The Finest Hours Interview: Producer Jim Whitaker Talks Authenticity

On Screen Rant's set visit to The Finest Hours, producer Jim Whitaker proved a fount of knowledge on the real-life story of the Pendleton rescue.

The Finest Hours trailer #2 and poster

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.

Next Page: Details on The Finest Hours' Boats & Replicas

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