Talking to actors and filmmakers on a set visit is tons of fun, but here’s the truth: you only get so much time with them, because while you’re sitting pretty in a tent taking notes and making small talk with your fellow journalists, they’re making a movie (which, in the case of Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, amounts to “getting waterlogged every day for nearly two months in a Quincy warehouse on the cusp of winter”). So thank goodness for Jim Whitaker, one of the producers on the film, who gave us hours of his time regaling us with anecdotes about the shoot itself as well as the actual 1952 SS Pendleton rescue mission.
Jim’s enthusiasm for the material was infectious, and the sheer volume of information he had stored in his head was astounding. When you have a story like that of the SS Mercer and the SS Pendleton, two T2 tankers that split apart during a devastating winter storm, and the efforts of Coast Guard officers to save the crew aboard both vessels, it’s easy to get behind the process of turning that story into a movie; there’s no artifice needed there, just a strong attention to detail and a will to see the sacrifice and bravery of the men involved honored. But getting that detail just right, that takes a lot of work, and Jim was all too happy to open up about the specifics that went into making The Finest Hours as authentic as possible.
Thank you guys for coming!
Thanks for having us!
Yeah, yeah, you been able to see the gimbal and all the stuff? I saw Dot [Dorothy Aufiero] gave you a tour, yes?
She told us a little bit about how the project came your way, but can you tell us more about what it was in particular about this particular story that really, you were like, “Okay, I’m in”?
Well, you know, Dorothy found it here in Boston, and got Paul and Eric involved, and then brought it to Disney. I read the story, and it’s an incredibly inspirational story, so it wasn’t very hard to immediately say, “I want to tell this story.” When you can read and hear about a true story that has so many heroic moments, and then comes to this great inspirational point, it’s hard not to want to make something like that. So I was just immediately taken by it, and our company just jumped right into it, and Disney immediately jumped right into it, too; Sean Bailey and Sam Dickerman, they just jumped right into the movie. So it was great.
It’s also, you know, I tend to think of it as a very hopeful story. It’s about humanity, and hope, and I love those themes and ideas, and I just felt, if you can ever tell a story and go out into the world and give hope, that’s a great thing. So I was really taken by that, yeah.
Can you talk about casting these guys? Because the actors we’ve met so far have been so modest and so humble, and they really embody this 1950’s noble seaman character. Talk about getting these guys.
Well, Craig Gillespie’s got great taste in actors, first of all, and I say to anybody who asks me about the experience of the film, we’re in the middle of working on it right now, like, “How’s the film going?”, and I just say, “We’ve just got a great bunch of guys.” They’re all really, really decent human beings. I think they really wanted to get into a boat, and go through all the endurance of having rain towers pouring all over them for hours and hours [Laughs], and they totally embraced that and jumped into it and have just been excited about it. You know, each of the characters have different moments in the movie where they kind of come forward. So, the script, which was written by Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, and Scott Silver, provides these moments for each of the characters to kind of come through as they did in real life, and I think, including Craig Gillespie, that was a huge drawing power, just the story itself and the characters.
I think they’re all actually really humble guys, so I don’t necessarily think of it as an embodiment of character for the movie. I just think they’re all really nice, humble – John, Kyle, Ben, Chris – they’re all nice, humble guys. So for us, on this side of it, being in the middle of it, working on it, it’s really a pleasure to be working with people that are so decent, and who are really trying to make a great movie. And we’re in the middle of it right now, so now’s the time when you kind of have to push the hardest, in a way. The beginning’s always the beginning, and the end’s always the end, and the middle is when you’ve kinda gotta watch closely and make sure that everybody is as in it as much as they were in the beginning. And they are. They’re totally staying with it. That’s really exciting.
What day of shooting is this?
Out of how many?
Did you guys ever consider doing all four rescue missions and not just the one?
Well, the 36500 was really the defining rescue, you know? And the great thing about the story is that it starts with one beat, which is “Oh, there’s been a tanker that’s been lost,” and then the other shoe drops because of the other tanker, and that leaves only the third team to really come. So it sort of sets itself up in this great dramatic structure. So we never really thought about it, to be honest. They say this, everybody says this, it’s the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history, and that’s not a refrain we developed. It’s a refrain that has existed within the Coast Guard really since it happened, I mean, since many years after it happened and they started to realize there’s never been anything like it.
Which is why when the story came to us, and we read it, you know, if you’re lucky to be able to tell a true story and it sort of coalesces from its true roots as a movie story -it feels like a great, visual movie story – from my position of wanting to produce something, you go, “Oh my god, I want to make that.” I always feel like I’m lucky enough to be involved in true stories in my career, and I always feel like, when you find a story you read it and you go, “Oh, that’s amazing story,” but when you find out it’s true it just takes it to another level. That’s why I was so drawn to this one, because it’s got the elements of truth.
Can you talk about filming in Massachusetts? Considering so much of it is an interior shoot, you could have filmed anywhere. Was there an added incentive? I don’t mean financial, but to be closer to where it actually happened?
Yeah, we came here right from the very beginning. We wanted it to happen here, because even though we’re in this building for 50 plus days, and we’re shooting the movie here in terms of a lot of the ocean parts of it, next week we go out onto location, and that location takes us ultimately to Chatham, which is where it all happened. So the story and its setting, sort of the wraparound of the movie besides the ocean part of it, is really Chatham, and the authenticity of Chatham and Boston. Authenticity has been a watchword for us for the movie in terms of a guide for us. We’re always talking about it with the production design, the accents, with the world we’re creating, and the world that exists.
Oddly enough we’re heading into Thanksgiving and then December, and I was saying to my wife that the movie was intended to roll into this place where it gets colder and colder, and we get into what feels like February, right? So when we get into Chatham, there will be no leaves on the trees, and we’ll create snow but also have snow, and when we end the movie, which is in the middle of December, it’ll be like it was pretty much in February, and that’s gonna be pretty great. It’s great for the actors, too, you know? Because they get to be in it, and it’s great for the movie because hopefully when you watch it, you won’t be thinking about this. You’ll be thinking about Chatham, and you’ll be thinking about the world that those guys endured.
I’m going to just tack on an effects question: Are you guys going to convert to 3D? Is that a thought?
It will be. 3D’s a part of it, yes.
Are you shooting in 3D?
Not native, but it will be 3D.
How long are you guys gonna be shooting for in Chatham?
We’ll be there for 14 days.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a producer on this project?
This has been a big challenge, this space, and the physical nature of the movie has been a big challenge. When we were developing the movie, we were thinking, yes, there are boats, yes, we’re on the ocean, but what started to become more clear to us, and it’s obvious in a way, is that all these boats were steel boats. So we’re walking into a space, and we’re building parts of the boat that are made out of steel. So as you see from walking around here, everything’s steel, and that just requires more time, it requires more thinking, it requires more engineering, it requires more weight consideration of water, because we’re in environments where we’re dealing with a lot of water and we’re dealing with a lot of steel. There’s a physical element of the movie that’s very challenging, that has been challenging.
Again, speaking from a place of having made true stories, they can be challenging to get going. So yeah, those were the challenges of the movie, but Disney totally supported the movie, and that was a great thing. It’s been a great ride so far.
They were just showing us the boat, and you have four replicas of the actual boat. Was there any piece that was kind of hard to find that you’re really proud of?
Well, the line producer will tell you something that I think is really interesting. Doug Merrifield was really smart when it came to this building. We investigated the building to build in it, and so forth, and then he happened to be Google Earthing right from above, and he was just figuring out the environments, and he was like, “That’s really weird it looks like there’s a large boat over in a channel over there. This doesn’t make any sense. What is this?” What he realized was that the USS Salem was nearby, and the USS Salem was a Boston treasure, and we had a conversation with him, and basically we were able to combine elements of the USS Salem in our production design within it. The two sort of fit nicely, so effectively we’re going to be able to transfer our movie from parts of the set into the USS Salem and back out.
The discovery of that was just a great bonus, but I think in the big picture, our production designers and our set decorators went to great lengths to find the very specific details all over set. So when you walk around the sets, you’ll see little name plates, or things that say Navy X150321. It’s authentically from it. T2 tankers are difficult to find, and they found a T2 tanker that had been put into salvage, and they went down there and basically got into the bowels of it, pulled all the pieces of the tanker out, and shipped it up here so we could put it into all of our sets to make the engine room, the inside of the emergency tiller station, and all of that as authentic and real as possible.
The more you get into why they split at all – because that was a big issue in the end where they had the hearings and stuff – will they discuss that at all, the fact that the ships were so unstable?
Well they were known to be unstable, yeah. There’s a reference to it. They called them Kaiser’s coffins, because they were made out of this weaker steel, and they did on occasion break. The night of this event was actually an occasion where two of them effectively broke in one storm, because the storm was so savage. So there’s allusions to it, because it was real. We tried to make the story as true and authentic as possible to what happened, and the information as real to the event as possible.
What does the USS Salem stand in for? Is it the Pendleton or the Mercer?
It stands in for hallways within the Pendleton, not the Mercer but the Pendleton.
Do the interior shots take place on the Salem?
Some of them. Connecting interior shots. And we ended up using, I think the number was 70 doors from the USS Salem that ended up coming into parts of our engine room, and other parts of our mess hall deck. They were very generous.
You were able to actually pull them from the ship?
Yes. To be clear, the ship was not in public operating order, so we were able to do it because it wasn’t being used. So it wasn’t like people were like, “Where’s our door?” [Laughs] No, the ship was under renovation, so he was like, “Well, if we’re renovating, we’ll give you the doors on borrow.” So it was a rental.
I was just thinking, since Veteran’s Day was this week, was there anything you guys did on set just as an observation considering that they were armed forces guys?
Well, we have a safety meeting every morning at 7:00, and while I can’t say it was a large thing, I will say that we did make a point, because we were working on Veteran’s Day, at the very end of the safety meeting the AD said, “Okay, don’t forget guys, we’re here for Veteran’s Day and it’s a reflection of the story we’re doing.”
And Andy and Mel were here for Veteran’s Day?
And Andy and Mel were here on Veteran’s Day, that’s right. Yeah, there was an awareness, and I would also say with Andy and Mel being here, it was pretty amazing to meet them knowing that we’ve been living this story, but knowing that they went through it, and just to kind of get a sense of their personalities. I would say that when you meet Andy and Mel, there’s a sense of strength about them. They’re in their 80’s, but as human beings there’s this combination of great strength and also humor. They just seem to roll with it, and maybe that was part of the reason that Andy was just, “I want to go,” and he went, and he to this day still says, “If I was 20, and they asked me again, I would go.”
How did they feel seeing the sets and how big the production was?
They really loved it. I’m sort of paraphrasing their words, but I think they’re very appreciative of the attention to detail and the effort. As you’ve been walking around the set like this, there’s hundreds of people and everyone has a very specific job, and paying close attention to detail of all of that, and they can see all of that, and I think there’s a lot of appreciation for that, gratitude for that.
Is that extra pressure, when you’re putting the sets together and building the boats, to be as authentic as possible?
Well, we put that on ourselves, to be honest. It’s been the thing that’s defined what we want the movie to be. We’ve got a great production designer, Michael Corenblith, who really believes in that. Craig believes in that, we all believe that that was a really important factor, because it’s a true story, and you have to be immersively in a believable world, and the more believable it is, the more you’re with it and the more you can emotionally experience what they experience. That’s the goal. The goal is to think that you’re Bernie Weber, and Chris Pine, by the way, is playing a great Bernie Weber. I mean, he’s playing Bernie Weber. The first day after he began, his first day, he literally was Bernie Weber! The way he did it, it was just that person, the accent, the mannerisms, it was incredible.
What was the process of bringing him in?
He read the script. To be honest, it was fairly simple. He got the script. He read it. We were very fortunate.
Was there any concern, or incentive, this guy’s played many different things. He’s played the captain of a ship. Were you concerned people would think its Captain Kirk in a boat?
No, we never thought of that. He’s an incredibly gifted actor. His acting rang is enormous. From the beginning, everyone talked about him. He as well, just trying to find Bernie. Making sure you’re doing service to who he was as a human being. But also bringing that person to the forefront. When you’re in it, you really feel like you’re with Bernie Webber. Chris’s gift as an actor, and his intention to do that, was clear from the first day. That was great to see. To be like, wow, there’s Bernie. It was really cool.
How would you describe the tone of the film? I imagine it’s pretty serious.
I would say, perhaps the surprise in the film is its scope and its action. It’s an emotionally based film with lots of scope and action. It’s really about these guys, these human beings. But they go through a lot, so it’s the action and size of it. It’s a bit of a surprise in the movie, if you know what I mean. Because it’s a very emotional movie. It’s an emotional journey.
We heard a bit about pitching this. Were you a part of that at all?
Yes, the process was that Dorothy brought it to our company, to me. We have a small company, then we took it to Disney. I have to say, it wasn’t a real struggle. They saw it. They saw what it was and said they wanted to do it.
Did you say it was going to be like this movie, or that movie? Where there any reference points brought up to sell it?
Honestly, I don’t tend to think like that. Do you know what I mean? The reference point in selling it, and I still believe it deeply. This is the most incredible, heroic journey you will ever go on. It’s incredibly emotional. It’s a cathartic movie. In the sense that it’s about a guy , who’s having an incredible day, then it turns, and the pressure on him , it changes him, it changes his life perspective. So it’s a very cathartic journey.
There’s been a lot of sea movies, In The Heart of the Sea, Unbroken, Kon Tiki a few years ago. What do you think is going on that this theme is so popular?
I’m not very good thinking about that, to be honest. I tend to be, that’s just a great story. Movies can take time, in their development, their cycle. When it’s ready, I always appreciate and understand that. Personally, as a small caveat, I grew up in a small, maritime community in Nova Scotia. So I had lived in a world where the coast guard mattered to people. My friends were fisherman, their fathers were fisherman, and all of that. So I was interested in telling a story about the nobility of people that go out there everyday, make their life off the sea, and all of that. The story, to me, is universal and kind of timeless. I felt like when it had its moment, that would be the time to come into the world. it’s a timeless story you want to tell, at some point, it would get told. I don’t know…
Next Page: Making & Casting A Disney Epic
The story spoke to you…
Yes, it just spoke to me, right.
When you put the film together, or started shooting, were there any specific films you looked to as references or inspiration?
There are a lot of water movies you can look at, like The Perfect Storm and so forth. But I wouldn’t say they drove us. Again I come back to the story. It’s a story about these guys. We were just really focused on figuring out that part. We weren’t worried about, it is like this, or are we going to make it like that. We where just like, how are we going to make this story as authentic as possible? And kind of not screw it up. Does that make sense?
As far as this being a Disney movie, and the action, have you discussed what rating you’re going for?
Yes, it’ll be a PG rating.
There’s an epic nature to this film. Are you aiming for a summer release, a big tent pole for Disney?
I think that’s been announced. Right now it’s scheduled for April 15, 2016. April is the new beginning of the summer. I should be clear. It hasn’t been determined what the rating is going to be. So I shouldn’t say…we’re in that range. It’s definitely not an R rating.
Is the coast guard going to be involved in the promotion of the movie, or things like that? Of all the military, I would think it’s a coast guard recruiting thing, unsung heroes?
It’s rich in their history. They love it. They’ve been on board from the very beginning. Where we’ve had a need to have them as consultants on a specific level, we’ve had their involvement. We’ll continue with that.
I don’t want to ask what your budget was, but can you give us a sense to the scale of the production, compared to other things that Disney is working on?
That’s a Disney question. (laughs) Alright…
We met Kyle and John, and saw the precision of their casting. It’s so well cast.
Yes, Craig has a great eye, a great precision about it. Obviously there’s Casey Affleck, who’s great, has this wonderful character that lives in the engine room. And in living in the engine room, he has to emerge in a heroic way, by coming up on deck and seizing control of the Pendleton. Michael Raymond James plays his antagonist, he’s very good. There’s John Ortiz, who is excellent. Kyle is terrific. He’s a shy assistant to the cook, played by Abe Ben Rubi, a kind of larger than life character. He’s the heart and soul of the Pendleton itself. So there’s interesting, well drawn characters that have these little roles. John Stewart, he’s great, play’s Tchuda Sutherland. The only person that can understand Tchuda on the boat is Casey. He’s of Cajun descent, so his language is a little bit hard to get. There’s a translation thing that goes on that’s very funny. Graham Mctavish is just great too. I don’t know if you know Graham, he’s 6’5”, larger than life. He’s in The Hobbit. He’s a dwarf in The Hobbit. (laughs) He play’s Fato(?). Fato had kind of been the Jonah. He’d been on several boats, prior to the Pendleton that had almost met their demise. So everybody on the ship, are like, what are you doing on this ship. So when he tries to take control, the guys are like, you’ve not had a lot of luck in this category, we’re not going to listen to you too much.
Yes, there’s a struggle that goes on there.
Does Casey Affleck play a guy from New England?
Yes, he was from slightly more southern Boston. Casey is playing his normal cadence of accent.
I was wondering if he gave the other actors tips on the Boston accent.
No, no, they’re doing great actually. We have a great dialect couch. They have found it, or, one of the great characters is Maske. He was just on his way, and had to stop over during the snowstorm. Because they didn’t have a lot of guys in the house, when they decided who to take out, he just raises his hand. That’s what I signed up for, I guess I’ll go out. And he got on the boat, of course not understanding the level of what he was dealing it. You spoke to John. Then all of a sudden he was thrown in the middle of it, but nobly got through it. There are these great characters. They are all very different and specific. They have these great, contrasting relationships with each other.
Are you going to play up the idea, we were told, that they were the B-team? Is there any of that underdog theme to them?
I think there is, but I would say it comes very organically. It has to do with the two boats. The first boat goes down, so everybody, all of the A-team gets sent out. They’re the underdogs because they’re left over. They’re left behind. Because they were put in the position of effectively a suicide mission, not everybody wanted to raise their hand. The ones that did, were like Andy Fitzgerald, who was a third class engineer. He only went, because Mel Guthrow, who was ahead of him as an engineer, was sick. So Andy ended up signing up, then Maske, who was walking through the door, said I’ll go too. And Levisey, who Ben Foster plays, was not all that happy about not being chosen for the first team. So he’s a pretty capable guy, who’s left to be chosen with a bunch of guys, who he knows is lesser in rank and ability. That also causes tension with Bernie. What’s great about Bernie is that he’s driving the boat, and has this great journey. It happens very organically. Scott Silver, Erick, and Paul, they wrote a draft that brings you to that place. But it was the circumstances of the night. It’s what happened.
Was there any concern that this is a very masculine movie. There are a lot of male characters. Men on the ships, that there wasn’t enough of a female presence in the movie?
Well, there is. In the sense that there’s one very strong female presence, which is Holiday Grainger, who plays Miriam. At a certain point in our development, we realized it was a rescue story. It was about Bernie coming to a place, and getting through it. But on shore, it’s the story of a woman who’s eager to be married, but not yet there. She has to discover on land, what it would be like to be married to a guy who spends his life on the sea, putting his life at risk. It’s a movie about a rescue, but it’s also a movie about a marriage. I think that’s one of the great things about it. It has this center with real masculine qualities, but it also has this love story that surrounds it. It’s about that, as much as it is about the rescue.
A heroic action-thriller, “The Finest Hours” is the remarkable true story of the most daring rescue mission in the history of the Coast Guard. Presented in Digital 3D™, Real D 3D and IMAX® 3D, the film will transport audiences to the heart of the action, creating a fully-immersive cinematic experience on an epic scale. On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck New England, pummeling towns along the Eastern seaboard and wreaking havoc on the ships caught in its deadly path, including the SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker bound for Boston, which was literally ripped in half, trapping more than 30 sailors inside its rapidly-sinking stern. As the senior officer on board, first assistant engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) soon realizes it is up to him to take charge of the frightened crew and inspire the men to set aside their differences and work together to ride out one of the worst storms to ever hit the East Coast. Meanwhile, as word of the disaster reaches the U.S. Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders a daring operation to rescue the stranded men. Despite overwhelming odds, four men, led by Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), set out in a wooden lifeboat with an ill-equipped engine and little, if any, means of navigation, facing frigid temperatures, 60-foot high waves and hurricane-force winds.
Disney’s “The Finest Hours” is the unforgettable story of the Coast Guard’s courageous mission, which is directed by Craig Gillespie and stars: Chris Pine; Academy Award® and Golden Globe® nominee Casey Affleck; Ben Foster; Holliday Grainger; John Ortiz; and Eric Bana. Produced by Jim Whitaker and Dorothy Aufiero, the screenplay is by Oscar® nominee Scott Silver and Oscar nominees Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson based on the acclaimed non-fiction book of the same name by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias. Doug Merrifield serves as executive producer. “The Finest Hours” storms into U.S. theaters on January 29, 2016 in Digital 3D™, Real D 3D and IMAX® 3D.
The Finest Hours opens in U.S. theaters on January 29th, 2016.