Disney will continue box office domination with the January 29th release of The Finest Hours. It 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.
Movieweb was invited to the set of The Finest Hours in Quincy, Massachusetts in November of 2014. 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. What we saw that day was knock your socks off amazing, filmmaking on an epic scale.
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.
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. 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.
Director 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. We close out our on set coverage of The Finest Hours with interviews of Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and Producer James Whitaker.
Ben Foster plays Richard Livesey:
There’s a heater right there…
Ben Foster: It’s kind of futile at this point. [Laughs].
You’ve done a lot of military projects. You really have, with each one, learned more and more in appreciation for people in uniform. How has this one gone so far?
Ben Foster: It was a real treat getting to go down to Chatham, meeting the Coast Guard there. I’m sure the other guys talked to you about that a little bit. It’s a real humble community. It’s one that doesn’t get a lot of PR, so they’re not great at selling their community. But they do an extraordinary job. We think about how much water there is on this planet, they’re covering a lot of ground and keeping a lot of people safe. So, spending time with people who serve their fellow man, it’s always going to be a privilege to spend time with them. It’s as simple as that.
Tell us about your character and your interpretation of him.
Ben Foster: Well, I’m a guy on a boat. [Laughs] Coast Guard. Four of us go out under very difficult weather pattern. How to describe him? I’m certainly not doing an (impersonation). There’s no audio on the man; there’s no video on the man. I suppose we’re playing a type of man. We’ll see how it cuts together. I don’t know how to say more than that. This is portraiture work.
What’s his role on the boat? What’s he responsible for?
Ben Foster: What’s his role on the boat? Not dying. Saving the other men. Pulling guys out of the water is his role.
As the guy in the cast who has had the most experience doing these arduous, military types of movies, have you been able to be a godfather to the other actors that don’t have that type of experience?
Ben Foster: I wouldn’t go that far. These guys are all talented kids. I’m in very good company. What’s nice is having Kevin Scott here, who did all the stunts for Lone Survivor. We have some of the same team, working with some of the same guys. So, having a base with a military discipline always helps larger action pieces, keeping it safe, keep it real, keeping it messy, keeping it violent. We’re not making a documentary. This isn’t going to be Lone Survivor 2. I think it’s really brave and exciting that Disney is doing it. But it also feels very much in their wheelhouse from way back when. It feels like a callback to a grander time of–in my opinion–of films that I feel more connected to. The ’30s and ’40s. It’s more about a type of men who don’t go home and tell the tale of how great they are. They’re not living in a time where they’re tweeting their last adventure and taking selfies of each other on a fucking boat. These are guys that go out and do their job and go home. Their relatives didn’t even know that they did this. They didn’t know that they performed one of the greatest saves in history. So, hopefully we’re not representing superheroes, we’re not representing men in capes, we’re representing guys who are scared and maybe are underprepared but are doing the best that they can, and ultimately–by facing their fears, can do incredible things. So if we can use film as a medium to push those kind of ethics back into the community in some small way, then maybe it’s not a waste of time.
You mention The Finest Hours being a kind of throwback to older movies. Are there any you’ve been watching to relish in that kind of manhood?
Ben Foster: Gosh, relishing in manhood! I like the choice of words.
That should be the tagline. “This November: RELISH IN MANHOOD.” I’ll take a story by credit for that.
Ben Foster: Get it. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, just watched that…It was (Robert) Mitchum and (Spencer) Tracy and guys doing–We have to remember these are kids going out, doing dangerous stuff. And it just feels like the ’30s and ’40s was a time when film really respected that, or when we needed that as a country. It was also part of the medicine during the war.
Your cast members said you brought a speaker on the boat to kind of move along the time between takes. How’d you get that idea?
Ben Foster: Well, we’re on a boat. And we’re cold and wet. And we’re not allowed to complain because we’re not saving any lives and we have coffee breaks. I don’t know. It seemed to make sense. So I got a little speaker, it’s waterproof. We’ve been on Classic Rock to ’70s Funk/Soul recently. It’s nice to see a bunch of grumpy wet guys start bobbing their heads. You know? [Laughs]
Are you the one that picks the music?
Ben Foster: Yeah. But you got to accommodate everybody.
What’s the song people were most surprised you picked?
Ben Foster: Gosh. There’s been a lot of that.
Have you played “Don’t Rock The Boat?”
Ben Foster: Yeah, we get punny for sure. “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, “The Rain Song.”
“I’m on a Boat?”
Ben Foster: Sing that off the boat. I don’t know. We’ve been listening a lot to the Soul Snatchers. Good dirty funk makes you warmer.
Kyle (Gallner) and John (Magaro) talked to us about their approach to playing the people they’re playing. Can you tell us about your approach?
Ben Foster: As I said, I’m not doing an impression of any body. It’s a type of man. They had more access to living family members and relatives of their character. I don’t. So I’m building my own thing with Craig (Gillespie), who I’m enjoying a great deal. Craig is a terrific director, really great eye, collaborative, really friendly, a gentleman. Goes far out of his way–way beyond the call of duty–to make sure we all feel heard, which is not always the case.
Everything we’ve seen here looks pretty physically arduous. So far on the shoot, what’s been the toughest thing for you?
Ben Foster: I like physical jobs. I like moving my body around. I like testing it. Let’s you feel like you’ve done something. The difficult element of this is just eating shit all day. That’s it. Excuse my language, but just getting punished by cold and wet rather than you have to run up a thing and do a thing or fall off a thing or go through a thing or drive a thing. This is just take it.
Would you say this has been harder than Lone Survivor?
Ben Foster: Oh yeah. Whoa yeah. I’d fall down a mountain any day of the week rather than get hit under these waves and rain machines. After eight hours every day, it gets in your bones. You can’t keep the blood up. You can’t keep your body temperature up at all. We’re stuck on a boat.
They told us you guys switched to dry suits but it’s still quite arduous.
Ben Foster: We’re not allowed to complain.
They talked to us a bit about the accents. Can you talk to us about your process on the accent?
Ben Foster: I was born in Boston.
So there you go.
Ben Foster: So it was just turning it up a bit. (Asked where we’re from, how the weather is in New York, and how cold it is.) It’s like a trap in here. But amazing sets, right? Knockout stuff. It’s nice doing this for a while now. Still getting really excited to come to work and seeing all the craftsmanship that’s gone into this. The steelwork alone to build the Pendleton, it’s inspiring. It’s exciting.
Did you know going into this you’d be okay on the boats? Or were you worried about being seasick?
Ben Foster: I like being on the water. Feels good.
Did you know about the source material for signing onto the movie?
Ben Foster: I wasn’t no. Have you read the book? It’s a terrific read. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this story. Which I guess is the exciting part about being a part of it is this story should be known. These guys should be celebrated. How great that Disney got behind it to celebrate these guys. It’s nice to be a part of it.
Kyle Gallner plays Andy Fitzgerald:
So what can you tell us about your character?
Kyle Gallner: My character’s Andy Fitzgerald. He’s an engineman. He works with the engine. He was kind of a third-string type of guy where nobody really asked him to go out. He’s kind of a last resort. The other guy that Bernie usually takes out was sick and so Andy sort of jumped in and took his place. In real life, Andy was just — he was really bored. He was sitting at the station, just been sitting around all day, and just was so bored that when he found out they were going out, and he knew the other guy was sick, he pretty much forced himself on Bernie.
He was like looking for an adventure?
Kyle Gallner: He was like, look man. They didn’t even really know — they didn’t know that it was going to be this. They knew that it was going to be, you know, a big storm and stuff. But you know, he’s a 20-year-old kid stuck in a room. He was like, it’s time to get outside. And so he pretty much forced himself on Bernie to take him with him, and that’s kind of how he ended up on the boat.
You have a slight mustache going on. Is that part of the character?
Kyle Gallner: Do I? [Laughter.]
Is that not a thing? Let’s move on. Can I ask you about the physical requirement of this role? What we’re seeing here is incredible. Talk about the physical aspect of this role.
Kyle Gallner: It’s a hard movie. I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s been difficult. It’s a bunch of guys who aren’t exactly seamen. So for the first two, three weeks, every night you’re sleeping and you’re rocking back and forth because you’ve been on the boat all day. And you’re constantly cold, and you’re shivering, and we’ve had a progression of how to deal with that. Before, it was literally just like kind of plastic hunting gear and some thermals, and as it got colder we stepped up to dry suits in an attempt to stay warm. So you’re shivering all day, and the rain’s constantly beating down. It’s a physical game as much as it’s almost like a mental game, trying to keep morale up on the boat. Ben Foster’s been really good about that. He’s brought like — that guy’s prepared, man. That guy is who you want on your side when the world goes to shit. He has everything. He brings like a little Jambox on set that’s waterproof so we’ll play music in between, and it just kind of keeps everyone going. Because, you know, you get rained on, five days a week for 12 hours a day, and…
How are you guys keeping from getting sick?
Kyle Gallner: I don’t know! It’s just like been sheer luck of the draw that no one’s really dropped yet. They take really good care of us, though. They’ve been really nice. They make sure we have stuff to drink.
Why are you not in this scene?
Kyle Gallner: I may be underneath in the engine room right now.
Did you have to learn how to fix an engine yourself in real life?
Kyle Gallner: Not yet. We’ve been all through the boat. We’ve been out on the real 36500 and stuff. There’s a guy here, Kiwi, that I’m going to talk to, ’cause that scene’s coming up where he’s going to do a walkthrough of the whole engine and what to do. So we’ll be down there pretty soon. But yeah, I think I’m in the engine. Either that or I’m up front at the light, and they’re not going to see me yet because all those guys are in the back.
Is the water at least warm that they’re dumping on you?
Kyle Gallner: Certain things are warmer than others. In the beginning it wasn’t. I mean it’s kind of straight from the ground, it’s really really pretty cold. They’ve since found a way to kind of heat it up a little bit so it’s not as ice-cold, but it also depends on the day. Like the last couple days we’ve actually been really lucky, we’ve been really warm, but this warehouse kind of drops everything sometimes 10, 15 degrees, that certain days are definitely colder than others. Like those dump tanks they’re getting hit with, they can’t heat those.
So are you just super happy to not be in this scene?
Kyle Gallner: I’m not mad about it! [Laughter.]
We heard that you met the real Andy Fitzgerald?
Kyle Gallner: Yeah.
Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Kyle Gallner: He’s great. He’s really funny guy, actually, he’s a really nice guy. The craziest thing about talking to Andy and meeting Andy was, when you talk to these guys, they don’t glorify this story at all. And you sit here and hear about this story and you know how amazing it is what these guys did, and kind of how crazy it was, that they went out and did this, and yet these guys are telling it like it’s nothing. They didn’t glorify it. I don’t think Andy’s wife even knew that he had done this until they were married for like three years.
Did your impression of the material change after you met him and how you approached the character?
Kyle Gallner: Totally. Absolutely. Because it came from this thing of, okay, these guys are like heroes, which they are, but you kind of think like, well, how do you play a hero? And you meet these guys and it’s like, they just did their job. You know, they went out and they did their job every day, and that’s what it was. They knew they were getting into some trouble, but you know the old Coast Guard saying was, you have to go out but you don’t have to go back. You don’t have to come back. And that’s really what they lived by. These guys, no one was over 25 on that boat. Andy was the youngest at 20, and then I think Bernie was 23 or 24. So these guys were just kids. And they were literally just going out and they did their job. That was the mindset. They came home and you know, Andy told me, I was the last guy left on the boat, when everybody got off, and somebody asked me, what are you doing? Get off the boat. And he goes, oh, I have to tie it up. You know what I mean? Like after everything, he was like, I still have a job to do, I have to finish my job. And that kind of really resonated of like, wow, these guys, while heroes, it was still just another day at the office for them. They knew what they had to do, and they knew that these guys needed to be saved, and that’s what they were going to do.
What has been the toughest scene to shoot so far for you?
Kyle Gallner: It’s an interesting thing, because you know, in terms of acting, it’s not like big monologues and a ton of dialogue and stuff. So I think the toughest stuff is mostly the physical stuff, just you know, getting pounded all day and you know, losing your voice because we’re yelling over the rain. But in a way, it really helps having the rain and everything. It kind of takes part of the acting out of it, because you just, you can’t fake it. I mean, you’re cold, you’re wet, and you’re kind of miserable, and you’re kind of like okay, we’re doing it again, we’re doing it again. But it’s great. Everybody knew what they were getting into when they signed up, which is really good because there’s not a single diva on the set.
You still feel that way?
Kyle Gallner: Yeah, totally. Absolutely.
You feel like they prepared you. This is what it’s going to be?
Kyle Gallner: Yeah. No, no one pretended it was going to be a cakewalk. No one sat there and was like, you guys are going to have a great time. [Laughter.] You know, it was like, it’s going to be hard. Working with these three has been really great. Everybody has their head on straight and really knows what this is, and doesn’t sit there and complain. Everybody’s been really tough about it and stepped up. I mean, ’cause you’ve gotta think about the story you’re making. You’re not really allowed to complain when these guys really did this. Yeah. You’re like, oh, I can step off and have tea. [Laughter.]
Did you have to go through any Coast Guard training before you took it?
Kyle Gallner: We didn’t necessarily do training, but we did a whole kind of field trip down to Chatham, where we went down and we met all the Coasties and hung out and we actually took the real 36500 out and we took it to… No, we didn’t take that boat, that would’ve taken forever. We took the real, like, their new boat that they use, we took that to where the ship sank. But we did a whole day with them, and we took a big long pleasure cruise on the 36500 and got to know the boat and got to just talk to some of the Coast Guard that have been around for a really really long time and some of the new guys. So just kind of swapping stories and just hearing their stories and what they’ve done. They showed us some drills and they just showed us how things operate nowadays. Other than the technology changing, I don’t think a ton has changed, you know, in terms of, it’s a branch of the military, it’s structured and this is how they do things. So getting to just see that and talk to these guys, and you’ve got a lot of really experienced boat guys hanging around that’ll just tell you what to do. It’s been good company.
How long did Andy actually serve in the Coast Guard?
Kyle Gallner: He didn’t serve very long. I’m not sure of the exact time served, but he did everything kind of in fast forward. Like, he started on the lightship, which is really just kind of bitch work. You know, you get out on the lightship and it’s one month on, one week off, and you basically just sit on the ship and bounce up and down in the water.
What is a lightship?
Kyle Gallner: It’s essentially a lighthouse in the water. It’s a ship that’s basically got a lighthouse on it. So you sit there for a month at a time, and they kind of just give that to the new guys.
Is it stressful playing a real person who will presumably see you play him sometime?
Kyle Gallner: Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs.] It is. It’s very stressful. But he started on the lightship and this one guy wanted off — or didn’t want to get off and they wouldn’t transfer him. So Andy went to one of his superiors and was just like, I’ll take his place. And the guy was like, you can’t, you’ve only been on the lightship for like two months, you know, you’re supposed to be on there for quite a while. But he ended up getting kicked off, took that guy’s spot, and went somewhere else. He went to Martha’s Vineyard. I think it was to Martha’s Vineyard. And then he went to engineman school and became an engineman and then he got kind of stationed over at Chatham. And he, after this happened, he actually got out like a couple months later. He wanted to go to college. The only reason he joined the Coast Guard was he didn’t have money for school. So he didn’t know what to do and he was like, I’ll join the Coast Guard, and then he ended up being able to get the money for college, so he went to school after that.
And what did he do from there?
Kyle Gallner: Yeah. He moved to Colorado.
He moved far away from the ocean.
Kyle Gallner: I totally forget what he studied. But yeah, he just went to school.
How do you audition for something like this? Because there’s not much dialogue. Do they have to stand there and pour water on your head?
Kyle Gallner: No, it’s really weird. There’s like a song, and all sorts of stuff. One of the auditions was like a song…
Can you talk more about that please?
Kyle Gallner: It’s the last thing you want to come across your desk, is like… I gotta sing, like, by myself? There’s like a sea shanty thing where my character kind of, they’re going into the storm and it’s really scary and he starts kind of just singing to himself and then the other guys kind of pick up on it.
What song is it?
Kyle Gallner: [Joking] It’s Rock of Ages. It’s Suddenly Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors. No, it’s a song called Holloway Jail. And everyone kinds of just picks up on it and it’s sort of a collective, like, oh shit here we go.
Were you at all nervous because some people don’t like to sing.
Kyle Gallner: I don’t like to sing. Yeah, of course.
Was that where you kind of like, great, now I play a real guy.
Kyle Gallner: I gotta sing… yeah. So auditioning was a little strange. They also had one of the auditions which was also, Ben has a big long speech that they ended up having my character also read for the audition. So they just kind of mixed it all up. So it was a little weird. Singing was a little weird.
You’ve done a lot of horror movies. How was making this different from making those?
Kyle Gallner: A lot less blood and violence. It’s just — they’re all different. A horror film is just kind of, it’s a heightened sense of dread, and fear, and you just kind of have to keep yourself in such a headspace that it’s nice. This one’s not easy, it’s not like it’s a cakewalk, but it’s a totally different mindset than something like that. Whereas instead of being scared all day, you sit there and you kind of have the mindset of just, who these guys were. All you have to do is be able to walk around with your chin up and just kind of be who these guys were. They were men, you know. And the camaraderie between me and the three guys. So having those guys to bounce off of and just kind of create that world, it’s been nice. It’s been very different.
James Whitaker – Producer
James Whitaker: Thank you guys for coming!
Thanks for having us.
James Whitaker: Yeah, yeah, you been able to see the gimbal and all the stuff? I saw Dot [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 you were like, “Okay, I’m in”?
James Whitaker: Well, you know, Dorothy Aufiero found it here in Boston, and got Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson 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. 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.
James Whitaker: 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.
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 49.
Out of how many?
James Whitaker: 69.
Did you guys ever consider doing all four rescue missions and not just the one?
James Whitaker: 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.
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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.
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: It will be. 3D’s a part of it, yes.
Are you shooting in 3D?
James Whitaker: Not native, but it will be 3D.
How long are you guys gonna be shooting for in Chatham?
James Whitaker: We’ll be there for 14 days.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a producer on this project?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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.
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: It stands in for hallways within the Pendleton, not the Mercer but the Pendleton.
Do the interior shots take place on the Salem?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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.
James Whitaker: They’re very appreciative of the detail and the effort. As you come on to a set like this, there’s hundreds of people working. Everyone has a specific job and is paying close attention to detail. They can see all of that. And I think there’s a lot of appreciation for that.
What was the process of bringing him in?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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.
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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 recently, 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?
James Whitaker: 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…
The story spoke to you…
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: 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 were 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?
James Whitaker: Yes, it’ll be a PG rating. 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?
James Whitaker: 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?
James Whitaker: That’s a Disney question. [laughs] Alright…
They met Kyle [Gallner] and John [Magaro], and saw the precision of their casting?
James Whitaker: 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 Gallner is terrific. He’s a shy assistant to the cook, played by Abraham Benrubi, 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. Josh Stewart, he’s great, play’s Tchuda Southerland. 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 Fauteux. Fauteux 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.
James Whitaker: Yes, there’s a struggle that goes on there.
Does Casey Affleck play a guy from New England?
James Whitaker: 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.
James Whitaker: No, no, they’re doing great actually. We have a great dialect coach. 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?
James Whitaker: 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, Eric, 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?
James Whitaker: Well, there is. In the sense that there’s one very strong female presence, which is Holliday 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.
That wraps it up for our The Finest Hours set visit. We also have a bunch of new photos from the film, which is in theaters this month. Take a look at the cast as they brave some of the harshest elements ever known to man!