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The Finest Hours Interview: Producer Jim Whitaker Talks Authenticity

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.”

Ervin Maske (John Magaro), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) are the brave men who set off on the most daring rescue in the history of the Coast Guard, in Disney's heroic action-thriller THE FINEST HOURS, presented in Digital 3D (TM) and IMAX (c) 3D.

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…

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