The Whale has brought a lot of fame and glory to Brendan Fraser. The film has received as much backlash as it has critical acclaim.
We speak to the writer behind the play-turned-Hollywood film, Samuel D. Hunter, about 2023’s most divisive film.
Honesty is the best policy. I decide this as I’m being led down a narrow corridor at a London hotel and into a room where writer Samuel D. Hunter is ready for our chat.
We speak mere hours after he’s received a BAFTA nomination for his script for The Whale, Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Hunter’s own play of the same name. Brendan Fraser plays a morbidly obese teacher who has only days to live and is desperate to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink).
After congratulating him on the BAFTA nod, I tell him I loved the film, but I was prepared to hate it. He looks at me, puzzled like I’ve caught him off-guard; “Interesting.”
I explain that the premise alone raised many red flags, but I grew to love and be moved by the film. I ask if this is a common story told to him by people.
“One of the big differences in telling the story in a play theatre versus a movie theatre is that there’s not really the same history of negative depictions of obesity in the theatre. But in film, there’s a very awful tradition of using prosthetics in completely unrealistic ways, in ways that make fun of a character. I understand when people come in, and they have their guards up; they should, given the history of this stuff. But hopefully, and I think often, people have the experience that you had.”
Charlie’s 600-pound frame was created with prosthetics, something Fraser himself has defended publicly. Hunter seems very aware of why people like me would have reservations about the film. Not only is the film about an obese man, but it’s titled The Whale, for crying out loud.
“I actually had a different title for a while, for the first few readings. I had thought of The Whale just because that’s the second title of Moby Dick, it’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.”
Moby Dick plays a huge part in the narrative, but we won’t spoil that here. Hunter admits that the title is there to also draw a much deeper reaction from the audience.
“I think it kind of implicates the audience a little bit. When they see that title, they immediately relate it to his body. And I think that exposes something about the audience members’ gazes as they come into the theatre. Not all of them, but a good amount of people, the majority of them. It’s one of the last bastions of socially acceptable prejudice and a quick glance at Twitter reveals that. Even with a lot of the reviews that we’ve gotten are horrifying.”
I bring up the fact that many reviews that flooded the internet when The Whale premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2022 described Fraser’s character as “Jabba the Hutt -like”, which Hunter calls “shocking”.
Read two reviews of The Whale, both described Brendan Fraser’s character as Jabba The Hutt -like. Great. (Please don’t do this in your review)
— MariaLattila🎈 (@marialattila) September 5, 2022
“One of the responses to the film that I’ve heard that I always find a little troubling is, you really humanise this character. I understand what people are saying and I understand that it’s coming from a generous place, but I shouldn’t have to make a human being human for you. It wasn’t my project as a writer to humanise somebody, that’s automatic. If you have trouble with that, then that’s on you.”
Then again, surely shock value is an integral part of The Whale. The film’s very opening shows Charlie masturbating to gay porn and nearly having a heart attack.
“It’s about exposing that prejudice and that gaze that an audience brings in. Because a thin guy masturbating to straight porn, that could be the beginning of an Adam Sandler movie. There’s so much to Charlie, other than the fact that he is suffering from this kind of obesity, that’s one aspect of his life.”
Hunter clearly wants to challenge our perception of Charlie. Many have argued that the film makes his body a spectacle. Charlie’s feelings of self-disgust are palpable and clearly communicated, but are we ever supposed to be disgusted by him?
“No. This comes from a lot of personal places for me. Nothing is directly autobiographical, but I’m a person who grew up gay in Idaho like Charlie did, and I went to a religious school. I was outed and fell into depression.
“There was a lot of unprocessed grief over that. I was also taught at an early age that I was deserving of hellfire. The thing that saved me was, I always loved other people and I always found salvation in other people and connecting with people. And feeling like I could be generous with other people, even as I couldn’t be generous with myself,” Hunter explains.
“That’s the fundamental thing about Charlie, he adores other people. His tragedy is he can’t afford that same love and generosity toward himself. I was taught that I was disgusting as a gay person, as a person with a bigger body and at a certain point, I started believing it. That’s what I wanted to reflect in the film.”
Hunter speaks of the film and of Charlie, who seems like an exaggerated extension of himself, with a lot of love and affection. The Whale also seems to be about addiction, and it’s not just Charlie who is addicted to something.
“I think addiction is definitely in the play, but what I’m interested in is people who rely on certain things in order to prop themselves up, as we all do. I guess you could name some of them as addictions, or some of them are just things we use to get us through our days. I’ve always been interested in telling stories about people who are not on the winning end of American life.”
Much has already been said about Fraser’s portrayal of Charlie. After a long time away from the spotlight, Fraser’s comeback has been filled with tears and love. He’s now also nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film.
Hunter says it took 10 years to make The Whale with Aronofsky, mainly because they simply had to find the right actor to portray Charlie. After seeing actors portray the role on stage many times, Hunter knows exactly what they need.
“If you bring any amount of cynicism or frustration to the role, it just collapses. There was just something [in what] Brendan was doing. He was playing it with so much joy, and love and generosity, amidst the pain and the grief. And he was able to hold both of those things simultaneously, in this kind of uncanny way.”
Fraser’s performance is immensely aided by Aronofsky’s bold filmmaking choices. Always a controversial director, Aronofsky decided to use a boxy aspect ratio of 4:3 to really force the audience to feel all the emotions with the characters.
Hunter mentions the scenes where Hong Chau’s Liz talks about her brother and Charlie’s partner, who took his own life, leading to Charlie’s eventual weight gain. He describes Chau’s performance, also nominated for an Academy Award, as “gorgeously profound.” Aronofsky’s camera brings us close to these characters, and the actors take it from there.
“I’m not a cynical writer. I’m not interested in plays that seek to poke and prod characters from the outside, or judge them or ridicule them. What makes these characters kind of vulnerable because they wear their hearts firmly on their sleeves. When you wear your heart on your sleeve, you can get stabbed pretty easily.”
The Whale is now in cinemas.