Inside 'Ladder 49'

Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta
Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta
Photo courtesy Touchstone Pictures

There's a reason Hollywood has made so few films about firefighters. To get realistic fire effects on film, you generally need actual fire, and fire is highly unpredictable and difficult to control.

Anyone attempting to harness it for cinematic purposes has his work cut out for him, as director Jay Russell discovered in bringing "Ladder 49" to the screen. The drama, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a Baltimore firefighter trapped in a collapsed grain elevator, was a frightening prospect for Russell and his team

Russell, Phoenix, co-star John Travolta and special effects coordinator Larry Fioritto filled us in on this amazing and unprecedented production.

Before the Blaze

Photo courtesy Touchstone Pictures

Before he shot frame one of "Ladder 49," Russell made detailed preparations, working closely with the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD) to ensure authenticity and safety.

"I firmly subscribe to the notion that you make a movie in prep. In this case it couldn't be more true," says Russell. "If you're trying to figure it out on the set with all this stuff going on, it would just be a disaster. We'd still be shooting. So we really did our homework."

This was especially crucial once he realized that all the fires in the film would be real. "If the CGI fire had looked right, I probably would have considered using it just for the safety facto. But I saw many tests, and it didn't. Fire is just too random and erratic."

Special effects coordinator Larry Fioritto agrees: "It's a living, breathing thing... Our cast and crew were going to be right in the middle of these fire situations. There was no other way to do it. We had to create fires so that they could be in there, yet keep them safe." Fioritto ranks Ladder 49 as one of the toughest assignments of his 30-year career.

Risky Business

Real Baltimore firefighters took on many of the non-speaking roles in the movie.
Real Baltimore firefighters took on many of the non-speaking roles in the movie.
Photo courtesy Touchstone Pictures

For safety, actual firefighters were on set whenever fire sequences were in progress. In fact, the men in uniform without speaking roles were actually Baltimore firefighters. "They were ready to go at any point," Russell explains. "If anything had really gone wrong, they would have been on it."

On two occasions, Russell admits, the fire explosions "went off a little bigger than we expected. Nobody got hurt making the movie, I'm happy to say." Russell did describe a couple of close calls, however: "At the beginning of the movie there's a floor collapse and Joaquin is sucked into the hole that is created by the collapse. If you look closely on the film you'll see a piece of flaming debris fall within a couple of inches of his face and another one fall on his back, catching his jacket on fire. A split second later he had six firefighters on him, putting him out before he knew he was on fire."

The other incident occurred when Phoenix got too close to flames coming through a doorway. "It hit him right in the face mask, rolled over his head, and you can see it on the helmet," recalls Russell. "You can see the smoke pouring off it. Thank goodness he had his face mask on. It was when I stopped letting him get that close to the fires."

Boot Camp

Joaquin Phoenix in "Ladder 49"
Joaquin Phoenix in "Ladder 49"
Photo courtesy Touchstone Pictures

To prepare for the movie, Russell mandated that Phoenix and other actors go through intense firefighting training. "I wanted the actors to have this immersive experience," Russell explains. "And the only way to do that was to train them for their own safety so they'd know what to do with the equipment they had and in case something went wrong. As much as the fire was completely controlled throughout, you could only control it so much."

In his 3 1/2 weeks of training, Phoenix bunked at a firehouse and rode out with the crew of BCFD Truck 10. He worked out before production and all through filming, to prepare for maneuvering in heavy gear. "They had prop versions in Styrofoam, but it was really important to me that I had the real stuff," Phoenix explains. "After experiencing what I did in the field and going on real calls, anything I did on the set seemed like nothing."

One of those real fires, an especially hot and smoky affair, particularly unnerved him. "The stairs went out from under me and I slid down and had no idea where I was. I was completely lost -- I couldn't see anything. I started panicking and then I remembered what I learned. I put out my arms and spun around until I hit somebody."

Phoenix also learned about controlling fear and his instincts. "Everything in your body is saying 'get out.' You can't see, you can't hear -- all you hear is the sound of fire. You can't feel anything because you've got on all this gear and big gloves. You never overcome the fear but you learn to control it, and trust the equipment," says the actor, who also faced his fear of heights in ladder and rescue sequences in the film.

"When he went over the side of the building and hangs by a rope, he was frightened but he did it," says Russell.

Along with the cast, Russell literally underwent a trial by fire, via a simulator called "The Maze," at the BCFD academy. "It's this series of boxes connected by holes," John Travolta explains. "And they put you in full equipment and pump smoke in, and you have to find your way through. It's hot and claustrophobic and you think you're going to die. It's a mind-altering experience."

Russell wanted to experience The Maze before shooting a scene in which Phoenix's character becomes lost in a dark, smoky building. "But about halfway through, I completely panicked. I freaked out. I started seeing things and hearing things. When I finally found my way out I was drenched in sweat. But what it did was inform me how I was going to shoot that sequence. It's all about what's going on in your head."

Reality and Recreations

Photo courtesy Touchstone Pictures

Ladder 49 includes some of the most realistic firefighting scenes in movie history, though the special effects team did take some liberties for the sake of storytelling.

For example, the scenes inside the smoky building couldn't be totally true to life. Russell explains that if they actually reproduced the thick black smoke of a real building fire, "you'd be looking at a black screen for the entire sequence. That was a case of CGI -- we had a medium amount of smoke in the room and added more later."

Effects coordinator Larry Fioritto adds, "Some of the white smoke was turned into black, and the density was increased."

For the spectacular grain elevator fire, Russell and his team stuck very close to reality. In fact, they ended up destroying a real building, already slated for demolition. "The explosion itself took about 15 seconds. You get one take on that," Russell explains. "We had ten cameras running. It was so big you could see it all over the city. They'd told people about it on the news, but there were like 500 911 calls when we set that off."

The sequence also required a complex interior recreation on a warehouse set, with a collapsible structure created by production designer Tony Burrough. Russell explains that it was "sort of like a theme park ride, where you can hydraulically put it back together. We did two or three takes on that. It took half a day to reset it."

Place and Feel

The Ladder 49 script was originally set in New York, written prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Russell agreed to direct it on the condition that the setting would be changed. "I'd lived in New York for 11 years and would love to shoot a movie in New York, but this wasn't going to be the one," Russell explains. "If the movie takes place in New York it becomes about that one day ... The whole point of the movie is that while it's absolutely a tribute to the firefighters on 9/11, it's also a tribute to the firefighters on 9/10, 9/12 and 9/13."

But the director concedes that 9-11 may have been a factor in the production getting a green light from Touchstone. "Was it sped up because of 9/11? Probably. But that has nothing to do with any of us who actually made it."

Russell says that the script underwent other changes during production, "based on direct experiences and stories... It was a constant process of exploration. Things changed as we went, as we learned from the firefighters."

For Phoenix, it was not only a learning process, it was a profound personal experience. He explains: "It's cool to be a part of a film that actually means something to so many people. I've never been thanked for making a movie in my entire life, and that really means a lot."

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