CS Interview: Filmmaker Ron Howard on In the Heart of the Sea

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CS Interview: Filmmaker Ron Howard on In the Heart of the Sea.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard talks about his new epic In the Heart of the Sea

Ron Howard has come a long way since the ‘70s when he was best known for his roles on popular television shows like “Happy Days.” After nearly forty years as a director, he’s achieved a status of respect in Hollywood equaled only by a dozen or so directors, allowing him to pretty much do whatever he wants.

Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, is based on the award-winning novel by Nathaniel Philbrick that looks at the real-world events that inspired Herman Melville’s literary classic “Moby Dick.” It stars Chris Hemsworth (reuniting with Howard after 2013’s Rush) as Owen Chase, a veteran whaler in Nantucket during the early 1800s, who is hired as the First Mate on the whaling ship Essex as it heads out on a whaling mission under the guidance of the less-experienced captain (Benjamin Walker) and his disgruntled crew.

On the journey, the Essex runs into troubles, first hit by a huge storm and then an even bigger white whale that destroys the ship and leaves the remaining crew stranded in lifeboats trying to survive with very little in terms of resources.

RELATED: In the Heart of the Sea Set Visit

ComingSoon.net got a chance to interview the filmmaker at the New York junket for the film where we covered as much as we could in a fairly short time.

ComingSoon.net: I’m surprised you’d want to do another movie involving water after some of your earlier films.

Ron Howard: I did quite a bit of water work on “Splash” and “Cocoon,” a lot simpler than what we had to do in this movie, but I did confer with Russell Crowe about his experience shooting “Master and Commander,” and the assistant director on this movie was also the assistant director on “Life of Pi.” That had been done entirely in tanks, and this had some stuntwork and some of the big action set pieces that needed be done in a tank for safety reasons, but for budgetary reasons, we needed to shoot as much as we could in the ocean. That was a leap of faith that I took because I actually had had some success shooting in the ocean on those other movies. I committed to it, and once again, we did okay. Yeah, we got pushed around by the weather a little bit, but we didn’t have any safety crisis out there and we got our work together.

CS: When you received the screenplay, was it pretty much ready to go? Did it require a lot of work?

Ron Howard: The screenplay was long, and for budgetary reasons and just to try to make it as watchable as possible, needed to narrow it down and focus it a little bit. I started picking out the themes that appealed to me the most, and I was so surprised by this story when I read it, and I kept being more and more surprised by the twists and turns, as I learned the real facts. So I was trying to reflect what I was learning and the coolest moments that were being revealed to me, and the most powerful ones. Because there are a lot of themes that are very modern actually and very relatable. I didn’t want it to feel like a classic movie you’d see at arm’s length. I hoped it was something that would draw audiences in and be immersive in a very contemporary kind of way. 

CS: The movies you’ve done over the years have a lot of diversity, so is it important for you to think about who the audience will be for a movie you make and who will see it? “Rush” was a bit of a risk in some ways in that sense.

Ron Howard: Yeah, it was, and so is this. As a result, the economics were altered, so in terms of the cast and the producers and myself, it’s like an indie movie the way in which we’re paid in our studio deals. It’s like an indie, like a Sundance movie. It’s a labor of love. The movie had all the support it needed to be great, but we didn’t have extra money to work with, so everybody was really on their toes, committed to get it all on screen. That was what this was all about, and it was one of the reasons I’m glad they moved the movie into this December period. As competitive as it is, it’s a time when I think people take a few more risks, and see a few more movies. I was frustrated a little bit with “Rush,” because that was really a big-screen movie experience. This one is even more so, and with “Rush,” I kept on getting people coming up to me afterwards and saying, “I caught it on the airplane and it was great!” or “I saw it on TV. Wow, I had no idea!” On the one hand that’s a great compliment but a little heartbreaking for a director, because I knew it was a movie people liked and I wanted more people to see it as intended on the big screen, and I feel the same way about “Heart of the Sea,” so I really hope that people will go out of their way to see it on a big screen. 

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CS: Funny you should mention that, because I saw “Rush” on the big screen but it was a 300-seat multiplex theater by myself because they did an early screening for me but wouldn’t allow any other critics to see it. Part of my enjoyment of watching movies is seeing them with other people, so that was very weird, but I loved it just the same.

Ron Howard: Oh, thank you. 

CS: The casting is interesting. Obviously, you had just worked with Chris Hemsworth on “Rush” but this is a very diverse cast and more of an ensemble. How do you approach casting a big movie like this?

Ron Howard: It’s building textures and populating it in ways so that the ensemble members, they kind of stand for something, so that like “Apollo 13” or maybe a little bit with “Backdraft,” certainly there are lead characters, but all of the significant secondary characters, they communicate something about the drama that is unfolding and the way in which they’re all being tested.

CS: While casting a movie, do you have a mental Rolodex in your head that you keep when you watch a movie or theater and keep in track who you might want to work with? I feel Woody Allen has that.

Ron Howard: I do, but it gets so jumbled up that I always have to start over. Occasionally I bump into somebody, and say, “Oh, that person would be great,” especially TV is so fantastic now. There’s so many people doing great work on TV, but I always follow the same sort of fundamentals in terms of who is interested in the role, who wants to meet, who wants to audition? I’m not as rigorous about reading the actors as I used to be. I kind of trust my own judgment a little bit more, but I often audition people still.

CS: You’ve worked with some of the same actors like Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe, and for this, Chris is a repeat, but you worked with a lot of new faces.

Ron Howard: Nina Gold is a fantastic casting director. She’s doing the new “Star Wars” movies but she also does “Game of Thrones” and many of the Working Title movies, and she did “Rush.” It was kind of incredible how many of the coolest, most ambitious young actors wanted to be in this movie, whether it was six lines or six great scenes. I went through a lengthy process. Almost everybody who came in had the acting chops, but the question was whether I felt like that they would be an extra addition to the total composition and personality of the crew. But also, would they have the dedication? I needed them to know what was expected of them and that this was going to be one of those difficult circumstances where they’re going to have to act through discomfort, act through the pain, and at a certain point, the hunger.

CS: How did you deal with having the crew of Essex while they’re stranded? A lot of times movies, like “Unbroken” was a good example, where they took months off, let everyone lose the weight, and then came back. I’m assuming you didn’t have that luxury?

Ron Howard: We didn’t have that luxury, so we shot in sequence, so we did have a lot of really physical, arduous action scenes, that we could shoot while the guys were losing weight. They have their clothing and you don’t realize while they’re doing the storm, while they’re doing the whale attack, they’re also in there with the trainers and already having their calories restricted and beginning to drop the weight so when we shift over to the post-wreck scenes, you’re already beginning to see it in their faces. 

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CS: Chris’ weight loss was especially surprising, because he’s known for physique so for him to go through that and eventually have to get back…

Ron Howard: He has a lot of discipline, him and Ben (Walker) and Cillian Murphy had set a standard, which was impressive to me, and I didn’t have to do much in the way of disciplining people to get them to live up to the physical demands of the movie. 

CS: I like that you always seem to have your next job lined up, which isn’t that common. A lot of directors spend so much time focusing on the movie they’re working on/promoting, they can’t think ahead. Are you a workaholic? Is that why you always have another project lined-up?

Ron Howard: (chuckles) My wife would probably say that I am, but you know what? It’s a way of life for me, so when I’m going through the post-production process, which I’ve now done a lot of, of course it requires my focus, but my mind also begins to wander and I begin to anticipate and dream, and it gives me a chance to think about what I could be doing next and I have some time to really analyze it.

CS: I’m looking forward to “Inferno” next year, so if that does well, do you think you and Tom might do “The Lost Symbol” as well?

Ron Howard: I don’t know. Tom and I have always taken these one movie at a time, and audiences have proven that it’s a valid franchise. I had another good experience making the movie, but I think we’ll just have to see how people respond to it, and what Dan’s next book is. I think we’ve sort of moved past “Lost Symbol” at this point. 

CS: Oh, that’s too bad. I really liked that book and it’s set in America, which is unlike the other books. I talked to Paul Bettany for his movie “Shelter” recently, have you seen it?

Ron Howard: Oh, yeah, yeah. 

CS: It must be great to have some of the actors you’ve worked with directing movies. Russell directed a film this year, too.

Ron Howard: Very proud of him and (“Shelter”) is probably not getting the release that would allow Jennifer to be in the awards season race, but I think she really deserves to be taken very seriously for what she did in “Shelter,” don’t you? Maybe I’ll be surprised and critics will boost it and shine a spotlight on that performance. 

CS: I thought she was as good in that as “Requiem” or any of her other films.

Ron Howard: She’s tremendous.

(After that, we spoke a bit more about the movies shaping up for awards season and what he’s had a chance to see so far.) 

In the Heart of the Sea opens nationwide on Friday, December 11, with previews on Thursday night. Look for our interview with one of Howard’s ensemble cast, Tom Holland, coming soon.