THE FINEST HOURS is a love letter to the American Coast Guard. The movie is a heroic action-thriller based on the remarkable true story of the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck New England, ripping two 500-foot oil tankers in half. Chief Engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck) must take charge of the frightened tanker crew. Meanwhile the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts received word that one of the tankers was in trouble. They send their best men off, leaving coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) to assemble a ragtag crew (including Ben Foster) in a 36-foot wooden boat to rescue the 2nd tanker’s crew. Miriam (Holliday Grainger), recently engaged to Bernie Webber, remains on shore trying to deal with this life and death situation.
The director and actors were a few of those that brought this epic tail to life, and it was a privilege to talk with them face to face on Tuesday, January 12th at The London Hotel in West Hollywood. Here were the stars in attendance:
Chris Pine (“Bernie Webber”) & Ben Foster (“Richard Livesey”)
Casey Affleck (“Ray Sybert”)
Holliday Grainger (“Miriam”)
Director Craig Gillespee
Later this week I’ll share my review of the film, but for now I’ll just say that it’s a keeper. While at the press junket, to my delight Chris Pine and Ben Foster walked in our room first. I’m a bit of a Chris Pine fan (did I say “a bit”? I meant HUGE) so I was both nervous and excited to talk with the cast. However, I had my questions ready, having just seen THE FINEST HOURS the evening before.
Since the movie is based on real events and real people of the Coast Guard, the actors had the challenge of bringing to life these people in the film. Chris Pine and Ben Foster both spoke on that subject.
Chris Pine: I had a beautifully written script and that’s really my job as an actor. I bring to life the character that I read in the script, not necessarily the actual person the script is based on. The character on the page is my job. I need to serve that. And I need to serve the director and my fellow actors. And then just being in Chatham and feeling what it’s like to be in a small New England town. You get a sense that these guys are regular Joes. They clock in, they clock out. Their job just happens to be saving lives. Just like we go in every day and play make believe, these guys go and they save lives. That’s what they do.
Ben Foster: 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. These are men and women who have chosen to serve their fellow man and that just speaks to humans. Richard, who I portray, that’s his job. That’s what he does. He’s not looking for a selfie. He’s not looking to tell all his friends what a brave guy he is on Twitter. He’s doing it because that’s his job and it’s the right thing to do. This movie harkens back to a time of an emotional spiritual courage and a work ethic that has a simplicity to it. A classic fabric of what being a hero is about. It’s not about saying, “Look what I did. Look how great I am,” it’s your job and there’s not much more to say.
Throughout the film, all of the characters speak with a small-town Boston accent. We asked how they were able to nail that.
Chris Pine: I had a little 15 minute audio recording of Bernie that I played over and over. He had a very laid-back, lackadaisical cadence. He was quiet, succinct. He talked about God, family and the boat. It just gave me a great insight into Bernie.
Ben Foster: I’m lucky, my family is from Boston, so I had the accent.
When watching THE FINEST HOURS, I was struck by how different Chris Pine’s character is in this film compared to all the alpha male roles he’s played (and which I love), from a Prince in both PRINCESS DIARIES 2 and INTO THE WOODS to the infamously egotistical James T. Kirk in STAR TREK. So I asked him why he took this role that IS so different from his previous ones.
Chris Pine: Just the simplicity of [the role]. I love stories that are simple and that are really well told. I love a clichéd story and this was a beautiful throwback story with a good romance. He was just a gentle spirit. I was attracted to seeing a character like that go through these experiences. A guy that was really scared. I wanted to see someone who was wracked by fear just like any of us would be. It just seemed very normal and human and I liked that. I liked a hero who was not the obvious one, who wasn’t a rogue, who wasn’t the strong chiseled jaw guy.
I asked them what was the scariest moment they had while shooting. It led to some pretty funny answers.
Chris Pine: It’s Hollywood, so really, it just wasn’t. We were in a giant pool with a lot of people making sure we wouldn’t die.
Ben Foster: It’s like grown-up water wings. They painted them out of the movie.
After that the tone turned serious, and we got down to the business of what it was like working together in that “giant pool”.
Ben Foster: So in terms of the drama of the piece of Mr. Webber’s hero’s journey, it’s more of a privilege for myself to spend time with the real guys, the real Chatham Coast Guard. But an equal measure privilege to spend time with such wonderful actor as Chris. And he’s doing work that I haven’t seen him do before. And I haven’t seen in a movie in a very long time. I haven’t seen this kind of underdog. I haven’t seen this kind of quality of true blue. There’s so much cynicism in cinema these days and what Chris pulls off I think is as striking as the ocean that we’re on.
As striking as Chris’s blue eyes, perhaps? But I digress. After fifteen minutes, Chris Pine and Ben Foster left us and I was both sad and relieved. Now I could really concentrate on the actor’s answers without those blue eyes staring me in the face! Casey Affleck entered the room and I remembered just how incredible he was in THE FINEST HOURS. Casey plays the quiet, reluctant leader of the men who needed rescuing. His portrayal is just brilliant and we told him so.
Casey Affleck: Well thank you! I’d never been on a boat. I didn’t know anything about life on an oil tanker. But I did like the character that had been written. The character grew and grew into something interesting that would be fun to play amidst all the noise and effects of the movie. To do someone who’s more cerebral and calm and centered and sees this life and death situation as a puzzle, not a threat. Craig (the director) and I talked about being kind of a librarian on an oil tanker and I think he was that kind of a guy. Craig himself is a little bit like that. So I liked to imitate him a little bit.
We all love on-set stories and Casey was full of them.
Casey Affleck: There was a ping-pong tournament that happened between the cast and crew. About 200 people and a big board where people played other people and moved up the ranks. The person that came out on top was… yours truly. For the record, I’m just saying I beat them ALL. I destroyed them.
We all had a good laugh, then asked about the shoot itself.
Casey Affleck: It was a cold and wet set. The days were cold and wet. I think that, it’s the kind of thing that if you have to get used to it, you get kind of hooked on it. Water so cold that there was a day that we didn’t work because the water had frozen solid.
Then Casey was asked what his relationship was with classic epic Disney pictures.
Casey Affleck: I think they’re great and for a long time I wanted to do one. I liked the wholesomeness of this film and being able to contribute. I like it a lot. It’s a nice balance to all the gross stuff that’s out there. I really appreciate what Disney does. How they’ve stuck to a certain set of values. I can’t think of any other entity that commits themselves in such a way to sustaining a value system.
This naturally led to us asking about what his kids will think of this movie.
Casey Affleck: I want my kids to think I’m cool. If they’re not embarrassed of me I’ll be relieved.
In my opinion Casey Affleck had the best portrayal of a character in THE FINEST HOURS. I’m sure his kids will think he did an excellent job. He left us and in walked Holliday Grainger. She plays Bernie Webber’s fiance and also a strong woman for the 1950’s. She is very forward for a woman of that time and has a small character journey to make herself in the film.
When Holliday walked into the room, I almost didn’t recognize her. Her hair in the movie is dark and she has amazing red lipstick that doesn’t budge. Into our room waltzed a pixieish young woman with chopped-off blond hair, lip gloss and an English accent. She was ready and willing to share her story, so we dived into some questions, like why she chose this role and the challenge of it.
Holliday Grainger: The story drew me to the role. I found it fascinating that it is such a regional small-town story of such an epic, huge adventure that affected so many lives. It was great to be a part of telling that. I think for me the biggest challenge was putting my own expectations and assumptions aside of a 1950’s woman and marrying my modern values to 1950’s values. Miriam is self-assured and instinctive and has a strong mindset for the 1950’s, but not for today. I had to alter my mindset of time and tradition and culture to that 1950’s small town.
The director has the whole vision of the film in his head, and THE FINEST HOURS is no exception. How did Holliday like working with the director?
Holliday Grainger: Craig was great to work with, one, because he was totally on the same page with me about Miriam being a strong, fully-rounded character with her own agenda. Being integral to the movie aside from just being the girlfriend. He was also very up for playing. We were allowed to ad lib. And so the whole process felt like a fluid process. It felt quite collaborative in that respect. Chris Pine was great at improv. Like the marriage proposal scene. He’s very funny.
Ad libbing as an actor leads to authenticity on screen. I certainly liked the portrayal of their romance.
Holliday Grainger: We need to believe her as a person and we need to believe their relationship. She is slightly “other.” – outside of this community [of rural Coast Guard life]. Therefore, her journey became not just a journey towards Bernie but her journey towards another social group and learning how to be a part of that community.
In period pieces, it’s all about the costumes, hair and makeup. Holliday had a lovely tip to look for in the film.
Holliday Grainger: It was a dream to dress like that. One little tip that, in fact, Chris brought up while talking to Bernie’s family: Miriam was really into butterflies and so we made sure that we had butterfly broaches and a few butterfly pins on the bags.
So there you have it – look for butterflies on Miriam’s clothing and hair – it’s a tribute to her! Holliday walked out and we had our final interview of the day with Craig Gillespee, director. I always love talking with the Director of a film. They have the most complete picture of their vision of the story, and Craig Gillespee was no exception.
After hearing his comments on THE FINEST HOURS, I want to watch it again with his artistic vision in mind. One of the most amazing tips that certainly worked on a subconscious level while watching the film.
Craig Gillespee: Being that we wanted to do this film in 3D we really wanted to ask ourselves what was the most effective way to use it. A lot of times the camera was always moving; there’s longer takes, it’s independent of the boats so you really feel that movement going on. And then when we’re on land the cameras are locked off so you feel that security and that beacon home; there’s always warm lights to make it feel inviting. I really tried to keep those worlds separate.
Mind. Blown. The camera and lighting decisions really work subconsciously while watching THE FINEST HOURS. I found myself shivering and uneasy while watching the water scenes. It’s always interesting to find out why a director picks certain films to direct.
Craig Gillespee: When I started reading the script, Scott Silver [the writer] had such a visual style of writing and such a restraint with his characters. I could visualize exactly what I wanted to do right away. I grew up on the water in Australia and I have a visceral response to it and a rhythm in terms of the way the ocean works. Seeing a script where I could actually utilize all that was exciting. There’s very few scripts that you read and you immediately visualize. This was one of them.
Holliday and Chris Pine improvised on set, so we asked Craig about his approach to directing his actors.
Craig Gillespee: I always like to keep some spontaneity there. Once we go through the characters and the plot points that they need to hit, I’m all for improvising. Some actors like that and some like to stick to the script. You have to feel which actor responds to what.
THE FINEST HOURS has 3 different stories going on at the same time. How did Craig keep track of each story and was there ever a point where he was just going to have the rescue mission?
Craig Gillespee: There was always the 3 stories. There was the love story with Holliday and Chris. You have these epic backdrops for the other stories, I was hoping the audience wouldn’t mind jumping back and forth. The first time I screened the film, that was a concern. But the love story really grounded everything.
Craig thought of the weather as a character.
Craig Gillespee: I wanted it to be an almost constant, slow pressure that’s building all the way through the film. They’re going to have to come to terms with mother nature and confront it. It’s like the large wave that’s coming at you at some point you’re gonna have to step up. So that was the hope to just keep building that slow burn of tension throughout.
The final question brought the conversation back around to the American Coast Guard.
Craig Gillespee: When we screened the film at the VA, the Coast Guard was so excited, because in film it’s never the Coast Guard. It’s always the Air Force or the Marines. I’m really proud of the fact that we can honor those unsung heroes.
THE FINEST HOURS indeed honors some of the finest hours in history of the American Coast Guard. I loved being able to talk with the creators of this film and can’t wait to see it again when it arrives in theaters on January 29th.
Still here? Then I have a #fangirlflail moment for you: while walking out of the press room after the press junket wrapped, I noticed Chris Pine and his entourage walking directly behind me on their way out. He was humming and singing a bit, it was fun! Right before the doorway, I took a deep breath and turned around and told him that I had loved him ever since Princess Diaries 2! He thanked me and shook my hand. whew! He’s tall. Bucket list item – check 🙂