“I love stories that are not all that complicated, but are really well told,” explains Chris Pine, star of Disney’s The Finest Hours. “I love a clichéd story and this was a beautiful throwback with a good romance. A guy that loved his girl and wanted to get back to her, a guy that was really scared, was up against seemingly insurmountable odds, overcame them. Found his manhood, found his courage, found his strength to go on... I like a hero who was not the obvious one, who wasn’t a rogue, who wasn’t the strong chiseled jaw guy.”
The Finest Hours is based on a true story, the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, a tanker torn apart during a terrible winter storm. Director Craig Gillespie made the wise choice to film on location where the real events took place, which adds to the realism of the piece. “We got to actually go to the Coast Guard station where this happened and the exterior has barely changed. And the same going down to the pier and to shoot in the town of Chatham.” Being on location where the story is set also helped Chris Pine get into character. “Just being in Chatham and feeling what it’s like to be in a small New England town. You get a sense of these guys that are regular Joes. They clock in, they clock out. Their job just happens to be saving lives, that’s what they do."
In a similar spirit, actor Ben Foster felt patriotic playing his character, Richard Livesey. “These are guys who put others before them. It’s so humbling doing a job like this where you get the opportunity to spend time with the men and women of our military. And not just because it’s the American military, but because these are men and women who have chosen to serve their fellow man.” Disney fans will remember Foster from the 96-97 Disney Channel series Flash Forward
Much of the film takes place on the high seas during an intense storm. Filming was done mostly on sets, but the actors had to be wet with gallons of water constantly beating down on them. You might think this would make the acting job more challenging, but they all agreed that it made it easier. “You don’t have to act all that much and you just focus on getting done," explains Pine. "And I think if there’s any kind of thing that we share with the guys that actually did it, it’s that under great duress it limits your focus so your focal plane is guys next to you, boat underneath you, job ahead.”
Casey Affleck spent time researching the period and what life was like for these crew members, but felt like it was useless when it came to acting in the elements. “I went to museums and went on a few ships and sort of tried to imagine what it would feel like to be down there and some of that comes out in the movie. You have all these plans and then they turn the cold water on and you just forget everything and you’re just trying to get through the scene.”
The cast of The Finest Hours is very much a boy’s club, with the exception of Holiday Grainger. Gillespie remembers, “It was three weeks of shooting before Holliday turned up and the vibe suddenly did change on the set… Everyone was much nicer all of a sudden.” Holiday Grainger plays Miriam, Bernie’s fiancée. Her character seems very modern for a woman of the 1950’s, but Grainger saw her differently. “I thought she was quite traditional in all her values and wanting to get married to start a family, and that’s very important for her. I think what maybe defies the time period is her lack of a care for social conventions… She’s very instinctive and very self-assured and goes with what she feels is right.”
This is Holiday Grainger’s second film for Disney after last year’s lavish live action version of Cinderella, but for the British actress it barely felt like the same company. “It’s a totally different experience from Cinderella, you can’t compare the two. I can’t even imagine it’s the same studio… I loved working around the Cinderella sets and watching them develop and it’s the same on this. It’s so exciting to be a part of when you’re watching someone make a ship inside a warehouse and all of a sudden you believe that and you’re watching people walk up and down it. It’s huge!”
When Craig Gillespie describes the sets, you get a sense of the scale of this production. “We had a shipping warehouse and we built five sets in there. We had the engine room, which was 65-feet tall and made of steel on a gimble five stories high. The opening scene when you come down to Casey, that’s all the set rocking and it ends up having ten feet of water in it. And then the weight of that was a logistical nightmare... We built the back half of the tanker, so you see that crane up, that’s all set on a gimble, steel. They can come out of the doors, all the actors can be up there and it’s rocking. We built the whole wall of it in the same thing. When they’re looking up, that’s all set on a gimble that leans into a 110-foot tank that they then climb down this ladder from that height. The deep background’s a blue screen, but they were living in this world and they were getting pummeled with rain, which was freezing.”
The Finest Hours is visually amazing, but it’s one of the few films that is truly breathtaking in 3D. “We talked a lot about the film being in 3D,” explains Gillespie. “It really informed how I was going to film this because I feel like in 3D, you have this opportunity to have these longer shots and keep the camera moving in a way that makes it really immersive. Everything on land is rock solid, it’s horizontal, it’s mostly lock offs and there’s this sort of security to it. And then any time we’re on the ocean, the camera is moving.”
Disney's The Finest Hours is one of those rare films that feels real, sweeping you up in the story and carrying you along for the ride. You know in the back of your head that it's just movie magic, but in talking with the cast and director you get a sense of the care and devotion that went into doing this story justice. It's a film about real acts of heroism and one that I hope will inspire you as much as it inspired me.