Ship Shape: Behind the Scenes of In the Heart of the Sea

Jonathan Prime/Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Chris Hemsworth may lead the cast of In the Heart of the Sea, but the real star of Ron Howard’s seafaring epic is the Phoenix, the vintage vessel standing in for the ill-fated nautical Essex.

In November 20, 1820, a massive sperm whale sank the whaling ship Essex 2,000 miles off the South American coast and 1,200 miles from the closest known islands. The event and its aftermath became one of the most harrowing tales of survival on the open sea, inspiring Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The story will find its way to the big screen in December in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, based on the 2000 book by Nathaniel Philbrick.

To do such a real-life legend justice became an adventure of its own. “We didn’t want to just do a stuffy historical reenactment,” explained production designer Mark Tildesley as he outlined the extensive research and work that went into re-creating the Essex voyage. “This is a really filthy, horrible, difficult thing, and the kids were so young who were sent off on this extraordinary adventure.” (First mate Owen Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, was only 23.) “Ron’s plan was to make their voyage come alive as honestly as possible...and make you feel like you’re watching a whaling documentary.” To that end, Tildesley and supervising art director Christian Huband sought out Robin Davies to find the perfect period boat. The owner of several lovingly restored square-sail ships, Davies has worked with everyone from Ridley Scott to Steven Spielberg, earning a reputation as the U.K.’s go-to man for historical vessels. The star of Howard’s film ended up being the Phoenix, a decommissioned 80-foot Baltic trader, built in 1929, that Davies transformed into a turn-of-the-19th-century tall ship and crewed with young seamen eager to learn a lost art. It has made appearances in 20 films and TV series, including, most recently, Outlander. “It’s probably the closest thing we had at the time to a whaler of approximately the right size and shape,” recounted Huband over the phone. “We took him to see it, and Ron fell in love with it: ‘Yup, this is our Essex.’”

That’s when the real work began, as the art department set about morphing the Phoenix into the Essex—as well as building a slightly scaled up duplicate of her on a water tank at Leavesden studios, in Hertfordshire. “A whaling ship is like a factory,” explained Tildesley. “So we stripped [the Phoenix], and then we rebuilt the whole deck again to work like a whaling ship,” outfitting the Phoenix with davits to hold 24-foot whaling boats, working furnaces to render whale blubber, and even the intricate carvings bored sailors would have left in the ship’s wood. They also had Davies’s shipwrights re-create the lightweight boats on which crews would hunt and spear the whales, then hold on for dear life as the dying creature took them on the infamous “Nantucket sleigh ride” before they could move in for the kill.

After nearly ten weeks of shooting in the water tank with the replica, Davies’s young crew sailed the refitted Phoenix down to La Gomera and Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, for five weeks to get the epic shots that could only be found on the open ocean. Once there, the crew had to contend with the elements much as any sailors would. For example, the historically accurate black paint job played havoc with the ship: It absorbed tropical heat and expanded the timbers, causing them to spring leaks. Another time, in heavy seas, some of the davits carrying the whaleboats peeled off the ship, almost taking one of the stuntmen with them. “You suddenly realize that although you’re a multimillion-dollar Hollywood movie, these rather prosaic things hold you ransom,” said Huband.

Providence smiled on the production in one key respect: They needed a second period boat for a key scene but feared they would have to rely on computer-generated imagery. Then one day an 18th-century trading ship just happened to sail into port, an authentic replica built by an aficionado whose dream was to sail the world in a tall ship. Howard and crew struck a deal, dressed the boat, and thanked the sea gods for their good luck.

In the end, the singular experience in real life would make for a singular experience on film. Where audiences would usually be offered physics-defying CGI, In the Heart of the Sea features all the hard-won heft of massive, creaky bodies battered around by unforgiving waves. To a veteran like Davies, whose boats have graced the silver screen for decades now, this effect comes as no surprise: “I think people like Ron Howard get tremendous giggles actually sailing the real ship and getting onboard to feel the strength and power of it.” In theaters December 11.