“It’s never gonna be this good ever again,” says Samuel D. Hunter, screenwriter of The Whale.
An experienced playwright, Hunter adapted his work from the stage to the screen for the very first time on the Darren Aronofsky picture, which stars Brendan Fraser as a 600-pound writing professor who tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
Hunter’s original play on which the movie is based ran off-Broadway in 2012, where Aronofsky first saw it and got inspired to make the movie. Now, 10 years later, The Whale is one of the most talked about movies of the year, with Fraser favored to be nominated, and possibly take home, the Oscar for best actor.
“It’s one thing to have a play of mine adapted into a movie, but I got to do the adaptation myself. It’s extremely faithful to the film — Darren hardly changed any of the script in the edit. And then I got to be on set the entire time and work with everybody, and we had a three-week rehearsal process before any cameras were turned on, which is a credit to A24 that they let us do that,” Hunter tells MovieMaker.
He loves that Fraser is starring in the film.
“I knew him, of course, from the movies from the ’90s. When I was in high school, I worked at a bankrupt movie theater as a projectionist. So I threaded The Mummy when I was a teenager through a super old projector. I was such a bad projectionist, I would burn holes in the film all the time. So I probably wrecked that print and packaged it up and sent it to the next theater,” he joked.
Below, Samuel D. Hunter tells MovieMaker all about the true life experiences that inspired him to write The Whale.
MM: I know you grew up in Idaho, where the movie is set. Did your childhood influence you at all when you were writing?
SH: “The Whale was really the first time that I was like, Okay, I’m going to access some pretty personal stuff, and it’s going to be pretty earnest, and I think unfashionable in the way that it wears its heart on its sleeve. But yeah, I grew up gay. My family wasn’t Evangelical, but I had a pretty rough 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 one private school in town, which is this Evangelical school. I didn’t really know anything about that brand of Christianity. I grew up Episcopalian. But I remember — I think it was the very first day — I mentioned evolution as being something that actually happened. And I just remember the room falling cold, and the teacher just kind of looked down and didn’t respond, and then started to continue. And so from then on, it was like, ‘Oh, Sam’s our project,’ because they realized that I needed to be saved.
“In seventh grade, I was sat down by the father of the head pastor, who is also a pastor, and he just pulled out a pamphlet that was just about how to let Christ into your heart. And I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ In my head. I was like, Well, I’m a Christian, so yeah, I should do this. I remember him telling me that once I did that, you would hear Jesus talking to you. And so I did it, and I did it very earnestly, but I just kept being like, ‘Why can’t I hear Jesus? Like, it’s not happening — what am I doing wrong?’ But I kind of like played the part a little bit. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m a Christian now. That’s what I believe. And there was a certain comfort in it, too. It’s very orderly to have that kind of dogma. Life and death and afterlife are just delivered right to you and you’ve got this community and this sense of purpose and a distinct sense of what’s right and wrong. I mean, it’s like a warm blanket that you can kind of wrap yourself in.
“But as I discovered at the time, I was aware that I was gay. But I was so young that I was like, this can probably go away, I just need to pray, not think about boys, and just ask God to change me. And it just wasn’t working, as much as I tried. And I really tried. At a certain point, I was just like, this isn’t changing. So what does that mean? And I realized that one part of me was not something they could ever accept. And eventually, I told a friend of mine that I was gay. And then about a year later, he got together with a couple other guys, and they told the administration, and I had to tell my parents and it was a whole mess. And I came out the other side and ended up leaving and enrolling in the public school. I think at the time, I was like, ‘I’m better, I’m fine. I’m out of the closet, everything’s fine. I’ve left that behind.’ But I had not unpacked it properly. And like a lot of young gay people, I just overachieved as much as I possibly could in order to sort of prove something to myself and those around me. But when I went to college, that kind of became harder and harder to deal with, and I just wasn’t unpacking what I needed to unpack, and I fell into depression. I started self medicate, medicating with food, which is something I did as a young kid, too. But it really rapidly increased when I was in college. And then, I was slowly able to find support systems and therapy, and things to sort of, like, find my way out of that. And my husband, who I met in 2005 and have been with ever since, was a huge support system for me. But anyway, there’s a long way of saying when I started writing this play, I was like, What if this is a story of somebody who didn’t find that off-ramp that I found, and who stayed in my hometown? And that’s largely what gave birth to the play. That and the fact that I was teaching expository writing at the time to college freshmen.”
MM: It sounds like there’s a part of you in Charlie, in Charlie’s late partner, and also in the religious boy who comes door to door. Was that on your mind, as you were writing?
SH: “That’s exactly right, yeah. It’s like I kind of took parts of myself and distributed them into the play in different ways, 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 little bit like auto-fiction or putting something on the line. It’s a way for me, hopefully, to write things that have utility for people. Because if there’s something I’m actively wrestling with or have actively wrestled with it, chances are, there are other people in the world who have, too, or who have had similar experiences and can authenticate that experience through the lens of their own struggles.”
MM: Is the small Idaho town where the movie is set based on your actual hometown?
“It’s not named, but it is definitely set in Moscow, the name of the town where I grew up. I never name it in my writing, because I don’t want people to think there’s some Jacobian layer that is definitely not there. But no, there are little Moscow-isms in the movie. There’s a tote bag from a local bookstore that’s still there hanging by the door, and Hong [Chau] wears scrubs that say Gritman Medical Center, which is the hospital in my hometown. I do return, usually once or twice a year. I was actually there right before Venice [Film Festival] visiting family.”
The Whale arrives in theaters nationwide on Dec 21. Watch the trailer here.
Main Image: Sadie Sink in The Whale courtesy of A24