“In the Heart of the Sea” Becomes a Heart-Pounding Film

4-Sperm-WhaleRon Howard directs the true story of the whaling disaster that inspired Moby-Dick

The Mystic Seaport Museum recently revealed that filming for the motion picture adaptation of In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex is underway in London. Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) is helming the shoot.

Author Nathaniel Philbrick won the National Book Award in 2000 for his white-knuckled true tale of the Essex, a Nantucket whaleship under the command of Captain George Pollard. In 1820, while on a multi-year whaling hunt in the South Pacific, a sperm whale rammed the ship with its colossal head—twice. In a matter of minutes, the ship started to sink. The crew scrambled to retrieve food, water and the navigational equipment essential for finding their way to land.

Safe in the ship’s three whaleboats, the stunned captain made a fatal mistake. Instead of making a beeline for the Marquesas Islands 1,200 miles away, which he believed were inhabited by cannibals, Pollard decided to sail for the coast of South America, more than 3,000 miles away.

heartofsea_bookIronically, the cannibals were already among them. The men quickly ran out of water and food. One of the boats disappeared in a storm. The others drifted helplessly, carrying their desperate cargo; in Pollard’s boat, the men survived by shooting and eating one of their mates. The castaways were finally picked up by a whaler after 95 days adrift. Only eight of the original 20 crew lived to tell the tragedy.

To get a proper feel for life aboard a 19th-century whaling ship, Philbrick, Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan visited the Mystic Seaport Museum to inspect the Charles W. Morgan (probably no relation), America’s oldest wooden commercial vessel still afloat. The director toured the main deck, with its giant copper try-pots for rendering sperm whale blubber into oil, and the low-ceilinged hold where the casks of oil were stored. (The crew’s miniscule quarters and Lilliputian cabins for the officers made a big impression on me when I toured the ship in 2012—it was hardly possible to imagine living with a group of 20 rough-and-tumble sailors for three or four years in this cramped abode.)

“Ron seems like a great guy, very down-to-earth and very smart,” Philbrick wrote in his recent newsletter. “And he seems genuinely excited about the story of the Essex. I’m looking forward to visiting the set in London in November.”

The filming is underway in London’s Leavesden Studios, with Chris Hemsworth starring as First Mate Owen Chase and one of my favorite actors, Cillian Murphy, as Second Mate Matthew Joy. In the Heart of the Sea will be released in 2014.

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