Among this year’s class of notable fall festival premieres, The Whale was greeted in its Venice Film Festival debut with the sort of rapturous reception most filmmakers can only dream of.
Brendan Fraser, the film’s leading man, was brought to tears by the six-minute standing ovation for his performance as Charlie, a reclusive, gay English teacher longing to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Stranger Things star Sadie Sink) before ailments brought on by his severe obesity prove fatal.
The Whale‘s director, Darren Aronofsky, of Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream fame, had tasted this sweet reward before on the Lido. His 2008 drama The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke, also premiered in Venice, where it won the Golden Lion, the festival’s top award.
For Samuel D. Hunter, who authored the play upon which The Whale is based, and who also wrote the screenplay, that starry night in Venice was a whole new kind of wonderful.
“I had never been to a film festival, period,” says the Moscow, Idaho native, who, in addition to The Whale, has seen more than a dozen of his plays produced, garnering him an Obie, a GLAAD Media Award, and a MacArthur Genius Grant, among many other honors. But Venice was a “baptism by fire” for the relative film industry newbie.
“The red carpet was the size of a football field,” he jokes over a Zoom call. “There were people camped out to get a glimpse of Sadie and Brendan. It was all very overwhelming but very nerve-wracking.”
About to head into rehearsals for a revival of his dark comedy A Bright New Boise, Hunter notes that a key difference in the processes of making film and producing theater is that the playwright spends much of the process viewing the work with other people.
“With theater, you’re constantly honing it, and one of the only ways to figure out really in the later stages how to work it is to put it in front of a lot of people,” he says.
Prepping the Boise revival, he explains, “we’re going to be with the actors in the hall rehearsing it, but once we put it all together, we’re going to invite other people in the room to watch it. And then we’ll invite all the designers in to watch a run. And then we’ll invite the staff of the theater to come in, and then we’ll do a dress rehearsal. We’ll do three weeks or maybe even more of previews, where hundreds and hundreds of people are seeing this every single night.”
But as a screenwriter, Hunter saw a rough cut of the film with one person from the studio, then a more completed cut in a small screening room with his husband John Baker and the film’s production designer. “The next time I saw it was in Venice with 1,100 people and it was very, ‘I like what we have, but what is it going to be?’ It had the Italian subtitles, and you’re like, ‘I hope this is a good translation,'” Hunter recalls.
“And you’re trying to sense the room but it’s such a big room and it was so hot. I mean, I was just dripping sweat in my tuxedo. So when it finally ended and it had that response, I was just like, ‘Oh! Okay. People went on the ride. Thank god, people went on the ride,’ and I think that’s largely due to Brendan. I mean, he just draws you in so effortlessly with his such deeply felt humanity and grace. So yeah, this is a long way to say it was nerve-wracking but then really, really gratifying.”
The experience was gratifying enough that Hunter says he’s more inclined than ever to step fully into the world of filmmaking. He’s already logged a successful stint as a TV writer on an Emmy-winning series, adding pathos to the slapstick for Zach Galifianakis and the late Louie Anderson on Baskets.
Yet theater always draws Hunter back. Perhaps it’s for what his plays can make audiences feel, or for the feelings of his own that he can work out onstage via dramatic vessels like Charlie in The Whale.
“A friend of mine, the actor Micah Stock, had seen a play of mine called Lewiston/Clarkston, and he wrote me this really lovely note that said, ‘I feel like your plays are the feeling of somebody sitting with another person quietly and then getting the courage to say, I feel lonely. And then, this act of bravery of the other person saying, I feel lonely, too.’ I just love that.”
Every artist wants to connect. “There are these moments and sometimes you connect to somebody through joy, and sometimes you connect to another person through success or whatever,” he says. “But I think the most profound moments of connection in my life with other people have been quiet moments and subtle moments, and sometimes through sadness and sometimes through loneliness, that you’re grasping hands at the last possible moment. I think those moments are worth examining because those are the moments that saved me.”
METRO WEEKLY: In terms of visualizing the story and this character, you’ve seen how theater companies have realized the bulk and size of Charlie, but movie magic is a completely different thing. So being on-set and seeing Brendan Fraser in character, and seeing how the character lived and moved on set, and now on screen, do you view the character any differently than you ever saw him onstage?
SAMUEL D. HUNTER: I remember the first time I saw Brendan. Darren wheeled him out of makeup, and I felt like I was going to burst into tears because it was just like, to your point, I’ve seen a lot of people do this role, but theater… One of the things I love about theater is that it is unreal. Do you know what I mean? I think there’s this magic that happens with theater, which is essentially people in a bright space generally facing the same direction and talking a little too loud. But within that construct, you can get at such beauty and such truth, and I just think that magic act of theater is what continually draws me back to plays.
And so, a lot of different guys, a lot of different shapes and sizes of men have played this role, but to varying degrees, yeah, they have suggested his body. In the same way that we did with the film, there were a lot of consultations with doctors and people who specialize in obesity to make sure that the movement of the character was authentic, and not the way that it’s traditionally been done in cinema which is entirely unrealistic and often the butt of a joke or something. But with film, because the camera could get in so close, it had to be so much more real and authenticated.
I think [prosthetic makeup designer] Adrien Morot is such an artisan. I mean, what he did was just incredible. For me, personally, to see that materialize, it was just like I saw the character more fully than I have ever seen him before, which was incredibly moving.
MW: You talk about seeing other actors play the role but specifically said other men. Have you thought about — and especially because I’m going to ask you about Christine Baskets later — have you ever thought about a female version of this story, or a woman in that central role?
HUNTER: Oh, my gosh. That’s interesting. No, I’ve never thought about that before. Wow. I mean, it could very easily be. Wow.
MW: I think it could be. Yeah.
HUNTER: Very interesting.
MW: All right. There you go. Homework. So talking about the movie, it was obviously very well-received in its world premiere at Venice, where this amazing ovation happened. I’ve been to many festivals, I’ve witnessed lots of ovations, never a six-minute standing ovation. I imagine that moment felt really far removed from when and where you were when you sat down to write the play. If you can recall, where and when was that?
HUNTER: Like the character, I was teaching expository writing to a bunch of disaffected freshmen. I was living in a fifth-floor illegal sublet in Hell’s Kitchen that was smaller than my living room. It didn’t have a sink in the bathroom. We’d brush our teeth in the little kitchenette area, and we were dodging the landlord.
I was either teaching or grading six days a week, because the course was really rigorous both for me and for the students. When I first had the idea for the play, and then finally, after some false starts, had the notion that if I really was going to write this play from an honest, emotional place, I would have to put some more personal stuff on the line — stuff from my past about being a gay kid in Idaho and attending a fundamentalist religious school and having to leave eventually after I was outed and then falling into depression and self-medicating with food for many years.
So I still remember sitting in that apartment and every Sunday was my writing day. And so, when I had the idea for the play and I knew what the end was, which is normally how I work — I can’t usually start writing something until I know what the end is. So I started writing in 20-page bursts. I had a draft after about six weeks or so, and I didn’t do anything with it for a while because I felt a little protective of it. I didn’t know if this was something like, “Is this a play that I’ve written, or is this something that I just wrote for me?”
But then, I very tentatively started to bring it to a couple different writing groups that I was in, and it just landed in a way that my other plays that I had written up until that point weren’t landing. I’m not even saying it was so brilliant — there was something more honest about it. I think I learned with this play that I’m a pretty earnest writer, that my plays wear their hearts firmly on their sleeves. That wasn’t a great thing to realize, because when a story wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, like I believe The Whale does, it’s very vulnerable. It’s easy to stab somebody’s heart when it’s right there, but I never stopped that. Ever since then, I think all of my plays since The Whale have been very uncynical plays about the tragedy of isolation and the devalue of human connection.
MW: I’ve read that about your plays. The New York Times called A Case for the Existence of God, “another of Hunter’s public explorations of his own private Idaho.” That caught my eye, one, because I love My Own Private Idaho.
HUNTER: Great movie.
MW: And, two, because I’m wondering what is your private Idaho, because Idaho as a location is prominent in your work, including The Whale.
HUNTER: Yeah. I mean, it’s not like every time I write a play I’m like, “I have to put it in Idaho, it’s my brand.” My plays aren’t commercial vehicles. So I could write a play wherever, and it’s not going to make me any more or less money, but I think I keep returning to it.
It’s become my artistic fixation for a couple different reasons. Initially, there was just a specificity of place and I’m not even saying in terms of the regionalisms of it because there aren’t really any regionalisms in my work. They say, “Yes, we’re in Idaho. We’re in Twin Falls. We’re in Boise. We’re in Pocatello,” but they’re not potato farmers. They’re not explorations of the Idahoan landscape. They feel pan-American, but locating them in Idaho has always been really useful to me.
I also think that, at a certain point, I realized for me as an artist, it’s not about any one play, it’s about the larger body of work. And so, I’m interested in how the plays dovetail off one another and speak to one another, pick up conversations where they’ve left off. The play that I’m going to rehearsal for is a revival of a play called A Bright New Boise, which is very much a companion piece to The Whale. I actually wrote it right after The Whale, but it premiered before The Whale hit theaters. It’s about a father trying to reconnect with a son. So I think that just geolocating them together has just always been really helpful in feeling like I’m writing a bunch of chapters that are in the same book or a bunch of short stories that are in the same collection or something.
MW: You talked before about the fact you derived Charlie from a really personal place, but as we’ve also discussed, you’ve seen other people bring their personal history and talent to it. What is it that you see in Charlie through Brendan Fraser that might have been unexpected or unforeseen?
HUNTER: I think it’s been so wonderful working on this with Brendan. I mean, I haven’t worked on this play in a while. I followed the first four productions around. It started in Denver and then went to New York and then Los Angeles and then Chicago, and I was doing rewrites all along the way, different casts, different directors, different designers, different theaters. It really gave me the chance to really dive into the script, and really find new nooks and crannies. And so, it’s been so nice over the years revisiting it on and off with Darren, and finding new aspects to it. I swear I’m going to get back to Brendan, but I think one of the most profound things that has changed for me in the last five years is, I became a dad to a little girl who just turned five in October.
And so, the presence of fatherhood, the idea of fatherhood in this play has so much more deepened for me. I think it’s something that Brendan, as a father, also really connected with, because we both know acutely what it would actually mean to not see your child for nine years. I mean, we don’t know, but we can imagine what that would feel like, and I could imagine that as a writer 10 years ago when this play premiered but not in the way that I can now. Brendan’s performance is so specific and layered and nuanced. I remember when we were on set, there was a specific scene where he reaches Ellie for the first time, and she shows him this very small act of kindness by saying, “I’ll make you a sandwich but it’s going to be a small one,” this small act of caretaking, and Charlie sees that.
The way that he played that scene with Sadie was just so gorgeous and you could see this joy radiating out of it. And there were just a lot of moments throughout the process that I was so grateful to be on set the entire time, to work with them. We didn’t change huge things. It was just stuff here and there, but a lot of it was based off of the richness and the nuance that Brendan and all those four other actors were finding.
MW: Now, can you imagine your daughter watching it?
HUNTER: Not my five-year-old daughter. [Laughs.]
MW: Well, I should say not now, but can you imagine your daughter in the future watching this?
HUNTER: That’s funny. You’re the first person to ask me that, but that’s actually a really good question. I mentioned that at a certain point I was like, “I think I’m not a cynical writer,” and I had always known that, but there was something about having a kid that revealed to me that not only am I not a cynical writer but I actually think that cynicism is cheap and easy and I choose to have faith in other people and I choose to have faith in the goodness of people. If you do that in a real way, it’s really hard. You know what I mean? It’s a really hard project, especially now. My god, especially in 2022, way more so than when I wrote the play. Having faith in other people and optimism, period, and hope, period, is a deeply complicated project. It’s one that I want to bring to my writing, but even more so, I want to bring to my parenting.
I couldn’t imagine being a cynical parent. What is even parenting if you’re a cynical person? Like you’re ushering your kid into darkness? And so, I think in the same way that I hope people take out of this a sense of hard-won hope and the value and the difficulty of faith, I would hope that if my daughter saw this, when she’s old enough to watch it, I would hope that she’d take the same thing, that this is a story about the value of hope.
MW: So, I’m really glad that you’ve seen My Own Private Idaho, because I was going to ask you, it seems to me like a young queer kid growing up in Idaho, that you’d want to seek it out. Is that true, and at what age did you see it? Because you were probably 10 or something when it came out.
HUNTER: So there was a video rental place in my hometown called Howard Hughes that had a cult classics video section. It’s not like as a kid in Northern Idaho I had a lot of access to modern writing for the American theater. I mean, I did community theater and stuff growing up and so I liked that, I liked to act, but I was never really all that interested in the literary value of Arsenic and Old Lace, which is a play I like, by the way. It’s about euthanasia. It’s interesting. But that cult classics video section was really formative for me early on and it was also valuable because when I was still in the closet, I could rent movies that didn’t identify as gay on the surface. And so, there was a safety within that.
MW: It’s not gay, it’s art-house.
HUNTER: Yeah, exactly. And so, I did that thing of I hooked up two VCRs together and pirated My Own Private Idaho, and I just watched it a lot. It’s not like I understood it at 14, 15, as much as one can fully understand that movie. But yeah, there was just something about it that I was like, “I want to do this. I don’t know in what form,” and there were other seminal movies like that for me. But as far as queer movies, that was probably the one that loomed largest for me.
MW: You also mentioned earlier being outed. At what age did that happen, and how did that go down?
HUNTER: It was right around my 17th birthday. I had tentatively told a couple of my friends at the fundamentalist Christian school that I was attending. I don’t exactly even know what happened, but I just got a call one day from a third person that they had told who was like, “We told the administration and you need to tell your parents. Otherwise, they will,” so it all just blew up in my face. It was a really, really hard few months.
But when I finally extricated myself from that school and enrolled in the public school, I think a couple different things happened. The town was small enough that it was like if the 300 kids in the school that I had been attending, the Christian school, knew that I was gay, the whole town was going to know that I was gay. So there was just no use in going into Moscow Public High school and being like, “No, I’m straight,” and if anything, there would be such a target on my back if I did that.
And so, I think people were a little disarmed by it because they were like, “Well, why did you come here?” and I’m like, “Because I’m gay,” and it was so, like in 1998 or ’97, I forget which year, but that was very uncommon. But I think the kids were like, “Oh,” and I had some trouble but nothing all that dramatic in the public school. It was also kind of a weirdly good thing because most people don’t get to reinvent themselves until they go to college, but I got to reinvent myself a quarter of my way through my junior year. If I hadn’t have gotten that chance, I don’t think I would’ve started writing plays.
All the writing I had done up until that point was very secretive. I didn’t really show it to anybody. But I could write whatever I wanted out in the open all of a sudden, and I could petition to the community theater to give me 300 bucks to produce a play that I had written, which they did. So there were positive outcomes to it. Like I mentioned before, I think I told myself, “I’m fine. I’m self-actualized now and everything’s fine,” but I think there was a lot of depression that I dealt with for a number of years after that, that came to a head in my final year of college. And then, through a lot of therapy and a lot of plays, I was able to unpack it. I’m still unpacking it.
MW: I’m struck by what sounds like the story of a lot of young queer lives. It’s that survival mode of, we get tossed out a window and we’ll still land on our feet somehow.
HUNTER: Yeah, and that kind of hyper-achievement. I remember when I went to the public school, I did everything. I ran the arts fest, I was the student council president, I directed the school play, I acted in the school play. I was just running on all cylinders, and I think it was because I needed to prove something like a lot of queer kids.
MW: I have to ask about working with Louie Anderson on Baskets. I’m glad that he won an Emmy for that, but I think he could have won a thousand Emmys for playing that role. That character Christine Baskets was really amazing. Something that’s also interesting to me is that, like Charlie in The Whale, Christine is a person of really large size, but that was not part of her story really.
Getting to know Christine Baskets, that wasn’t the lens through which we saw her. So how’d you get into writing on that show, and what was the approach, both from the creative point of view and working with Anderson himself, to dealing with size?
HUNTER: So I started writing on that show very early on. I was approached about Baskets and I had an initial phone call with Krisel, the guy who created it, and who I love and I’ve worked on several other things now at this point. But at the time, I was at the Marin Theatre Company developing a play, and they had written the pilot already and maybe even shot the pilot, and he was like, “So what are you working on now?” and I was like, “Oh, I’m in the Bay Area and I’m workshopping a play set at a Costco,” and he was like, “Really? Because Costco’s a big thing in our show,” and so weirdly, the point of connection was Costco. But the more that we talked about what he wanted the show to be, I was like, “Oh, this could be really interesting,” and then I saw the pilot after I signed on, and Louie only had, I think, one scene in that pilot but there was just something about it that I was just like, “This is not a joke. He’s doing something incredible.”
And then, when I finally went to L.A. for 10 weeks for the writers’ room, I spent a lot of time with Louie and it was me, Krisel, this comedy writer named Graham Wagner, and a comedy writer named Becky Drysdale in the first season. And so, Krisel, he knew that I wasn’t there to pitch jokes. He really wanted to work with me on finding the shape of what the show was.
Krisel always described it as slapstick drama. And so, I think he brought me in for the drama. The more that I talked with Louie and the more that he talked about his own mom and the more that I realized that I think he’s playing a version of his own mom, even if he’s not saying it — I think eventually he did say that he was doing that — but the soulful way that he would talk about this person. Louie grew up in the Twin Cities and he had a ton of siblings, and he talked a lot about his relationship to food and his ongoing relationships with food and I think that’s definitely in the show.
But more than that Louie is just such… Was. I hate using the past tense, I still can’t believe it. Louie was such a vibrant, fascinating human being that was so multifaceted and contained so much. He was so deeply funny. He was so deeply generous. He had been through so much in his life. He was so deeply connected to his family still, like the way he talked about his siblings. He lost a brother not long ago and that was so devastating for him. I remember going to Krisel one day and being like, “I think I need to write him monologues, actual monologues. I know that TV doesn’t usually do that but there’s something kind of beautiful.” As an example, I wrote a monologue where he is talking about trying to take a family portrait with her husband and how her husband wouldn’t smile. And so, I showed that to Krisel and it ended up in one of the episodes.
MW: I recall.
HUNTER: Yeah, in the first season, and I was on set that day watching Louie do that monologue and there was something foundational there of what this character could actually be. So yeah, it was just… God, I loved working with Louie. Yeah.
MW: Thank you for sharing that. I’m glad we got that in here because I love Baskets but I watched Life with Louie, too.
HUNTER: Oh wow.
MW: I go back with Louie Anderson.
HUNTER: I’m really gratified. Louie always was billed as a family-friendly comedian and I love that, I love Life with Louie too, but I’m just so glad that at the end of his life — I still can’t believe it — but at the end of his life, he was able to do something that really stretched him in so many ways and revealed parts of him that from meeting him and spending time with him, you knew they were there. If the nine episodes I wrote did anything, I just hope they do that.
MW: It’s still there. People can go back and rediscover Baskets all over again. We can also say that Zach Galifianakis is fantastic as the Basket twins, Chip and Dale.
HUNTER: Oh, he’s wonderful.
MW: So your last question, relating back to The Whale. Of the many plays you’ve written and many have been really successful, this is the first to be, to use your word, translated to cinema. Are you surprised that it’s this one, or did you always think if any of your plays got adapted it might be The Whale? Were there any prior attempts with other plays?
HUNTER: No, no. I mean, honestly, I’ve been so singularly focused on playwriting for so long, and that’s shifting now. Obviously, that’s shifting now because some doors are opening and I’m really interested in walking through them. But no, I mean, when Darren called me in 2012, I was just trying to be an off-Broadway playwright. Ever since this has happened, I have been like, “Well, I don’t know, what are some of my other plays-to-films, or what’s an original screenplay?” I’ve never tried that before. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m so on the treadmill of this right now that I’m keeping my head down and just focusing day to day, but I don’t know what’s on the other side of it. We’ll see.
The Whale is currently playing in theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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