Disney's The Finest Hours is the incredible true story of the U.S. Coast Guard's most dangerous sea rescue. The film is an adaptation of the best selling book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. In the winter of 1952, a powerful nor'easter capsized the oil tankers, SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer, off the coast of Massachusetts. A group of intrepid sailors, led by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), took a rescue boat into the storm. They faced impossible odds with temerity and skill, earning a storied place in history for their valiant efforts.
Movieweb was invited to the set of The Finest Hours in Quincy, Massachusetts last November. The production was fairly secretive at this point. Apart from the title, which was obviously correlated to the book, I had no idea what to expect on this trip. A small cohort of reporters were flown into Boston's Logan airport, then bussed forty-five minutes north to the set in Quincy. The Disney online publicist, part of a very well-liked team I might add, gave us our first details. The Finest Hours stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck, Kyle Gallner, and Eric Bana; with direction by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm). Our publicist extraordinaire told us that we would be observing some of the most intense scenes in the story. She wasn't kidding. What we saw that day was knock your socks off amazing, filmmaking on an epic scale.
We arrive at a seemingly abandoned warehouse complex on the water in Quincy late morning. The place looked run down and decrepit. You would never be able to tell their was activity inside, except for the cars in the parking lot. As we approached the buildings, a whooshing sound could be heard. My eyeballs turned to saucers as we entered. Picture two gigantic warehouses back to back, with the center open so they were essentially connected. I would surmise the length all together was as long as a football field and a half, with the last building leading into the oceanfront.
In the first warehouse, directly in front of us, there were two huge cutaways of the SS Pendleton. They stood about four stories, thirty feet tall, and were exact replicas. Imagine an oil tanker with the back quarter cut off. As we walked to the front, the intricate detail of the ships' inside was clear. The sets were built so that cameras on cranes and suspended from the roof could easily capture the action on every deck. The Pendleton sets were staged on a gimbal, so they could be rocked back and forth, drum roll please, then flooded. In the next installment of this set visit, I'll take you into the Pendleton sets as we walked up the narrow steps and explored the astoundingly realistic interiors.
A group of people, mostly carpenters and construction workers, had workstations to the left of the Pendleton set. Directly behind them was the craft service and make-up stations. A railroad track ran down through the entire warehouse complex. Ideal for the dollies and to move the heavy set pieces. In front of the ship cutout was a near Olympic sized pool of water filled with miniatures of the various boats. As we milled about checking out the models, an overhead announcement yelled all quiet, action, followed by a thunderous crash of water. Our attention was transfixed to the long blue curtain that wrapped around the second warehouse.
It's important to mention that filming was taking place during the fall in the north east. It was freezing cold. Factor that in as we were led through a gap in the blue screen to the spectacular coast guard ship set. We were awestruck by the sheer magnitude of this set. The entire warehouse had an enclosed pool about four feet high. In the center of the pool was a specially designed gimbal, like a giant three-pronged claw, that held a full scale model of their coast guard ship. In front of the ship, along the pool wall, were agitators that generated the heavy waves. To the sides of the ship were slides that led to these huge holding tanks of water. The whooshing sound we heard were these tanks dropping forty thousand gallons of water into the pool. It would create a giant swell of water that would crash into the ship. Then the gimbal would buck the ship to recreate the motion of the storm. It isn't all CGI folks. This set was Titanic-esque in scope.
The blue screen had position markers, large plus symbols, every foot or so for the visual effects team in post production. Spray machines shot mist towards the boat to create a rain and snow effect. The entire area was very well lit with lighting rigs surrounding the ship. There were cameras on cranes that could move with the ship as it was tossed around in the simulated storm. Director Craig Gillespie and the production crew were stationed at the front of the warehouse pool behind a complex bank of controls and monitors. The reporters were herded into a tent with a heater and monitors to watch the action.
Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and Casey Affleck earned their pay on this movie. They were all tied to the boat using hooks under their dry suits. We sat comfortably drinking coffee by the heater while watching the close-ups on our monitors. The actors were thrown around like soaked rag dolls on the boat. The ship would buck like a horse as wave after wave was dropped on the ensemble. There wasn't a lot of down time between takes. Usually it takes a while to get reset, but it seemed to me that the nature of these scenes demanded chaos and continuity. Craig Gillespie put a lot of focus on the actors faces as they filmed these scenes. I would guess he wanted the audience to really feel the physical exhaustion and toll of the storm. I honestly expected most of this work to be done by stuntmen on a gargantuan movie like this. But give the actors credit. They're front and center on the boat. Committed to capturing as realistically as possible the real dangers faced by the coast guard sailors.
A break was called so we could have a few brief interviews with the cast and filmmakers. This set visit will be in two parts with the second installment coming before the film's release in January 2016. See below in full our complete interviews with Director Craig Gillespie and star Chris Pine.
How are you able to communicate with them up there?
Craig Gillespie: [Laughs] Did you see the last take?
I did, which is why I'm a little curious.
Craig 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.
How wet are you getting? Are you getting any of this water on you?
Craig Gillespie: When we're doing the longer scenes, I'll sort of gear up and get out there with them.
How tough is it to make such a small, personal story on such a big, epic production?
Craig Gillespie: It's interesting. What I'm really excited about 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. They get to play with some really interesting character traits, which has been fun. And the backdrop, 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. 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.
Can you talk about shooting this movie knowing that it's going be converted to 3D? Does that affect some of your directing choices?
Craig Gillespie: It does. 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, watch it all, and feel a part of it. It's not as fast 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.
Is this your first 3D feature?
Craig Gillespie: I did Fright Night, which was natural, but this one we're going to convert.
Is there anything you're looking to as a reference point for post-conversion?
Craig Gillespie: No, I did Fright Night with the same DP and we have a certain style we like for 3D. We're doing it that way, same lenses.
What can you tell us about your character - Bernie?
Chris Pine: Bernie Webber, I didn't get a chance to meet him obviously. He passed away. I met his daughter. 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, above and beyond the heroism of it. You can kind of get the sense that he's sick of retelling the story. 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.
Did you connect to that, as someone who's regularly asked exhaustively about your job?
Chris Pine: No. 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.
How has watching that interview affected your performance?
Chris Pine: He struck me as a very honest, direct, open man. Ben 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. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary. People doing the right thing. I don't know. I like the clear-cutness of that.
In your career you've done a lot of physical roles. From what we're seeing on the ship, you really need a lot of stamina and energy. Is this the most difficult physical thing you've had to do as an actor?
Chris Pine: 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. 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. 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.
I find it kind of ironic that you guys are filming this movie at a time when there are a lot of military guys out there who are turning their stories into books. Then turning them into movies. Have you guys talked about the fact that, generationally, it's such a different thing? What do you think changed where guys used to just take it home with them and never talk about it? Now it's suddenly become this commodity?
Chris Pine: 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. That there's kind of a piece of glory for everyone. There's a lot to be said for that because a lot of people do wonderful things. It has a lot to do with the internet, 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?
How is it balancing his drive to save everyone with his own personal concern, his romance? That's really the only thing we get beyond you guys going on this mission.
Chris Pine: I think it makes for great drama. We were exploring all the different aspects of it. I think what I really responded to above and beyond 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. 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. They find great love and then the story ends. 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, so beautiful and angelic. I think she's kind of the light in the dark night of the souls that we go out on in this crazy journey. 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.
Can you talk about what sets this apart from other lost at sea movies?
Chris Pine: 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. 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. 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, good like party mugs. Not mine. [Laughs]
They told us that Ben Foster brought a jam box on the ship. Is there a favorite jam he's played that you've been into?
Chris Pine: Right now we're heavy into funk. We have a whole funk thing happening, which couldn't be more in contrast to what we're doing.
Stay tuned for the second half of our set visit, which is being timed to the release of the film this January. We hope you enjoyed our visit to the set. Let us know what you think in the comment section below. We also have a new set of photos that were released today. And we have the brand new trailer which just debuted this morning for all of you to enjoy. Take a look.