By Sheila Roberts
November 18, 2015
Collider was recently invited to screen preview footage for Disney’s upcoming The Finest Hours directed by Craig Gillespie and to chat with the film’s star, Chris Pine. The action-thriller depicts the heroic 1952 rescue attempt by Coast Guard coxswain Bernie Webber (Pine) and his three-man crew off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers bound for Boston are split in two by a massive nor’easter leaving their crews stranded at sea. The rescuers faced 70-foot waves, hurricane-force winds, frigid temperatures and zero visibility in their 36-foot motor lifeboat in one of the greatest small boat rescue operations in U.S. Coast Guard history.
The first sequence introduced us to the men of the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Chatham, Massachusetts where Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders Webber to assemble a crew and set off on a perilous mission to save 33 sailors from the stricken SS Pendleton. Webber’s budding romance with his future wife, Miriam, (Holliday Grainger) is also revealed. The second sequence focused on chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the senior officer aboard the stern of the Pendleton, who must keep the ship afloat after it’s ripped in half. The footage features interesting character development, exceptional lead and supporting performances, and impressive production values. The larger-than-life action sequences are visceral, visually thrilling, and anchored by a strong emotional core that hinges on the strength of the human spirit. The Finest Hours arrives in IMAX 3D January 29th which is perfect for the epic scale and immersive nature of this high stakes true story.
In our roundtable interview, Pine talked about his reaction when he first read the script, what drew him to the story and his character, the appeal of that era, his research and preparation to portray Webber, how this role was in stark contrast to the characters he usually plays, the challenges of filming on the water off the coast of Massachusetts and on a tank on gimbals with water and wind machines at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, how it was a moving experience to meet Coast Guard engineers Andy Fitzgerald and Mel Gouthro who were closely involved with the actual rescue mission, and why he was honored to pay tribute to these heroes. Check it all out in the interview below:
When you first heard about this story of the SS Pendleton, what did you think? What made you want to be in this film and was there any pressure in playing a real person?
CHRIS PINE: I simply read the script. The script reminded me in many ways of a film I did called Unstoppable which starts and pretty immediately you get involved in essentially a rollercoaster ride of human endurance. It was just a quick, wonderful, dramatic read. The ocean I find is very daunting, frightening, mysterious, and powerful. That intrigued me. I knew Ben Foster was going to be involved potentially and I loved the idea of working with Ben. I love that time period. There’s something that resonates deeply with me for whatever reason of that time in the world in the mid-20th century. These were men that had not fought in World War II. I know for Bernie Webber, the character I played, that was something in the back of his head, having heard all the stories, having had brothers fight in the war, and hearing stories of all their bravery and heroism, and wanting to do something similar, and having the desire to serve in that way. That was all very important to me.
Is the real Bernie Webber still alive?
PINE: Bernie Webber passed away in 2009. Andy Fitzgerald is still around. Mel Gouthro, who didn’t make it on the boat that day, is still around. He was Bernie’s best friend. Bernie was around the water all his life. There’s some recordings of Bernie talking about it. What I loved about these guys, especially in that age, is there’s such a stark difference from the world in which we live in, which is seemingly all about self-aggrandizement and the selfie culture. This was a time when these gentlemen showed up to work, they clocked in, they did their job, and they went home. They would have wanted and preferred not to talk about it. It just happened and that’s what they did really honestly. You can tell that from this recording, this interview, that Bernie did. He’s recounting the events, and I sensed in it this feeling of just what a pain in the ass it was to talk about it again, to recount it one more time. He wasn’t putting any color or spin on it. He was just recounting the events. I really enjoyed that about these personalities that there was no desire for memorials and stuff for them. They just did what they had to do because that was their job.
What was it about your character that really resonated with you, and what were some of the challenges you faced portraying someone from a completely different era?
PINE: I enjoyed it because… you know, we’re not reinventing the wheel with this story. It’s just about honest, solid, blue collar men that go out and do great things and then go home. It was made by Disney, and there’s something so earnest and heartfelt and of another era about it. It wasn’t brooding or dark or edgy. It was just good storytelling. It felt like a studio picture. I had this vision of wanting to play him like an old movie star would play a character in a 50’s studio film about people doing great things. I got to know Bernie a little bit through his recordings, a little bit through his book. But, I really got to know him through this wonderful character that was written for me, and the character was different than anything I’d played before. This is not a reflection on Bernie. This is the character that I had read named Bernie Webber. He wasn’t the sharpest guy. He wasn’t college educated, which was something that kind of bummed him out and made him very self-conscious. He never had a chance to do great things, and the time that he had been out on the water, he’d screwed up and that had pained him greatly. He was shy, introverted, quiet, gentle, very vulnerable, and all these really sweet things that made me just love the guy. It was in stark contrast to the characters I usually play, which are much sharper, harder, stronger, and maybe sometimes a bit colder or angrier. He was just kind of an open heart. I always envisioned him as a man peeking out from the sand, looking around and seeing what was around him, always wanting a bit to hide, and not having a voice strong enough to be a leader. That was his journey in the story, that he had to become a leader. No matter how scared he was, he had to do it, because the alternative was that many, many people were going to die.
When you see Captain Kirk, the body is rigid and there’s a confidence in himself and the way he walks. But, with Bernie, you were subservient in a way. Your head was down, your shoulders were slumped, and your eyes were looking up.
PINE: Bernie makes me see him as such a gentle soul. I just thought about growing up in a family where everybody is a hero and his father never really respected him – and again, this is no reflection on the man. This is only the character that I read. It was a bit easier to do that because the clothes were so heavy. I kind of did imagine him as an eggplant. He’s not a star. He never thought of himself as handsome. He’s an everyman. I liked the idea of this guy that hadn’t found his voice. It was hard for him to speak up. It was hard for him to be confrontational. It was hard for him to ask for what he wanted. He was like the runt of the [family].
Did you understand that? It seems like you grew up a little more confident. Did you ever have those moments?
PINE: Anybody who’s gone through puberty has understood what it feels like to be an outcast and alone. I had horrible acne when I was a kid. I felt like a complete and utter ne’er do well and someone who didn’t fit in and wasn’t handsome. So, I understand implicitly, and with a great amount of empathy, a man or human being that feels that way. With Bernie, that deep sense of having failed somehow and not being good enough moved me a great deal.
People always talk about being on the water and how logistically challenging that can be in filmmaking. What experiences did you have in that regard?
PINE: The production did a great job of actually making it as controlled as possible. We were in Boston at the shipyards where, as far as I know, the two oil tankers that split in half, the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton, were built, or at least one of them. We were at this famous Massachusetts shipyard (Fore River Shipyard in Quincy) in these huge warehouses where they built a tank. Much of our time was spent on a tank on one of only four existing old 36-foot Coast Guard boats on gimbals with water machines and wind machines. Then, we were on another part of the stage on a huge gimbal being dunked with water via four huge water tanks. Then, we spent the last week and a half out on the coast of Massachusetts filming in the water, which was just devastatingly freezing. It was a lot of fun, and we got a taste – and when I say taste, I mean a very small amuse-bouche — of what it would be like to be out in the water. It’s just cold as all get out. In the beginning, when I got there, they shot the Pendleton stuff first. A lot of those guys were in T-shirts and wool pants. You have to imagine you’re shooting 12 or 15 hours a day in wool pants and cotton T-shirts and people were getting very close to hypothermia. They’d had to devise ways, which finally by the time we got there, they had figured out. We were actually wearing dive, seaworthy rubber bodysuits to keep the warmth in so we could survive being out in the water all day.
Most people will never have the thrill of being on a gimbal doing all those incredible stunts. Is it euphoric? Is it quirky? What is that experience like?
PINE: No, it’s just work. You’re never, thank god, hopefully, in true danger. You make believe danger. I guess it’s kind of fun because it’s like a rollercoaster. It’s a long day, and the camera is still here, so you have to worry about your craft. It gets to be a grind, it’s very cold, and you want to bitch and moan. One day was particularly difficult for all of us, because everything had just reached a head and we had gotten off the boat for a break. The greatest kind of moment in all of that was just as I was about to start laying into the first assistant director about making sure we all get timely breaks off the boat, I look off to the side, and there’s Andy Fitzgerald, who was one of the gentlemen that was on the boat that day in 1952. Immediately, your mouth zips shut because of what they went through. I was just on the water recently off the coast of Africa and going through 25-foot waves. It was one of the most frightening experiences I’ve ever had where you’re looking to the side of you and there are waves twice the size of your boat. You realize that the ocean doesn’t care. The ocean would eat your alive and not think twice about it. So, imagine 50-foot-waves on a wooden boat in the middle of the night in freezing cold water, in driving rain with lightening, and you have no navigational tools, and you’re carrying 36 people on a boat back to safety just by the sheer, inherent knowledge you have of the coastal waters off of Massachusetts. The level of courage is beyond belief.
You mentioned meeting some of the people who survived this incident. After you met them, did it change your approach to the character?
PINE: I met Andy Fitzgerald who was on the boat, and I met Bernie’s best friend, Mel Gouthro, who was not on the boat and was too sick to go out that day. They were great men that did a great thing. I’m in awe of anyone that’s done that. It didn’t change how I portrayed the character, but it was certainly neat to meet these guys. It’s over 60 years ago. That’s incredible. And again, like I said before, for whatever reason, I grew up watching World War II films. I love the music of that time, the fashion of that time, the aesthetic of that time, and the movies from that time. So, there’s something very moving about meeting these gentlemen who lived the narrative that I was inhabiting. Gouthro is a total goofball and I could see why Bernie would have loved having him around because he’s such a hoot and such a character. You have to imagine, too, men in their 80s that are then on the set of a film that Hollywood is making about the story they experienced so many years ago. They’ve lived an entire lifetime, more of a life than many of us will ever live. Here they are toward the end, let’s say, and they’re having these young punks try to portray them. It must have been such a trip. So, it was a great honor for me.
Was there some dramatic license taken with the story?PINE: I think there were certain things. The story between Bernie and Miriam is pretty spot on. She asked him to marry her. I want to say they were already married by the time he went out, so we had to take some dramatic license, because he had to get back so they could get married. They were married their entire lives. They had children together. She was very strong and she wore the pants in many ways in the family apparently from what I’ve heard. I met her daughter and her grandkids. But, I really want to be very clear that the character that I play is taken really from the story that I was given and the character that Craig wanted to create out of Bernie. I listened to many of Bernie’s recordings to get a sense of how he spoke.
What were the recordings?
PINE: The recordings were an interview he gave in the 1960s for the Cape Cod Recorder. It was a beat by beat by beat account of how he went about it. I got a sense of the music of how he spoke. He was laconic and slow with zero embellishment and very dry. It’s not the most interesting recording of all time, but you really get a sense that the guy is just bored by telling his own story. He just wants to move on with his life. That’s what I got from it.
Did you have any opportunity to see what he looked like or how he moved?
PINE: No, not that, but I did get to see two wonderful photos of Bernie and these guys. One photo was taken right after they’d basically faced imminent death. It took them about an hour or so to get out there and an hour or so to get back in. We saw it at the Coast Guard station. There’s all the guys sitting around a table in the cafeteria having coffee and Bernie has his fly open. And there’s a great picture of them having just landed and everybody’s gotten off the boat. Bernie is the last to get off the boat, and you can see him resting his hand on the window sill above the wheel just utterly sapped of everything. You can see that it had taken everything in his power to get back. He was a round guy and his hair was cut short, as it was in the 50s, and slicked back. He had a receding hairline. He was unremarkable in the most remarkable ways. He was a dude, just a guy. He wasn’t a movie star.
It reminds me of those three guys on the Paris train – ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. It seems like we’ve lost a lot of that. In years past, the average person would step out of their comfort zone to help somebody else. Today, for whatever reason, it’s much more “me” oriented.
PINE: I don’t know if I’d necessarily agree with that. I certainly agree that we live in a culture that is very “me” oriented. That’s just a fact. I think there’s something in human nature. We’re social creatures and we surprise. As much as we want to kill one another and wipe each other off the face of the planet, there are wonderful qualities that we possess still that are humanist.
Have you ever come to someone’s rescue?
PINE: No, god no, not in the way that these guys have. I would love to say that I would, but I don’t know. That’s what those circumstances tell you, whether you have that mettle or not.
The Finest Hours opens in Digital 3D, Real D 3D, and IMAX 3D on January 29, 2016.