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Writer Samuel D. Hunter talks The Whale (The FH Interview)

9 min read

Samuel D. Hunter is a pretty prolific playwright. Between 2010 and now Hunter has written seventeen plays for the stage and is prepping yet another for debut in New York. His work on screen begun with TV series Baskets as both producer and but his debut to the big screen comes with an adaptation of his 2012 play Telling story of a English teacher called Charlie – played by – who suffers from obesity and has mere days left to right the wrongs in his life, we follow him trying to mend his relationship with his daughter Ellie (). FILMHOUNDS sat down with him the day after it was announced that Hunter was nominated for the BAFTA award for Best Adapted Screenplay to discuss this film.

First things first – congratulations on your BAFTA nomination!

Thank you, thank you so much.

That must have been a surprise?

Yeah it really was. I wasn't really aware. I knew they were coming out but I'd forgotten about it, I'd just gotten off a plane from New York and I went to get a coffee and my husband messaged me and I was like “oh”.

 

Does it feel good that the film is getting all these accolades and nominations?

Yeah, I mean, I wrote this play what twelve, thirteen years ago? When I wrote it I didn't know if it would see the light of day, period. So when it was produced in a one-hundred and seventy five seat theatre in New York City I was like “I did it! I win!” You know being a playwright and having an off-Broadway play was all I ever wanted to be. So just the fact that Darren [Aronofsky, the director] called me and said “let's make this into a film” was an interesting detour. So all this is… I feel very grateful.

 

What was the genesis of the play? What inspired it?

At the time, around 2009, 2010 both me and my husband were teaching expository writing – like Charlie does – at Rutgers in New Jersey, a public university. Like Charlie I was becoming a little bit beleaguered in telling these students they just needed to rewrite, give me something objective, paragraph organisation. It all felt very anathema to my work as playwright. So at a certain point in the semester I got desperate and I just said – write me something honest. Let's start there, don't worry about making it a good essay. It felt like they were all writing what they thought I wanted. 

One of my students wrote a line that ended up in the play and the movie – I think i need to accept that my life isn't going to be very exciting. It was this bracing moment of honesty that made me think could I write a play about an expository writing teacher. I had a few false starts with it, I started writing a play that absolutely bares no resemblance to The Whale. It was about a teacher and a student, and it felt a little – too intellectual, too up in the air. At a certain point I thought that maybe I should take my own assignment and write something a little more honest. 

So I started accessing things like growing up gay in a small town in Idaho – where Charlie lives. I attended a school that was a fundamentalist Christian school – like the one Thomas attends. I was outed, and for several years I self medicated with food. So when I started to bring those things to bare it became much more personal, it was when I realised it wasn't about a teacher and student it's about a father and a daughter. You know he is a teacher and uses those teaching scenes as dry runs for his daughter. So then slowly that's what became The Whale.

So it's a very personal work.

In many ways.

 

And when you're adapting a play for a film, they're two very different mediums. Was there a concern that this is set in one room, or was it a case of wanting to keep it very claustrophobic?

It was very early on that Darren and I wanted to keep it in the room. You know at this point I've written a lot of plays, you know The Whale was fifteen or so plays ago for me. I do think that other plays of mine could be opened up in that way, locations and flashbacks or whatever. But there was something in this story that – I don't know what this is without that. Whenever I thought “oh we'll see Ellie at school, or Mary at home, or whatever” then I don't know what this experience is. It's like the air gets let out the balloon, the experience of this film is being with this person in a very intense and intimate way. So I was really glad that Darren had the bravery to embrace it in that way. 

He does embrace it as a play on film, like in the tradition of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or A Streetcar Named Desire something like that. It's uncommon, but I think took a lot of bravery on his part.

 

When watching the film I think I was towards the end when I realised – oh we've not left this room! I was so into the drama that when he finally opened the door I was like “oh we've not been outside!”

Yeah! Because he can't, so if he can't, why should we?

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What's it like working with a personality like , he's quite an extremist director. He's polarising, if you look at Requiem for a Dream. Is there a worry he's going to be extreme or is it a case “stick to the text”?

The thing that I realised early on is “oh this is the guy who made The Wrestler” and that is such an intimate portrait – you know I love Darren's films. We're very different storytellers, and I'll be honest when I got the call that he wanted to talk to me about doing the film I had the reaction I think a lot of people had which is “what is this film, where do we meet”. But the beautiful thing is we are very different storytellers but our Venn Diagrams sort of meet very beautifully with a story like this. 

In the ten years we were talking about this film we never disagreed on how this story wanted to be told. Which is kind of a miracle, and I think it's because we are different, that we had our own strengths that we brought to this.

 

It doesn't feel like an Aronfosky film in a way. The last film I saw of his was mother! so apart from the claustrophobia this is very very different. But like you say, with The Wrestler they almost feel like companion pieces. 

This is Darren at his most humanist. But the thing about mother! is it's a very different film than this one but the thing that they share is the intimacy, and intensity of being with these people. If you think about mother! the way it's shot, it's like right with these people, it's living right inside them. He brought that to this too.

 

How do you strike a balance between telling a story of someone of extreme weight and it not becoming exploitative or making fun of them? I think that was a concern that it was going to be “look at this relatively thin actor in a fat suit, let's all laugh!”

People have their guards up, and rightly so. The history of cinema as it pertains to obesity is really complicated and kind of horrendous. Traditionally these kinds of prosthetics – and I should say the prosthetics that were designed by Adrien Moreau are on a different level to the ones that have traditionally been used, it's been kind of pillowing caricatures of a person of size to kind of deride them, make fun of them or make villains of them. And what we're doing is the polar opposite. Adrien really strived for an authenticity. From the very beginning when I wanted to tell this story – which comes from a personal place – I just wanted to tell this story of a person.

There's no authorial voice that's judging the character, telling us how we should view this character. It's really just this guy. But, I'm not surprised when you read the one sentence synopsis people rush to judgement. Look, people are allowed to have whatever reaction they want.

 

I think coupled with the director as well. Aronofsky's doing a movie about a guy in a fat suit, you know I just saw mother! I just saw Noah, this is going to be looking at the human body saying “isn't this gross?”.

Exactly, and I think this is the diametric opposite. This is a call for empathy. This is saying this is a human being. I think Darren's goal was that after five, ten minutes you stop seeing this person as this body and start seeing it as a human being who has this body, and your judgement melts away. Whatever judgement you might bring.

 

Was there ever concern about making Sadie Sink's character [Ellie] too unlikeable? At times I kept thinking “give this guy a break!”

I've always shirked at the idea of likability. I don't think of my job as a writer is to invite you to like somebody. I'm just presenting human beings, you know? Sometimes human beings are in this extreme situation. I'm not going to throw you a life preserver of “no look she has a heart of gold”, you know what I mean? 

I think the project of the film is Charlie is making a leap of faith with Ellie, saying I see you, you're a beautiful person. I'm not going to give any shallow answers to audience. To a certain degree the audience has to make that leap of faith. There's that point in the film where Ellie saves Thomas and so many people have asked me – was she trying to save him, or was she trying to hurt him – and I never answer that question because I'm like… that's up to you. That's the leap of faith you have to make. It's the leap of faith Charlie is making.

 

Now the film is in the award's race, everyone is being nominated, is there a pressure for what you're going to do next, or are you just taking it day by day?

It's just day by day. You know, I'm in rehearsal now for a play in New York, so I'm sort of focused on that.

Is stage always where you want to be as opposed to cinema?

I'm sort of figuring that out. As a writer I have so much more agency in the theatre. The fact that Darren made this movie the way he made it and invited me on set the entire time, and shot it pretty much word for word with a few exceptions – that's a miracle. That's not how it usually happens. So often in filmmaking the writing is an afterthought. You figure out, who is the actor you want to star, what's the story you want to tell, okay let's hire someone to do the typing. I really hope this opens doors for me in filmmaking, but I also want to do it the right way. I'm not sure what that looks like, I have to wait and see.

 

Just finally, this is Brendan Fraser's big comeback story, everybody's got such good will. How do you feel being the writer that has given him such catharsis after all these years?

I feel incredibly grateful, I've gotten to know Brendan over the last few years and he's such a kind and generous human being. He's been through a lot. If someone told me when I started writing this that I was going to be a part of Brendan Fraser's comeback, I think I would have been a little confused. But I cannot tell you how much I love seeing him – I was at the Critics' Choice Awards with him, and seeing him win made me so happy. To be part of good things happening to a good person makes me really happy.

The Whale is released in UK cinemas from February 3rd, 2023.