Diving Into ‘Heart of the Sea’ With Screenwriter Charles Leavitt

Still from ‘In the Heart of the Sea’/Image © Warner Bros.

Grueling survival stories have long been a cinema standard. From "127 Hours," "The Edge," and "Alive" to "Cast Away," "Lifeboat," and "Unbroken," whether invented or based on real events, we love to watch characters overcome seemingly impossible circumstances, wondering all along whether we'd have what it takes to stay alive in a similar situation. The new ocean-bound drama "In The Heart of the Sea," directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") and written by Charles Leavitt ("Blood Diamond"), creatively blends the real and the fictional in the service of a survival narrative that's very nearly mythological in its scope. Opening in theaters Friday, December 11, "Sea" tells the story of a whaling ship that was attacked and sunk by a bull sperm whale in 1820 and imagines how that awe-inspiring encounter, which stranded twenty starving men in three tiny boats in the middle of the Pacific, may have fed Herman Melville's classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale.

Leavitt's eclectic resume is littered with fiction and nonfiction adaptations -- "The Mighty" (1998), "The Jennie Project" (2001), and "The Express" (2008) among them, plus films based on Doug Stumpf's Confessions of a Wall Street Shoeshine Boy and Michael Koryta's Those Who Wish Me Dead in development. For the new film, he drew mainly from the National Book Award-winning 2000 bestseller In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, a competitive sailor who's written many books about life on the water. Signature recently spoke with Leavitt about the breakthroughs that finally helped him turn "Sea," a project he'd been wrestling with since 2003, into a workable big-screen yarn.

SIGNATURE: Melville apparently drew from several real-life sources for Moby-Dick. What parts of the Essex story did he use?

CHARLES LEAVITT: There had been these stories of sightings of this whale in newspaper and magazine accounts as early as the early 1800s. Melville probably read those. But it really wasn't until the Essex shipwreck that the account of a whale striking this ship in the middle of the Pacific and sinking it really sparked Melville to start thinking about this idea. Nobody knew about it until the survivors came back and told the story. First mate Owen Chase basically wrote a book in 1821, his account of what happened. I'm sure Melville read that. And then around 1840, Melville himself was a merchant mariner and shipped out and met Owen Chase's son, who relayed some more of the story. And I think at one point Melville actually got a glimpse of Owen Chase and found him to be a very impressive-looking man, and I always imagined that this could have been a template for Ahab.

SIG: And then you created the conceit of Melville later meeting the cabin boy, Nickerson?

CL: To adapt Philbrick's book I had to overcome a structural puzzle, which was that the book was really two stories. The first half is about the sinking of the Essex by this giant whale, and then the second half becomes a survival story, because the true account is that the whale strikes the ship and then goes off and we never see or hear from the whale again. So what I had to try and figure out was how to keep the whale in the movie. And the only way to really do that was to invent this story of Melville, this writer who was consumed by this idea that he wanted to try and write, and in 1850 he comes to [Essex cabin boy] Thomas Nickerson, who's become an alcoholic innkeeper, and tries to get this story out of him. My intention was that you could imagine where the true story tapers off and Melville's imagination begins. So it's almost the writer's process of trying to come up with Moby-Dick.

SIG: What's the most fascinating element of the Essex story to you?

CL: One aspect of it was that we cannot imagine the life that these whalers had. They go out on a ship into the middle of the ocean, they're gone for a journey of two years, they leave their wives and children. Anyone who's ever seen whales -- and I've seen them on whale-watching ships -- they're behemoth creatures. You realize that this is their domain and they are in charge here. But then you imagine in 1820 they get into smaller boats to try and hunt down these huge creatures. It must be the most frightening thing. And also the fact that whaling was really the oil industry before someone figured out how to drill a hole in the ground and get oil. There's an early scene where Owen Chase goes into this building where there's a board with all the prices of what grades of whale oil are selling for, it's like the New York Stock Exchange. And like the oil industry of today, these men were just stats on a balance sheet, their lives were really expendable. The whole idea of risk versus profit figures into the story, too. Whale oil pretty much lit the lamps of America and Europe and the whole world at that time, so thinking of it as the oil business was this whole layer that I was struck by.

SIG: Did your approach to handling the cannibalism change as you developed the script?

CL: It did a bit. There was an irony here -- a very tragic irony -- in that after the ship had sunk and the men gathered in these three boats, they had to come up with a plan of survival. And Captain Pollard suggested: Let's steer west and we'll hit the Marquesas. But that was nixed because of the fear of cannibals living on those islands. And it was Owen Chase, the first mate, who decided, no, we should actually go south and catch winds that would take us back east toward the coast of Peru. And then they ended up reverting to cannibalism themselves.

SIG: It's such an unfathomable circumstance, it would seem the greatest challenge is how to believably depict the rationale that would cause people to cross that line.

CL: When you're starving to death, you are in an altered state of mind. So the idea of eating someone isn't as grotesque a thought as it is when we're talking about it now. What happens is your body pretty much starts eating itself. These were religious men, so they could justify it in terms of religion: When one of them died of starvation, "do not let the body go to waste." So that's when they rendered it and cooked it and ate it. That was on Owen Chase's boat. On the captain's boat, they actually drew straws. One of them was going to sacrifice himself. And they all agreed on that.

SIG: You've done quite a few adaptations, fiction and nonfiction, blends of both. Was there anything new or unusual about how you ended up tackling this one?

CL: With this book I really had to read in between the lines to get the characters. The captain and the first mate, their clash, it was almost a clash of class. The captain was from a privileged whaling dynasty, an insecure son of a whaling captain who was given his first command. And the first mate was of a lesser class, the son of a farmer, and nevertheless almost a more capable leader. When Owen Chase was passed over for the captaincy, there was a resentment there that I had to use. Because the personal conflict between them is part of what precipitated the whole tragedy after the ship got sunk. Nathaniel Philbrick had outlined that really beautifully in a few sentences, like, "You had a ship where the captain had the soul of a mate, and you had the first mate who had the ambition and the fire of a captain." I took that and I thought, Okay, there's my character story right there.