It's like stepping back into time. One minute, you're bundling up in your hi-tech weather gear to brave the chilly, wet elements of London. The next, you're in the middle of 1818 Nantucket, surrounded by hundreds (350 to be exact) of men, women, and children in period garbs, who mill about the bank, the pub, The Friends Society meeting hall, the blacksmith's, or the harbor master's office. All of these sturdy wooden buildings have paint weathered by years of salty sea spray. Tables of salted cod, crabs muscles and clams line the shore. But the main attraction is a far off dock, where a boat rocks gently and a weathered but still strapping superhero (Chris Hemsworth) emerges to embrace a trembling young woman and a baby with big blonde curls.

I am standing outside Leavesden studios on the set of Ron Howard's In the Heart of the Sea, a whaling drama based on the incredible true story that inspired Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The dock before me sits beside the biggest set tank in England, which measures 250x250 feet, holding the aforementioned ship as well as hidden hydraulic arm that rocks the boat as needed. I can see the edge of the set clearly as it's marked by a giant greenscreen wall. But as soon as they let us aboard that ship, my mind crackles with the fantasy that I am the captain of a real ship, ready to set sail to the high seas where danger lurks and fortunes are made and lost.

The crew of the Essex lost more than fortune. They risked their lives when the whaling ship Essex was attacked by a massive and mighty whale. Their ship went down in the middle of the Pacific, pushing the crew into three separate small boats, where they'd spend months, scraping by for sustenance before turning to cannibalism. The film's Essex crew includes Benjamin Walker as Captain George Pollard, Thor's Chris Hemsworth as first mate Owen Chase, and young Tom Holland as cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, who later wrote of his experiences, and inspired Melville. We spoke with these stars as well as key members of the crew, and learned a lot about whaling, but more importantly about the December release that's poised to hit theaters with the force of a ship-shattering whale.

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Ben Walker has choice words for actors who don't read the source material. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter star plays a Quaker captain who is stern, and arguably over cautious. But neither of these traits can be applied to Walker, who--despite being gaunt for his role--was quite chipper and charming despite the biting cold air. Asked if he'd read the non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick on which the film is based, he laughed, "Of course I’ve read the book! What actor shows up on set and hasn’t read the book? I guess some do. And those people are assholes."

It's taken 12 years to go from script to screen. Producer Paula Weinstein confessed she first read Philbrick's book in its galley stage. "We actually got a very, very good first draft and went to the studio," she told us, "They were terribly excited about it, but the costs and the way you make a movie were quite different 12 years ago. So it’s taken this long to come together …We have the most fantastic director and cast, and I can’t imagine having made it any other way."

This set took 12 weeks to build. That's a long time for set construction, but looking around, it's totally warranted. Aside from the greenscreen wall, this place, thick with extras, smelling of salty sea air and fish, caked in mud, and embedded with textures and details, feels more real than any set I've had the good fortune to trod on. We're allowed to poke around, and I notice faces peering out the windows of the second stories of buildings. Men in costume re-shingling a small hut's roof. Women milling about in small velvet shoes that cannot keep out the wet and cold the way my big thick rubber boots are. The past is alive here, but I'll keep my feet in the present. Thanks.

The fake crew had to learn real sea skills. The cast was taught to tie knots, along with the lingo of seafaring so they could better respond in character. Mast climbing was also part of their pre-shoot training, and this was a skill at which The Avengers star Chris Hemsworth excelled. He also impressed when asked to row the whale boats that look like heavy, 20-foot long row-boats.

Don't ask Walker who he'd like to eat. As press on a set visit, you have the rare opportunity to be among the first to question the stars about their latest (in the works) project. But Walker warned us some questions were off limits. "'Which boy would you eat first?'" Walker laughed, "Just for future reference, that’s a lame question guys . It’s a very serious movie!"

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