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Craig Gillespie worked hard to make sure that CG waves didn't swamp "The Finest Hours" real-life story

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Craig Gillespie worked hard to make sure that CG waves didn't swamp "The Finest Hours" real-life story

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Take a look at the photo below. See that boat tied up at a marina in Orleans, MA? (And I'm not talking about the fishing charter to the right. But - rather - the modest vessel to the left).


Photo by Jim Hill

Doesn't look like all that much, does it? When you take a closer look at the thing, it seems like there's barely enough room for the four brave Coast Guardsmen who manned this particular motor lifeboat back in February of 1952.


Photo by Jim Hill

But then you notice the plaque ...


Photo by Jim Hill

... and you realize that this is in fact the CG 36500. The Gold Medal Boat that went out in the teeth of a nor'easter in search of the Pendleton, a 504 foot-long tanker which had broken in half off the coast of Cape Cad. And yet when the CG 36500 returned to the Chatham Fish Pier early the next morning, they had somehow managed to rescue 32 men.


Photo by Jim Hill

Which is extraordinary. Especially when you take into consideration that this 36 foot-long boat - once it's manned by four Coast Guardsmen -- officially only had room for 12 additional passengers. And yet the CG 36500 went out into a storm with 70 MPH winds that were stirring up 60 foot-tall waves and still somehow managed to make it back to shore with 36 people on board.

"That was the thing that initially floored me when I read the script of 'The Finest Hours,' " said Craig Gillespie. "That this story couldn't possibly be real. That these average guys - these regular joes - had suddenly found themselves in this extraordinary situation. And then, against all odds, they somehow managed to pull off the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history. You just don't often get these sorts of epic cinematic stories that can then be told from the point-of-view of these real human-scale characters."

But Scott Silver's screenplay had done a brilliant job of boiling Casey Sherman & Michael J. Tougias' book, "The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Rescue" down to an exciting narrative that was then peopled by these very authentic characters which could only exist in 1950s era New England.

"As I read through this script ... Well, it was pretty easy to tell that Scott was from Boston. Because he brings that sort of New England restraint to his writing," Gillespie enthused. "The characters that Scott crafts say so much with just a look or a gesture, as opposed to having them say things out loud."

"I mean, it's a real gamble when you try and make a large action movie like this where your heroes are just regular-sized people. But Disney - to their credit - immediately got this movie's main premise. They were great. They supported us all the way," Craig continued.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Chris Pine - "The Finest Hours" leading man - also quickly got behind this movie's regular-people-in-an-extraordinary-situation conceit. I mean, anyone who's seen the just-released trailer for "Star Trek Beyond" knows that Chris has a real gift for playing these larger-than-life characters. But when it came to portraying Bernie Webber (i.e., the petty officer who commanded the CG 36500 throughout the Pendleton rescue operation), Pine eschewed Captain Kirk-sized heroics for more of an average joe approach.

"One of the main reason that Chris did such a beautiful job with this role is that he really did his research. There's this great 30 minute-long recording of Bernie recounting what happened over the course of this rescue. And what really leaps out at you - as you're listening to this recording - is how restrained and under-stated Bernie sounds. To hear him talk, Bernie wasn't a hero because he and his team went out in that storm in search of the Pendleton. That was just a Coast Guardsman's job. That this job might be dangerous was almost a secondary concern," Gillespie stated. "Listening to that recording, I think that it really informed Chris' take on Bernie. I know that he worked really hard to get his mannerisms and an authentic Boston dialect down."

And to make sure that - whenever possible - this film was rooted in realism, Craig and his crew shot on location in and around Boston in late 2014 / early 2015. Which - given that New England experienced its worst winter in a hundred years last year - might have been a mistake.


Photo of the actual CG 36500 returning to the Chatham Fish Pier after completing
its rescue operation at the Pendleton back in February of 1952 

"I remember the night we shot the scene where the CG 36500 returned to the Chatham Fish Pier with the survivors of the Pendleton. for authenticity's sake, we were shooting at the actual Chatham Fish Pier," Gillespie recalled. "Anyway, that night, there was an actual nor'easter blowing off the coast of Massachusetts. And the next morning, I ran into one of our props guys. He's a grizzled old New Englander, maybe 60 years old. A man who's worked on dozens of movies that have been shot in and around Boston over the past couple of decades. Anyway, as I'm walking by this guy, he turns to me and says "Last night? It's now in my Top 5 for all-time worst times on a movie set."

And what was Craig's response to this crusty old props man's complaint? "I said 'Well, we're not done shooting yet,' " Gillespie laughed.

And indeed there were other miserable nights on the set of "The Finest Hours." Like when Holliday Grainger (who played Miriam, Bernie Webber's fiancée) gets her car caught in a snow drift as she's driving home from the Chatham Coast Guard Station.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"We shot that scene on the coast of Duxbury on this tiny strip of land that was just a hundred yards wide. So we're being buffeted by the cold wind off the harbor on one side and the ocean on the other. And poor Holliday, she's just wearing a coat for some of this scene. But in a lot of this scene, she's just in a dress. And since the crosswinds just kept hammering us all night, those were some very tough scenes to shoot," Craig remembered. "That particular part of the production was such a long grind. But to their credit, everyone in the cast & crew just buckled down and just suffered through it."

Looking back on the production of "The Finest Hours" (which was just released on Blu-ray & DVD yesterday), Gillespie was especially proud of the way this film's cast and crew worked together to make some of this movie's more complex shots possible.

"There's this moment in 'The Finest Hours' where these guys who are standing on the deck of the Pendleton have to get information down to the men in the Engine Room who are manning a jury-rigged tiller for this broken tanker. And since I wanted to use this sequence to give the audience a true sense of the scale of the boat these guys were on, how many levels there were to it, the geography of the ship ... Well, that sequence was shot between two sets and an old WWII battleship. Not only that, but because we had to shoot the scene of when the guys were up on deck back when we were shooting all of our deck scenes and the piece down in the engine room back when we were shooting all of our engine room scenes, that sequence is all stitched together from pieces that were shot months apart," Craig explained. "That's a sequence that film buffs are going to want to take a really close look at multiple times because there's a lot of sleight-of-hand going on in there. There are some camera wipes that we use in that sequence that you just don't notice the first few times around."


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

This is why - if you didn't get to see "The Finest Hours" during its theatrical release earlier this year - you really owe it to yourself to check out this Craig Gillespie movie now that it's available on Blu-ray & DVD. If only so you can then check out some of the 1000 effects shots (500 of which feature CG water) that lend a genuinely epic feel to this all-too-human story.

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on May 25, 2016

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