Ten years ago, Sam Hunter was living a humble playwright’s life in New York City, holed up in an illegal sublet on the fifth floor of a walk-up apartment building in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Midtown Manhattan.
He was on top of the world.
A 30-year-old Idahoan from Moscow who’d been plying the theater trade for a decade, Hunter had recently authored an unusual play called “The Whale,” which with quiet intensity examines the life of a severely obese, gay writing instructor trying to reestablish ties with his embittered daughter. Surprisingly, the production was drawing kudos and capacity crowds to an off-Broadway theater called Playwrights Horizons.
“I mean, I was so happy,” Hunter recalled by phone Friday. “All I ever wanted to be was an off-Broadway playwright.”
Then came a phone call from his agent, as Hunter strolled through Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. “The Whale” had apparently been viewed one night, with minimal fanfare, by Darren Aronofsky, the acclaimed director of alluring movies like “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.”
Over a series of meetings between Hunter and Aronofsky, the director introduced the idea of “film rights,” a topic that had rarely entered Hunter’s head. Over the next decade, amid fits and starts that included the whims of the coronavirus pandemic, the discussions dramatically changed Hunter’s life.
On Friday, Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” starring a comeback-minded Brendan Fraser and foregrounding an exacting screen adaptation by Hunter, makes its premiere in Los Angeles (where Hunter will help christen it) and New York City. Within weeks, it’s expected to play in the Moscow area, including at the Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, the downtown theater where multiple Samuel D. Hunter plays have been staged over the years.
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To Hunter, this sequence of events has seemed almost miraculous, particularly in the mutually sympathetic approach he and Aronofksy have hashed out for the project, and also in the trust the director has shown a green movie scribe who needed to buy screenplay software to pursue the adaptation. During three months of shooting in upstate New York in 2020, Hunter spent every day at the movie set, working with actors and crew. In the end, the humanistic vision he brings to all his prominent plays shone through.
This was by no means standard procedure. Aronofsky is a filmmaker of varied styles and tones, and there was no guarantee he’d want to adapt a talky, contentious, agonizing play without fundamentally altering its structure.
“I was really worried that he would want to do that traditional thing of opening it up and adding characters and adding locations,” Hunter said. “I was just nervous. I don’t think that’s what this story wants.
“I realized that would be a very unusual film, to be shot in a two-bedroom apartment,” he said. “But I actually think that’s what this story wants to be. Then, in one of our initial meetings, he was like, ‘I think we should keep it in the room.’ I was like, ‘OK, here we go.’ ”
Keep it in the room. To Hunter, it was a phrase that seemed almost too good to be true. But it has proved the defining method of the project.
During the next decade, “The Whale” faced numerous obstacles. Aronofsky struggled to find an actor who felt convincing for the central character of Charlie, and he was sometimes sidetracked by other projects, like his high-profile film “Mother!” (2017). Other directors in Aronofky’s company discussed the project with Hunter, and none of them seemed a good fit.
The arrival of Fraser allowed many of these problems to melt away.
“It wasn’t until early 2020 that Darren reached out and said, ‘What about Brendan Fraser?’ ” Hunter said. “I knew Darren had looked at hundreds of people, both famous and nonfamous, but this was the first time he’d told me a name. So I knew he was really, really serious, because that was seven or eight years in. Darren rented a theater in the East Village, and we did a reading of it, with Brendan and (co-star) Sadie Sink too, before she was the mega-star she is now. And he was just incredible. He was just amazing, and I think everyone in the room was like, ‘Whoa, I think we can do this.’ ”
For reasons that go beyond “The Whale,” life has become less austere since Hunter and his husband, John Baker, made their daily ascents of five flights of stairs in Hell’s Kitchen. They now live in Inwood, a quiet neighborhood in northern Manhattan, with their adopted daughter, Frances, now 5, who joined “The Whale” crew at the Venice Film Festival in Italy in September and “had a blast.” So did Fraser, who received a six-minute standing ovation for his performance.
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Hunter continues to keep one foot in Idaho. All his recent plays have been set there, and he’s now rehearsing a revival of “A Bright New Boise” (2010) at the Signature Theater Company in Manhattan.
In a whispery way, “The Whale” is set in Moscow, and Charlie’s writing pupils are online University of Idaho students. Those sites aren’t mentioned in the dialogue, but Lewiston is referenced, as are Gambino’s restaurant (recast as a pizza delivery service) and the University of Idaho Arboretum. To Moscow residents, the film is obviously theirs.
“There’s nothing quintessentially Idahoan about this play, or really most of my plays,” Hunter said, “other than the fact that they are geolocated in Idaho. I mean, part of the reason I really like setting plays in Idaho is because that it feels pan-American. This is a guy (Charlie) who could be living anywhere in the country that’s maybe not a major city. I keep returning to Idaho because it’s where I’m from, it’s what I know. I love that landscape, and I love that the plays all kind of dovetail off one another. Yeah, this isn’t like a Moscow story. But there are, for people in Moscow, you can almost play ‘Where’s Waldo?’ with the spot-the-Moscow references.”
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As a youngster in Moscow, Hunter found his appreciation for theater and film growing together.
“If I’m being really honest, growing up in Moscow, I didn’t have a ton of access to new writing for the American theater,” he said. “So a lot of the stuff that got me excited about storytelling was going down to Howard Hughes (video rental shop in Moscow) and raiding the cult classic section and watching anything I could. So, weirdly, film was kind of an entry point for me. But then I just fell in love with theater.”
It was freer. Long before he began writing plays, he would take his parents’ camcorder and “force my friends to act in things I had written,” he said, “and would edit them by hooking two VCRs to one another. But that was frustrating, because it was such a clunky way to edit things. It was so imperfect. I just got frustrated with it and I was like, ‘If I write plays, I can control that. I’m not relying on technology.’ So I might have been a different kind of person if I had grown up now with, like, iMovie.”
In some ways, entering a film project for the first time at nearly 40 years of age was liberating. He had few preconceptions. And somehow, his vision meshed with that of a seasoned movie director. He’s still astonished by the fact.
“This is impossible,” he said. “It’s an impossible thing that’s happened to me. Of course, I adapted it for the screen and found the cinematic language. And it’s a different script (from the play). But the story is identical. The spine of the thing is unchanged. There are very few directors that would have faith in a writer like that, and also have the faith on set the entire time, working with the cast and everybody else. I was very immersed in this process, and I think that speaks a lot to Darren’s — both his confidence but also his generosity.
“This is never going to happen to me again,” Hunter said, laughing. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Next week’s Inland 360 will feature more on “The Whale,” with a review by 360 reporter Kaylee Brewster and analysis by 360 Cult Corner columnist Will Thompson.
Grummert may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2290.