by: Jay Carlson
It was a chilly fall day when I arrived on the set of The Finest Hours in Quincy, MA. The filming location only separated from the actual events by about seventy-five miles and sixty-two years. Back then, the huge factory that I stepped into was actually building ships rather than pretending to sink them.
The story of the The Finest Hours begins on February 18, 1952, when a massive nor’easter struck New England, pummeling towns along the Eastern Seaboard and wreaking havoc on anything caught in its destructive path, including two 500-foot oil tankers. The SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer, bound for Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine, respectively, were both ripped in half by the storm, stranding their crews at sea. The senior officer aboard the stern of the Pendleton, chief engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck), soon realizes it is up to him to take charge of the frightened crew and keep the ship afloat as long as possible.
The Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts was busy helping local fishermen protect their boats from the storm when they received word that the Fort Mercer was in trouble. Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), the recently appointed station chief, immediately dispatches his best men to aid in the larger rescue effort already in progress. When Cluff learns that a second ship, the Pendleton, was also damaged and is now adrift in nearby waters, he orders coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) to quickly assemble a crew and take out the CG36500 lifeboat to look for survivors.
Webber and three men board the 36-foot motorized, wooden boat and set off on the perilous mission with bleak prospects, at best, and before they even clear the Chatham Harbor, the boat’s windshield and compass are destroyed. Yet the men persevere, and despite hurricane-force winds, 60-foot waves, frigid temperatures and zero visibility, miraculously locate the Pendleton and rescue 32 of its 33 men in the midst of the turbulent storm, returning a total of 36 men home on their battered 12-seat lifeboat.
It’s a huge story, but one that most locals were not be aware of. This is mainly due to the working class heroes at the center of the story, “What I find fascinating is this story has been so hidden. Very few people knew about it. I think part of it is that the four Coast Guard guys are very humble about it,” Producer Dorothy Aufiero tells us from the set. “They were doing their job. 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. “
The Origins of Disney’s The Finest Hours:
The project originated with producer Aufiero shortly after the success of her prior film, The Fighter, set in Boston. “I was in a meeting and I was looking at another project that actually is a book that Casey Sherman had done. I had pitched this project and I was in a meeting to just meet the author and I determined it wasn’t really the story I was interested in making. I was saying my goodbyes and leaving the building and Casey started following me and he said, “Can I see you for a minute? Do you mind if I walk you out?” I said, “No, it’s alright.” So we went to the parking lot and I was getting close to my car and he whipped out the book, The Finest Hours and he said, “I have your next big thing.” I said, “Really?” I’m looking at the cover and there’s this tanker sinking and I’m thinking that this is not anything I’m remotely interested in. So I said that I’d look at it. I drove home and later in the afternoon I was flipping through it and I was completely blown away by the story. It was about these courageous people, it was about heroes. So I called the writers that I had worked with on The Fighter and I told them about it and Casey FedExed out a copy of the book to each one of them.”
We optioned the property in April 2011 and then Paul (Tamasy) and Eric (Johnson) put together a treatment and also a sizzle reel using existing footage and newspaper articles as a sales tool. Then our representation set up a series of pitch meetings for us.”
“They set up great meetings with Playtone, Tom Hanks’ company and J.J. Abrams, we were meeting with bigger producers that had different deals. We met with Ron Howard’s company, Imagine. So we had a series of meetings but I always really felt it was Disney. I hoped it was Disney. We had a meeting with Jim Whitaker and he’s based on the Disney lot. So we went in and met with Jim. Jim has a really great reputation, he’s a terrific guy. He has a great sense of story. He worked at Imagine for years developing projects like Apollo 13, so he had the right sensibility and he was crazy about the project.”
Whitaker recalls, “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, too.”
“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.”
The project finally started coming together with its director, Craig Gillespie and the casting of talented actors including bonafide movie stars, Chris Pine, Casey Afflleck, Ben Foster and Eric Bana. Whitaker speaks very highly of the cast they’ve assembled, “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 (Magaro), Kyle (Gallner), Ben (Foster), Chris (Pine) - 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.”
I was lucky enough to speak to the four actors who portrayed the real-life Coast Guard heroes in The Finest Hours. If you haven’t already, take a look at our first set report, where I speak to Chris Pine about playing the Captain of the crew, Bernie Webber, as well as director, Craig Gillespie.
Ben Foster: Richard Livesey
Ben Foster has quietly risen to become one of the most interesting actors of his generation, able to hold his own and occasionally steal the spotlight from such heavyweights as Christian Bale, Russell Crowe and Mark Wahlberg.
The Finest Hours has him sharing a small lifeboat in 1952 during one of the worst snowstorms ever to hit Cape Cod with Chris Pine, Kyle Gallner and John Magaro.
I had an opportunity to speak with Foster between takes of being battered by walls of water over and over again to simulate what the real-life Coast Guard crew faced during one of the most heroic rescues of all-time.
When asked about how the arduous nature of the shoot compares to the physical shoot of Lone Survivor, Foster states, “Oh 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.” He then deadpans, “We're not allowed to complain.”
Foster plays Richard Livesey, a veteran Coast Guard seaman who, despite his reservations about Bernie’s (Chris Pine) leadership abilities, volunteers to join him on the lifeboat. When asked to explain his character Foster tries to keep it simple, “I'm a guy on a boat. (Laughs.) Four of us go out under very difficult weather pattern. 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. This is portraiture work.”
Foster, like many, wasn’t aware of the amazing real-life story until recently, “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.”
“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.”
John Magaro: Ervin Maske
The Finest Hours features an all-star cast of household names, but beyond the Chris Pines and Ben Fosters there are a few up and comers whose faces might look familiar but their names might not be on the tip of your tongue. Yet. One of those is actor John Magaro, who you may have seen in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken or Adam McCay’s The Big Short.
Magaro plays Ervin Maske, one of the four Coast Guard crew members at the center of The Finest Hours. When asked what drew him to the film Magaro doesn’t hesitate, “It was a great script. Strong story. It's one of those stories that a lot of young actors would love to be a part of.”
When asked to elaborate on his character, Ervin Maske Magaro was had a lot to say. “He was a Coastguard guy. He was actually from Wisconsin, so he wasn't from New England. He just happened to be passing through (Chatham) that night in February. He was on lightship duty, which back then was basically like a lighthouse out on the water, before modern technology did away with that. So 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.”
“He was very modest about it (the rescue); he never talked about it, but he was always willing to lend a hand around the community. I think that played into why he went out there that night. He didn't have to go out there. He just showed up. He could have easily said, "This isn't my job. I'm not going to do this." He had that kind of… I don't know if anyone here is from the Midwest, but I grew up in Cleveland, and I think there's this Midwestern kind of generosity and warmth, and you just do what you're supposed to do. I think there's a degree of experience between the four guys, and he just happens to be the least experienced of them.”
When asked about the pressures of portraying a real-life hero Magaro continues, “You feel a big responsibility, but I think that motivates you to work a little harder.”
When I took a tour of the set Magaro was certainly working hard himself, being dowsed in take after take with hundreds of gallons of water in a 2,200 gallon tank surrounded by skyscraper high green screens, in a replica of the boat used in the Coast Guard’s amazing rescue. “You know, when you read the script, I don't know if you can ever really imagine what it's going to truly be like. I knew we were going to get wet, and I knew it was going to be a challenge. But I don't think until I got here and we started going through it, I didn't realize how challenging it would be. But it's good. I think that's what most actors love, is being challenged and learning something new and pushing yourself to the limit. So I enjoy that. Makes the job fun.”
He quips, “It reminds me of high school swim practice, early in the morning, in the dead of winter.”
Kyle Gallner: Andy Fitzgerald
Kyle Gallner rounds out the Coast guard crew, playing Andy Fitzgerald. “He's an engineman. 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. In real life, Andy was just -- he was really bored.”
Echoing the mantra that I hear from nearly every cast and crewmember, he stresses that the four man crew were all just doing their job “They didn't know that it was going to be this. They knew that it was going to be a big storm and stuff. But you know, he's a 20-year-old kid stuck in a room. 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.
Unlike his fellow cast mates, Gallner was able to meet and speak to his real-life counterpart, Andy Fitzgerald. “He's great, 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 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. “
“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. 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. 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? After everything, he was like, I still have a job to do, I have to finish my job. And 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.”
The story is a larger than life adventure with huge sets and life or death circumstances, but at its core what make the story of The Finest Hours so special are the men at the heart of this story. Make no mistake, the film is sure to be an amazing ride opening in Digital 3D™, Real D 3D and IMAX® 3D, transporting audiences into the heart of the action and creating a fully immersive cinematic experience on an epic scale, but try to remember the real-life heroes who were just doing their duty.
The Finest Hours hits theaters on January 29th.