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The Tragedy of Isolation and the Redemption and Salvation of Human Connection: A Conversation with ‘The Whale’ Screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter

Samuel D. Hunter shares with Script how he found his way into writing the play, adapting his own work, what he's drawn to thematically as a storyteller and so much more.

From Darren Aronofsky comes The Whale, the story of a reclusive English teacher who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter. Starring Brendan Fraser and based on the acclaimed play by Samuel D. Hunter.

More often than not, the Hollywood buzz* over a new film tends to leave audiences in mere and total disappointment. However, Darren Aronofsky's latest work that is The Whale is a film to buzz over and then some. As it does genuinely grab your full attention within the first frame and in great Aronofsky form, leaves you in a somewhat out-of-body experience. 

Since sitting with these characters, witnessing Brendan Fraser's beautiful, heart-wrenching performance, and mulling over the story - I just can't stop thinking about it. Every word, every line, and every moment of silence is intentionally crafted by writer Samuel D. Hunter. Having adapted his play of the same name, it has been a long journey from stage to the silver screen - yet well worth the wait. 

I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Samuel about how he found his way into writing the play, adapting his own work, what he's drawn to thematically as a storyteller and so much more.

*Let it go on record that A24 films never disappoint. 

Brendan Fraser as Charlie in The Whale. Courtesy A24.

Brendan Fraser as Charlie in The Whale. Courtesy A24.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Knowing that the origin of the original story for the play comes from a personal place, why was it important for you to write it?

Samuel D. Hunter: Ever since I was 17, I wanted to be a playwright. My kind of coming into myself as a writer was a slow process, which probably is for most people, but for me it was a slow process. I actually went to undergrad for playwriting; I went to NYU and then I did three years in Iowa, and then I did two years in Julliard. So, I was in school for nine years straight for playwriting, and The Whale kind of came out of that. I've written a lot of plays before I wrote The Whale - some of them I love dearly, some of them just never worked - but they were all kind of student writing if that makes sense. I was trying to hit the points and do the things and try to be a playwright. And I think with The Whale, I kind of allowed myself to do that thing that I think a lot of artists do - forget about the rules. And not that I abandon them, I think they just became kind of suffused in my bones. And so, I didn't have to muscle them so much after nine years, they finally kind of settled in me.

Samuel D. Hunter. Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

Samuel D. Hunter. Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

With The Whale, I was teaching expository writing at the time at Rutgers, so if you've seen the movie, I don't need to explain why that's relevant, and I was really struggling to connect with my students and I finally just begged them to write something honest. And one of my students wrote a line that ended up in the play and the movie, which was, “I think I need to accept that my life isn't going to be very exciting.” And so from that, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really want to write something about an expository writing teacher.’ And I wrote a few different versions of it that were just a little too intellectual, I was still trying to be clever, and do the tricks, you know what I mean? And be a good playwright, whatever that is [laughs], or like mimic the kinds of plays I was seeing off-Broadway.

I think I just hit a breaking point and some of it was exhaustion, because I was either teaching or grading six days a week, so I only had one day a week to write. We were living in a terribly illegal sublet in Hell's Kitchen and something broke, and I was like, ‘You know what, I'm just gonna write something that is probably only for me.’ And saying that kind of allowed me to access some more personal stuff about growing up gay in Idaho, and I attended a fundamentalist Christian school, and I had been outed and that plus other things kind of led me into depression and self-medication with food. I don't know how conscious that decision it was to sort of like access that personal stuff, it just kind of happened.

I wrote the play in about six weeks and kept it very close to the vest. I think I brought it into like a writer’s group, very trepidatiously. I think we all, whenever we show pages, we're always self-effacing. Like, ‘Oh, that's terrible.’ That defensiveness kicks in. But I was really like, ‘I don't know about this,’ because it felt so much more straightforward and unadorned than a lot of my stuff. And I should say too, that the stuff that I had been really interested in as an undergrad was the kind of crazy downtown experimental theater - the weirder the better for me when I was in college, I just loved it. And so I thought that that was the kind of theater that I wanted to create, but my thesis and undergrad was a straightforward family realistic play. I wouldn't say naturalism, but it was realism. I think I wrote it just to prove to myself that I could write it and then I went back into the crazy stuff. So, it was a slow becoming - I think I actually am essentially a realist, even though I think all my plays kind of hover over the surface of realism to a certain degree. They essentially work in a realistic fashion. It came from a very simple place.

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I remember one of the very first readings I did with LAByrinth Theatre Company. And it just kind of worked in a way that my other plays hadn't worked up until that point, and so, I just kind of kept following it. Eventually, I had a play that's actually getting a revival this winter called A Bright New Boise - I actually wrote it after The Whale, but it was produced first. It was kind of in many ways a companion piece to The Whale because that's also about a father trying to reconnect with his son in that story. Somebody from the Denver Center saw A Bright New Boise, was interested in it, and then said, ‘What else do you have?’ And so, I sent him The Whale. There was reading in Denver at the New Play Summit in 2010, I think - and then they did a full production. And then it wound up after that at Playwrights Horizons in New York, which is where Darren [Aronofsky] saw it.

Sadie: Wow! It's always so interesting to me, as a writer, the things that you're drawn to that you’re certain you’ll write and then you write something so personal, and that becomes your calling card. Write what you know, to a certain extent, but also keep watching the things that excite you.

Samuel: Yeah, exactly. Because at the end of the day, like nothing in The Whale is directly autobiographical, it's kind of like auto fiction, which I think allowed me to write it - I've never written anything autobiographical. But I have found that the plays of mine that connects to personal stuff for me, I mean, that's not surprising, it's obvious, right? It's something you feel deeply. My husband and I five years ago adopted a kid and the last play I had on New York was about fatherhood and adoption. And I kind of I wrote it, same way with The Whale, because I felt like I had to for myself as like an act of purgation or something like that.

Sadie: It's like catharsis, right? You're just getting it out and working through it the best way you can as a writer. When you're writing, do you have an emotional anchor or theme set in place?

Samuel: Yeah, a lot of times, I feel like I have a North Star. I usually feel like I can't write a play until I know what the end is, and usually, it's different by the time I get there, or it changes slightly. But with The Whale, I think this sort of like an emotional anchor, Charlie's unwavering faith in other people and his bright light of humanism and love - because if I'm going to tell this story about a man, the obvious thing would be to write this story in a way where the main character is cynical or angry, but I just knew that the more worthy story, I think, is somebody who has been given every reason to lose faith in other people, but who still retains it to the very, very end. That's both something I just as a person want to put into the world, but also as a writer that's effective because there's tension in that. Do you know what I mean? That's inner character tension that's helpful dramaturgically, as well as being something I want to put into the world.

Sadie: Right and then there is the juxtaposition of that with Charlie - he doesn't give that to himself - and for obvious reasons, and it's so heartbreaking! But it's a very real thing. When you were approached by Aronofsky to make this into a film, and knowing that this was basically your first time writing a feature screenplay, what was that initial writing process like for you adapting your own work? Did Aronofsky give you any guidance in that regard?

Samuel: In the beginning, I was very nervous, because I had done some screenwriting in college, but really not anything significant. I was always just singularly focused on playwriting. Even though I did have interest in film, it just felt unreachable. Like plays, I can figure out. I can con people into producing a play of mine [laughs] but movies just felt way too big and also just too much of an industry for me to figure out. So, when Darren approached me, he's one of the very few people in the world who can kind of make a movie like this happen and do it the way he wants to do it - and that was great. But I was also like, ‘Wow, this is a huge responsibility that I have to deliver something here.’

In the beginning, he gave me a copy of that book The Writer’s Journey, which Darren really loves. And I think it's been really helpful for him as a filmmaker. I read it and it's brilliant. And it's got great ideas, but I couldn't wrap my mind around it in terms of how to tell a story that way. I know that it's a very effective tool and I'm not disparaging it at all, but for me, it kind of felt like Mad Libs. Whenever I start thinking about like, ‘That's the third threshold’ or whatever, it stops being about people. Even though I think The Whale does naturally fit into that kind of model, it just kind of cluttered my brain. And it took me away from writing the human beings in it. I had to give myself license to be like, ‘OK, I know how to tell this story. I may not know a ton about film yet, but I know what the story is.’ And that's what truly matters.

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And so, I kind of, maybe in the same way I wrote the play, I put the stuff to the side and was just sort of like, ‘How do I want to tell this story in this different dramatic medium?’ And a lot of that was, obvious stuff, like, ‘How can I tell the story visually?’ There's a lot of key moments that happen silently in the movie that happened in dialogue in the play, but it was really just sort of, ‘How can I give Darren a script that really zeroes in on these people, but still retains the shape of the play itself?’ And also, does not leave the apartment. I think maybe some other plays, would you to adapt them could be opened up in that traditional way, but I just don't think this story wanted that at all. And Darren agreed with me.

It was a long process. It was 10 years ago that Darren first approached me, so there's been a ton of drafts. I've worked with a guy named Joshua Stern, who worked at Protozoa, he's at wiip studios now, who is great, and we had a lot of conversations. I worked really closely with Ari Handel and Darren too - a lot of discussions about what this is on film and what it could be on film. I think it was three years ago I had the idea for the second bedroom, and that opened up the archaeology of his past, you know what I mean? That there's this second bedroom that's kind of this sealed world where him and Alan had this really wonderful life, but it's gotten dull over the years like resin on a medieval painting. So yeah, it was a slow process, but I think I'm glad it took 10 years, because I think we needed to figure out how to do it the right way on many different levels, both in the writing and also in the casting.

Sadie Sink as Ellie in The Whale. Courtesy A24.

Sadie Sink as Ellie in The Whale. Courtesy A24.

Sadie: How do you approach your character development and honing their individual voices, notably, Charlie’s, Ellie’s, and Liz’s?

Samuel: I think it's a slow process. The first draft is always very instinctual. I try to stay very light on my toes with a first draft, because the more that I lean into, ‘OK, here are the points I need to hit’ - it goes back to that Mad Libs thing - it just becomes one of my least favorite things, both in theatre and in film, even more so in theater, when I sit down and I just hear the playwright talking or the screenwriter. You know what I mean? You just hear the work and you're just like, 'Ugh.' [laughs] I can't unhear the writer.

When I'm writing a first draft, I just try to be very free with it, even though I know where I'm going, and I know what I want to accomplish with the scene, I don't make any hard decisions, as I'm writing about how I'm going to get there. And then I think that provides kind of the skeleton, and then it's the steady process of rewriting. I think for me, I have trusted actors and trusted collaborators that I can hear it out loud. I really love working with actors. My favorite kinds of actors are the cranky ones - there are those actors who can make anything sound good, even if they don't really understand what their character is doing or why, they can make it sound really good, because they're just really good performers - but I love the kind of actors who are just not gonna let you get away with anything.

Sadie: They challenge you, right?

Samuel: Yeah, exactly. And it is sort of like, ‘Oh, right. Why would you do that?’ If they can't make a line work, maybe it's a miscommunication between you and you just need to help them out. But more often than not, it makes you rethink the scene. And so, I really rely on those kinds of workshops and readings really heavily and The Whale had a ton of them. I think like the Mary scene, I don't know how long it is in the film, I think on stage it's like 12 minutes, that this character comes in - the same actress did it both in Denver and in New York, amazing actress and Tasha Lawrence, who needs to be cast in everything – but just seeing her work on it just taught me so much about it. And it allowed me to rethink it over and over. And there are dozens and dozens of versions of that scene.

Sadie: Playwriting and theater reminds me a lot of playing music live, where you have that instant reaction, and whatever the room is giving you is kind of what you're going to give to the audience as well. And you get a lot of chances to do it differently. With film, you get it once and that's forever.

Samuel: I know. It's bracing. [laughs] I remember the first few days I was on set, Darren would shoot something, and they would be like, ‘OK, moving on.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa, that's it?!’ [laughs] ‘Like forever and ever? There we go.’ [laughs] But to your point, plays are really living documents. I have this revival of A Bright New Boise going on, I'm probably going to do rewrites, and I might do a new version of The Whale now that I've had a second crack at this screenplay.

Sadie: Without giving too much away, Moby-Dick is very symbolic in this film. Why does that piece of literature resonate so much for you?

Samuel: Really the primary reason is when I was a kid, I wasn't a huge reader, but I will say, if I loved something, I loved it. It was one of those things that I would suffer through the things that I didn't like, like I hated The Last of the Mohicans, like so much. And then I loved The Scarlet Letter, and I was obsessed with it. And Moby-Dick was something that got assigned very early, I think it was eighth grade, which is way too early to be reading that book. And I didn't understand it, but I just fell in love with it. It was just kind of instinctual. There's something about this book that it just has me under its spell. And so, I was interested by the idea of somebody who loves something, but was so inarticulate about it. I also just wanted the man at the center of this to be a man of letters, just like a brilliant keen mind and a well-read individual. But yeah, it really just kind of sprang from my own love of it. I didn't know it was going to be so central to it, in the beginning. I had the idea for that essay, and so I wrote that essay that Charlie uses as a salve. But then as I continued writing, it just became so central to everything, not necessarily because of Moby-Dick, but because of what it represents and what it means to Charlie.

Sadie: And again without giving away anything, but those twists and you’re pulling at my heartstrings! Just throwing it out there, can you do an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter?

Samuel: [laughs] There hasn't really been a film adaptation. It's such a good book. That's not a bad idea.

Sadie: I'm sure you have plenty to do, but just one more homework assignment. [laughs]

Samuel: I feel like the fate of that would be you'd bring it to an executive and they'd be like, ‘Yeah, but you should set it in high school in San Fernando Valley.’ [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] Right! Which they kind of did with that film Easy A, but I think we need a true adaptation.

Samuel: It should be a straightforward adaptation. It would be so good.

Sadie: What was challenging or rewarding in adapting your own work into a feature film?

Samuel: It was both extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. And I think that was challenging just in that I had to figure out how this story functions as a film in a two-bedroom apartment for nearly two hours. But then rewarding in the sense of I feel so lucky. I mean, the fact that I got to do a straight adaptation of this play, and it was filmed - Darren did some cuts here and there - when I saw the first cut of it, I was just like, ‘Oh, my God, there it is.’

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I was on set the entire time, working with everybody really closely. And that's not a standard experience for a screenwriter. And I think one of the reasons I was really attracted to playwriting is the playwright is at the top of the pyramid in the theater. Nobody can change the text unless I let them. Not like that in a movie. [laughs] So the fact that Darren put so much faith in me, and was so generous with me, has made such a huge difference. And also, Brendan being such a beautiful and generous guy. I could walk on set and talk to him and he was working so hard, it was such a laborious shoot for him, but he was always welcoming feedback, notes, and discussion and was always such a bright light on set for everybody. And I think kind of guided the whole process. We all came together in the middle of a pandemic to make this thing. And so I think everybody kind of came to the process with a lot of faith and goodwill. On the first day, we all got into the parking lot, and we all held hands, and we got permission to hold hands, [laughs] because we all used hand sanitizer afterward, and sit in a big circle, and just kind of kicked it all off. Under Darren's leadership, it just was a really generous process all around for everybody. And these five actors, are all such nice people, [laughs] just all of them. I just felt very lucky.

Sadie: I love hearing those kinds of stories, because it gives you hope. It is fun making movies! We hear so many horror stories.

Samuel: And I heard the horror stories, and I kind of felt like, ‘OK, buckle up.’ But it was like, ‘Oh, I think this is going really nicely.’ It was just a wonderful process.

Sadie: What type of stories or themes are you drawn to as a storyteller?

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Samuel: All my plays are set in Idaho. That's not become dogmatic for me, but it is just kind of what I'm interested in. My plays have fundamentally been about the tragedy of isolation and the redemption and salvation of human connection. I think that's pretty much every play that I've written since The Whale has been kind of like on that on that clothesline. And I think I keep writing about it, because every year it seems to be more relevant. I wrote The Whale in 2009 - a story about this person teaching online and being isolated and being shut in. I mean, it’s a little more relevant now than it was in 2009. And also, I think the world is increasingly cynical, and I think cynicism is kind of in fashion right now, which is really sad. And I think there's something about the plays they have this kind of earnest faith in humanity - amidst the darkness, amidst the pain amidst the tragedy, there's a faith in other people that I think is really valuable right now. I just don't see the value in cynicism. Especially now that I have a kid, it's destructive. It's perversely comforting. It's easy. And it's intellectually bankrupt. It's worth being with people. It's worth being connected.

The Whale is available in Theaters on December 9, 2022.


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