Hotshots: Josh Brolin and Miles Teller star as elite firefighters in fact-based 'Only the Brave'

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There are very few jobs that require more courage and daring than the brave firefighters who are constantly putting their lives at risk, and yet they’ve rarely been celebrated in movies. Few would expect director Joseph Kosinski to be the one to try and do so, but that’s exactly the subject he’s decided to tackle in his third film, Only the Brave, which Columbia Pictures brings to theatres on Oct. 20.

To fans of Kosinski’s science-fiction films, TRON: Legacy and Oblivion, the movie will seem like a departure, as it tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Arizona, a group of firefighters led by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), who tackle the raging forest and brushfires created by the region’s arid climate. As we meet the group, they’re preparing to take the test that will accredit them as “Hotshots,” and along comes Miles Teller’s Brendan McDonough, a troubled young man fighting addiction, who wants to join the group but has difficulty fitting in with the others as he goes through training.

Unlike Ron Howard’s 1991 movie Backdraft, Kosinski’s portrait of the Granite Mountain crew is more like Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon. Despite their skill and training, these real-life firefighters would eventually tackle a situation that would be too much even for them. (If you don’t know the full story, we recommend you wait until seeing the movie to learn more.)

In a telephone interview with Film Journal International, Kosinski told us what interested him in tackling such a different project. “My agent sent me the first draft of the script and I read the article it was based on, then I did a lot more research. The deeper I dug into the story, I started to figure out who these guys are and the job they did. Like most people, I didn't have an understanding of what wildland firefighting is like and what it is these guys do. The nature of the material was interesting to me, but primarily it was the approach to the story, which was the two points of view into it: the guy at the very top, Eric Marsh, and the guy at the very bottom, Brendan McDonough.”

Regarding the casting of Brolin and Teller, “It was one of those cases where they were both at the top of my list for those roles,” Kosinski says. “The idea of finding an actor who could play Eric Marsh in an authentic way, there aren't a lot of guys who could do that. I've been a fan of Josh for a long time, and I just had a sense that he would fit into this role. I went out and saw him—he was shooting another movie in North Carolina—and I sat down with him for an afternoon. What I found out was he had an instant connection with the material for a variety of reasons and was very interested. Then Miles, same thing, and for the role of Brendan, there’s a tremendous arc to his character through the story. I just feel like Miles is one of the huge talents of his generation and, luckily for me, he connected with that story as well. Then, Jeff Bridges was at the top of my list for the role of [wildland division chief] Duane Steinbrink; I think the way I told him I was going to approach it, he signed up on the concept alone.”

The cast also includes Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife Amanda, and a variety of younger actors as Marsh’s crew, including Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale and Geoff Stults. “They ran a Hotshot camp where we took our twenty actors and turned them into a working, functional Hotshot crew,” Kosinski explains about getting his cast up to speed. “They learned to dig line, cut down trees, set back burns, spin weather. They camped out overnight under the stars. Not only did they learn how to become Hotshots, but more importantly, they developed that sense of camaraderie that’s essential. I told them that was the most important thing about this movie, to feel that brotherhood and camaraderie that’s at the heart of any Hotshot crew.”

Kosinski also knew he couldn’t even begin to prepare for a movie like this without getting the real people involved. “I went out to Prescott and I spent time with Amanda Marsh, the Steinbrinks and with people who knew everyone in the story very well. I also recruited some of them to be consultants on the film, because there’s obviously such a specific technical aspect to how the job is done. I wanted to make sure I was presenting it on film as accurately as possible.  Brendan was a creative consultant on the movie, and another former Granite Mountain Hotshot, Pat McCarthy, was a technical advisor on set every day that we were doing firework. I wanted to make sure that even a wildland firefighter could watch this movie and understand that we were trying to create as authentic an experience as possible. Once everyone saw how we were approaching it and gave us their support, getting that backing was really important and helped me push through and make the movie.”

“As you would expect, there was a lot of hesitation at first,” Kosinski adds about the sensitivity in tackling events that were still fairly recent to many minds. “There’s always a concern that you're going to change the story or present it in a way that's not accurate, favoring entertainment over authenticity. There was certainly that concern, and it is fresh. We shot the film last year on the third anniversary of the Yarnell fire and, to be honest, there were a number of times after meeting family members where I had to have an internal conversation about ‘What am I getting myself into? This is the legacy of these guys.’ This film has a level of importance and weight that a director carries, obviously, and on this film it felt very heavy, because you’re dealing with real people’s lives. Young children may be going to watch this film someday and see their father and maybe know them more through the movie than they did in real life.”

Before becoming a director, Kosinski studied architecture and design in college, although those skills didn’t play as big a factor while making Only the Brave than on his earlier films. “The last two movies I did, I had to create worlds. In this movie, we're trying to create a reality that exists, so it's not as much about creating worlds but recreating a world and, most importantly, creating characters. It was a different emphasis and a nice change that I really enjoyed. It's still a technical film in that we had to create realistic wildfire, which took a combination of sophisticated practical and visual effects. Certainly my background in having done two movies that employ a lot of that was really helpful in finishing this movie.”

Kosinski details the creation of those realistic hill and forest fires that would seem threatening to the characters without putting his actors in actual jeopardy.  “Sometimes we did fires on location, which was very controlled because in the New Mexico summer, if not watched closely, a small wildfire could easily get out of control. Then for some of the bigger fire stuff, we actually built a forest on the backlot of Santa Fe Studios, which we lined with propane lines, so we had a forest fire that we could turn on and off. So that provided fire where the actors are interacting very closely with real fire.”

“For the huge fire scenes, we did two things: One is we filmed a controlled burn in southern New Mexico. They actually do light forest fires on purpose in order to burn areas that need to be thinned out, so we filmed in and around actual forest fires for some of the big aerial shots. For other scenes, when we had to create something even bigger and more out of control, we used Industrial Light & Magic to create the big wildfire scenes, which turned out to be some of the most complex visual effects they've ever had to do because of the nature of fire.”

He continues, “My visual-effects supervisor, Eric Barba, I'd done TRON and Oblivion with, so I had complete faith that he and his team were going to figure this out, and they did. With a lot of hard work in R and D, they were able to see simulations, which would sometimes take weeks to run. You’re talking about super-computer levels of computation to get these simulations to work, and they're not very controllable. You're literally creating the conditions in the computer, then letting the fire run through it, so there's a certain amount of experimentation to it. You never know exactly what you're going to get—much like fire itself.”

For his next film, Kosinski will be tackling something more in line with TRON: Legacy, the long-in-development sequel to the popular 1986 film Top Gun with Tom Cruise. “Obviously, Tom and I had an amazing experience on Oblivion together, and I’m always on the lookout for something else to do with him. This opportunity to go back and figure out what Maverick's been up to since we saw him last seemed like something I’m interested to see myself. I just wrapped Only the Brave a couple weeks ago, so I’m in the very early stages and just starting that transition right now.

“As we got into this, it felt like this story was an important one that needed to be told,” Kosinski concludes, explaining how his experience making Only the Brave differed from his previous fictional ventures. “TRON is a fantasy film, and it was important to honor the first one, but the emotional pressure is totally different on this one. I felt that people need to understand what these guys did and what heroes they were.”