The Whales of August
An Interview with Michael Kaplan
As I cozied up on my couch to watch The Whales of August on a delightful winter day, I had no idea what to expect. Well, that’s not entirely true…I did know to expect Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, but that was about it. The plot of the movie is simple: two elderly sisters spend the summer in their family home in Maine. But don’t let that fool you. What I found was, that although the film wasn’t plot driven, it offers an absolute abundance in character and performance. The film manages to create a beautiful sense of intimacy in how it touches upon the themes of family, old-age, and the looming inevitability of death. And despite the heavy subject matter, the film manages to be light enough to be perfectly enjoyable. The Whales of August is a treasure for anyone interested in strong female protagonists, the art of performance, and the legacy of classic film actors. After watching the film, I was lucky enough to be able to interview the film’s producer, Michael Kaplan.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Michael Kaplan for taking the time to do this interview as well as to Kino Lorber for supplying CMH with a copy of the Blu-Ray!
1.) The Whales of August stars two of the most iconic women in film history, Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. How did you manage to get those two titans of the silver screen to agree to be a major part of this film.
The genesis of Whales was wanting to present Lillian to a modern audience in a major role that would equal her silent classics, Way Down East, La Boheme, The Wind, Broken Blossoms, etc. I met and became entranced by her on The Comedians, in which I felt she stole the film from Burton–Taylor, et.al. She responded to Whales when I took her to see David Berry’s play in New York. It took 15 years to find the right property.
Bette was always the first choice for “Libby,” feeling this was a class project she could shine in. She had never shirked from acting with major female stars… Crawford, de Havilland, Miriam Hopkins, Mary Astor. She turned down the role the first time it was offered; accepted three years later when she had regained much of her stamina and financing was in place.
The idea of these two acting giants together – Gish and Davis – was an intoxicating dream. The greatest silent actress with the greatest sound actress.
2.) The film also co-stars Vincent Price and Ann Sothern. What was it like working with Price, a master of his craft, and Sothern, who was the only cast member to be nominated for an Academy Award for this film?
Both were great to work with and were major talents whom audiences had followed and admired for decades… and like Bette and Lillian, offered a resonance of familiarity, bringing their history to us in their performances.
Vinnie really wanted to play ‘Maranov’ to display his versatility away from his ‘Master of Horror’ reputation. There was no doubt he could become the homeless Russian aristocrat who spent his life ‘visiting friends.’
Ann was a favorite of both director Lindsay Anderson and myself and brought a buoyancy to the film and the set. She and Lillian became great friends. Bette said when learning she was cast, “She’s a good actress; she could steal the picture.”
3.) Both Gish and Davis’ characters seemed to mirror what I would imagine both women were like in real life, with Gish reaching a level of almost saccharine sweetness and Davis always armed with a caustic comment. Did you find that to be true? How were they on set?
They were both consummate actresses who became sisters with opposing personalities in the film. As a person, Lillian was always open and gracious, filled with imagination and curiosity. She could play sweet, but I would argue, never saccharine; her performances always had a strength and determination. Her biggest part in a sound film prior to Whales was in the classic Night of the Hunter, where, with steely resolve, she stands up to the threat of Robert Mitchum as she does to the menacing Haitian secret police in The Comedians. Also watch her fighting the odds in The Scarlet Letter, Orphans of the Storm, etc.
Bette was frequently on the defensive, feisty and sharp, but that was only the surface. She knew everything that was happening with the crew and memorized the script. Nothing escaped her and once she accepted an idea, she was masterful. Whales was her first theatrical film in many years and her best and biggest role since Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte. Part of her character was caustic and protective; another side was emotionally moving and conflicted.
Both Lillian and Bette respected each other’s talent.
4.) I found the film thoroughly engrossing despite the fact that, plot-wise, not much happens. It’s a difficult feat to achieve on a medium that is usually so plot reliant. What was the biggest challenge adapting material from the stage to the screen?
The dialogue and characters were well constructed in the play. Certain changes were added when Lindsay Anderson came aboard but the backbone of the movie was the play, to which everyone had responded.
The biggest challenge was going to be the location, which had to become another character in the film, re-enforcing the situations, bringing a realty to the seeming mundane. We lucked out on our second day of location hunting, seeing the cottage on the Pitkin Point peninsula of Cliff Island and finding Frank and Carolyn Lockwood Pitkin so open to the project.
5.) Was there anything that surprised you while making this film?
The changing weather which necessitated changes in what we could shoot. We were concerned this would affect the comfort and preparation of the elderly cast but for the most part, they adjusted to the changes with the professional responsibility that was their second nature after years of experience.
6.) One thing I particularly liked about the film was how the characters were unapologetically old. I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to On Golden Pond and The Golden Girls – stories where the characters are very frank about the problems they face as they age. It seems very different from current narratives about the elderly that seem to revolve around recapturing youth as means of avoiding aging and the inevitably of death. Why do you think there has been such a shift in how stories of the elderly are presented?
It’s always been difficult dealing with aging in TV and film. They are basically youth-oriented mediums. With Whales, there were no younger characters, deliberately, so that one became immersed in an elderly world, which was new information for many, and for others, who have seen the film again as they aged, it’s become more meaningful.
When seeking financing for Whales during the six year period it took to finally get backing from Shep Gordon and Carolyn Pfeiffer at Alive Films, I was frequently asked “Where’s the Jane Fonda character,” referencing On Golden Pond. Ironic that Fonda and Lily Tomlin now have a very well conceived TV series, Grace and Frankie, which deals honestly with many contemporary issues facing seniors.
7.) What was the most rewarding aspect of making this film?
Just making it happen. Watching the dailies each night, knowing that all the effort and stress in keeping it moving was well worth the effort, that something unique was being created with a cast that could never be duplicated.
8.) What was the biggest challenge you faced while making this movie?
Keeping it together when inevitable glitches arose.
9.) At this point the film is over three decades old – considering Hollywood’s current trend of remaking/rebooting anything and/or everything, who would you cast in a hypothetical remake of the movie?
As Harry Carey, Jr. said, “There will never be another movie like this… Even John Ford, with his enormous ego, would want to be here to watch what was happening.”
In short, would never attempt a remake. It would be futile. Why remake something that isn’t broken.?
Thanks again to Michael Kaplan and Kino Lorber for this interview. If you would like to purchase the film (which you totally should!), you can order the film here.
If you want a sneak peek at what you would be getting, please check out the music video for You Can Never Tell. The song is by Michael Kaplan, performed by Tisha Sterling, the daughter of Ann Sothern, and is premiering right her on Classic Movie Hub!
Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub