Interview: Producer Jim Whitaker on “The Finest Hours”

Posted on February 1, 2016 at 3:57 pm

Producer Jim Whitaker says that when he first read The Finest Hours: The True Story of a Heroic Sea Rescue, “every time it came to a different point in the story it just got more and more amazing. And in my job you try and find great stories that could work for the big screen, that could be movies. But when you can find a story that is amazing and great in the movie story but then it also turns out to be true — to me it’s incredible to be able to have that opportunity. It is an incredible adventure but also is important for the values that the characters represent as well.”

But it was a daunting undertaking, even with modern technology, to try to re-create a 1952 nor’easter storm so massive and powerful that it split not one but two tankers in half, and the small boat captained by 24-year-old Bernie Webber (played by Chris Pine) that rescued 33 men from one of the tankers. “We knew that the key to emotionally experiencing a movie in the strongest way was to put yourself in the position that Bernie and his crew were in going on this incredible journey and accomplishing this incredible feat. And the goal was to have the audience get right in the middle of it and then in a way feel the catharsis of the experience. As always, we start with the characters and their journeys and when you start to build out from there. We break the movie down into its essences which took us on a fantastic journey because we found ourselves building giant parts of steel oil tankers putting them on hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and creating a kind of an amazing reality which was also tied in with the raw circumstances of the actual event with sixty foot waves. We were kind of in a continual wet and miserable state to create the most authentic experience.”

Copyright Disney 2016
Copyright Disney 2016

The 3D effects really take the audience into the heart of the storm. “We wanted the movie to feel completely immersive. Craig Gillespie was designing the movie to feel authentic like you were right in the place where Bernie and his men were. So as you are building the movie you’re constantly thinking, ‘How do I make the experience feel authentic and real?’ 3D allows that in an incredible way. And we wanted the movie to be kind of gut-wrenching in the sense that it sorts of holds you in the gut. And therein lies character catharsis. We wanted to grab you and hold you through the whole experience from both an environmental point of view and a character point of view and I think 3D actually does that very well. As much as it is about size and scope and specs which I think the movie has, in essence it really is the heart and the emotion of the movie to me that’s most powerful. And I think in many ways that’s why you go to the movie,s both to get thrill of the size and scope and then emotionally to just feel the power of these great characters.”

We go back and forth between the rescue boat and what is happening with the group hoping to be rescued, who, first of all, have lost their captain and officers, so they are not sure who is in charge. The one who emerges is played by Casey Affleck. “I think both characters embody, Casey’s and Chris Pine’s characters, is a very humble, quiet nature and then they are both called upon to do something extraordinary. And in some respect they both resisted but you could see that they operate very differently in the movie. But they have the qualities to be able to do it, and you’re just watching and waiting for them to allow themselves to emerge and take control. It shows a message that I feel is very important, that we all have it within us to do extraordinary things. Sometimes we do it in life in very small ways with our kids or our partner or wives and we just do little things that are extraordinary but sometimes you are called upon to do something that is physically and emotionally extraordinary because the circumstances call upon it. In that case for Siebert, Casey’s character and Bernie, Chris’ character, they were both called upon to do extraordinary things and they rose to the occasion. To see on the screen a story that was true of these men, I find it incredibly inspiring and I hope aspirational too, I hope people can take away from it a certain sense of being inspired to do that in their everyday lives. I love their selfless nature. Bernie in particular was very humble and yet he knew that he needed to do the right thing. He did the right thing in the most selfless way and I think it is a beautiful thing to see people who serve other people in very quiet, strong way. They lead by their example in very quiet, strong, humble ways, I love the integrity of both of their characters for that.”

There are some computer graphics in the film, but a lot of the water in the movie is real. And some of the footage of the storm is real, too. “We were determined to make it as authentic as possible so we shot on Cape Cod for a good portion of the film. Of course we are shooting a movie about a nor’easter, a hurricane that comes through and in fact one did. Most often when that happens it’s an interruption to production. But we said immediately, “Okay let’s get our cameras and get out there and shoot.” So a bunch of the stuff that happened on Cape Cod happened in the middle of the nor’easter and that was both complicated and amazing. It was perfect for the movie and pretty exciting to be able to shoot. So that was great, we felt like Bernie had a hand in it.”

As the movie begins, about a month before the storm, Bernie is about to meet a girl he has been talking to on the phone but never seen. Whitaker told me the real story of how they met over the phone. “Miriam was a phone operator. She overheard Bernie telling a young woman that he was supposed to have a blind date with that he couldn’t go on the blind date because he had to go out and go do a rescue. And she was an operator and she overheard it and the gentle and kind of kind way in which Bernie spoke to this woman down immediately made her think that was a guy she wanted to meet and fall in love with. So using that technology she kept calling the Coast Guard station and said ‘There is a guy named Berry or something?’ Finally, Bernie got on the phone and she sort of talked her way around this unusual circumstance of being an operator who listened in on his call and they then spoke over the phone without seeing each other for almost 2 to 3 weeks without ever seeing each other, every day they talked on the phone but they never met up. And so the story begins with them meeting for the first time and Bernie is still anxious because he doesn’t know if the girl of his dreams looks like he imagines.

Whitaker hopes that families will see this movie together. “I want them to talk about the importance of character. These men had they did the right thing for the right reasons, not to get any attention. They just did it because it was their job and they knew it was the right thing to do, no matter how dire the circumstances. It was a suicide mission. They knew that there were other people in need and so they didn’t think about themselves. It’s those qualities, those character qualities that I think are important. And then finally when it got to be the most difficult point for them at their darkest hour they relied on faith. I want people to take away the idea that it’s important to hope.

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