Wearing waders that rose to the middle of their chests, Ron Howard and Chris Hemsworth sloshed through an indoor tank on the set of "In the Heart of the Sea" as a chandelier from a replica 19th century whaling ship swayed over their heads.
"Be aware that it's pretty invasive, it's pretty intense," Howard said to his star of an action sequence they were about to shoot in late 2013 at Warner Bros.' Leavesden studios. "You'll feel the whole cabin collapsing in your direction."
"In the Heart of the Sea," which opens March 15, tells the true story that inspired perhaps the most celebrated American novel, Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." It's the tale of the Nantucket whale ship Essex, which sunk in 1820 after it was rammed by a sperm whale, leaving its crew shipwrecked in the South Pacific for 90 days.
The screenplay by Charles Leavitt, adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 nonfiction book of the same name, functions as a kind of origins story for "Moby-Dick," with Melville as a character played by Englishman Ben Whishaw. Hemsworth has the role of first mate Owen Chase, who wrote an account of the disaster which Melville eventually read. Benjamin Walker, the American actor best known for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," is the ship's captain, Irish actor Cillian Murphy its second mate, and 18-year-old Tom Holland from "Billy Elliot the Musical" is cabin boy Thomas Nickerson.
On the morning after Hemsworth walked the red carpet at the London premiere of a very different sort of film, "Thor: The Dark World," the Australian actor was bobbing in a tank and functioning on a strict, low-calorie diet designed to transform him from superhero form to near-starvation shape.
"Every time I build it up for 'Thor' it gets harder to lose the weight," Hemsworth said during a break in filming. "Your brain plays some funny tricks on you when you're hungry. But if you're uncomfortable and that's the story you're trying to tell, it's useful."
Hemsworth brought this script to Howard, who directed him to one of his best reviewed performances as a cocky race car driver in "Rush," knowing the period production's complexity required a steady hand.
By mid-November, Howard's crew had already filmed on tall ships in the open sea around the Canary Islands, on an intricate backlot built at Leavesden to re-create a 19th century whaling wharf, and on multiple indoor and outdoor tanks.
The notorious difficulty of shooting movies on water has lessened somewhat in the era of CGI, and "In the Heart of the Sea" makes use of that technology, particularly in the creation of the whale. But Howard was eager to shoot as much as was practically possible, even when a storm blew through the production's primary and backup sets in the Canaries.
"You get spontaneity and energy shooting in these real environments," Howard said. "It's painful, it's uncomfortable, I wouldn't wish it on people. But if you're trying to tell a story with emotion and impact, being out in it is the way to go. The planning and the ongoing process of creative discovery was something that was exciting, exhausting and all-encompassing."
Melville's fictionalized version of the Essex story has inspired countless Hollywood retellings over the decades, with actors as varied as John Barrymore, Gregory Peck and William Hurt taking on the role of Capt. Ahab. In Howard and Hemsworth's case, the story is told as it really happened.
"It's high adventure, and yet it's a true story," Howard said. "It's a reminder that whatever we do in our life has a chance to echo. Thirty years later, when the survivors had thought their story was long forgotten, it would inspire Melville in a way that's worth noting."