Catatan Produksi Film The Finest Hours (2016)
About the Production
Embarking on the Voyage
While “The Finest Hours” is packed with thrilling, larger-than-life action sequences, it is anchored by the prevailing theme that resonates throughout the story-the strength of the human spirit. “These young men knew exactly what they were getting into when they climbed into that tiny lifeboat,” says producer Dorothy Aufiero (“The Fighter,” “Session 9”). “They had the courage to go out there and put others’ safety first and do something incredible, and I find that truly inspirational.”
When the Boston-based filmmaker first read “The Finest Hours,” the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias that documented the incredible tale of the Coast Guard’s attempts to rescue survivors from two T2 oil tankers, she was shocked she had never heard about it before. While the SS Pendleton rescue was front-page news at the time, not everyone today is familiar with the story, including families of the men who were part of the rescue itself. “These guys just didn’t talk about it because to them, it was their job,” she explains.
Aufiero brought the project to producer Jim Whitaker (“Cinderella Man,” “The Odd Life of Timothy Green”), who felt an immediate connection to the story. “I was born in Maryland but moved to Nova Scotia when I was 12 and my family lived in an eastern maritime town similar to Chatham, so I related to the story on a personal level,” he says. “I knew about the Coast Guard and about the lives of people who made their living on the water and always knew I wanted to tell a story about the people that I grew up with.”
They agreed that recreating the gallant efforts of these young men on the big screen was the perfect way to immortalize their story and put together a story treatment and sizzle reel incorporating vintage photos and archival footage of the actual events, which they brought to Disney. The studio has released many successful films based on true stories over the years (“Cool Runnings,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Invincible,” “Miracle” and “A Civil Action,” among others) and green-lit the project that same day.
Oscar nominees Scott Silver (“8 Mile”) and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (“The Fighter”) completed a screenplay based on Sherman and Tougias’ book. While the book tells the story of both tankers that split that fateful night, the screenplay focuses primarily on the Pendleton rescue and its two stories: the men on the tanker trying to survive on the outside chance that someone might come to find them, and the four young men who set out to rescue them.
Like Aufiero, Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm,” “Lars and the Real Girl”) was unfamiliar with the story when first sent the script, but he read it immediately, followed by the book, and was soon on board to direct. “I really enjoyed how very true the writers stayed to the events and the timeline of when things occurred, which is almost unfathomable considering all that was going on out there in the ocean,” he says. “Yes, it’s the story of the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history, but it also has all these great characters who really were unsung heroes. There was a sense of purity to that generation of men in that they often put others before themselves, and that’s what makes them so heroic.”
“Craig was absolutely the perfect guy to direct this film,” says Whitaker. “The movie is ultimately about a bunch of men going through this very difficult thing, but it’s also about their humanity and the emotionality of their actions, and Craig is particularly good at finding those emotional moments and drawing them out in this beautifully-subtle way.”
Bringing the Characters to Life
Audiences will be captivated by the story of the Coast Guard’s legendary maritime rescue, but the compelling characters brought to life on screen are exceptional in their own right. The humility and selflessness characteristic of those in the service of saving lives is truly notable, and the producers wanted to ensure that the actors cast could effectively convey those qualities on screen.
When Chris Pine is considering upcoming projects with which to become involved, a clear indication for the actor is a screenplay he can read in one sitting. With “The Finest Hours,” he couldn’t put it down. Pine, who has starred in the “Star Trek” films, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Into the Woods,” among numerous others, appreciated the story’s simplicity and was drawn to the character of Petty Officer First Class Bernie Webber, the amiable captain of the CG36500 lifeboat, who becomes an unlikely hero.
“Bernie is sweet and quite gentle and is a man who hasn’t really found his voice yet. He grew up in a family of very strong men who went into battle and got their badges, and Bernie, having been too young to go to war, feels that he should have been there,” says Pine. “I like Bernie because he’s not encumbered by any cynicism or irony and he’s not slick and sharp…he’s not ‘big city.’ He’s a man from a different time.”
Webber led a similar rescue mission one year before the SS Pendleton disaster that was unsuccessful and haunted him. The William J. Landry, a fishing boat from New Bedford, Massachusetts, had been trapped at sea by a major squall and after three failed attempts to rescue the fishermen on board, the boat was destroyed, their crew never found. Webber’s confidence was shaken as a result.
“Bernie has so much heart; he’s such an interesting, lovable character,” says director Craig Gillespie. “He’s the guy who you feel is not going to amount to much and then he surprises everybody. And Chris used everything from his mannerisms to his accent, and the evolution of such a fully fleshed character surprised me at every turn, especially because the audience views him as the underdog. We set him up that way, and Chris just makes Bernie shine on screen.”
Station Chief Warren Cluff assigns his more-experienced men to assist with the SS Fort Mercer rescue efforts taking place off the coast of Nantucket, but the crew believes it is impossible to cross the Chatham Bar due to the storm and even though it will take longer, leaves from Stage Harbor instead. Webber, on the other hand, does not object and departs with his crew from the station as ordered, heading directly into one of the deadliest spots in the Atlantic Ocean.
“Bernie did what he was told, even though everyone knew the rescue mission was close to impossible,” explains Gillespie. “At the beginning of the story the fact that he always does what he is told is almost a detriment, but as he goes through this journey we see that he comes into his own and becomes a thinking man: someone who makes his own choices and becomes a true leader, and that was something that Chris was able to beautifully portray through the nuances in his performance.”
“Because this is a true story you want to do justice to these men and what they accomplished…you want to pay tribute to them and hopefully capture the essence of who they actually were,” says Pine. “There’s this really great audio recording of Bernie telling the story many years after what happened that night, and just listening to his cadence and how he responded to the gentleman asking the questions you could tell that he had told the story many times and I got the feeling that he didn’t want to talk about it much anymore. In talking with people who knew Bernie I found that this was a great part of who he was-a quiet guy who took very seriously a job that he was very good at.”
Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee Casey Affleck (“Interstellar,” “Oceans 13”), a native Bostonian, plays Raymond Sybert, the mid-level crew member aboard the Pendleton who suddenly becomes the man to whom everyone looks for guidance. “The story really spoke to me about heroism and leadership,” he says. “These men were in a terrifying situation, yet they figured out a way to work together, ultimately bringing out the best in one another to accomplish the unthinkable.”
He continues, “This was a really compelling situation for Ray right off the bat because he’s an engineer who doesn’t ordinarily interact with the rest of the crew. He never goes on deck and he certainly doesn’t have to make decisions that affect the lives of anyone else, but he’s a thoughtful guy who knows his way around a ship. He brings knowledge and experience to this emotionally-heightened situation, which comes in handy when the men begin to panic and fight with one another.”
The radioman on the Fort Mercer was able to send out a distress signal when it broke in half during the storm, but when an 18-foot fracture in the hull of the Pendleton’s engine room ruptures, the ship’s bow, where the radio room and pilothouse were situated, sunk before anyone could issue a call for help. According to Gillespie, “The interesting dynamic on the Pendleton is that when it sunk, all the officers aboard died. They were all on the bow of the ship so there was really no clear command of who should actually be in charge, so Sybert becomes a reluctant hero, the antihero. He does not like authority, and the dichotomy here is that when the situation happens he has to step up and rally the crew, becoming, in essence, the person that he detests.”
He continues, “Ray has always avoided that by working down below in the bowels of the boat and not having to take on the onus of the authority and the weight of having to carry that responsibility. That’s the struggle that we found so interesting, and Casey really did a beautiful job working through that, becoming a leader for the men and having to do that to save all of their lives.”
The stern of the Pendleton where the engine and the control stations were located is able to temporarily remain afloat due to the air in the ship’s ballast tanks, but the engine room still begins to flood. And while the ship was equipped with lifeboats, it was too dangerous to try launching them in the turbulent water, as the colossal waves would crush the wooden boats. Sybert assembles his men and together they create a manual tiller by attaching chains to the existing rudder and guide the ship to a nearby shoal where they run aground and plan to wait out the storm. Eventually a fisherman spots the Pendleton off the coast of Chatham, reporting it to the local Coast Guard station.
“Ray is forced to rise up out of the engine room and go topside on the ship, but to also rise to a position of authority,” says producer Jim Whitaker, “and what Casey is able to show us is that once he’s chosen to take the mantel and assume leadership of the men, he really is strong, and the colors of that are really interesting for him.”
Ben Foster (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Contraband”) is Richard Livesey, a veteran Coast Guard seaman who, despite his reservations about Bernie’s leadership abilities, volunteers to join him on the lifeboat. The actor was honored to pay tribute to men who are responsible for saving human lives, and who do it with modesty, earnestness and good will. “That’s part of the humility of this kind of service,” he says. “It’s not about patting yourself on the back; it’s about getting through it and doing the best job you can.”
“Ben is particularly great in this role because while he’s playing this tough guy, the role requires him to have these moments of great empathy, which Ben conveys through strength and by letting just a little bit of light in,” says Whitaker. “This is a movie about guys and leadership and how they are making these really difficult decisions with complex emotions and are dealing with it gracefully, and they’re all the stronger because of it.”
British actress Holliday Grainger (“Cinderella,” “Bonnie & Clyde”) is Miriam, the headstrong fiancee of Bernie Webber who has no problem speaking her mind, especially when it comes to Bernie’s safety. “Miriam is an interesting character,” says Grainger. “She is so strong and determined to get what she wants, and even though she’s an educated woman, all she really wants is to get married. I loved the idea and the style of the 1950s and that kind of small town regional American mindset, which was a headspace I’d never really played before.”
Says Gillespie, “Miriam is this very independent woman, which feels a little unusual for that time period, but she actually ends up challenging Bernie to think for himself. Portraying a powerful woman is such a great opportunity for an actress, and Holliday does a superb job of maintaining that fine line between being strong but not too intimidating. The chemistry between her and Chris is just beautiful, and you really are yearning for them to end up together.”
Miriam’s journey throughout the film is to be able to comprehend the world that Bernie comes from and to learn to be secure in the fact that marrying him means marrying into that world. She explains, “Bernie cares about her so much and doesn’t want to introduce her into his world of danger because he’s saving people’s lives every day and doesn’t know when-or if-he’s ever coming back.”
“The movie is as much about the rescue mission as it is about the challenges of a relationship and how one makes the decision to fully commit to be with someone,” says Whitaker, “and so in a way, what’s happening at sea is like a metaphor to what’s happening on shore, and Miriam is the anchor of that emotional journey, both for Bernie and herself.”
The way Bernie and Miriam met is a story in and of itself: she was a telephone operator and listened in on one of his calls where he politely cancelled a date due to a flat tire, and was smitten. “She heard his voice and said ‘that’s the man I’m going to marry,'” she says. “They dated on the phone for several weeks and got to know everything about each other before agreeing to meet, and the rest is history.” Bernie and Miriam Webber were married on April 16, 1952, as planned, and remained married for 58 years until Bernie passed away in 2009 at the age of 81.
In addition to the historical facts and details which the filmmakers wanted to be sure were believable and technically accurate, it was also important that the characters’ relationships were authentic as well. “We wanted to be very specific and very clear with how things happened, and the scene in the film where Bernie and Miriam go on their first date is verbatim from the story,” says Whitaker. “Being able to get those nuances and truths makes it all the more interesting and allows us to present such unique individuals, and both actors were great at being able to run with it.”
John Ortiz (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “Fast & Furious 6”) is third assistant engineer Wallace Quirey, a veteran of the Pendleton crew who, like Sybert, is happy to be working undetected below deck. But as the stakes are increased, he becomes more vocal in his support of Sybert and encourages the crew as well.
Kyle Gallner (“American Sniper,” “The Haunting in Connecticut”) is third-class engineer Andy Fitzgerald, who steps in for engineman first class Mel Gouthro (Beau Knapp) to join Webber and Livesey on the lifeboat, despite his lack of experience. “Andy was kind of the low man on the totem pole and never asked to go out on a mission,” explains Gallner. “On that day in 1952 they didn’t even trust him to go tie-up local fishing boats, but when Bernie has to choose a crew to join him on the mission there weren’t many people left at the station, so Andy volunteers.”
Gouthro, or Gus, as he was called by his friends, was sick that night, having to remain in the Chatham station. “Gus is just a firecracker…he’s all about having fun,” says Knapp. “He pushes Bernie to be more outgoing, especially when he is nervous about going on a date with a girl he’s spoken to but never seen before. He’s always supported Bernie, so it is tough for him when he can’t join him on the mission.”
John Magaro (“Carol,” “Unbroken”) plays Seaman Ervin Maske, the final volunteer to join the three men on the lifeboat, even though he was not actually stationed in Chatham at the time. “He was waiting for transport back to his light ship, which was a floating lighthouse that helped guide ships into the harbor,” explains Magaro, “and thought it might be fun to volunteer, not realizing the danger involved.”
Eric Bana (“Lone Survivor,” “Hanna”) plays Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff, the commanding officer of the Coast Guard station in Chatham when the storm hit. “Cluff is new to this particular region of the country, and while being an outsider in a small town is always a struggle, it’s even more difficult when you are in a position of power and have to command people who are local and have been there much longer than my character has,” Bana says.
He continues, “Cluff is from the South and everything about him is different, from the way he commands to how he sounds, and he anticipated having a level of respect from his men which is just not there. He’s uncomfortable and unsure of himself, and definitely has his work cut out for him in terms of short-circuiting the disconnection.”
This difficult situation is the backdrop in which Cluff must make the tough, potentially fatal decision to order Bernie to choose a crew and take the lifeboat out into the storm. After making the decision he is confronted by Miriam and has the opportunity to rescind it before it’s too late, but doesn’t. “It’s an interesting predicament,” explains Bana. “He could be responding to his authority being questioned by Miriam, but I think deep down he’s sending the men out because it’s the right thing to do-it’s their job. They didn’t have the checks and balances system in place back then like they do now, so he’s making a judgment call, but I don’t think there was ever any doubt that he was going to send them out.”
“Cluff is a guy whose back is against the wall and he has to make some very difficult decisions,” says Whitaker. “There is some uncertainty in those decisions that he has to make which reveals his character’s true humanity, and it’s really incredible to witness on screen. It was great to see Eric make him a more insecure and unsettled person.”
During production, Gillespie’s collaborative approach as a director helped empower the actors to create believable characters. Pine explains, “Craig’s interaction with the actors and his style of directing gives the actors great latitude to explore. He really pushed me to figure out my character, who was this very innocent man and unlike anyone I had ever played before, and it was frightening, but I appreciate him pushing me.”
“Craig has an amazing acuity about human emotions, and a specificity of understanding and finding the great emotions that are happening within a scene,” says Whitaker.
Each film Gillespie has directed thus far in his career is different from the next, either in genre, subject matter or tone, which Affleck viewed as an indication that the director was comfortable taking on new challenges. “Craig stepped into this situation quite nicely,” Affleck explains.
“When you read a script about a sinking ship you wonder how they are going to bring that to life on screen and make it feel real and still look spectacular, but Craig did it, and he always seemed so calm and collected.”
Adds Grainger, “This is an epic action movie which could have very easily been overly dramatized, but Craig was really trying to reign in Bernie and Miriam’s relationship so that it always felt real. He was going for that composed stoicism which is so appropriate for people living in a small fishing village with such harsh environmental conditions…there’s a kind of a strength and composure that you must have in order to survive, and he’s managed to capture that atmosphere in the film.”
All four men aboard the CG36500 lifeboat were awarded the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal in May of 1952 for their heroic actions. A commemorative plaque recognizing the courageous feat remains on display across from the Coast Guard station in Chatham today.
The only surviving member of the rescue crew, Fitzgerald, was engaged by the producers in the early stages of development, as was Gouthro, to help ensure the facts and details were authentic. “When the script was being written and it came to certain scenes where we needed specific details on what really happened, we had the ability to call and ask Andy,” says Whitaker. “This film is at its best when it is celebrating its authenticity, and we really tried to have everything be as real as possible.”
On November 10, 2014, both men visited the set to meet with the cast and crew and answer questions about their experience with the Coast Guard and observed filming of the scene where the Pendleton survivors descend the ladder into the lifeboat. “I was very impressed with the ship that they built,” says Gouthro. “Andy and I couldn’t believe how much it resembled the real Pendleton.”
“It was amazing for Andy and Gus to see us bringing their story to life,” remembers Aufiero. “Everyone on set knew they were in the presence of true heroes.”
“Some people still look at the Pendleton rescue as a suicide mission, but I never saw it like that,” says Fitzgerald, who is now 84 and lives with his wife in Colorado. “Like we used to say back then, ‘You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.’ Our job was to save people and that’s what we did.”
Gouthro is 83 and lives in Wrentham, Massachusetts. “When people ask me about the Pendleton what I try to impress on them is that it really was no big deal to these guys,” he says. “Those four men went out and did their job. They didn’t like it…it’s not like they were having a good time out on that lifeboat, but it’s what they were told to do so they went out and did it.”
Recreating the Extraordinary Tale
With a story like this where the real facts are so compelling, it was important to the filmmakers to remain faithful to the actual events. Michael Condon, executive director of the USS Salem, came aboard the project as technical advisor and the production enlisted the support of Commander John W. Pruitt, III from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Motion Picture & Television Office in Los Angeles.
“We were on set to help ensure the actors were driving the boats exactly how we would do it,” says Pruitt, “so that what you see on screen is exactly what the Coast Guard would have done.”
The U.S. Coast Guard was originally established on January 28, 1915, as a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces before being taken over by the Department of Transportation. Today the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, providing a steadfast presence on our country’s coastline, as well as its rivers, ports and on the high seas. They are responsible for the enforcement of maritime law and for the protection of life and property at sea.
“The Coast Guard was wonderful to us throughout the entire production,” says producer Dorothy Aufiero. “I didn’t know much about them before this project, but I have learned so much about the selfless work they do and now have the highest respect for them.”
The producers also lined up an impressive roster of talented craftsmen to help bring the Cape Cod of the 1950s to life on screen, including: Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, as director of photography; Michael Corenblith as production designer; Louise Frogley as costume designer; Tatiana S. Riegel, ACE, as editor; and Carter Burwell as composer.
Principal photography on “The Finest Hours” began in September 2014 in southeastern Massachusetts on stages built at the Quincy shipyards and at locations along the coast south of Boston, including Marshfield, Duxbury, Cohasset and Norwell. The film wrapped four months later on Cape Cod in Chatham.
“We had always hoped to film this picture in New England where the events actually took place,” says Aufiero. “Being able to visit the historic sites where Bernie Webber and his crew did their jobs was an extraordinary experience for everyone involved.”
Producer Jim Whitaker adds, “With the size and scope of a story like this, it is important to counterbalance the emotionality of the humanity, so the actors needed to be in an authentic environment for it to feel real both for them and the audience.”
The production filmed at the Coast Guard station in Chatham where Daniel Cluff gave Webber the questionable assignment more than 60 years ago, which was especially poignant for the cast and crew. “There’s this great photo of Bernie and his men sitting at a table in the mess at the station that was taken that night after their return, and we filmed in that actual spot,” says Chris Pine. “It was a very profound experience.”
“For me, it was as much about getting a sense of the geography and the landscape and the relationship between the station, the lighthouse and the shore, as well as some of the history behind it,” says Eric Bana. “It’s always good to get a kind of geographical reference, especially when so much of what’s going on has to do with geography and the men getting lost and my character ultimately being responsible for sending them out into that storm.”
The actual CG36500 lifeboat skippered by Webber in 1952 still exists and was recently restored by the Orleans Historical Society and Museum in Orleans, Massachusetts. The actors took the lifeboat out in Chatham harbor, but it was not used on camera as the harsh demands of moviemaking could have compromised, if not seriously damaged, the historic vessel.
The filmmakers spent months looking for authentic alternatives, which proved to be quite challenging as most of the lifeboats disappeared when the Coast Guard took them out of service in 1968. “No one was interested in wooden boats once the age of Fiberglass came in,” says the film’s marine coordinator Bruce Ross. “They are expensive to maintain, and because these boats were built for a specific purpose they didn’t lend themselves to being turned into fishing boats or pleasure craft. Basically, they were abandoned to rot in cornfields.”
Ross did a great deal of research and was able to locate four 36-foot vessels that were comparable in style to the original lifeboat. “Thirty-six feet sounds pretty big, but in reality it’s a postage stamp in the ocean,” says Condon. “Designed to carry 12 people, including its four crew members, these small wooden lifeboats were created to withstand waves of water washing over them. They have a 2,000-pound keel and, should they be flipped over by a wave, will right themselves.”
Crossing the Chatham Bar was especially problematic for the men aboard the lifeboat that ill-fated night, as it is one of the most dangerous spots on the Atlantic Ocean due to its shifting sandbars and susceptibility to massive waves. During the course of the rescue the engine on the lifeboat kept stalling, as it was suffocated by the waves created by the nor’easter.
“When you’re in the midst of a major storm like the one in this story, you can get some huge waves coming in, which makes it almost impossible for a small boat to get through,” says director Craig Gillespie. “The boats were built with very heavy keels on them, but in addition to the powerful surf there are all kinds of currents and it becomes a big whirlpool of a mess.” The production shot on the docks at Chatham’s Stage Harbor (which filled in for the Chatham Fish Pier as it looks nothing like it did in 1952) and at sea where the actual rescue took place.
While filming one scene on the harbor docks, a nor’easter actually struck Chatham, but fortunately it was nowhere near the intensity of the storm in 1952. Says Whitaker, “When shooting a film in water, you begin to comprehend the shear force and power it holds and that ultimately water does what it wants to do. You have to respect it, and we took every precaution to ensure the safety of the cast and crew during the filming of all those scenes.”
The USS Salem, a decommissioned Cold War-era heavy cruiser that is now a part of the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum docked in Quincy, Massachusetts, has a boiler plant and engines similar to those on the SS Pendleton. The production filmed in the ship’s engine room, diesel generator room and the port mid-ship’s passageway, placing the actors in the most realistic environment imaginable.
While Gillespie had never been on a ship before he impressed Condon with his understanding of oil tankers and how they operated. “Craig is an immensely talented, knowledgeable guy and he really did his homework,” Condon says. “When we were on the Salem he was able to tell me how everything worked.”
Two-time Oscar-nominated production designer Michael Corenblith (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “Frost/Nixon”) worked closely with the Coast Guard to research the Pendleton, studying archived materials and reading books on maritime history. He also had the opportunity to tour a ship built with methods similar to the Pendleton. “There are no T2 ships in existence today,” he says, “but both the Salem and a liberty ship called the Lane Victory were constructed the same way, and by walking through their corridors and looking at their engines we were able to gather a wealth of information.”
The structure of a T2 tanker is like a system of building blocks glued together, each compartment filled with oil. The ships were originally built to transport fuel from America to Europe and Asia during World War II, and because their function was such a vital one, they were in great demand. As a result, the ships were built so fast that some of the normal safety measures were thrown out, which caused structural issues. “The steel they were made from had a high-sulfur content that weakened its strength, so in very cold situations on very rough seas they had a propensity to break in half,” says Condon.
“In order to do any movie well-and especially a movie of this size-you need to hire talented people in every single area,” says Whitaker, “and we had an incredibly accomplished crew working with us.” That includes Doug Merrifield, the film’s executive producer, who brought an incredible wealth of nautical-themed experience to the production.
With credits ranging from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films to “The Perfect Storm,” Merrifield found and secured an enormous warehouse, formerly the Fore River Shipyards, in Quincy, Massachusetts, which turned out to be crucial for the production as it was there that the bulk of the film was shot.
Corenblith and his team constructed a series of interior sets of the Pendleton varying in scale, which were created in sections so the camera could move through each section of the ship to establish believable environments for the ship’s crew. This included the ship’s galley, mess and crew quarters, the steering station, and the engine room. Actual parts from the Salem, including hatches and doorways, were integrated into the incredibly detailed sets as well to help the actors better visualize what the real men had lived through.
The cast was in awe at the amount of detail that went into the design of the massive sets, especially the engine room of the Pendleton which was four-stories tall. Says Ben Foster, “I’ve been doing this 20-plus years and I still get excited coming to set and seeing sets like these. They have all been, and I rarely use this word, jaw-dropping.”
A set of the starboard side of the Pendleton and its three deck levels was also built at the shipyards. “There were welders everywhere,” says Chris Pine. “The ship was over 40-feet tall and made of steel that was actually welded together, which really was quite something.” But the design team did employ some old-fashioned movie-making methods as well. “Had everything been made of cast iron we wouldn’t have been able to accommodate all the weight,” says Corenblith, “so many of the bigger components of the engine room were replicated from fiberglass and, above the water line, wood.”
It was also at the shipyards where a massive water tank holding 800,000 gallons of water was built. The tank, which measured 80 feet by 110 feet and was used to film scenes of the lifeboat’s voyage out to sea and the subsequent rescue of the Pendleton’s survivors, gave the production the ability to start and stop the waves, wind, rain and snow on command. “You would never be able to film in the ocean in a real squall…that would be absolutely impossible,” says Ross. “You have to be able to control the elements.”
“We wanted to create the most realistic environment possible for our actors, so we did a combination of exterior shoots at some of the actual locations and some in the water tanks on our stages too,” says Whitaker. “Approximately 70 percent of our water scenes were shot in the tanks, but the rest was in open water.”
The actors portraying the men aboard the lifeboat spent weeks in a water tank with rain towers, dump tanks and 200-horsepower fans blowing wind and fake snow (made from vegetable gelatin) in their faces. It was a brutal environment, but similar to the conditions the night of February 18. Ironically, the winter of 2014 was one of the coldest on record for the East Coast, with temperatures dropping as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit on some nights when the actors were submerged in the tanks for hours at a time.
“We were in a water tank being hit with a fire hose 12 hours a day, but that’s what we signed up for,” says Foster. “And believe it or not, any kind of physically demanding or physically straining work actually wakes up the body, and if the body’s present, so are you.”
“The special effects team would spray water on us, which would inevitably be very cold, especially since we were filming in Massachusetts in early winter,” adds Pine. “The boat was attached to a dry-motion base built on the floor of the stage which was controlled by this crazy system of gears and pulleys operated by a guy who would press all these buttons which would make the boat kind of flip and slide.”
Mark Hawker (“Terminator: Genisys,” “Men in Black 3”), the film’s special effects supervisor, helped concept, design and execute the gimbals, which are platforms activated by pistons designed to tilt many thousands of pounds of scenery built atop the platform along a 22-degree arc. These were used to help recreate the storm environment for the Pendleton as well as the lifeboat.
“The Pendleton’s stern, hull, engine room and steering station all utilized two-axis gimbals, which were designed to simulate the side-to-side heaving motion of a large tanker at sea,” says Merrifield. “The motion base was a six-axis gimbal that simulated the lifeboat in large seas, which, in addition to the side-to-side motion, could pitch up and down to simulate the lifeboat climbing up and surfing down the enormous waves.”
The waves that pummeled the lifeboat once it was next to the Pendleton were produced by the manipulation of large buoys connected by computer-controlled hydraulic rams. A current on the surface of the water was created by air forced out from the sides of the tank.
“The Finest Hours” was shot on digital with 3D conversion taking place in post-production. As a result, many scenes set on the ocean during the blizzard were shot with a wide lens to convey the vastness of the sea and the turbulence of the waves, while providing more depth for the 3D effects.
“Our goal is to have the audience holding their breath with a pit in their stomach,” says Gillespie, “so we filmed from many different angles and got some amazing shots.”
Director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe, whose credits include “Blue Jasmine” and “The Others,” set out to tell the story in the most visually astonishing way as possible. The water tank was especially useful for him and his team, as it was much easier to move back and forth between close-up and wide shots and in different light atmospheres.
A good portion of the film takes place at night or under stormy skies, and Aguirresarobe was careful when determining which camera angles and lighting to use, as he wanted the audience to feel they were in the same environment. “Most of the film was shot with an Alexa XT camera and a set of aspherical Leica Summilux-C prime lenses, which gave us high resolution and extremely high contrast and helped make the scenes look very natural,” says Aguirresarobe. “We set the ASA at 800 to allow as much light in as possible, which also gave us the ability to shoot at dusk for scenes taking place at night.”
He continues, “We used hand-held cameras to help establish an authenticity to the action and a Technocrane for sweeping aerial shots and to shoot scenes involving especially long takes, and each crane shot was strategically planned in advance, so as to best maximize the effectiveness of the 3D effects.”
But even with the gimbals and water tanks there was no way for the filmmakers to replicate all the elements of a major storm, so some scenes were filmed against a blue screen to allow for the addition of visual effects later.
Costume designer Louise Frogley (“Unbroken,” “Quantum of Solace”) was thrilled when first approached about the project. “The story is set in the 1950s and involves American work wear, which I am absolutely nuts about,” she says. Tasked with creating, not only the attire for the crews of both the Pendleton and the lifeboat but the everyday wardrobe for Bernie, Miriam and all the townspeople of Chatham, Frogley and her team conducted extensive research into the period.
“The biggest surprise for me was to find out that Sybert and the men on the Pendleton would not have been in uniform,” says Frogley. “They wore work-oriented civilian clothing which is basically hunting, fishing and labor-intensive work apparel, and multiple layers of it, as they had to go back and forth between the freezing-cold deck and the engine room below where it was boiling hot.”
Frogley’s department manufactured six identical versions of each outfit for each of the 33 men on board the Pendleton, as they needed to dress the actors and stunt players, both wet and dry. Each outfit consisted of a shirt, pants, jacket, boots, belt and cap. The apparel was made at a factory in Los Angeles aged, and then shipped to the set in Massachusetts, where it was reaged again.
The Coast Guard did not have official uniforms in 1952 either, so Webber and the other enlisted men were dressed in surplus Navy clothes. Fortunately, Gillespie embraced the color palette she favored as well, which included rust, tans, beiges, browns and blacks, all colors that worked incredibly well with clothing from the ’50s like overalls, jeans, dungarees and coats.
Once principal photography was completed, editor Tatiana S. Riegel (“Million Dollar Arm,” “Fright Night”) and Golden Globe-nominated composer Carter Burwell (“Carol,” “The Fifth Estate”) went to work, employing their ample talents to further shape and enhance the film.
“We can’t leave them out here alone…the boat won’t last. We all live or we all die.”
-Bernie Webber, Petty Officer First Class, U.S. Coast Guard
Storming into Theaters
“The Finest Hours” celebrates man’s will as his greatest weapon. These young men with different levels of experience, or lack thereof, conquer their own fears and face some of the most destructive forces of nature imaginable to accomplish the impossible.
“It’s a very simple story about these guys who have jobs to do. It wasn’t done for glory and there wasn’t a self-aggrandizing vibe to it: it was just men doing their job,” says Chris Pine. “There are no monsters, it’s just men against the ocean, and I think there’s something really exciting about seeing men and Mother Nature go at it because Mother Nature doesn’t care who you are or where you come from…she just does her thing.”
“It’s an amazing story,” says director Craig Gillespie, “and while there are a lot of thrills and the scale is huge, in the end it’s a very personal story.”
Adds Casey Affleck, “It’s a real story about real people and what they are capable of doing, and how saving their own lives and the lives of others helps them to understand and appreciate their own strengths.”