Friday , April 12 2024
Austin Film Festival

Austin Film Festival: Opening Night with ‘The Whale’ Staring Brendan Fraser

Opening night at the 29th edition of the Austin Film Festival featured The Whale, starring Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, Encino Man). The film explores the life of a man, Charlie, whose choices have led him to a dark, self-destructive place. The Whale is intense, emotional, and surprising, while giving us insights into the life of its writer, Samuel D. Hunter. Hunter and the film’s director, Oscar nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, The Wrestler), answered audience questions after the screening.

Austin Film Festival
Brendan Fraser brought the character Charlie to life in an amazing performance

Austin Film Festival prides itself on being the first festival to focus on the contribution of writers to the filmmaking process. In addition to that, it works to further the art and craft of storytelling by inspiring and championing the work of writers, filmmakers, and all artists who use written and visual language to tell a story. As part of that focus, Hunter conducted an additional writer-focused Q&A with festival attendees the morning after the screening.

The Whale has an unusual look and took a long time to get to the screen.

Around the Story

The film revolves around Charlie. This character, in response to regrets about past choices, has resorted to compulsive eating to make himself feel better. As a result, he has become morbidly obese, barely able to get off the couch and needing a walker to move around. An English teacher, he financially supports himself by teaching online in a Zoom-like classroom. His shame over his appearance causes him to lie to his students, telling them that the camera on his laptop doesn’t work.

Austin Film Festival
Sadie Sink of ‘Stranger Things’ plays Charlie’s daughter

As the film progresses, we learn that Charlie wants to reconnect with his daughter. He abandoned her and her mother when she was just a little girl. She’s now in high school. Charlie receives recurring visits from his daughter, a missionary, his nurse, his wife, and a pizza delivery guy. Each visit reveals aspects of Charlie’s wants and needs while also painting a picture of the visitors.

The performances by each of the visitors, especially by Sadie Sink (Stranger Things) who plays Charlie’s daughter, grab you and will stick in your memory.

Around the Film

The film literally revolves around Charlie. Director Aronofsky explained how he made an unrealistic, but cinematically beneficial, change to the set to enhance the visuals.

Austin Film Festival
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky brought this play to the screen

In the onscreen apartment you see what you’d expect in this lonely bachelor’s pad. Aronofsky modified things by moving the couch, where Charlie spends the majority of his time, to the center of the room. No one does that in a small apartment. The couch would be against the wall.

Moving it to the center of the room allowed the stream of visitors to walk around Charlie. Instead of having their backs to the camera when talking to him, their faces are visible and you can and experience their performances more intimately because of this.

Around the Writer

Writer Samuel D. Hunter’s own life helped build this story. Hunter, a playwright, wrote The Whale over 10 years ago. The film is not autobiographical. I had the feeling, however, that if Hunter’s life were made up of Lego blocks, he could have taken those blocks, put them in a bag, shaken them up, and used them for the foundation of The Whale.

During the post-screening Q&A and at the writer’s session the next day, he revealed things about the writing process and how elements of his life inspired the story.

Austin Film Festival
Playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter at the AFF red carpet

He shared an observation that when you write a screenplay and it’s filmed, it’s game over. The story is done. A theatrical play, however, can continue to evolve. Hunter spoke about how he would see a production of his play, have improvements come to him, either out of his own psyche or the performances, and make changes to the script. This helped the story evolve to where it was when the play made it to the screen.

On differences between the film and the play, Hunter noted that in a play a character may need to say something because the audience is 50 feet away. But in a film, the same emotion can be conveyed by just the look in the actor’s eyes.

Hunter emphasized how he wanted his stories to have a positive, inspirational impact. He explained, “Cynicism is easy and comfortable, but it is boring and uninteresting. There is a lot of that now, but the key is to have faith in other people. Faith in other people is useful, cynicism is not.”

The Whale should hit theaters in December. For information about future events and the Austin Film Festival’s year-round program, check its website.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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