If you’ve never hunkered down in your den, hot cocoa in hand, ready to wait out the gusting winds and extensive precipitation that come packaged in a nor’easter, then count yourself lucky. A nor’easter storm is no joke, even if you’re at home with all the necessary accoutrements to get through its duration in one piece. If you’re a crewman aboard a vessel on open water, well, you’ll probably be inclined to take a nor’easter even more seriously than that.
New England’s shoreline saw a particularly assertive nor’easter ravage the area back in February of 1952; the winter squall stranded hundreds of drivers on the roads of Maine, caused just over forty fatalities, and unceremoniously dumped close to three feet of snow in around twenty four hours. Even more notably than that, it split a pair of T2 tankers, the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton, off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts, in twain. If you need a frame of reference for that, the T2 was an oil tanker roughly five hundred feet in length, a steel behemoth designed as a merchant ship but which could be militarized during wartime. And the weather tore them in half like they were made out of toilet paper.
Today, the destruction of the Fort Mercer and Pendleton, as well as the Coast Guard rescue mission to save the crews of both ships, is the stuff of maritime legend. In 2009, Massachusetts authors Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman teamed up to put the true story of the Pendleton, the Fort Mercer, and the brave men at the center of the calamity on paper; in 2016, Craig Gillespie (Fright Night) will translate the story to celluloid with The Finest Hours, an adaptation of Tougias and Sherman’s novel. Appropriately, Disney, the production company on the project, filmed in Massachusetts, alternating from a warehouse in Quincy to on-location shoots right in Chatham.
Last year, Screen Rant was invited to visit the Quincy set of The Finest Hours (watch the latest trailer for the film). The set was situated in an unassuming lot among repair shops by the Weymouth Fore River. The bite in the air felt right in consideration of The Finest Hours’ content; it was a cold day for telling a cold story. The Finest Hours is, at its core, a testament to the strength of human will, but it’s also a disaster flick where the principal cast - including Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro - get tossed around on a thirty-six foot lifeboat and soaked with water dropped on their heads courtesy of twenty two gallon dump tanks. It was frigid on the set, and for good reason. (Hey, at least the crew used styrofoam flakes to mimic snow. Beats the alternative.)
The warehouse was alive with the sounds of machines and motors the moment we walked in, but as we were led by the unit publicist toward the back of the building, we realized that most of the noise came from that lifeboat. Set on a gimbal in the middle of a sunken area of the floor, the boat bucked and jerked while sheets of water surged across its bow and soaked its occupants. If nothing else, that sight signified The Finest Hours’ raw, physical demands as a production, while the racket made by the gimbal presented a communicative hurdle.
But Gillespie had a way to deal with the clamor: He’s a hands-on type, and he knew how to plan ahead. Says Gillespie,
“It’s good to talk to them before we roll camera. When we’re really into some long scenes, a lot of the times I’ll be in there with them. For the stunt stuff, we’ll shoot it from 75 feet away.”
It’s hard to imagine anybody willingly hopping aboard the lifeboat when they don’t have to, but Gillespie would “gear up,” as he put it, and tag along for the ride with his actors. (Heck of a way to make a living.) The film is full of longer takes, too, which just makes his approach even more admirable; it’s all because the film will be converted to 3D, which understandably changed the way that Gillespie thought about shooting. Says Gillespie:
“We’re doing a lot of longer takes. I like in 3D that you get to sit in these moves, we’re doing these big 50 foot techno moves that come around and get you in the space and you can sort of be there and watch it all and feel a part of it. It’s not as fast and, you know, as cut-y as I would do it if it wasn’t 3D. I feel it’s a better fit for that experience to really feel like you’re in the environment. So that’s why you see these longer 10, 12 second moves we’re doing with this gimbal so you can really be in their world.”
The Finest Hours isn’t all about technical challenges, though. In fact, it’s more about finding an intimate character story among those larger, effects-based elements. As Gillespie told us, the film’s disaster scenario provides a space in which the characters, especially Pine’s and Affleck’s, can develop and change. This might be a “men on a mission” picture, but it’s also about how those men evolve through their experience:
“It’s interesting. What I’m really excited about with this is that they’re idiosyncratic characters. Like Bernie’s really an unusual underdog. He’s one of those antiheroes, the reluctant guy, the last person you expect to be that fellow. And the same is going on with [Ray] Sybert, Casey Affleck’s role, as well. That character hates authority, doesn’t want to be the guy in charge and then ends up being that guy ironically. So they get to play with some really interesting character traits, which has been fun. And the backdrop is just, it’s huge but it’s secondary to what’s going on. The great part of it is that they’re staying in character for all of this and this whole situation is a catalyst for Bernie, Chris’ character, to grow, and the same with Sybert’s character. Just the enormity of what they’re up against and how that makes them have to step out of their comfort zone.”
For Pine, his character, Bernard C. Webber, was his window into the story. Webber was the coxswain on Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG-36500; his efforts to save the Pendleton’s crew earned him the Gold Lifesaving Medal, and one for each member of his crew of three, which were awarded at his insistence. He was a stand-up guy, but to Pine his humility was his most important characteristic. Says Pine:
“I didn’t get a chance to meet him obviously. He passed away. I met his daughter and you guys just missed the actual Fitz, Andy Fitzgerald and Gus, his best friend, and that was a great treat. There’s a great recording of Bernie talking to an interviewer years and years ago about the rescue and I guess, above and beyond the heroism of it, you can kind of get the sense that he’s sick of retelling the story, you know? That, for him, this was his job, this was what he was supposed to do and just like anyone clocking in for a job, his task was going out and saving people, and a real sense that there was no glory in it for him or any need for self-aggrandizement. It was just very simple. So I guess I like the simplicity of the character.”
Webber’s candor was a draw for Pine, but he seems to have gravitated toward that stripped down, non-sensational sensibility more than anything else. The Finest Hours isn’t about flash. It isn’t really even about heroes in any traditional sense. It’s about men at work. Webber and his crew weren’t out for recognition or for accolades. They were just doing what they were hired to do, under the most dangerous circumstances possible:
“...He struck me as a very honest, direct, open man. Ben [Foster] and I have talked about it, but I really like this idea of men clocking in for the workday and it just so happens on this day, something incredible happened but above and beyond that, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. People doing the right thing, I don’t know. I like the clear-cutness of that, you know?”
He went on to say:
“The temperament of this character seemed altogether different from usually what you encounter in this business which is all about, you know, fame and the glam of it. I don’t know if it’s just men of a different generation, that’s the WWII generation or just immediately after it. There was just a simplicity to the description of it. There was no drama to it. The waves were incredibly huge. What they were going up against was unbelievable in terms of the heroism of these men, but there was this almost metronomic dispatch of facts of events that had taken place; the waves were big, they couldn’t see anything, they lost their compass, it was snowing, nearly dying of hypothermia. It was the skill of the crew, but also we thought much of divine providence having a great deal to do with it.”
It’s impossible to totally divorce the character-based qualities of the movie from its spectacle, though, as the distant thrumming of the gimbal reminds us. For anyone else on the boat, the inherent physical challenges of shooting might have been a bit steep. For Pine, they made the production feel like a trip to an amusement park. Pine is known for his physical performances, whether in the Star Trek films or Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, though, so perhaps his attitude about the film’s action scenes should come as no surprise:
“That’s actually kind of great fun. It’s like a big roller coaster ride. It is pretty terrifying when you see all that water coming at you, but it is really fun. Yeah, it gets more difficult when we’re out there and they’re pounding us with the elements and the wind and we’re in a ginormous aluminum box basically that just traps the cold weather, the cold air, so it can get difficult. There was a particularly cold morning the other day and definitely the time where I could feel myself just about breaking and then you see Andy Fitzgerald who was actually out there on the boat and you shut up real fast, as we’re in dry suits and I have a heating shirt and the whole bit. It is hard, but it’s a nice, easy way for all of us to understand how difficult it may have been. I mean, it’s really, really cold, and here I am pretending to steer a boat in no current. The stories of what they had to do with the boats flying out of the water, the rudder’s out of the water, they’re going doing these steep, steep pitches not being able to see anything, it’s difficult but it’s no comparison to what actually happened.”
The Finest Hours arrives at a moment when a number of military members have told their stories on the page and on the screen (or had those stories told by someone else): see Lone Survivor, American Sniper, and the upcoming 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. But these stories are about people, eras, and campaigns that differ greatly from the story that Gillespie and his cast are telling. To Pine, The Finest Hours points to a time when people did the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the movie’s driving theme:
“Yeah, I couldn’t have articulated it any better. I think we just live in a time of the selfie, so there’s a sense that everyone’s uniqueness and importance on this planet should be displayed and reveled in, and that there’s kind of a piece of glory for everyone. And there’s a lot to be said for that because a lot of people do do wonderful things and it has a lot to do with the internet and the proliferation of different forms of media and media outlets, ways to tell your story, from blogs to pictures to whatever. But yeah, when I talk about the simplicity I really do like those stories and, again, this is a movie, this is entertainment, but if there are themes to explore which are valuable for people to witness and think about, I think ours would be to do right and to do good for no other reason than to do it, that it’s just the thing to do which is to be a good man without the need for validation or for encomiums and awards and gifts and all that. It’s just to do good is good. Mitzvah is good, you know?”
There’s a classic feeling to the film, according to Pine; it’s a throwback to old studio pictures, where goodness prevails and there isn’t a trace of cynicism to be found. It’s a movie of heartfelt urgency:
“I think it makes for great drama. When Jim and Sean Bailey originally talked to me about this film when we were exploring all the different aspects of it, I think what I really responded to above and beyond what I had spoken about before about Bernie was that in many ways this is like this bizarre, anachronistic film that shouldn’t exist now with all the Marvel characters and everything. This is almost like a studio film from the 50s, you know? There’s no cursing and people are good and right and love conquers all, it’s really very sweet. There’s a sweet earnestness to this film that people will either engage with or the cynicism of the world will win out, but I hope that people appreciate that. There’s these two really beautiful, sensitive, wonderful people in this world and they find great love and then the story ends and you can imagine them having a family and disappearing into the night to raise a family and have a good, decent life. Holliday [Grainger] is absolutely wonderful and so beautiful and angelic and I think she’s kind of the light in the dark night of the souls that we go out on in this crazy journey, will return to this really, really warm person that Holliday embodies so well. So it’s a great thing for my character to have that and for the audience to root for that. Again, the story’s very wonderfully kind of simple. There’s no irony in this film. It is what it is.”
That upfront, genuine tone might help distinguish The Finest Hours from today’s crop of blockbuster films, but what sets it apart from other “disaster at sea” movies - The Perfect Storm, Titanic, The Poseidon Adventure? To Pine, it's the period, the intrinsic, dangerous beauty of the water itself, and - even though he isn't fond of the word - that inescapably earnest attitude:
“I think like other great, I don’t know, ocean films [laughs], just like space, it’s a pretty powerful thing when there are men on something that is uncontrollable and violent and it’s Mother Nature really at its most chaotic. So there’s great inherent drama in that, in the unknown, what’s underneath the water. But yes, I would say because this is a period film set in a time of the greatest generation, or however it’s classified, perhaps it is that, it’s a simple story about good men doing great things and it does have an earnest - I don’t like the word earnest, but I don’t see any other descriptive that’s kind of as apropos, it’s just what you see is what you get. What was [Robert] Redford’s film called again? All Is Lost! It is, in many ways, man against the sea, man against the sea, man against the elements, can he survive? It’s the triumph of the human spirit and all that kind of stuff. And also the really violent beauty of the ocean, it is that. There is something studio film-ish about it, but of a time passed that I think we all really enjoy. I mean, if you just look at the collection of faces in this film it’s just great, just great. Good mugs [laughs], good like party mugs."
"Not mine," he added with a smile, "but I mean…”
The Finest Hours opens in U.S. theaters on January 29th, 2016.