Ten years ago, the playwright Samuel D. Hunter premiered his latest work Off-Broadway the Playwrights Horizons. The Whale introduced Charlie, a morbidly obese recluse who teaches an online writing class, and unfolds over one week, in one location (his one-bedroom apartment), as he lives out what might be his final days. Charlie is visited by a nurse friend, Liz, and a young evangelical missionary, Thomas, each trying to save him in their own ways, while all he wants is to connect with his estranged teenage daughter, Ellie, before he shuffles off this mortal coil. The show is about grief and regret and the redemptive power of human connection.
Unbeknownst to Hunter, the filmmaker Darren Aronofsky was in the audience opening night.
"I had no idea he was there, absolutely no idea," Hunter says now. "And this is the funny thing: When I was in the car to the premiere, I was like, 'Oh, wow. The Whale was playing at Playwrights Horizons 10 years ago today." I texted Darren, and he looked at his iCal. He had seen it that night. So, our premiere was the 10th anniversary of Darren seeing the play at Playwrights Horizons, which was an incredible thing."
Shortly before the show closed, however, Hunter received a call from Aronofsky wanting to discuss a film adaptation of the play. "Which was head-spinning. Because having a play Off-Broadway, that's all I ever wanted. That was the goal," says the writer, who won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his work. Thus began the decade-long journey of bringing The Whale from stage to screen.
The film stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, alongside Hong Chau as Liz, Ty Simpkins as Thomas, and Sadie Sink as Ellie. Aronofsky, the brazenly stylistic filmmaker known for Oscar-nominated films like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, helms The Whale as something of a chamber piece, preserving the play's single location. Hunter, meanwhile, wrote the screenplay.
"I didn't think it was going to take 10 years for it to happen, if it were to happen. But I'm kind of glad it did," the playwright-turned-screenwriter reflects. "Because I've written at least a dozen plays since then. I've gotten to know myself. I've become a dad since then. There's so much that I could bring to it now as a more seasoned screenwriter and as a more seasoned human being than I could have brought to it eight, nine years ago."
A.frame: What were your original conversations about what this adaptation could be? And did your goals or plans for what The Whale could be as a movie evolve over those 10 years?
It's funny, in the very beginning, we met and we had our first very freewheeling conversation that made no assumptions about what this wanted to be or what it could be. I left the meeting being like, "Okay, maybe this wants to be something very different." But the more that I thought about doing that traditional thing of opening it up and adding characters, adding flashbacks, adding other scenes, or adding other locations, every time I started to map that out for myself, I was just like, "I don't know what this is anymore."
The experience of this play — and this isn't the same with all my plays — but you want to just spend time with this guy. And every time it was like, "We could see Ellie at school. Maybe she has a boyfriend who breaks up with her," I was just like, none of this matters. This is all filler. But at that point I had never written a movie script, and I was like, "Is this merely the lack of imagination on my part as a playwright, or me being too rigid about what this story is?" I mean, here I am talking with Darren Aronofsky, one of the best filmmakers of our time, and do I have the gall to come in there and be like, "No, no." But without me even saying anything, in a very early meeting, we were in a restaurant in Midtown, and he was like, "You know what? I think we really should keep it in the apartment." And I was like, "Okay. I wasn't wrong." But I also was like, "This is going to be a huge challenge." And it was on everybody's part.
Most times when an adaptation does expand outward, it's in hopes of breaking that proscenium arch and avoiding feeling like a recorded stage play. Once you decided to keep the story in the apartment, what sort of conversations did you have about how you make that cinematic?
There were some additions early on that felt really right. The pizza boy was one of the first things I added. I was joking with Darren, because I added it so early that Darren had convinced himself that the pizza boy was in the play. He was like, "No, I remember the actor and he was standing here." And I was like, "Darren, there was no pizza guy in the play." There was the bird. That was an early on addition. I moved the Liz and Thomas scene to the porch. Meaningful but small gestures like that. Then a lot of the work was like, "How can we tell this story visually?"
One of the big ideas I had during the pandemic was the second bedroom, and it being kind of the archeology of his past with Alan that's been carefully preserved. Like one of those medieval paintings that have resins that kind of dulled over the years. In the play, Charlie has a big monologue that he delivers to Thomas about Alan and who he was and what he meant to him, and I was really like, "Well, is there a way to tell that story visually?" Then we had the idea for the Bible and the second bedroom and the key and all that stuff. Also, I was on set the entire time, so I was working on the script here and there, not in huge ways, but in ways where I'm like, "Look, Brendan is an incredible storyteller and there's a lot he can do without saying anything." There are some major plot points that in the play happened in dialogue, and in the film, happened in Brendan's eyes, which was just such a joy to see.
Instead of getting bigger, you made it cinematic by honing in on the detail that would never be seen on the stage. Darren has said he thought of casting Brendan when he saw him in a trailer for Journey to the End of the Night. What was your first reaction when he was pitched for Charlie?
I remember my very first reaction was that I had this very keen sense memory of working at a bankrupt movie theater in my hometown in the late '90s. I would do concessions, and then I'd run upstairs and I'd thread the projector and hit start. And I remember threading The Mummy. I remember very specifically threading that movie, and I don't know if I ever actually saw the entire thing but I saw so many parts of it. But then my second thought was, "Wait. I remember seeing him in Gods and Monsters when I was a freshman in college," and loving that movie and being so surprised that this action star was so good in that movie, but also that one of the big, bankable names of that era was like, "No, I want to do this gay movie with Ian McKellen." That's a big choice for somebody like Brendan, who could have easily done some big blockbuster thing and made millions and millions more dollars.
Then the more that I read about him and realized that he went to school for theater in Seattle at Cornish [College of the Arts], and he was this Hollywood icon and he was in that machine, but he's so much more than that. But I was still... I don't know. It was a big idea, but I knew Darren had looked at actors up and down, famous and non-famous, for years, but this was the first name that he ever brought to me. So I was like, "Okay, Darren's really serious about this." And then Darren rented a theater in the East Village and we did a reading of it, like one would do a reading of a play, and Brendan was just magnificent. I mean, a cold read of this screenplay and it was mesmerizing what he was doing! It just became so clear that he was the guy.
You are in this unique position where you've seen a number of actors play this part onstage. What did Brendan bring to Charlie that only he could? Or maybe something that you didn't even envision for the character on the page, but Brendan brought to him?
Brendan, the human being, is so kind and generous, and such a hard worker. So many of the qualities that Charlie has are things that Brendan has in spades. That's not to say he's not acting. Of course, he's acting, and he's acting beautifully. But Brendan just understands those aspects of Charlie. And I think Brendan's been through so much in his life and he's come out the other end of it being a truly kind and generous guy. And I think there's a quality to Charlie that's like, the world has given Charlie so many reasons to not have faith in other people and given him so many reasons to be cynical. And I think the world has given Brendan a lot of reasons to be cynical and not have faith in other people. And both Charlie and Brendan continue to.
That's really the core of the character. I don't think you can bring any drop of cynicism to this role. I think it just kind of collapses if you do. It's a very earnest play. It's a play that wears its heart on a sleeve. I made that decision early on that I was like, "I don't want to be a cynical writer." I know that's unfashionable, and that wearing your heart on your sleeves means people can stab it pretty easily. But I think all of my plays, fundamentally, are about the tragedy of isolation and the redeeming value of human connection.
How different is the experience of watching the movie for the first time versus seeing the show put up on stage?
It's so different. I mean, when you're in rehearsal for a play — and I've done it so much now —very quickly you're inviting other people in the room to watch. You're bringing in trusted collaborators, and then you do a dress rehearsal. You have weeks of previews before opening night. So, you can hone it. You can work on it. You're seeing it in front of hundreds and hundreds of people before you deliver it up and say, "Okay, it's done now." But I had seen the movie two times. I had seen a rough cut that had a temporary score. It was in a tiny screening room with one other employee from A24. And then I saw it after the score was put in and it was mostly finalized last spring, and it was me and my husband. I've been with my husband for 17 years now and he's a dramaturge, and he works with me on all my plays. He worked with me on The Whale and he has very keen tastes. He has much better taste than I do, so I knew that he would not fake it. And when he really liked it, I was like, "I can at least have faith in it that much."
And then the next time I saw it was in Venice in front of 1,100 people with Italian subtitles. That experience was very different. I was like, "I think I like this. It's the story I wanted to tell. And I think Darren's done a beautiful job. I think all the actors have done such a beautiful job. But I'm one person, and I'm also the guy who created it." [Laughs] It really wasn't until Venice and the reaction from Venice that I was like, "Oh, this is finding an audience," which has been so nice.
You now have your first produced film behind you. What is the biggest lesson you learned as a screenwriter on your first feature?
Oh boy. There's a book full of lessons. Being on set the entire time and watching Darren work, I had never experienced that kind of rigor and attention to detail. Darren doesn't miss anything. I mean, there would be moments where we'd be setting up for a shot, we'd be about to go and Darren would be like, "Wait, cut." And he'd go over and move one hair on Brendan's forehead. And it was just like, "How the hell did he see that... " It was pretty incredible thing. Also, watching him work with Matty Libatique. This is the thing: Everybody took a pay cut to do this movie, because it's a small movie. And Matty could have easily done a Star Wars movie or something instead of this movie. Most people working on this movie could! I really believe this about theater and it got even underlined in making a film was it's about the collaborators you surround yourself with.
Have you started thinking about which of your other plays you might want to adapt or see adapted? Or are you interested in writing something specifically for the screen?
I have no idea yet. Ever since August, I've been on the treadmill of the movie. And whenever I'm not on the treadmill, I'm just trying to be a good dad. Also, I'm going into rehearsals in a couple weeks for a play. But on the other end of this, when the play is open and we're on the other side of The Whale, I'm really interested to know what lies ahead for me? I don't know if that's an adaptation of something I've written. I don't know if that's something entirely new. I'm never going to stop writing plays. I've had an idea for a new play that's been clanging around in my head for months that I really want to be able to sit down and write. I think I need to be on the other end of this before I can kind of meditate on that.