Honoring a Heroic American Brotherhood:
Behind the Scenes of ONLY THE BRAVE
By Tom Snyder, Editor
ONLY THE BRAVE is a powerful drama honoring heroic American firefighters working on the front lines to stop dangerous wildfires. It focuses on 20 such firefighters from a top-of-the-line group of firefighters called “Hotshots”, from Prescott, Arizona; the first municipal firefighters to earn that prestigious national certification.
MOVIEDGUIDE® recently had the chance to attend a press conference with the movie’s cast and crew, including a couple firefighters who advised them.
“The physical nature of the job is like nothing else,” said Pat McCarty, the Tech Supervisor for ONLY THE BRAVE and a former “Hotshot” firefighter, who educated the cast and crew about wildfires and how to fight them.
“It’s physically demanding. It’s mentally exhausting. You train year-round for it. It’s really learning to be uncomfortable for 24 hours a day. You sleep in the dirt where you have horrible food most of the time. A warm meal is a blessing.”
Brendan McDonough, one of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots, who’s played by Miles Teller in the movie, said wildfire firefighters carry 45-pound packs of equipment, often in 100-degree plus heat.
“When you’re grinding through those days,” Brendan said, “it just comes back to the brotherhood. That’s personally what made it easier for me. Just looking to the guy next to me and knowing, hey, we’re in this together.”
Surviving a wildfire comes down to depending on “the guy next to you,” he reiterated.
“I underestimated the physical aspect of the job,” actor Miles Teller admitted. “I knew it was going to be tough, but I wasn’t versed on hotshot training before I showed up. . . . We were filming in some locations 10,000 feet above sea level. It was tough.”
Teller and the other male actors playing the 20 firefighters attended a week-long “boot camp” to learn about the job. Teller, Josh Brolin, James Badge Dale, and Taylor Kitsch all said the boot camp was a life-changing experience that drew the cast closer together.
“I don’t think anything brings you closer together than collective suffering,’ Teller said.
“Josh [Brolin] had an open-door policy,” Teller added. “He was really the catalyst and energy behind this. He was our leader. It was really such a wonderful experience, anybody you talk to would kind of echo that.”
Brolin, who plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the 20 firefighters who trained to become Hotshots, said, “It’s such a personal experience what we went through. We don’t want you to get the impression we went through Hell to become a Hotshot, but the truth of the matter is like what [Prescott Wildland Fire Chief] Duane Steinbrink said at the end, ‘You’ll never be a hotshot, but we’re glad it’s you guys representing [us].’ It’s nice to get that kind of honesty from somebody who was there and trained those guys.
“As actors, we put ourselves in a situation where there was no comfort. It was very uncomfortable, and I made sure it was as uncomfortable as possible. There were no laggards, there was no entitlement. Everybody had a lot of respect for the story, and they were willing to give 150 percent.”
Brolin actually grew up in a firefighting community and became a volunteer wildland firefighter when he was 21.
“I just preferred spending time with firefighter rather than actors,” he said. “So, I spent three years in that community. It meant a lot to me.
“As an actor, you want to be involved in a story when you choose to be in a movie that resonates. It becomes very personal. It was very emotional for everybody. . . . This one stood out, after 50 movies, as the Number One most communal experience I’ve ever had personally.”
Jennifer Connelly spent a lot of time with Amanda, the wife of Eric Marsh, to ensure that she did her life and personality justice in the movie.
“For me it was the most important part of my preparation,” Connelly said. “She was very gracious and generous with her time, sharing her stories. Amanda and Eric shared a love of mature and hiking and being in the wilderness, and of animals and horses. They were husband and wife, and best friends. And, what was really clear was that the rhythm of that relationship was challenging. When they were together, they certainly leaned on one another, but they absolutely had to learn how to stand alone because he would be away for weeks at a time [fighting wildfires]. In those weeks, he would be in various places where he was in very dangerous situations and out of contact. That obviously was something difficult to withstand.”
Connelly also made a special effort to learn about and ride horses because that was so much a part of Amanda’s life.
“I really wanted to honor that,” she said. “I actually rode with her. She came with me, and I worked with her, trying to get the horses to lie down and understand how she worked with the trimming of the horses. I enjoyed the experience very much.”
Taylor Kitsch, who plays Firefighter Chris Mackenzie, said, “Serving Mackenzie, Steve, Marsh, and McDonough, and these guys, it’s a responsibility that all of us just absolutely loved and were honored by it. That’s where that communal [spirit] comes in, where everybody goes through their own fear. You want to make people watching Mackenzie or Marsh that didn’t know them, they’re gonna know who they are when this movie comes out. It’s our responsibility to show that story. That’s what drives you as an actor, as a storyteller. Having this relationship with Brandon [McDonough] and having him with me talking about Mackenzie, he was invaluable.”
James Badge Dale, who plays Marsh’s second-in-command, Jesse Steed, said, “We tell stories and we make a lot of different types of films, for a lot of different reasons. This one is special. It is special for all of us.
“I’m very proud of this film,” he added. “I do see it as a celebration, a celebration of life and the work ethic that these guys put out, and their families. I’m just proud to be here.”
Jeff Bridges, who plays Chief Steinbrink, said, “Everybody in the company wanted to do justice to the tale we were telling. It’s just invaluable to have people who really went through that on board, like Brendan [McDonough] (Teller’s character) being there just about every day. Duane was there often, the fellow that I play. He actually came out to my place and spent a couple of days helping me figure out the costume. . . and then talking to me about the emotions he was feeling.
“And then, one of the things Joe [the director] told me when I came on board, that I couldn’t believe, was, ‘Guess what Duane does in his spare time?’ I said, ‘What?’ He says, ‘He’s got a country band called The Rusty Pistols.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ He says, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna put that in the movie.’ I said, ‘Come on!’ He said, ‘Yes.’
“So, Duane came out, and we jammed. We played together, and there’s nothing like music that can bring you together with somebody. Then, my dear friend, T Bone Burnett, ended up producing the song that we sang, and we used the real Rusty Pistols in the movie. That was terrific.”
Bridges has, in fact, had some experience on a personal, individual or amateur level fighting fires around his and other people’s houses in Montana.
“Fire broke out around people’s houses, and you get out there with shovels and do your best. I’ve lost 400 acres of my ranch in Montana to fires. I just had a wedding for my daughter, Jessie, in Montana, and we were circled by fire. There were fires all over. Sue, my wife, has evacuated three times by herself out in Santa Barbara (California). I’ve been out making movies, and Sue had to evacuate three times! I lost a house in Malibu. So, fires, that’s something to pay attention to, especially these days.”
He said ONLY THE BRAVE “is certainly a tragic story, but it’s also inspirational.”
“It gives people really an idea about who are these brave guys who go into something that we usually try to avoid? That was an important story for me to tell. I’m very happy that our production has a website that has a fund for the Granite Mountain wildfire firefighters.”
To donate to the Granite Mountain Fund, go to www.onlythebrave-movie.com.
“We all are asked to be brave in our own lives,” Bridges noted. “And, bravery is such an interesting thing. I don’t know if fear is a requirement for bravery. Do you have to be afraid for bravery, or is bravery a reflexive thing? You see a kid on the edge of a cliff. You rush toward him. You could fall off the cliff yourself, but you go for the kid. Or, does bravery take practice? We live in a world now that, to me, feels very volatile. There is a fire, in a way, that’s going on. What is our response to that? In my own battle, I battle my own cynicism, and say [throwing up his hands], ‘Well, this is just ridiculous!’ Or, do I say, ‘There’s a fire there. How am I going to respond to that?’ It can inspire you to take action.”
Bridges said he loves the motto on the poster for ONLY THE BRAVE, which says, “It’s not what stands in front of you; it’s who stands beside you.”
“Wow! That’s it, man! Life is full of fear, but you’ve got these people next to you [he jostles Jennifer Connelly, who was sitting next to him at the press conference] that want a beautiful life. How can we turn this thing around, man? That’s inspiring.”
“We’re very lucky obviously to be in this craft, in this job,” Kitsch said, adding to what Bridges said about bravery and the movie poster’s motto. “I wasn’t exposed to these Hotshots [before ONLY THE BRAVE]. I didn’t know.
“To have these opportunities to breathe life into a Mackenzie and meet his dad and have that relationship. . . . But also to learn these trades, to go and work with these guys who have real jobs and sacrifice on a real level. That was just something that hit me over the head when I was doing this. Obviously, we had an amazing time going to work with these guys up in the mountains. We did have a lot of laughs with these guys. You don’t want to forget about that either, this camaraderie. Sometimes in the worst of times, in the worst of scenarios, these guys are literally laughing. That’s just how you deal with it sometimes.”