‘The Whale’ started as a blind play submission to the Denver Center Theatre Company. Now the buzzy film is coming home

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Courtesy Samuel D. Hunter
Samuel D. Hunter wrote both the stage and film versions of “The Whale,” which is getting a screening at the Denver Film Festival.

A new film directed by Darren Aronofsky is getting a great deal of attention, and it has its origins in Denver. Now “The Whale” is returning to the city for the 2022 Denver Film Festival.

In 2011, writer Samuel D. Hunter sent his script to the Denver Center Theatre Company’s New Play Summit as a blind submission. That moment changed everything, and as the film adaptation of that same script earns worldwide attention, Hunter still has an emotional response to his debut at the Denver Center. 

“When I saw Denver on the list, I emailed A24, and I was like, ‘Can I please go back to Denver? I haven't been there since the play premiered there,’” Hunter said.  “And I have such wonderful memories of being there.” 

The Whale is the compelling story of a reclusive father, desperate to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter before he runs out of time.

After the play premiered in Denver in 2012, the play had acclaimed productions in NYC at Playwrights Horizons and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago.

After that theatrical success, Hunter said he felt as if he had scaled Mount Everest. 

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it's, it actually happened.’ I had these professional productions of this play that are very personal and dear to me. And then I get a call outta the blue that says Darren Aronofsky wants to meet you,” Hunter said.

Though Aronofsky, an established director, could have easily written the screenplay himself, he recognized that Hunter, the playwright, would be the right person to write the screenplay. 

“And I think at a certain point he realized that, you know, I wrote this play from a lot of very personal places. I'm a gay kid from North Idaho who went to a fundamentalist religious school and for many years self-medicated with food,” Hunter said. “And that was the place from which I told this story. And I think Darren recognized that.”

Taking Hunter’s script from stage to screen was a major endeavor for everyone involved, including the actor who would play the main character, Charlie. 

“And I knew that Darren is such an exacting director, that he would never make this movie unless he had full confidence that he had found the right Charlie.”

Hunter certainly mentioned the actors he admired who had played the part on stage in Denver, New York, and Chicago, and even though he was writing the screenplay — something unusual for a new playwright — he trusted Aronofsky to tell the story his way. 

“Seven, eight years in, he sends me an email, and he says, ‘What about Brendan Fraser?’ So I knew that since he was actually sending a name to me that he meant business. So Darren rented a little theater in the East Village, and we did a reading of the screenplay with Brendan.”

Two weeks after that reading, the pandemic hit, stopping production from starting. When it finally began,  the cast held three weeks of rehearsal.

“And Darren actually had them tape out the set in this warehouse, just like you would if you were rehearsing a play. And Darren on day one was like, ‘OK, we're a theater company,’ you know? And so we really kind of rehearsed it, like one would rehearse a play,” Hunter said.

But getting to the point where the cast and crew was ready to start filming was complicated. The play that began as a blind submission to the Denver Center, now a film with buzz, almost never happened — Hunter said he thought he might never show the script to anyone else.  

“Like maybe this play is only for me …. I had some false starts, but I think the only way that I could really connect with it is if I told myself, ‘OK, I might just be writing this only for myself,’” he said. “‘This might never leave my hard drive,’ because that way I can put some more personal stuff on the line. That up until that point I hadn't accessed because I was maybe too scared to access it.

“It felt like this really vulnerable thing, this very vulnerable act,” Hunter said.  “And in many ways, even though I have so much distance on it, it still feels very vulnerable. To share this story with audiences and hand it over to these actors. But, I have been so overjoyed that it's found open hearts and open minds.”

Hunter says he feels awash with gratitude and can’t wait to be back in Denver. 

“I mean, there's something that is so beautiful about the full circle of trepidatiously sharing it with an audience in one of the first readings the play ever had in the New Place Summit. And now coming back with it as a film, I can't wait to be there.”

Hunter will receive the Excellence in Writing Award for “The Whale” at this month's Denver Film Festival.