As soon as he read the script for "The Finest Hours," filmmaker Craig Gillespie called his agent and told him he wanted to direct it.
"Scott Silver had done the draft that I read," the affable Australian-born Gillespie said over lunch recently at his favorite greasy spoon in Santa Monica. The script, he added, "was beautifully restrained" and the characters "clearly defined. It was so emotional and visual."
"The Finest Hours," which opens Friday, is based on the heroic February 1952 rescue of the Pendleton, one of two tankers that split in two when an enormous and destructive nor'easter struck New England.
The Coast Guard station in Chatham, Mass., dispatched its best men to rescue the crew of the second ship, the Fort Mercer, while coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) navigated a 36-foot motorized wooden boat with a three-man crew through hurricane-force winds, 60-foot waves and frigid temperatures to save the lives of the Pendleton crew. Webber and his men miraculously rescued 32 of the 33 men aboard the tanker.
Casey Affleck also stars as a midlevel crew member on the Pendleton who discovers he must lead the crew after the officers perish, and Holliday Grainger plays Bernie's strong-willed fiancée, Miriam.
As excited he was with the project, Gillespie knew he would be utterly miserable during the 70-day shoot. And for good reason. They would be filming during the winter months in Boston and Chatham.
"I spoke to other directors, and everybody was like ugh, a water film, good luck," noted Gillespie, 48, a Directors Guild of America award-winning commercial director who also helmed the quirky 2007 romantic comedy "Lars and the Real Girl," the 2011 remake of the horror film "Fright Night" and the 2014 baseball drama "The Million Dollar Arm."
Though Gillespie had never directed a film of the scope of "The Finest Hours," producer Jim Whitaker believed he was the right man for the job. A fan of "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Million Dollar Arm" — both produced by Disney, as was "Finest Hours" — Whitaker said all of Gillespie's films had an "incredible humanity."
"At the core of the film, it is really about these men — the ones on the ship and the ones who are going to rescue them," said Whitaker. "While the world, the space and the scope are really huge, I knew he could really show the delicate nature of the humanity of Bernie and the men on the Pendleton. I just had faith and belief he could handle the size."
Gillespie, noted Whitaker, was "really nimble how he handled really large sets, lots of moving parts and just the scope of the entire film."
It also helped that Gillespie had grown up surfing and sailing in Sydney. "I sort of have this love for the ocean and the rhythm of it," he said. "I really wanted to try to get it right, to capture the power and rhythm of it."
"The Finest Hours" shot on location in Chatham for 21/2 weeks and at a Navy shipping yard in Quincy, Mass. "It was this massive warehouse they built ships in," said Gillespie, who storyboarded the film before production began. "But at the end, it opened to the bay. It was drafty and you couldn't close it off. It was too big a space."
Five sets were constructed in the enormous area, including the Pendleton's engine room, which was 65 feet tall. "You could walk around all of the catwalks," said Gillespie. "We put a water tank in [the warehouse] that was 110 by 80 feet."
The scenes of Bernie and his crew risking life and limb to reach the Pendleton were shot in the tank, with the help of wind machines, cables and a large gimbal that would toss the boat while the actors had thousands of gallons of water dumped on them.
And Gillespie didn't take the high-and-dry ground during these difficult scenes. "Any time the camera was on the boat during some of Chris' monologues and intimate stuff, I was in the boat with a poncho over me."
Recalled Whitaker: "He was always wet. He was right in there with them. It kept everyone in a positive spirit."