The Finest Hours Set Visit: Chris Pine Leads a Crew Through a Real High Seas Nightmare
It’s bad form to scream on a movie set. But this reporter couldn’t help but let loose a burst of frightened profanity on a chilly autumn day in 2014, when she turned the corner of a Boston warehouse to witness a wall of water savagely rush upon a small boat and its battered crew. Thankfully, the filmmakers behind Disney’s upcoming Chris Pine-fronted spectacle The Finest Hours were thrilled, because my embarrassing outburst was proof that all the work they’ve been pouring into bringing the incredible true story of the Pendleton rescue mission to the big screen was already paying off.
Based on the Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias’s nonfiction book, The Finest Hours celebrates the bravery of the men who risked their lives to pull off the greatest small boat rescue in the Coast Guard’s history. It all began off Cape Cod in 1952, when the worst blizzard in a decade turned the seas into a hellish landscape of 40 to 60-foot waves that giddily slashed through the cheap “dirty steel” that earned WWII-forged tankers the notorious nickname “Kaiser’s coffins.”
When the oil tanker Fort Mercer called for help after wrecked by vicious waves, the Coast Guard’s A-Team set off to the rescue. But this was not the only tanker crew in dire distress. Not far away, the Pendleton had been split in two before her crew could even call for help. Mercifully, a plane flying overhead happened to catch site of the sinking half a ship, and sent a distress signal. Answering this call was not as much a B-Team as a motley band of sailors who thought nothing of braving the storm to save 33 of their fellow man.
In November 13th of 2014, it was the 49th day out of the film’s 69-day shoot, and the Pendleton segments–which has Casey Affleck leading his own crew–were essentially wrapped. So, one by one, we had the pleasure of speaking to the underdog B-Team, whose story is so sensational that The Finest Hours‘ cast and crew marvel it’s never been told before.
Making the leap from Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk to a reluctant sea captain, Chris Pine leads The Finest Hours‘ as Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber. Kyle Gallner plays Bernie’s best friend, the adventure-hungry Engineman Third Class Andrew Fitzgerald. Ben Foster portrays Seaman Richard Livesey, who had a chip on his shoulder for not being picked for the A-Team. Lastly, John Magaro tackles the role of Ervine Maske, a visiting Seaman who was in the right place at a pivotal time.
“(Ervine Maske) just happened to be passing through that night in February,” Magaro told us as he cozied up against the electric heater, trying to shake off the bitter cold that permeated the cavernous warehouse where the production had built massive reconstructions of ships and wreckage. “He was living in New York at the time with his wife, who he had just married, and he’s coming back from leave. He stopped by the Chatham Station. They told him to wait there during the storm, and they needed someone else to go out there on the lifeboat, and he volunteered. He went out there with no experience; he had never done it before. He really didn’t know what he was getting into, but he did his duty that night.”
Theirs was a mission believed to be so impossible that a well-meaning fisherman suggested they should go out to sea, “get lost and come back.” No one would blame them for chickening out. But that wouldn’t make for the kind of heroism that earns a Disney live-action epic, now would it? Not to say that these men saw themselves as heroes. In fact, they avoided telling even their own families of their daring do, feeling that this was just what was required, and nothing to brag about.
That was a big part of what attracted The Fighter producer Dorothy Aufiero to the book, which she optioned, then pitched successfully to Disney. “What I find fascinating is this story has been so hidden,” She shared. “Very few people knew about it. I think part of it is that the four Coast Guard guys are very humble about it…That was their job. Even family members knew nothing about it until the book came out, until the sixtieth anniversary of the Pendleton rescue. So it’s pretty amazing.”
“I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this story,” exclaimed Boston native Foster, “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.”
Gallner had the good fortune to meet the man he’d be playing onscreen. And he confessed to be humbled by Fitzgerald’s modesty about this remarkable rescue, saying, “The craziest thing about talking to Andy and meeting Andy was… 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… 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… That really resonated 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.”
Pine concurred, saying of his character, “There’s a great recording of Bernie talking to an interviewer years and years ago about the rescue and I guess, above and beyond the heroism of it, you get the sense that he’s sick of retelling the story, you know? That–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. (There’s) a real sense that there was no glory in it for him or any need for self-aggrandizement. It was just very simple.”
Magaro, who consulted with Maske’s children about their fearless father, said, “He was very modest about it; he never talked about it, but he was always willing to lend a hand around the community.” He added, “I don’t think those guys who came of age in the 1940s and ’50s–often called the greatest generation–they didn’t speak of their actions. And they did some amazing things. They really put themselves out there, taking some crazy risks, and then would just go home and live a modest life – not write a book about it. It took someone else to come along and decide to write it down. Otherwise it could have been lost forever.”
Foster, who didn’t have the resource of archival video or meeting Livesey’s descendants, decided to focus his approach on capturing a kind of bygone brand of manhood. “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,” Foster explained. “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 f*cking 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.”
The incredible odds these men faced was made shockingly apparent as myself and the other invited journalists watched again and again a 2,200 gallon dunk tank be unleashed on the motor life boat CG 36500 and its trembling contents (Pine, Gallner, Magaro and Foster). The actors struggled to stand while a motion base pitched their vessel dramatically from side to side. Every detail from the action to the sets to shooting on location in Chatham has been considered. Producer James Whitaker insisted, “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.”
Each member of the cast was eager to express their admiration for the Coast Guard–which has consulted on the film–and its heroes. And they knew that part of doing right by these real men who risked their lives was to commit to the intense stunt work this high seas adventure required. Having starred in the famously brutal war drama, Lone Survivor, Foster in particular was no stranger to physically demanding roles. Foster is thrilled about the team that was pulled together for the stunt work, saying, “We have some of the same team (from ‘Lone Survivor’), 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.” Violent, but PG-13. This is a Disney movie after all.
Yet when asked which shoot has been more challenging, Foster declared, “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.”
A switch from wet suits to dry suits–like the Marines favor–helped keep the actors a bit less wet (saying drier is a stretch when you see a quartet of men singly introduced to you as they shiver and sit in sopping flannel shirts.) Still, shooting all day on a chilly set where the script requires its stars to be repeatedly drenched and tossed about was wearing on the cast, no question.
Foster detailed, “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 sh*t 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.”
Gallner admitted that a good day on set was one where the dunk tank water wasn’t “ice cold.” He added, “The toughest stuff is mostly the physical stuff, getting pounded all day, 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.”
But not a one of them wallowed in these production woes. “No one pretended it was going to be a cakewalk,” Gallner said with a tired grin. “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.”
Magaro added in his own interview, “Luckily, we don’t have to do too much acting because they’re throwing a ton of water on us, and we’re being jostled around by the machine. So it takes a lot of burden off the actors. You just sort of hang on for dear life, hold your breath and try and make it through the waves.”
“That’s actually kind of great fun,” Pine said of the motion base boat and its terrifying torrents of watery assault, “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. And then you see Andy Fitzgerald, (who came by to visit the set on Veteran’s Day) who was actually out there on the boat and you shut up real fast, as we’re in dry suits and 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. (What we’re doing) is difficult, but it’s no comparison to what actually happened.”
To keep their spirits up on particularly rough “I’d rather be falling down a mountain” days, Foster pulled some inspiration from sailor tradition, bringing a bit of music on board. Gallner told us his audition included a scene from the film where Fitzgerald begins to sing a sea chanty called “Holloway Jail,” and his crewmates join in, each gaining strength through this musical bonding moment. Art imitated life when Foster brought a boom box aboard the set’s ship to play music between takes/massive waves being dumped on their heads.
“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,” Foster confessed, “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?… Good dirty funk makes you warmer.”
The Finest Hours opens in theaters on January 29th.