The possibilities for cinema spectacle in the true story of the whaling ship the Essex were obvious from the start.
In 1820, the Nantucket-based ship was rammed and sunk by a huge sperm whale. The surviving crew members floated in small longboats for more than 90 days before they were rescued.
But in writing his screenplay for “In the Heart of the Sea,” Charles Leavitt was drawn to ideas of commerce, class conflict and the day-to-day dirty job of harpooning whales and rendering their bodies for the oil that kept lamps burning all over the world.
In fact, Leavitt (“The Mighty,” “K-PAX,” “Blood Diamond”) said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles that the idea of whaling as the first oil industry was very important to him.
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“This was the oil industry before someone figured out how to drill for oil in the ground in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1851,” he said. “It was a lot like the oil industry of today. In Nantucket they had a commodities exchange for whaling: a big board, traders buying and selling different grades of whale oil, constant price changes. It was a huge industry.
“But the sailors were in many ways expendable. They would go out for two years and sometimes come back having not made a penny because they didn’t return with a hold full of oil. These men were risking their lives every day, but for the companies they were numbers on a balance sheet.
“So in the wake of the Essex tragedy, they really wanted to keep it hush-hush. Investors already had to deal with the risks of bad weather and empty holds. The industry tried to suppress news that an angry whale could smash a ship and sink it.”
There’s also an element of class warfare in the story of the Essex, particularly the antipathy between Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and the first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).
“Nantucket was a company town, and it had a pretty rigid class system. You had George Pollard, who came from a whaling dynasty and had a lot of pressure on him to be a successful whaling captain. But he had only limited experience and was insecure about it.
“Chase was a landsman whose father had been a farmer. He came from a lower caste in Nantucket society. But he was a self-made man who worked his way up through the ranks and thought he deserved the captaincy.”
Leavitt paraphrased a line from author Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote the definitive book about the Essex: “You had a captain with the instincts and soul of a mate, and a first mate with fire and ambition of a captain. That was a recipe for disaster.”
The hardships they endured permanently damaged the surviving members of the Essex’s crew, Leavitt said.
“They suffered from PTSD long before anyone knew there was such a thing. Those who lived through it all had survivor’s remorse. In real life Chase went mad after a while. Pollard lost a second ship and got a reputation for bad luck. He became a night watchman for Nantucket and ended up a food hoarder. When he died they found his attic filled with foodstocks.”
“In the Heart of the Sea” has been a long time in coming to the screen. In 2003, Leavitt was hired by Barry Levinson’s production company to adapt Philbrick’s book.
“Everyone seemed to love the script, and we met with several directors. But it just never happened. Then, years later, it found its way to Chris Hemsworth, who then passed it on to Ron Howard. Chris was the driving force that got it made.”
Next up for Leavitt: an HBO movie for actor/producer Matt Damon about the global water crisis.