Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night, Million Dollar Arm) has added to his diverse resume of films with The Finest Hours, the true story of the most daring rescue attempt in Coast Guard history. When two oil tankers are both literally broken in half off the coast of New England during a powerful nor’easter on February 18, 1952, a crew of four Coast Guard members head out from their station in Chatham, Massachusetts in a small wooden CG36500 lifeboat to save any survivors they can from one of the ships, the SS Pendleton.
The lifeboat’s battle with 60-foot waves, massive winds, zero visibility and the loss of their navigational gear – all while the men of the Pendleton wage their own fight to stay afloat and alive – is incredible enough that it seems almost more like a movie than a real-life incident.
For Gillespie, this is easily the biggest movie that the Australian commercials-director-turned-feature-filmmaker has ever helmed. Den of Geek spoke with him about the challenges of working on the water, recreating the conditions of the storm, and guiding a cast that features Chris Pine as lifeboat captain Bernie Webber, Ben Foster as his second-in-command, Casey Affleck as the chief engineer of the doomed Pendleton and many others.
Den of Geek: What appealed to you about this story? You weren’t familiar with it…
Craig Gillespie: I was not. I had just finished Million Dollar Arm for Disney and this script got sent along with almost no phone call or anything. It just turned up. And my agent said, “Hey, there’s a script they’re interested in for you. It’s a sea rescue, a true story from the ‘50s.” I was like, I don’t know. But then I read it. Scott Silver had written the draft I read. Just the way he portrayed the characters, the dynamic between them with the restraint…he’s such a visual storyteller, Scott. It’s on the ocean, and I grew up on the ocean since I’m from Australia. I’ve just been around the ocean my whole life. So it was incredibly visceral to me. And it’s a true story, which is just astounding.
Beyond the script and the book, did you do more research into this? I know that (Coast Guard crew members) Andy Fitzgerald and Mel Gouthro were still alive.
Yes. They were still alive. I know the writers had met with them and talked to them. And also, Bernie’s family and wife…they open the story. It’s literally a true story of what happened with their romance. She was an operator. They met on the phone and they ended up talking for three months before she finally talked him into meeting her at this diner. So all of that stuff is great.
In terms of my research, I created a wealth of knowledge using all the old photographs of them coming back in on the rescue. We had replicas of the 36500. We got to go out on the real 36500. And we went on boats of that era in terms of tankers. We shot on an actual World War 2 battleship, the Savoy, over there in Boston. And Michael Corenblith, our production designer, did, I think, just an amazing job. He got all the semantics. So the exterior of what we were building was — with just a few camera changes just for the story — was pretty much what the Pendleton was.
It’s amazing how these two boats broke up almost at the same time.
The reality was there were a bunch of these T3 tankers that were built quickly during World War 2. And they were made with inferior steel. They would split apart. I think there was like a dozen of them over the decade that split apart. This one literally, the Pendleton, it had that huge fracture in it to start that you see in the movie. They’d glue them back together and send them out again. It’s what they would go out in. it’s crazy.
What were the biggest logistical challenges you faced in terms of the effects that you were going to work with?
There were six months of prep in this. We had the physical effects guys who worked on the all the Pirates films. They’ve worked on massive productions, with all that gimbal work. So there was so much prep that, honestly, the actual shooting of it ran incredibly smoothly. All of our crews were so good between Michael and everybody figuring things out.
I think the wave pool is just taxing on the guys because they are in that 36500. Even though we’re not out in the ocean, it’s a wave pool. That boat is bouncing around like crazy. They go out there in a little rowing boat one by one, and they’ve got to climb up there, and they’re wet for hours because we just keep them out there. You know, different camera angles, different scenes. Everybody’s got to get their single shot. It was just a real grind for them.
But we had a great first AD in Vincent Lascoumes. It was amazing how smoothly it ran. For me, the most nerve-racking thing is always capturing the performance.
There are so many tight shots of Ben and Chris. Ben told me that he liked that it was a very sparse script. So much was just them looking back and forth at each other.
Ben, I loved his performance. He’s like, “I don’t even want to look at (Chris).” There was all this stealing glances or sideway glances. I love that moment when Bernie is saying, “We all live or we all die.” Ben doesn’t look at him. He’s looking away and he nods and he gets up.
Those choices as an actor…that’s sort of the exhilarating part. Those choices that I feel like they land emotionally. Like when he really makes those deliberate — we called it ‘backting’ because most of the time he would put his back to the camera. In the mess hall, whenever they are at Chatham, we’d always sort of position him so they’re talking and the camera would be behind him.
He’s a very enigmatic character throughout the film.
Yeah. He’s prickly, but he’s right. In those looks you see him grow to respect Bernie. He certainly has disdain for him clearly. You just see that evolve. It’s pretty amazing to do that without dialogue.
Any sequences that you got through and you were like, “Wow. That was easier than I thought it would be”?
(Laughs) I’m trying to think. Literally, every day I approached it like I was in the 18th mile of a marathon. Because you’d get there…we had to wear rain gear and boots and everything. We had to get inside that location because it was just raining and we’re in the elements, even though we’re inside. It was cold and it was miserable and you kind of knew it would be, so you just kind of pace yourself. Every day at the end of the day I’d turn to my AD and be like, “Man, that was a big day.” And he’s like, “Every day is a big day.” (laughs)
But it was sort of one step at a time. We just sort of worked our way through it. Like, we got on the set of Chatham. We had a stage for that. And it was only four days. But those four days were like being on vacation. You’re not walking around in rain gear. We’d be in T-shirts and just light stuff and not be wet and not far from the actor. Because when they are out in that pool…a lot of time it was the camera being independent of the boat and always having this movement going on, which meant that we were on this techno crane 50 feet away from the actors, which is a hard way to work.
Casey Affleck said he based some of his portrayal off you, because he said that you were on the set every day wherever you guys were, and with all the chaos and everything going on you were very even-keeled. Is that a place you go to? Does it come with time, experience, and seasoning?
It might just be my exterior. [laughs] There are certainly days I come in and I’ve been up since 5:30 or 4 o’clock going through our shot list today because we’ve got a lot to do. And you would hit the ground kind of running. The tricky part of being a director is no matter how crazy the day is, you want to try and create an environment for the actors where they are not feeling that pressure and they have space to do their performances. So that’s something I always try to be aware of.
You’ve done romantic comedy, horror, a sports drama, and now this. You’ve built an eclectic filmography so far. What other genres do you want to tackle?
I did meet with a studio executive the other day and he was like, “What kind of movie do you want to do next?” I honestly don’t know. Literally, I go from like…You know, I love Skyfall. You know, something that’s as large or larger again. Or I could go back and do something like Lars. I’ll see what turns up. It’s sort of hard to find good scripts. When you do, it’s so rare for me to read a script and just be able to visualize it. That’s half the work. You see the tone of it. If you can see the movie in your head from the first draft, you’re in good shape. That’s sort of my barometer. When I come across a script like that in whatever genre it is, I’m on board. I would like to get back to comedy a little more. Find some dark comedy. (laughs) And not be wet.
The Finest Hours is out in theaters on Friday (January 29).