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A deep dive into the Academy Award-nominated 'The Whale'

Brendan Fraser sitting in a dark room in a scene from "The Whale"
Courtesy of A24
Brendan Fraser stars in "The Whale" written by Samuel D. Hunter.

The Whale, a film that follows a man nearing the end of his life and his hopeful attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter, is based on the 2012 play of the same name. Playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter describes what it was like taking his work from stage to screen.

One of the buzziest films released this awards season has a strong Iowa connection. 2007 Iowa Playwrights Workshop graduate Samuel D. Hunter's work The Whale is vying for three Academy Awards on March 12: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Makeup and Hairstyling. The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky and stars Brendan Fraser, who has already taken home a Critics Choice Award for Best Actor for his work.

The film follows Charlie, a gay, grieving online essay-writing instructor who has resolved to eat himself to death hidden away in his apartment. Aware of his declining health, he decides to use his remaining time to try and reconnect with his teenage daughter, Ellie.

Playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter's headshot.
Josia Bania
Samuel D. Hunter

It was a decade-long journey to make the film, as Aronofsky approached Hunter after seeing the staged play. While not autobiographical, Hunter says the story is very personal to him and even features elements from his life. Like his protagonist, Hunter was also teaching essay writing when the idea for the play came to him. Caught between the need to teach his class of college freshmen to write objectively and his calling to write deeply personal stories as a playwright, a moment of frustration caused him to instruct the class, "Write me something honest," and to start with something true. The character Charlie says the same thing to his online class in the movie.

A student wrote a sentence that struck Hunter: "I think I need to accept that my life isn't going to be very exciting."

That line also made it into the play and film.

"It was this brazen moment of honesty," Hunter said.

In the very early drafting process of the play, Hunter said at a certain point he realized he needed to take his own assignment in order to write the story he wanted to. He began accessing more personal elements of his life, like growing up gay in Idaho and struggling with depression that lead to overeating, to write with more honesty and vulnerability.

Samuel D. Hunter and Ari Handel look at footage
Niko Tavernise
Samuel D. Hunter (L) and Ari Handel (R) look at footage

The Whale features a relatively small cast of characters and takes place almost entirely inside Charlie's two-bedroom apartment, an aspect of the play Hunter chose to keep early on in the adaptation process. The film is structurally identical to the play, though Hunter says much of the play's dialogue was cut, and some replaced with moments of silent storytelling.

While Hunter has had a busy career as a New York-based playwright along with work for the small screen as a writer and producer for the FX show Baskets, he's returned to Iowa a few times to work with graduate students at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop. He said he chose to go to Iowa over graduate school at New York University, where he received his undergraduate degree, because of the opportunities UI offered to see his work fully produced onstage.

"It's one thing to write a play and hear a reading, but it's something entirely different to see it produced," he said.

The next time Hunter visits Iowa City this spring, he and his husband John Baker, a dramaturge whom he met at the University of Iowa, plan to bring their 5-year-old daughter.

"We fell in love in Iowa City, so Iowa looms very large in my heart," he said. "Any chance I can get to go back there, we take it."

Samantha McIntosh is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio. Prior to IPR, Samantha worked as a reporter for radio stations in southeast and west central Iowa under M&H Broadcasting, and before that she was a weekend music host for GO 96.3 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.