Back to selection

Here Comes the Ocean: Ron Howard on In the Heart of the Sea

Sam Keeley, Chris Hemsworth and Edward Ashley in In the Heart of the Sea (Photo by Jonathan Prime)

Ron Howard is one of those filmmakers who often feels like a throwback to the directors of the classical studio era, guys such as Victor Fleming and Michael Curtiz, who would jump from action flick to comedy to melodrama and back again without missing a beat. At the beginning of his career, he followed up an R-rated comedy (Night Shift) with a romance for Disney (Splash) and then went on to do an Oscar-winning biopic (A Beautiful Mind), Westerns (Far and Away, The Missing), prescient satires (Gung Ho, EDtv) and massive tentpoles (The Da Vinci Code, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), as well as pleasingly modest character pieces (The Paper, Frost/Nixon) and … well, whatever the hell Cocoon is (an octogenarian sci-fi melodrama sex comedy?). His filmography is so diverse, and his stylistic approach so eclectic, that, ironically, he’s easy to underrate. Like Curtiz before him, his range can be misunderstood as lack of a clear authorial voice — he doesn’t announce himself the way that a lot of directors do, and therefore less imaginative viewers might write him off as a solid but anonymous craftsman.

For those of us who have admired and followed Howard’s work since Grand Theft Auto, however, it’s always been clear that there are deeply personal themes embedded in his fluid approach to style. His best films, such as Backdraft, Apollo 13 and Rush, all focus on men in professions that put them under intense physical and emotional pressure; no director since Howard Hawks has been so interested in examining the relationship between work and character among people whose jobs are fraught with danger. Howard, meanwhile, pushes himself in different ways in his work; his reputation as an old-school Hollywood professional aside, he’s always been a tirelessly curious technical innovator and experimenter. His 1988 fantasy Willow featured one of the earliest uses of CGI to create a morphing effect, and with Far and Away, he shot in 70mm 22 years after Ryan’s Daughter and 20 before The Master. Teaming up with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Antichrist, Slumdog Millionaire, julien donkey-boy) on 2013’s Rush, Howard employed dozens of digital cameras at a time to immerse the audience in the subjective state of mind of Formula 1 drivers and used cutting-edge digital technology to recreate the ’70s on a (relatively) modest budget.

Howard’s latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, is both a satisfying summation and a step forward, perhaps the purest example yet of the combination of tradition and innovation that characterizes his work. Telling the story of the real-life whaling crew that inspired Melville’s Moby-Dick, it’s a kinetic action film that’s also philosophical and character-driven, and delivering the conventional satisfactions of a large-scale Hollywood entertainment while making unorthodox lens and framing choices. In their second collaboration together, Howard and Dod Mantle continue developing the language they introduced in Rush, creating another visceral period piece that is both intimate and epic. The unique blend of an old-fashioned (in the best sense) narrative with a heavy reliance on Canon EOS cameras and digital effects yields major satisfactions for the viewer in a film that includes some of Howard’s finest work to date and serves as a worthy addition to his cycle of “men under pressure” films. I talked with the ever-productive director as he was prepping his next film, Inferno, just days after finishing the mix on Sea, and began by asking him about the origins of the project.

Ron Howard: It came to me from Chris Hemsworth when we were finishing up Rush. I had heard about it over the years, because it’s almost been made a few times, but I didn’t know it was a true story when I first read it. And I felt like, “Well, this is sort of an attempt to morph Moby-Dick into something else, and I don’t think that’s the right approach.” Then I found out it was a true story, and when I went back and read it again, it was a completely different experience, trying to understand what everyone went through and what the whale actually did and how they emotionally and psychologically coped with that. And what it meant to Melville. While I don’t like the ocean — I don’t spend time on it recreationally, it even scares me a little — I’ve always been fascinated by movies in that setting. I’ve actually, over the years, very, very seriously pursued and prepped two different kinds of movies that were set on the ocean, and neither one was feasible at the end. I couldn’t pull them together. One was a true story about — this is in the ’80s — a Greenpeace ship called The Rainbow Warrior that was impounded and then [the crew] escaped. [Editor’s note: there were two Rainbow Warriors. The ‘80s one was sunk, another in the 2000s was impounded.] And then, the other one was Jack London’s Sea-Wolf, which I tried very hard to get off the ground and couldn’t. Ever since I shot on the water for Splash and Cocoon and got over that initial fear of being on the water — and learned to dive and understand the drama and the power and the romance of the ocean — I really wanted to make a movie that was set there and explore that.

It’s a very interesting film stylistically, in that the period setting and palette kind of recalls 1940s and ’50s Technicolor films like — well, like Huston’s Moby Dick, among others — but there’s also a very modern approach to framing and camera movement. What were some of your visual references in terms of other films or paintings or research materials? There was a great documentary that was made in about 1929 or ’30; this young kid was going around the horn on a tall ship and shot it. I watched a lot of silent movies, some of which depicted hunting sperm whales. Of course, it was all from a distance — they couldn’t capture the intimacy and intensity in those days. That’s something I wanted to capture by working with Anthony Dod Mantle again: I wanted the sort of big, powerful, epic images that are what being on the water is all about, but I also really wanted the suspense and tension and visual intimacy that comes from being right in there with the characters, which we had done with Rush. I also looked at Deadliest Catch and some of the Whale Wars [show], where you feel a tremendous amount of excitement from the way they have to shoot, which is in the boats with their subjects. That’s a more modern approach, and I felt like that that could be applied to this classic story and this classic environment in a way that would really freshen things up.

Well one of the things that I like about both this movie and Rush was that real sense of immediacy that you and Anthony Dod Mantle manage to convey, where you’re often putting the cameras in unusual places to allow the audience to share the characters’ subjective experiences. When we were out on the water, my experience was that the minute you try to put too fine a point on an image, that’s when you slow down. Even though you’re out in the ocean, it sort of looks like it’s a studio shot, and I did not want that. This is not Deadliest Catch or Whale Wars or that 1929 footage of that young guy going around the Cape, you know? The result of trying to avoid that meant that we probably didn’t look much like a big Hollywood production out there. A lot of it was Anthony sitting in the 24-foot whale boat with the actors and one leg dangling in the water, leaning over with a handheld camera, and somebody else hovering around with a small digital camera that you could dunk in the water and bring back up and see the actors. At that point, the actors were literally starving — not quite like the crew of the Essex, but 500 calories is kind of tough to go on. They could play the scenes, and it wasn’t about trying to land on marks or accommodate camera moves and complicated staging. It was just about trying to exist out there and figuring out what they were feeling about what this whale meant, and what their lives were adding up to, and why they were being put through this gauntlet.

There’s this really great sense in the movie that you’re kind of catching action on the fly. But I was wondering what the balance is that you have to strike between preparation and responding to the moment while you’re shooting, because even though it does look like you’re catching it on the fly, I would think that some of it has to be very precisely planned in order to implement the digital effects and all of that. Well, yes. The action is incredibly well planned, just as it was on Rush or Backdraft or Apollo 13, but then once you establish this aesthetic … well, for starters, you don’t rehearse a lot. It’s something that I started doing on Frost/Nixon, where I didn’t rehearse the cameras or the actors. I just went in and started shooting with a rough idea of what we were going for, and then I began shaping the coverage a little bit afterwards. But first I wanted to see what the camera operators were going to see — what was their eye going to be drawn to, and what would capturing it look like? And then we went from there. We did the same thing with this. It wasn’t about precision; it was about energy, visual energy, and a sort of uncertainty. I don’t want the audience to feel that this is an old-fashioned story presented in a classic way. It is a classic story. It is Americana in the way that those kinds of adventure stories are. But I want the experience to be immersive and intense, and therefore more emotional and more surprising.

How many cameras do you shoot a typical action scene with? It would depend on the scene, but we usually had embedded cameras dug in that would just capture whatever was going on — it was like casting a net. You’d plant a camera up on the mast, and you’d plant a camera on the deck, places where you expected there to be some action — a little bit like mounting cameras on cars in Rush. It meant that the editors had to do a lot of culling and searching, but we found some great surprise graphic matches that way, that you just never would’ve staged or planned for.

There were usually four cameras: two ALEXAs and a couple of handheld Canons, which was Dod Mantle’s utility go-to choice. But very often it would boil back down to one, because in some of the emotional relationship moments there was no room, and if you started trying to sneak in another camera and actually design anything, it felt disconnected from the scene. Usually, I would put a camera out on a crane arm and shoot something from a camera boat, but very little of that actually made it in the movie — it was just a safety net. In the end, what was most powerful and most immediate and most surprising was what we got up close and personal in the boat with the actors.

I wanted to ask a little bit more about your collaboration with Dod Mantle, because I do feel like the two of you have evolved a very interesting style in both of these movies. What are the initial conversations that the two of you have on a movie like this in terms of planning out what your visual strategy is going to be? It’s pretty intuitive. Our aesthetics are not as different as one would suspect, given the subject, because I always adjust my approach based on what I think is going to serve the movie and the audience in the most compelling way. There was a lot of planning about the logistics, and these long, long meetings with storyboards, with pre-vis, with little models on the deck. Hours and hours of these roundtable conference room meetings, making sure that every department understood what the goal was. We just kept pressing on these scenes, asking not only how we were going to do them, but what else could we find to do? We had a session with an oceanographer and an aquatic mammal expert; we showed him all of our pre-vis and all of our storyboards and asked, “Is there anything here that’s over the top? Is there anything that couldn’t happen, that is outside the realm of feasibility for a whale?” We used the real accounts of the Essex, and we also used what Melville had written about the whale behavior in Moby-Dick. So, when I did depart a little bit from the story of the Essex, I was usually then incorporating something from Moby-Dick, which I just thought was kind of fun, you know? Melville had been a whaler himself, so I thought that that was a good thing to use, just as I used a few other details and a couple of moments from other space missions in Apollo 13 to give the audience a complete sense of what going to the moon in 1970 could be like.

Obviously these days, a big part of shooting a period piece is recreating landscapes and architecture and other kinds of details via digital effects. I’m wondering how you determine what you’re going to do practically in terms of sets and production design and what you’re going to paint in digitally. Well, there are some basic rules and guidelines about it. And of course, the digital artists are improving monthly. It’s just stunning, and it’s allowing so much spontaneity in the filmmaking. Whereas going back to Willow, everything was locked down. Everything was rigid. I found it really frustrating and limiting, because you couldn’t go to the set and change your mind or make a discovery. Now, it just increasingly becomes more and more an extension of your imagination, and a way of benefiting from what you do see. And it doesn’t have to destroy your budget to have that kind of flexibility. In fact, you can have happy accidents and discover that you can now do something for less money, and apply that elsewhere. It’s something I have really enjoyed on both Rush and In the Heart of the Sea, in terms of trying to use digital technology and artwork to actually be immersive for the audience in an entirely authentic way.

There are some basic rules, like if the actors are going to interact with a set, you’re better off building it and not extending it. We had a big build — Mark Tildesley, our production designer, built a waterfront for Nantucket. And we used it. But we certainly were able to give it more scope and more scale. In the old days you still would have tried to do those shots, but they would’ve been painted mattes with locked-down cameras and it just wouldn’t have been as effective. At the time, audiences would accept them and take that leap. Now, audiences are being asked to forgive less, which is a good thing.

One of the really spectacular things in the movie is the whale, which is pretty terrifying. I’m assuming the whale was digital? 100 percent.

Right. So what are some of the challenges involved in shooting something where you have scenes that are simultaneously extremely actor driven, but also completely reliant on technology? It’s daunting, and there’s a hell of a lot of trust there. I will say, we all breathed a sigh of relief when we finally saw our first couple of whale tests, but we were already done shooting when that happened. Along the way, all we had were some graphics and a collection of what we could find in archives, just to use as references. We often had somebody out in an inflatable pretending to be the whale, charging the boat and things like that, for the actors to look at. But also, the actors were able to just create. And we always had the artwork around to say, “Don’t forget this is what you’re looking at.” And so there was something to connect to, but that was part of their challenge. I had to trust the VFX artists, and they really, really came through.

Tell me a little bit about your editing process on a film like this. Is your editor putting together an assembly of the shoot, or are you one of those directors who doesn’t want any work done until you get into the editing room? Well, I’ve worked with Dan Hanley and Mike Hill on everything that I’ve done going back to Night Shift. So we’ve done a lot of different kinds of movies, and they’re kind of amazing. They can do a superlative job editing Frost/Nixon or Parenthood, or they can do Backdraft or Apollo 13. They won the Academy Award for Apollo 13. We share this desire to take the footage and really discover what the maximum experience can be for the audience. And that sounds obvious, but it’s not about the screenplay. It’s not about what me, the director, was thinking when I shot it. It’s about what the footage means, and how it lands for the viewer, and what it says. You’re constantly being excited by discoveries and disappointed by shortfalls. This movie completely challenged our system because we had to lock a lot of shots early and commit so that they could get to work on the whale. You could tweak and shift and shorten and add a little bit, but basically, you had to make a lot of hard decisions, and that held back our overall approach to the cut. Also, because of the way that I chose to shoot it, with all of the cameras, the embedded camera is playing a significant role. Not just getting an insert of a harpoon falling, but shots of actors from these embedded cameras. And no script supervisor made a list — you didn’t see [these shots] on the monitors. They didn’t even come through in dailies until much later because they all had to be sorted through. So, editorially, this was probably my most challenging movie so far because of the volume of footage and the array of approaches that we could’ve taken to the various moments. Post went on longer than I expected it to, and we went back and did some pickup scenes and some things like that because there’s a lot of story there. And yet, I didn’t want it to be a long, drawn-out movie experience. I wanted intensity. We screened a lot for audiences and kept asking questions and kept asking questions of ourselves, and I’m really proud of where we landed with it.

But I didn’t really answer your question. [The editors] cut as we go. I might give notes, I’ll give preferred takes and offer some comments, but I actually like for Dan and Mike to explore the footage themselves. I want to benefit from their initial reaction to it, because I’ve always got my sense of how it ought to go together in my hip pocket. I might shoot a lot of footage and be approaching something in a spontaneous way as opposed to a presentational kind of way. But even when I’m shooting that way, as I’m watching the monitors and watching it come together, I’m kind of building a first cut in my mind. I’ve always got that. And sometimes, we tear a scene down and go back to that. But generally, you know, Dan or Mike have made some interesting discoveries that I wouldn’t have thought about in putting together that first cut.

I feel like your movies have really gotten into a kind of interesting transitional period with this and Rush. In the ’80s and ’90s, you were kind of a quintessential studio director, but in recent years, I feel like you’ve become a little more of a hybrid. Your films are getting a little more indie, both stylistically and in terms of the way you finance them. I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the factors that led to that transition. Is it because Hollywood has changed or you’ve changed or both? A little of both. Warners financed In the Heart of the Sea, and Village Roadshow is a partner in it. But Rush was independently financed. I think it’s my own curiosity. I’ve made more movies, I’ve lived more, I’ve met more kinds of people, I’ve read more, I’ve seen more, I’ve thought more. I always want to entertain, but my own definition of what’s entertaining has shifted, not just for me as an audience member, but in terms of what I perceive that moviegoers want. And I think that what’s going on in cable television, what’s going on on the Internet, what’s going on in the world of documentaries and the indie world and international cinema is all informing the media in really exciting ways. And it’s encouraging me to push myself. I’m still really, really enjoying it.

This job has never been manufacturing, to me, even when it was a full-on Hollywood movie like The Grinch. And believe me, when we did Cocoon, no one quite knew what that was. It was old people and space and people were dying and it was kind of dark … but it wound up being a Top 10 movie that year, and everybody thought of it as a Hollywood sort of experience. But that’s just where it landed. It wasn’t a piece of manufacturing. It was just an extension of the subject and my sensibility and my collaborators. The collaboration is such a vital part of it. I’m kind of a quiet, stay-at-home guy, and making the movies really provides me a chance to get out in the world, to go on adventures and to become really close to an array of incredibly talented — some of them are kind of complicated — interesting people. And I love encouraging that sort of ongoing creative conversation, even when it sometimes gets out of hand and gets a little chaotic. In the Heart of the Sea was kind of like its own voyage, as you’d imagine. It was a hell of an adventure making it.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

© 2017 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF