“It’s never going to be this good again,” says Samuel D. Hunter, screenwriter of The whale.
A veteran playwright, Hunter first transferred his work from stage to screen in the Darren Aronofsky film, which stars Brendan Fraser as a £600 writing professor trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter to connect Ellie (Sadie Sink). .
Hunter’s original play, on which the film is based, aired on Off-Broadway in 2012, where Aronofsky first saw it and was inspired to create the film. Now, 10 years later, The whale is one of the most talked about films of the year, with Fraser seen as the favorite for a nomination and possibly taking home the Oscar for best actor.
“It’s one thing to film a play of mine, but I have to do the adaptation myself. It’s very faithful to the film – Darren didn’t change much of the script editing. And then I had to be on set all the time, working with everyone, and we had a three-week rehearsal process before any cameras would turn on, which is to A24’s credit for letting us do that,” says Hunter Filmmakers.
He loves that Fraser is in the film.
“Of course I knew him from the movies of the 90s. When I was in high school, I worked as a projectionist at a bankrupt movie theater. So I threaded The Mummy when I was a teenager, through a super old projector. I was such a bad projectionist, I burned holes in the film all the time. So I probably destroyed that print, wrapped it up, and sent it to the nearest theater,” he joked.
Below narrates Samuel D. Hunter filmmakers all about the true life experiences that inspired him to write The whale.
Also read: Brendan Fraser Scream-Cries in New, Longer Trailer for The whale (Video)
MM: I know you grew up in Idaho where the film is set. Did your childhood influence your writing?
SCH: “The Whale was really the first time I was like, ‘okay, I’m going to access some pretty personal stuff, and it’s going to be pretty serious, and I think it’s unfashionable in the way it wears its heart on its sleeve. But yes, I grew up gay. My family wasn’t evangelical, but I had a pretty tough time in elementary school. I was a big kid, very socially awkward. And so as just a change [my parents said] Well, let’s go to the only private school in town, that’s this evangelical school. I didn’t really know anything about this type of Christianity. I grew up episcopal. But I remember – I think it was the very first day – I mentioned evolution as something that actually happened. And I just remember that the room got cold and the teacher just looked down and didn’t answer and then started to continue. And from there it was like ‘Oh Sam is our project’ because they realized I needed to be rescued.
“In seventh grade I was sat down by the head pastor’s father, who is also a pastor, and he just pulled out a pamphlet that talked about letting Christ into your heart. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ In my head. I thought, well, I’m a Christian, so yes, I should do that. I remember he told me as soon as I did that you would hear Jesus speaking to you. And so I did, and I did it very seriously, but I kept asking myself, ‘Why can’t I hear Jesus? Like, it’s not happening – what am I doing wrong?’ But I liked playing the role a bit. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m a Christian now. I believe that. And there was a certain comfort in that, too. It’s very neat to have that kind of dogma. Life and death and life after death are just being delivered right to you, and you have that community and that sense of purpose and a keen sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. I mean, it’s like a warm blanket to wrap yourself in.
“But as I found out at the time, I was aware that I was gay. But I was so young I figured this can probably go away, I just need to pray, not think about boys and just ask God to change me. And it just didn’t work, no matter how hard I tried. And I really tried. At a certain point I figured this isn’t going to change. What does that mean? And I realized that part of me was something they could never accept. And finally I told a friend that I was gay. And then about a year later he met some other guys and they told the administration and I had to tell my parents and it was a mess. And I came out the other side and ended up dropping out of public school and enrolling in it. I think at the time I was like, ‘I’m better, I’m fine. I’m out of the closet, everything is fine. I left that behind me.’ But I didn’t unpack it properly. And like many young gays, I just surpassed as much as I could to prove something to myself and those around me. But as I went to college it got harder and harder to deal with and I just didn’t unpack what I needed to unpack and I fell into depression. I started treating myself by treating myself with food, which is what I did when I was a little kid. But it picked up really fast when I was in college. And then slowly I was able to find support systems and therapies and things to sort of find my way out of it. And my husband, who I met in 2005 and have been with ever since, has been a huge support to me. But anyway, there’s a long way to say it, when I started writing this piece I thought, what if this is the story of someone who didn’t find that exit that I found, and who in my hometown stayed? And that’s largely what produced the play. That and the fact that I was teaching college freshmen how to write annotations at the time.”
MM: It sounds like there’s a part of you in Charlie, in Charlie’s late partner, and also in the religious boy who goes door to door. Did that come to mind while you were writing?
SCH: “That’s exactly right, yes. It’s like I’ve sort of taken parts of myself and distributed them in different ways throughout the game, which I think I’ve done a lot with my players over the years. Nothing I’ve ever written is directly autobiographical, but it always feels a bit like autofiction or a gamble. It’s hopefully a way for me to write things that are useful to people. Because if there’s something that I’m actively wrestling with or have been actively wrestling with, there are probably other people in the world who have had similar experiences or who have had similar experiences and can validate that experience through the lens of their own struggles.”
MM: Is the small town in Idaho that the film is set in based on your actual hometown?
“It doesn’t have a name, but it’s definitely set in Moscow, the name of the city I grew up in. I never mention it in my lyrics because I don’t want people to think there’s a Jacobean layer that’s definitely not there. But no, there are little Moscow-isms in the film. There’s also a shopping bag from a local bookstore hanging on the door, and Hong [Chau] wears scrubs that say Gritman Medical Center, my hometown hospital. I usually come back once or twice a year. I was actually there just before Venice [Film Festival] Visit the family.”
The whale hits theaters nationwide on December 21. Watch the trailer here.
Main image: Sadie sink in The whale Courtesy of A24