An awards season front runner since its debut on the festival circuit, director Darren Aronofsky’s THE WHALE has been gaining a lot of traction through Brendan Fraser’s stirring performance. It’s a round of accolades that have been well earned, but at the same time there’s a lot more to the cinematic adaptation of playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s inspirational stage drama.
Perhaps one of the best examples of where this movie separates itself from the competition is also part of what makes THE WHALE a part of the AMC Artisan Films lineup. Using innovative techniques, and with a special eye for details and method, Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie is inspirational in both its message and its stylistic choices.
The Whale’s Helpful Stagebound Roots
Telling the story of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a 600-lb man who lives in self-exile, THE WHALE roots itself in an emotional tale of loss and isolation. Using its protagonist’s apartment as the primary setting, the action of THE WHALE only shifts focus between rooms in Charlie’s dwelling, with only a couple of scenes leaving the confines in specific instances.
Since it was transferred from a stage play to a film, THE WHALE already had a limited scope to work with. This would define how Darren Aronofsky approached adapting this dramatic play into a motion picture. It was a challenge that the director would use to help define the film’s unique storytelling, as Charlie’s isolation would offer the opportunity to turn what may seem like a simple apartment into an emotional minefield.
Isolation As A Canvas
Throughout THE WHALE, Brendan Fraser’s Charlie is visited by only five different characters, a fact that also reflects the movie’s equally modest stage roots. The action never feels static or rote in spite of its limited cast and settings, as various factors hammered home the core tenets of what Darren Aronofsky was trying to portray.
Acting as the foundation of the visual language that would be told through its cinematography, THE WHALE was put through four weeks of blocking to place cameras and characters in their right place. Much like a typical stage play, the blocking of places allowed Aronofsky to provide the following resources he mentioned in A24’s official press notes for the film:
“I knew the actors were prepping their emotional journeys and I wanted to give them time to do that, so we started with blocking. If we could figure out ways to keep things moving it would solve one of the major challenges of the film. The big question was always how do we make a story that takes place all in one apartment, and mostly in one room, feel truly exciting for the audience.”
With the cast that includes Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, and Sadie Sink all locked into place, a vital part of THE WHALE’S visual puzzle was solved. Which then led to the need to define the visual language that would capture their performances alongside Brendan Fraser.
Technique And Details Define The Whale
When it came time to film this intensely intimate drama, Darren Aronofsky enlisted his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, to make THE WHALE the well staged triumph it is. Citing attention to lighting, as well as the usage of more traditional cranes and dollies, the two men wrote the language used to weave this tale.
Interestingly enough, this departed from the physically intimate handheld camerawork the pair have been known to use to get up close and personal with the protagonists of Aronofsky’s previous works. However, moving away from that path never compromised the intimacy of THE WHALE, as the give and take included in the film’s production saw the locations limit the wider scoped shooting technique.
In further remarks from THE WHALE’S production notes, Darren Aronofsky mentioned how going back to the text of Samuel D. Hunter’s play itself was key, as “The story always tells you where the camera should be.” Setting and script apparently dictated the trade off mentioned above, and it pays off in the finished film. One final detail would help set everything in motion, as something as simple as placing a piece of Charlie’s furniture the right way gave all involved a much needed anchor.
It All Came Down To A Couch
If Charlie’s apartment in THE WHALE was a park, then the central fountain tying it all together would be the couch. Production designers Mark Friedberg and Robert Pyzocha were on hand to craft the apartment setting for Brendan Fraser’s emotional journey, which involved creating various unique corners like Charlie’s office, the messy kitchen, and even the bedroom that he wearily retires at the end of the day.
And yet, it turned out that couch placement would be a vital aspect in drawing the boundaries Charlie would explore throughout THE WHALE. Pulling further knowledge from Darren Aronofsky’s participation in A24’s production notes, the director praised Friedberg and Pyzocha’s work by saying, “It required clever brilliance from the production designers to bring so much life to this single room. One of the biggest breakthroughs was the placement of Charlie’s couch. Most apartments have the couch against a wall, but they found a way to float his couch in the middle of the room while keeping it organic. It seems simple, but it perfectly opened everything up and afforded us many more opportunities for movement.”
Darren Aronfsky’s viewpoint on the couch is absolutely felt in THE WHALE, as combining the blocking and filming techniques allowed him to use that couch as a sort of metaphorical lifeboat. Though he shuns the outside world as he seemingly waits to die, Brendan Fraser’s character periodically lets people in and connects with those who are trying to throw him a liferaft to safety.
The results can be seen by all in THE WHALE, throughout its strategic rollout as an AMC Artisan Films selection.
Opening in limited theatres in New York and Los Angeles on December 9th, the movie will head to wide release on December 21st. So be sure to check your local listings carefully, and remember to purchase your tickets in advance for the nearest AMC Theatres location near you.