‘The Whale’ from Stage to Script with Samuel D Hunter

Samuel D Hunter chatted with Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir about writing ‘The Whale’. They discussed how he adapted his own play into a screenplay, what it was like working with Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink and director Darren Aronofsky, and more.

From Playwriting to Screenwriting

‘I had never conceived of this. All I wanted to be was an off-Broadway playwright. And so when this was produced in a theatre in Manhattan that was the goal. Then it got produced at theatres across the country.’ After it was produced in New York, Darren Aronofsky reached out to Sam, requesting to option it.

‘It was never a question of should somebody else write this and it’s really a credit to Darren that I don’t think I realised back then. The play is so personal to me and comes from such a vulnerable place that I never thought somebody else should take it and rewrite it or adapt it.’

From Play to Film

As is often the case, the film took many years to be developed, but as a result, Sam and Darren had time to re-work the play and focus on telling the story visually. ‘I worked with him a lot over the years on how can we find more silent scenes. It was a really perfect process figuring out how to tell this story on film as opposed to on the stage.’

Fortunately, because Sam was happily developing his career as a playwright, and was excited but not desperate to become a screenwriter, the years between Darren’s first contact and shooting the film weren’t a concern for him.

‘It would be different if I wasn’t writing plays all along the way because I would’ve been so invested in maybe this can become a film. But it helped that I’ve been a working playwright for the last 10 years while this script has been in development.’

His Writing Process

For Sam, every project is different. ‘It always surprises me that whenever I try to replicate a process, It always falls apart.

I wrote a play right before the pandemic, my longest play – a three-hour, three-act play. And I wrote the first draft in less than a week. But the play that I just had in New York was my shortest play – 85 minutes and that took me almost a year to write a first draft.’

He says that for him it is vital to trust the process and that regardless of how long the first draft takes, all of his plays then take years to develop.

Collaborative Writing

‘One of the reasons that I love playwriting and screenwriting is that it’s such a collaborative form. Writing a first draft is the first mile of a marathon and the rest of the marathon is working with other people – giving it to actors, showing it to collaborators, working with directors.’

To begin with, he writes very quickly trying to avoid the authorial voice. 

‘I don’t do a lot of outlining in the beginning. I can’t move my characters around, like chess pieces. I have to let them live and breathe. And so when I’m writing dialogue, I try to be pretty loose with it. I just want them to have agency and be human beings without me having to guide them.’ The rewriting and refining process takes longer though.

From Theatre to Film

‘The great gift that we had was A24 let us have three weeks of rehearsal before we turned any cameras on. Which was almost like rehearsing a play.

And so Darren, on day one of rehearsal, declared us a theatre company and I’m really grateful that he embraced this as a play on film and wasn’t trying to pretend that it didn’t have theatrical origins.’

Working with Darren Aronofsky

Darren’s process is very methodical and exact. ‘He does a lot of takes and at a certain point we had 30 hours of footage of the one scene.’

He likes to try different things out, but he is also very aware of every precise detail during the shoot.

‘He doesn’t miss a thing. There is not a single second of this film that Darren hasn’t looked at 20 different ways.’ Working with Darren, was for Sam, a masterclass in filmmaking.

The Final Product

Although he was involved in most of the filmmaking, he gave Darren space in the edit.

‘Darren needed to have his space with Andy Weisblum, the brilliant editor; but I was very nervous about it and I remember at a certain point Darren texted me about some aggressive cuts to a certain scene.

And he showed me the scene and he had cut two lines of almost no consequence.’ And when the rough edit was ready to watch, it was almost completely ‘untouched. Which is such a gift for me.’

Sam’s Final Words of Advice

‘A career is not one singular piece of writing. Even if you become known by one singular piece of writing. Careers are very long. Life is very long. So calm down.’

For more about The Whale with Samuel D Hunter, listen here.

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