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Among the nominees for the Producers Guild of America’s coveted Darryl F. Zanuck Award for outstanding producer of theatrical motion pictures, historically considered a strong precursor of the best picture Oscar, were four big-budget blockbusters and smaller films like surprise nominee The Whale.
In light of its absence from the awards of other major guilds and critics organizations, apart from acting nods for star Brendan Fraser (who won the Critics Choice award for best actor and is now up for the corresponding Oscar) and Hong Chau (Oscar-nominated in the supporting actress category), producer Jeremy Dawson welcomed the PGA nomination for the film.
“It’s a good feeling to know that the people who vote for this are people who actually make movies and love movies, so they’re responding to it based on the product,” Dawson tells THR. “I think we’re just happy that it has connected to as many people as it has — and even how it’s been doing at the box office vis-à-vis some of the other adult dramas this year. It’s really nice [that] people are making a commitment to see this story and hearing good things about it, because we know watching it is going to be [an emotional experience] for some people. It’s not just popcorn fare.”
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Samuel D. Hunter (based on his 2012 play of the same name), The Whale follows Charlie (Fraser), a gay man living with severe obesity who tries to rekindle his relationship with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). The film takes place solely in Charlie’s apartment, which Dawson says offered some unique challenges for the production alongside Fraser’s hair, makeup and costume.
“As a line item, that was probably one of the biggest things: the energy focused on Charlie’s look. But overall, we thought we’d build one beautiful set and spend money on that bucket and make sure it looks great,” explains Dawson of production designer Mark Friedberg’s work. “We didn’t want to make [what] felt like a cheapo set and then just get as many shooting days as possible. Darren wanted the actors to be really prepared, [so] he and the actors worked together to figure out how to block this movie. That entailed three weeks of a taped-out set … to work out this schematic for how we would shoot this thing so that it didn’t become repetitive and boring.”
After its premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival — where Fraser was moved to tears during the six-minute ovation that followed the screening — the film was criticized for its portrayal of people affected by obesity and was accused of perpetuating anti-fat stereotypes.
In response to the criticism, Dawson says, “The key thing for us was to show somebody who was just a human who had things he was dealing with, that we would want to have empathy and love for him at the same time, as [well as] understanding, empathy and love for all these other characters he’s interacting with. Sam had extrapolated out from some of his own personal experiences and kind of took it from there. We just want to be honest and truthful.”
Some critics have said they would have liked to see an actor in the role who’s affected by obesity in real life instead of an actor in a fat suit. According to Dawson, Aronofsky, Hunter and Fraser all spent a lot of time talking with people who were affected by obesity, as well as with the Obesity Action Coalition, with whom the filmmakers worked closely in the making of the film.
“Darren considered everybody, and over different phases of the film, different people and ideas were looked at,” Dawson adds. “Ultimately, he just wanted to find the best person who’s going to do this and do it in a respectful manner. You’re always going to have different reactions to everything.”
The producer also says that in the end, the film is about one fictional man’s specific experience.
“This is a film that takes place with one guy in one apartment; it’s not something that’s supposed to encompass all the potential angles of stories out there,” Dawson says. “There are a lot of people with a lot of different experiences in different body types.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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