The Whale: Writing and researching a factual drama


I was approached by the executive producer Eamon Hardy at the BBC (I'd worked with Eamon briefly years ago) he asked me if I had read Moby Dick.  I had, when I was at college.  He asked did I know it was based on a true story. I didn't and that intrigued me.  I have written several shows that were based on real life events - Holy Cross, Best: His Mother’s Son and The Crash.  Those dramas were all based on untold stories. Telling the real story behind an already well-known novel was too good too pass up on.

One of the reasons I enjoy working on factual drama is that I love the research process.  I always start from character and there were two 'survivors' accounts to read first.  Owen Chase - the first mate and Tom Nickerson, the cabin boy who was on his first voyage.  In a way it's a bit like detective work, you're trying to figure out their motivations, what are they saying, what aren't they saying.  In the end up I decided I needed to only know two things, who they were and what they wanted.  I used this to build the main character arc of the story.  Tom was an orphan who wasn't born on Nantucket.  This was a big deal in his world, being an outsider.  It made sense to me, that Tom as a 14 year old boy, would consciously, or unconsciously be looking for a father figure.   And since outsiders were looked down upon in Nantucket society, he would have his work cut out trying to prove himself to the crew.

According to Tom’s account, Owen Chase was a force of nature on the ship. Driven, hard, and unyielding.  But off the ship, he was a normal family man.  If he was two different men, what was the reason for that?  I decided that life on the sea was so brutal and hard that you adopt that as a defence mechanism, Chase did this in my view because he was always concerned not about improving his life, but the lives of his wife and child. Once I’d read these two accounts I read dozens of first hand stories of whaling, always looking for moments that stood out.  Themes. Images. What David Simon calls Random Quotidian - moments of ordinary life.  Loads of these little moments made it into the film and this adds authenticity to the background of the story.  So when a whale is harpooned, we see the rope whipping out so fast, water had to be ladled onto it in case it went up in flames.  Another example is scrimshawing.  Whalers took a piece of whalebone and would carve into it (as an aside, it’s worth going online and checking it out, some of it is amazing, it’s art more than craft).  This became a moment for one of the characters.  He was superstitious and always started a new piece before every voyage.  At a later point in the story, the meaning of his scrimshaw changes.  It’s not just superstition, it’s part of a philosophy for this character.  Their world is brutal and ugly at times. He needs something to remind him that the world holds beauty as well.  

I always try to use these 'research discoveries' as background in the scene, they only come to the fore when it’s important to character.

For me, the research process is a distillation process.  I make notes.  I make notes on those notes.  I used to do it all in notebooks, now most of it is done in Evernote.  When I felt I had enough knowledge to write confidently about the world, I went back to Tom's account looking for the tentpoles of the drama.  The research process also answered my first question for me.  Whose story was this film?  

Whaling is a completely alien world to a modern audience.  Whale oil was eventually replaced by petroleum.  But at one point it was as big an industry as petroleum is now.  I decided that the cabin boy, Tom Nickerson, was going to be my way into the world.  I would use him to be the eyes and ears of the audience as to how this world worked.  I reread his account again, but this time thinking of structure and the narrative spine I needed for the film.  The Essex sets sail.  There is a huge storm.  There is conflict between Captain Pollard and Owen Chase begins.  The Nantucket Sleigh ride (whale hunt) happens, the Sinking of the Essex etc.   The narrative spine largely stayed the same over the course of the rewriting and editing process.  

Owen Chase (JONAS ARMSTRONG) and Captain Pollard (ADAM RAYNER)

In a drama based on real events you’re trying to create complex characters and stay true to the facts and the choices of their lives. But more importantly you're trying not to be inhibited by the facts because oyu want to be dramatic.  To ground yourself in reality but then shed the burden of that reality to create your own choices. We had facts that we could move around within, but limitations are perversely freeing. One scene had to be rewritten because it was too costly.  

In real life The Essex took 3 days to sink.  Building a half sunken ship in the water tank was just prohibitively expensive.  It was easier to see it sink in CGI.  The version that made it to screen became a metaphor for the second part of the film.  The ship is gone in a few seconds.  In a few seconds their world has changed.  In a few seconds their world is upside down.  The men who thought they were above nature, suddenly found themselves at the mercy of nature.  They went from hunters to hunted. So the practical necessity actually added something to the drama as well.
The daily practicalities of filming a story set at sea was perhaps one of the biggest challenges.  Our budget was just over 2 million which seems huge, and it is, but actually by the time you get to filming on water, it's a, pardon the pun...drop in the ocean.  After the Essex sinks, the crew take to 3 whalers that have to be filmed together.  I had never written anything to be filmed on water before so it had never occurred to me that for every boat in the water tank, there would have to be a safety boat, with safety divers!!    

Then there's the separate boat for makeup, hair, costume, they have to be close by.   Then there is the camera crew... logistically it's a nightmare, before you know it, there's an armada in the water tank!!   I really have to credit Alrick the director here.  We set down over the course of two days went through the script scene by scene, with the aim of concentrating the scenes, limiting the times we have three whalers together, making it achievable but never at the expense of the drama or losing character moments.  

This piece was also the first time I had written anything for an all male cast.  It wasn't always that way.  All the way through the scripting process there was a sequence involving Tom and his grandmother.     The story was going to be told in flashbacks through the drama.  Tom ran away to sea without his grandmothers knowledge, came to realise the hurt that that would have cost her, clung onto life at the end, so he could return to apologise to her.  There was to be a scene where he returns home apprehensive not knowing if she would forgive him.  She looks at him and then she runs to him and hugs.   

It was a great sequence, everybody loved it.  About 3 months before filming, it was suggested we cut it.  It was going to be too difficult to film as it would require another cast member, and a completely new land location.   I hung onto that sequence for as long as possible.  I argued for it because I believed in it.  
Josh Whedon in his advice to writers says know when to 'listen' and when 'not to listen'.(it's a great set of tips)  There comes a point when you're not helping the story, you're actually hindering the crew who are trying to film and make the thing.  So I cut it.  It's important to fight for what you believe in, it's also just as important to let go.  

Alrick Riley (Director) with Old Tom (MARTIN SHEEN) on the set of The Whale.

The team I worked with on The Whale were very collaborative.  Alrick Riley the director, made sure I saw all the casting tapes and we ended up with an amazing cast.  Martin Sheen obviously didn’t have to do a casting tape though!  Likewise with all the rushes and all the edits.  I gave notes at all stages, not something that all writers always do in the UK system, but I think they should. Even if a note isn’t used, it’s good to have the discussion.  We didn’t always agree but often the fruits of the disagreements got us to something we could all live with. 

The fact that it was a co-production between the UK and US also brought another perspective which added another layer to the discussions and sometimes to the notes.  For example the ending was something we went back and forth with for a long time, I still don’t feel I found quite the right balance.  But that’s the nature of most writers when you scratch the surface. Where someone else sees a finished piece all you can see are the things that another draft might have fixed.  That said, we had such a fantastic cast, putting words in their mouths was a privilege.  The fact that the finished piece is amazing, is down to the talent and hard work of all the cast and crew who filmed in the blistering sun and horrible driving wind and rain.  

Oh, did I mention I got to write dialogue for Martin  Sheen???  :)  

Sorry, that line still makes me smile


Terry Cafolla is the writer of BBC One drama, The Whale - a dramatic retelling of the fateful last voyage of the Nantucket whaleship Essex starring Martin Sheen, John Boyega and Jonas Armstrong.

Watch The Whale at  9pm on BBC One, Sunday 22nd December.

Find out more about the drama and explore interviews and behind the scenes images on the programme page.


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