like, ‘Even though I might really like these lines, what is this story? How can I tell the story of these lines in a way that is visual and cinematic?’” Hunter says. “One big example is in the play, Charlie makes a very pivotal decision to call his estranged daughter. And that’s kind of the impetus for the rest of the story. And in the play, it happens in language, he says it to his friend, Liz (Hong Chau).

“In the movie, I made the decision to have that happen silently,” Hunter adds. “And Brendan does it so beautifully. And I was worried about it because I was like, ‘That’s a big story point to communicate and it’s a very pivotal story point to communicate. But Brendan has this uncanny ability to narrate with his eyes. I mean, it’s just incredible. It’s one of the reasons he’s such a great actor. And so there were a lot of moments like that.”

Hunter has written numerous plays, but “The Whale” is his first to reach the screen. “I made a decision early on that I didn’t want to be a cynical writer. My plays are pretty earnest, and kind of wear their heart on their sleeve, and they’re very open to assault,” he says. “But I have continued to dig in on that because I just think cynicism easily masquerades as intelligence. It masquerades as sophistication. And I actually think cynicism is cheap and easy and intellectually bankrupt. And the harder thing is having faith in other people.”

But his belief in humanity, a driving engine of “The Whale” as a film, is something Hunter says has grown for him in the decade since that first meeting with Aronofsky.

“One huge aspect of the story which is very different for me now than when I wrote the play is I was not a dad,” Hunter says. “So the condition of being a dad and working on the screenplay was a very different place – I was writing to that from a very different place. So yeah, I think it’s just kind of really deepened and evolved over the years.”

“The Whale” is out on December 9 in theaters.

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