“I know what it’s like to be overweight. And I also know how the world around me changed when I lost a lot of that weight. It was amazing, really amazing. Cashiers were suddenly nice to me, I was no longer called names on the street. It felt like I had access to the world in a completely different way.’
It’s not Darren Aronofsky speaking for a moment. The 53-year-old director – narrow face, millimeter-sized skull – listens intently to Samuel D. Hunter, who sits next to him at the table in front of some reporters. And urges his screenwriter: keep talking. He wrote The whale – the play – once in response to the social stigma, Hunter continues in a low voice. “Most portraits of overweight people are filled with ridicule or disgust. I would counter that, as someone who has had to deal with it myself”.
Aronofsky: ‘What you mainly see when you research the way obesity is portrayed are reality shows. Terrible TV shows about obese people living in extreme poverty. But all kinds of people live with this disease. I thought it was important to show that. Charlie, the main character in The whale, is an educated man with a master’s degree. And we also talked at length with people from AOC, the Obesity Action Coalition. I think the disease is class-blind: 43 percent of Americans are affected. And it spreads through Europe and the rest of the world.’
Hunter: When I The whale wrote, it was very important to me that we never laugh at Charlie. When we laugh in the film, it’s with Charlie.’
No risk calculation in advance
In September, one day after the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, it is already clear that the reception of The whale moves on two tracks. One is showered with praise for Brendan Fraser’s unusually captivating comeback role; The actor is an Oscar favorite as Charlie, a housebound, 700-pound gay writing teacher who eats himself to death while trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Sadie Sink of Stranger Things). The second, critical clue, which mainly concerns the American press, concerns the question of whether the tragicomedy of this portrayal of an overweight man, albeit with the best of intentions, is not still fat-shaming. And if you are an actor at all cool suit can take on.
Did Aronofsky feel he was taking a risk The whale?
‘Hmm, I don’t think so. Something isn’t risky until your characters are untruthful instead of human and complex. I don’t think I really think about the risks when I start a film project. I must be fascinated by something or someone. And be prepared to do it for several years The whale even ten years – to spend on it. But I don’t make a risk calculation beforehand’. To screenwriter Hunter: “What about you? Did you think about the risk when you started writing?’
Hunter nods. “It felt risky to me on every personal level when I started writing the play (from 2012, ed.). I had a story in mind about an essay writing teacher who has a hard time connecting with her students, because at the time I was a writing teacher who had a hard time connecting. I put all kinds of elements of myself into that piece, things that are hard for me to talk about, even now. I was over 150 pounds heavier in my early twenties. Food was my form of self-medication. There are also people of that size who feel good about it and are happy. But that wasn’t the case for me. I was a gay kid who went to a strict Christian school. There I was outed by someone and then I had to leave that school. So yes, it felt very risky to The whale writing. I wasn’t sure I wanted to dig that deep into myself. But I’m glad I did.’
For Brendan Fraser’s transformation into Charlie, no just used grease pack. Not one of those tacky suits from the party store, or the way Eddie Murphy wore several times in comedies like Norbit and The cute professor. ‘With that kind of suit, you get crazy body shapes,’ says Aronofsky, ‘that have nothing to do with reality and what it feels like to carry all that weight. Prosthetic artist Adrian Morot, whom I have known since my film The fountain, is a recognized genius in his field. I called him The whale: Is this possible? Can we make Charlie move the way he really wanted to? And Brendan should be able to use every muscle in his face, because it’s his instrument.’
Huge casting problem
In the films of Aronofsky, who studied social anthropology and film at Harvard, people seem to want to break through the apparent limits of their own bodies (and minds). Like the ballerina Nina in Black swanwrestler Randy i The wrestlers and the mathematician Max in his debut film Pi. ‘The whale I didn’t write it myself, but I recognized myself in Sam’s theme. Every main character in my films dies eventually. Genuine! Except in Noahthe other film for which I did not write the source material myself (his biblical blockbuster starring Russell Crowe, ed.) Trust me: I would love to kill Noah. But you can’t rewrite the Bible’.
The whale limited view of one room: the living room of the not-so-mobile Charlie. He receives regular visitors at the door, from the fast food delivery boy and his angry daughter Ellie to a young evangelist from the New Life Church. The fact that it took ten years for the transformation from play to film was primarily due to the lead role. “A huge casting problem,” says Aronofsky. “I’ve had almost every actor in my head, every movie star, different types. Looking for someone who had everything Charlie asked for. And nothing has really excited me, nothing has ever excited me. That might be a big reason for me to make a film: That there is one actor who is perfect for the role. Not always, but often. Like with Mickey Rourke in The wrestlers or Natalie Portman Black swan. It has to be just right, just right for the moment in his or her career.
Then I just came across a trailer for a movie where Brendan played a small supporting role (the flopped thriller Journey to the end of the night from 2006, ed.). Then a light went on: that feeling inside that you have to do something. At the time, I really had no idea of all the nostalgic feelings that Brendan Fraser evokes in audiences as an actor. To be honest: with Mickey, I knew. So many actors in the world looked up to Mickey, he was like an icon to them. But I didn’t know the love for Brendan was so great. But you saw and felt it at the premiere at the Venice Film Festival.’
Divorce, depression, sexual assault
Fraser, in tears, was cheered for many minutes afterwards at the Festival Palace on Lido Island. Anyone who thinks of him probably immediately imagines the handsome and muscular adventurer the mummy, regularly seen on RTL or SBS. But time caught the star. Like many colleagues with great commercial success in their pockets, the now 54-year-old Fraser hoped to build a solid bridge to better roles and films, but it didn’t always work out. It was also bad on a personal level: a divorce, physical discomfort, depression, an assault (Fraser is said to have been groped by then-Golden Globes president Philip Berk).
Screenwriter Hunter: ‘Darren called me: what do you say about Brendan Fraser? We read the script at a theater in New York. Brendan was incredible right from the start.”
Aronofsky: “People had largely forgotten about Brendan. Charlie, his character, is someone with an inner light. It comes from his heart, nothing can stop it. You need a movie star to bring that out on the screen. Movie stars have that movie star light . But there was simply never another movie star interested in this role. Brendan does. He had movie star flair at an earlier point in his career. And it was still there, his light. Clearly.’
Twelve days IFFR
The 52nd edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam opens on Wednesday 25 January with Norwegian films Munch. In the biographical drama cut into four by director Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken, four actors play the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in crucial periods of his life and in the future. The Rotterdam festival lasts twelve days and closes on Sunday 5 February Volkskrantday.