At a time when our big-screen heroes typically come packaged with extraordinary abilities or cutting-edge gadgets or mystical prophecies, Craig Gillespie‘s The Finest Hours looks like a throwback. It’s a no-frills tale of heroism, made all the more remarkable by the fact that these incredible events actually too place. In 1952, a brutal nor’easter savaged New England, smashing apart an oil tanker called the SS Pendleton and leaving over 30 sailors stranded at sea. Back on the Massachusetts shore, the Coast Guard got word of the disaster, and a small team of men bravely risked their own lives to help. The incident is still considered one of the greatest rescues in Coast Guard history.

In November 2014, I had the opportunity to visit the set of The Finest Hours along with a few other journalists. We spoke with a few of the talents involved, including director Gillespie, stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro, and producers Jim Whitaker and Dorothy Aufiero. After the jump, find out what we learned on the set of The Finest Hours

The Finest Hours

Building an Authentic Universe

We arrived at the Massachusetts warehouse set of The Finest Hours on the 49th (out of 69) days of shooting. Inside was a massive water tank. Brutal waves crashed into a 36-foot lifeboat for a scene in which the Coast Guard heroes try to go over the Chatham sandbar. The boat was a replica of the CG-36500, which the real Bernie Webber (played by Pine in the film) and his team took out to save the survivors of the SS Pendleton.

“Authenticity has been a watchword for us for the movie, in terms of a guide for us,” said Whitaker. To that end, the crew borrowed parts from real ships like the USS Salem, gutted an authentic (and difficult to find) T2 tanker, and filled the sets with genuine parts. “So when you walk around the sets, you’ll see little name plates, or things that say Navy X150321,” he told us. “It’s authentically from it.”

That attention to detail was apparent when we walked around the SS Pendleton engine room set. On one wall was a giant rupture with wooden bits and mattresses haphazardly nailed over it; the ship, at that point, had started to crack but hadn’t broken into two just yet. While I can’t speak for the authenticity of the props, I can say the details made it easy to imagine the sheer horror of what was happening. In real life, as in the movie, none of the men in the bow of the ship survived.

The sets were apparently good enough to impress Andy Fitzgerald, one of the real-life members of that Coast Guard rescue team. (He’s played by Gallner in the movie.) “He came to the set and was completely amazed by it. I had showed him the tank where we have a portion of the Pendleton hull and we were rescuing some of the sailors off of it,” said Aufiero. “Andy saw that and I said “Andy, is this what it looked like when you were…” He said, “That’s exactly what it looked like.” So, that was pretty cool.”

The Finest Hours

How to Play a Real-Life Hero

The actors, meanwhile, prepared by undergoing some Coast Guard training and heading down to Chatham, Massachusetts, the historical site of the rescue, to meet with actual “Coasties.” Foster described the visit as “a real treat.” “Spending time with people who serve their fellow man, it’s always going to be a privilege to spend time with them,” he said.

But that was the fun stuff. On the day of our visit, we watched Pine, Foster, and Magaro get pummeled with water with each take. (Gallner got to sit those out, because his character was in the engine room and therefore not visible above deck at that point.) “I’d rather fall down a mountain any day of the week rather than get hit under these waves and rain machines,” admitted Foster. But all of the actors were quick to acknowledge that their on-set difficulties were nothing compared to the suffering endured by the true Coast Guardsmen.

“There was a particularly cold morning the other day and [it was] definitely the time where I could feel myself just about breaking,” Pine recalled, “and then you see Andy Fitzgerald who was actually out there on the boat and you shut up real fast, as we’re in dry suits and I have a heating shirt and the whole bit.” Plus, Gallner pointed out, there was a silver lining to these challenging conditions. “It kind of takes part of the acting out of it, because you can’t fake it,” he said. “I mean, you’re cold, you’re wet, and you’re kind of miserable.”

Besides their respect for their real-life counterparts and their commitment to their craft, the actors also had a secret weapon in Foster’s Bluetooth Jambox speaker. To keep their spirits up, the cast would blast music between takes. And not just thematically appropriate music, either. “Every day it’s different. We have Funky Friday. We had a little Sinatra a couple of weeks ago. We had some modern stuff yesterday,” said Magaro. Added Pine, “We have a whole funk thing happening, which couldn’t be more in contrast to what we’re doing.”

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