Chatham returns to 1952 for filming of "The Finest Hours"

Originally appearred in the Cape Cod Times

By Doug Fraser 

Posted Dec. 14, 2014 @ 2:00 am
Updated Dec 14, 2014 at 5:14 PM 

CHATHAM – A snow-covered 1946 DeSoto came roaring up Champlain Road with a purpose. The woman behind the wheel struggled to control the big sedan. Punching the accelerator a bit too hard, she caused the rear end to swing wide on a curve and the vehicle slowed, tires spinning fruitlessly on the steep, icy hill.
Finally, the DeSoto gained the crest and slid to a stop, tires crunching on the icy berm. The woman emerged from the driver’s side, attractive in her form-fitting green dress with white lace collar, black heels and waves of thick, auburn hair, her high cheekbones rouged and her lips painted red.
She paused in the street, still holding the door, and shaded her eyes, expressing admiration for what was suddenly a spectacular sunset over Harding Beach.
The woman’s last gesture was the only thing real and unscripted. The ice on the roadway was laid down by a company from New Bedford, the falling snow was white ash from a “snow candle” burning on an adjacent rooftop and blown across the road by a big fan, and the snowbanks were ice cubes shoveled onto white felt stretched over a frame of plywood and chicken wire.
The woman was British actress Holliday Grainger, of "Jane Eyre," "The Borgias," and "Anna Karenina," who would repeat that simple sequence for over an hour. With luck, a few seconds of this footage will make it to the big screen in the movie, "The Finest Hours," which wrapped up filming with a week in Chatham.
The film depicts the true-life rescue of 32 men aboard the tanker Pendleton in 1952, when waves from a severe nor'easter snapped the 503-foot tanker in two. Four young Chatham Coast Guardsmen braved high seas, wind and driving snow in a small wooden CG-36500 to save the 32 seamen that day from the sinking stern section. Seven crewmen and the tanker's captain lost their lives when the bow sank.
The rescue earned the four men – Coxswain Bernard Webber, Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald, Seaman Richard Livesey and Seaman Irving Maske – the highest Coast Guard award for volunteering for what was considered a suicide mission.
The reportedly $80 million Disney Studios-financed movie is adapted from a book by the same name, co-written by Casey Sherman and Michael Tougias. It’s a story many locals know by heart and pass down from generation to generation.
Standing at the end of Port Fortunes Lane on Wednesday, looking back toward a Stage Harbor that was surprisingly calm the day after a big nor’easter dumped nearly 3 inches of rain on the town, Chatham fisherman Ernie Eldredge marveled at the courage and sense of duty it took to go out into the teeth of that nor’easter 62 years ago. The storm packed hurricane-force winds and 40- to 60-foot seas, but the rescuers relied on a 36-foot motor lifeboat whose 90-hp engine had a tenth the horsepower of the current Coast Guard vessel that replaced it. The CG-36500 capsized at least once in the huge seas, and was bludgeoned by waves that rolled it onto its side periodically, stalling the engine, which then had to be restarted by Fitzgerald, who is the lone surviving crew member. 
Unlike other highly fictionalized dramas shot on the Cape in recent years, "The Finest Hours" hews close to the real story. But there were some necessary changes. Ernie Eldredge, who leased his fishing pier for crucial scenes when Webber and his crew depart and return with survivors, watched as carpenters and a scenery crew put a façade on his warehouse on the pier that turned it into the old Sou’Wester, a now-defunct bar that was located inland in West Chatham.
"We didn’t take many liberties. We tried to be as authentically close to what happened as we could," said Disney producer James Whitaker.
"They are more into this film, because they know it is based on a true thing," said Richard Ryder, of Eastham, operations manager for the restored 36500. Ryder took star Chris Pine – who assumes Webber's role – out on the rebuilt lifeboat and let him take the helm. Ryder visited the Quincy shipyard where the filmmakers built a huge tank and a mock-up of the Pendleton to film the rescue scenes. He was impressed that they had faithfully re-created both the inside of the old Chatham Coast Guard station and the bridge of the Pendleton. 
Although the production company couldn’t reach an agreement with the Orleans Historical Society to use the restored original 36500, Ryder was able to help them find a vessel to purchase and two they could rent.
"Disney has been incredibly meticulous in bringing authenticity to the project," said Barnstable native Sherman. "You visualize it in your head as you are writing it, and it’s interesting to see the sets as they are dressed and laid out. It is amazing. It’s exactly how we envisioned it."
Even though portions had been filmed in Duxbury, Marshfield and Cohasset where filmmakers found the period buildings they needed, and at the water tank in the Quincy Fore River Shipyard, producers and director Craig Gillespie wanted the real town to be in the movie.
"From the very beginning, it was very important to us that the movie was authentic, that was our North Star for the film. We always knew we would be filming here," Whitaker said. "We’re very excited to be here."
"I think locals would have questioned its authenticity if part of it wasn’t filmed here," added movie publicist Scott Levine.
A crew and cast of around 200 rolled into Chatham the first week of December in a swarm of trailer trucks, forklifts, cherry pickers, barges and boats to film the final scenes. Levine and Whitaker said Disney doesn't reveal its film budgets, but the word on the set pegged the figure at around $80 million. If that amount is true, "Finest Hours" would be the priciest film ever shot on the Cape, surpassing the $70 million Warner Brothers spent on Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy” two years ago.
Still, locals could be forgiven for being cautious. West Barnstable director Daniel Adams shot his 2009 movie "Chatham" in town, but left owing $40,000 to $60,000 to local businesses, and was eventually sentenced to two years in jail for fraud. Disney Studios and its production company worked hard to cultivate goodwill among the locals, spreading money around to businesses and individuals. They leased homes and staging areas, housed the bulk of the cast and crew at Chatham Bars Inn, the Wequassett Resort in Harwich, and Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster. Disney paid over $50,000 to rent two 36-foot lifesaving boats for filming, Chatham police received detail pay when streets were closed for shooting, and some merchants saw an uptick in business deep into the off-season.
"This is traditionally the slowest time of year for movies," said Kevin McLain, executive director at Chatham’s restored Orpheum Theater on Main Street. Members of the cast, including leading man Chris Pine – who played Capt. Kirk in two recent "Star Trek" movies and Cinderella's prince in the new movie "Into the Woods" – and the crew came into the Orpheum several nights to eat and watch Michael Keaton in "Birdman" and Jon Stewart’s "Rosewater."
"They loved the theater," McLain said. 
"The Finest Hours" shoot was also the fifth major movie to be shot in Massachusetts this year. Most of those working on the scenery, lighting, and behind cameras are from Massachusetts, Levine said, as is star Casey Affleck. Many on the crew were fresh from either the Seth McFarlane sequel "Ted 2" or the Whitey Bulger film "Black Mass," two other films shot in Massachusetts in 2014, a sign that the state’s efforts promoting itself to Hollywood were working.
Whitaker said he would definitely shoot a film again in Massachusetts.
"I loved this experience. Great crew, great people. Loved it," he said.
"This is the most fantastic job in the world," said Aram Maranian III, of Billerica, pulling a fake snowbank built from plywood, chicken wire and white fabric, from the back of a truck in the Stage Harbor parking lot.
A union carpenter, Maranian had been busy building sets for "The Finest Hours" since June. Before that he'd worked on the "Black Mass" set.
Hefting the other end of the snow bank, Dale Eldredge, of Chatham, had also been working on sets over the summer.
"I learned more about this story being on this job than I did in school," said Eldredge who attended Chatham schools. "I think they should teach this in school."
Filming in the offseason, in a town that has already seen a few film companies come and go, meant there wasn’t the usual crush of onlookers on movie sets. Instead, crews set up for filming with only the occasional curious dog walker or small knot of spectators hoping to glimpse a star.
What they saw was certainly not glamorous. The crew fought bad weather trying to maintain their shooting schedule. Local shops saw a brisk business in foul-weather gear, gloves and other waterproof wear as the rain settled in for the week. 
The worst was filming in Tuesday’s nor’easter with winds gusting to 60 mph and nearly 3 inches of rain in an outdoor scene that was supposed to be shot in a snowstorm.
"What I’ve learned in the course of shooting is that filmmakers love to control the elements. They’d rather create it than let Mother Nature do it," Sherman said. 
But Whitaker thought the bad weather added to the film’s realism.
"It was challenging, but in the best way. We’re filming a movie about a storm that takes over the Cape, and we found ourselves in the middle of one. Usually that’s bad, but in our case it was appropriate," Whitaker said. "Tough day, great for the film." 
By day's end Wednesday, the sun finally broke through, if only for a sunset, and crew members pulled out cellphones to take a snapshot. But rain or shine, the day's filming went on, whether it was Maranian and Eldredge setting up snow banks, the crew rigging an old lobster boat and the Eldredge dock for a nighttime shoot, or the electricians stringing miles of cables from portable generators for cameras and lighting they would take down just a few hours later. 
Filmmakers know they have just one time with a scene to get what they need, so there is a lot of repetition to get it right before moving on. Ernie Eldredge said he watched an actor untie a rope from a mooring buoy and toss it into the water over and over again for hours. 
For Grainger, who plays Miriam Webber, wife of hero Bernard Webber, at least two hours of her day Wednesday were taken up making the turn off Stage Harbor Road and up Champlain Road then back down the hill to do it again. 
This is the unglamorous work that is the raw material the director and editor work with to shape the film. Sherman had confidence that director Craig Gillespie was up to the task for this, one of the Cape's most familiar and enduring tales of heroism and self-sacrifice. 
"His stories are about heart," Sherman said of Gillespie's films such as "Lars and the Real Girl" and "Million Dollar Arm." 
"It’s one of the reasons 'The Finest Hours' (the book) has done as well as it has," Sherman said. "It’s a story about faith, about four guys on a 36-foot lifeboat believing in themselves and whatever gods they prayed to." 

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