Finestkind writer-director Brian Helgeland was working on a fishing boat when he spotted a book, nearly 40 years ago, about film schools. He liked to read between his round-the-clock shifts on the boat, so he scoured bookstore shelves before taking off from New Bedford, Massachusetts, for open waters.
“I went to a bookstore at the mall near my house, just to find a book to read on the boat. And I was walking through the Waldenbooks, and was going by the reference section, and happened to look down and on a bottom shelf, there was a book that just said A Guide to Film School. And I stopped short. It was like the heavens opened up,” he says on the latest MovieMaker podcast.
“I had so little sense of how movies were made, or that you could learn any of that stuff. And I had always loved movies since I was a little kid. And I picked up that book and I flipped through it for 20 minutes, and then bought it, and it was like a revelation: You can learn how to make movies, and go to California to do it. I got home and before I left on my next fishing trip, I sent off a bunch of applications to different film schools.”
One of them, Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount, accepted him. And before long he had co-written his first produced script, 1997’s 976-EVIL. A decade later, he would win an Oscar for co-writing L.A. Confidential, based on the James Ellroy novel, with director Curtis Hanson. He would go on to earn another Oscar nomination for writing Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, and to write and direct films including Payback, with Mel Gibson, A Knight’s Tale, with Heath Ledger, and 42, with Chadwick Boseman.
But the film he always wanted to make was Finestkind, based on a script he had written at 28, inspired by his time, between college and film school, working on a fishing boat. Fishing had been in his family for decades, and he used the script to detail life on a New England scallop ship, adding in a crime story because, well, that’s what movies do.
Brian Helgeland on Making Finestkind
“Finestkind” is the name of the main boat in the film, and is a fishing term that can mean a lot of things.
“It’s the fishing version of the gangster thing, fugetaboutit,” Helgeland explains.
Growing up in New Bedford in the ’80s means he hung around not just a lot of fishermen, but also a lot of guys who may not have been criminals, but definitely gave off an aggressive attitude — at least at first.
They inspire his brand of movie criminals — guys who treat crime like any other job. In Finestkind, it takes a while before his characters get caught up in a drug plot, and by the time they do, we’re on their side.
The drug plotline isn’t inspired by Helgeland’s real life, but other parts of Finestkind are. Lead character Charlie (Toby Wallace), a recent college grad who goes to work on a boat, is based in part on Helgeland. Other characters like Charlie’s stubborn older half-brother Tom (Ben Foster), potential girlfriend Mabel (Jenna Ortega) and Tom’s father Ray (Tommy Lee Jones) are also influenced by people he’s known.
And of course, Helgeland knows his way around a boat. He confirmed that when he went out to sea to prepare for the film.
“I hadn’t been on a boat in I don’t even know how long — since 1987?” he recalls. “And the first thing I wanted to do when we caught some scallops was to see if I still remembered how to shuck. All the gear, the way you handle the gear and dump things and pick things up and send them back down to the bottom of the ocean, all was still the same. It was so engrained in my head, that stuff. I had not forgotten it.”
He sent some of his actors out on a boat boot camp so they could learn to shuck, too — along with countless other jobs. They did it on board a ship now captained by one of his friends from his fishing days.
“They all went out to sea for about a week, and worked with fishermen on a boat that a friend of mine from those days was now the captain of, which ended up being the Finestkind in the movie. That’s my friend’s boat,” says Helgeland.
As he recounts in the podcast, Helgeland is thinking a lot lately about the similarities and differences between fishing and storytelling because he’s just released a movie about fishermen. But he says his experience working on a boat always helped him in Hollywood, giving him confidence in his work ethic.
“Many times when I would be in meetings, especially early on, I would try to scan the room and decide who could could survive on a fishing boat who couldn’t,” he laughs.
He also felt more confident that he could make it as a filmmaker, because he remembered back to when he never thought he’d be able to do handle fishing.
“I didn’t think I could do that job at all,” he says. “I was terrified for the first month or two that I was doing it, and very proud of myself that I pulled it off. And I really enjoyed it too, and met a lot of great people and fun people.”
Finestkind is now streaming on Paramount+.
Main image: (L-R) Finestkind stars Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Wallace, Jenna Ortega and Ben Foster. Courtesy of Paramount.