Director Joe Kosinski’s “Only the Brave” is the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting force from Prescott, Ariz. The men who formed this team became the first municipal hotshot crew in the United States, and on Oct. 10, hundreds of people helped celebrate the Granite Mountain Hotshots by descending on Tempe Marketplace’s Harkins Theatres for a red carpet event and movie screening.
Josh Brolin, Miles Teller and James Badge Dale played three of the firefighters in the film, and they – along with country singer Dierks Bentley, Joe Kosinski, and real-life Granite Mountain Hotshots Brendan McDonough and Pat McCarty - attended the festivities! The Phoenix Film Festival had the honor to sit down and speak with all of them during a series of group interviews with three other critics earlier that day.
If you are unfamiliar with the Granite Mountain Hotshots, please note that the interviews with Brendan McDonough, Pat McCarty, Dierks Bentley, James Badge Dale, and Miles Teller contain spoilers, but you do not have to wait long to see “Only the Brave”. It arrives in theatres on Friday, Oct. 20.
Director Joe Kosinski
Q: How involved was Brendan McDonough (a Granite Mountain Hotshot), when you were making the film?
Joe Kosinski: Very. He was the first person (who) I met with. The movie takes a unique approach of having two points of view. The point of view of Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the superintendent, and Brendan’s (Miles Teller), the rookie on the team. I find Brendan’s story very inspiring, because of where he starts and where he ends up. You find out what Eric Marsh did for him (by) giving him a second chance, when no one else would. I thought (Eric’s gesture) was a wonderful story, and - to me – was the heart of what (the Granite Mountain Hotshots) were about.
Q: Many times in war movies, the narratives focus on the brotherhood of the soldiers, such as in “We Were Soldiers” (2002) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). I found the same theme in this film and feel that the brotherhood of these men was a more prominent aspect than the actual firefighting. Was it your intention to emphasize the men’s comradery?
Joe Kosinski: That is the heart of this film. It’s about brotherhood. It’s about what we are capable of, when we can rely on the guy standing next to you. I felt that (this) theme is universal and transcends firefighting. Great movies, movies that you a remember (are the) ones that you can relate to, if you are not in that world. (The Granite Mountain Hotshots had a) really tight dynamic.
When I asked - any of the (firefighters): what makes you come back season after season? They all said the same thing, which is the brotherhood, wanting to hang out with your guys. I said to the actors from the beginning, that (a) sense of connection is what’s going to make this movie work. You cast it the best way that you can, and you hope for that chemistry. This is one of those cases where that chemistry on set was real. That’s not acting. Those guys really bonded, because I think they knew how important this story is.
Q: How much of the fire that we see in the film is actual, practical fire versus creating it on a computer monitor?
Joe Kosinski: Most of is practical. Anytime that you see the actors in close proximity to fire, most of that is done practically, because this is not a movie that I wanted to shoot on a blue screen stage. This was shot on location. The environment that fire creates – because it is a light source – is very unique, and that’s very hard to create after the fact. So, most of the fire in the movie is real.
Some of the big fires were shot during a real forest fire in Southern New Mexico. They had a control burn. Sometimes they burn off tracks of timber, so they can do it in a controlled way. So, we filmed some of that using helicopters and aerial equipment. Yes, there are certain scenes that the fire is so large and so intense, that I had to rely on visual effects to enhance it and try to create the scale of some of the (historic) wildfires that are in the film. The challenge was to make something that’s digital blend with all of the practical fire. I enlisted the help of the best visual effects artists in the world, the same guys who worked on my other two movies (“TRON: Legacy” (2010), “Oblivion” (2013)), and they found this to be the most challenging thing that they have ever done. I mean, (fire) is so unpredictable, so hard to capture, so hard to simulate. At the end of the day, it’s a mix, but it’s mostly practical.
Josh Brolin, who plays Eric Marsh
Q: The authenticity of this film is really evident, even down to the little details. In the beginning of the film, after a long run, you can see sweat marks and stains on your shirts.
Josh Brolin: All of that’s real. No, it’s seriously real. It was actually our sweat, all that salty, real, pore-sweating guck. It’s funny, because you usually have the makeup artist (show) up, and she (throws) something that looks like that, but it was important to Joe Kosinski – in a major way – to be authentic. We had Pat McCarty, who is a former Granite Mountain Hotshot (there). We had Donut (Brendan McDonough) there. We had a lot of firefighters there.
When Joe and I were talking with them, (we would say), “Be brutal with us about authenticity,” and they were.
I made everybody wear 45-lb. packs all the time. A lot of time in movies, you might take out the 45-lb. packs and put in foam, and you can tell that (they are) not really heavy. (All of the actors) were pretty gung-ho. In the beginning, a couple guys were making jokes, and I just wouldn’t have any of it. I said that the joking can come after establishing who were are as a community, who we are as a collective. When I feel that everybody has the correct amount of respect for what we’re doing, then we can start to joke around, so I wasn’t the nicest guy. It paid off though. It did, because everybody really gave one thousand percent to this.
Q: I loved Eric’s relationship with his wife, Amanda (Jennifer Connelly). There was this terrific scene where Jennifer and you were arguing in Eric’s truck over emotional distance and conflicting thoughts about starting a family.
Josh Brolin: Jennifer was great.
Q: Oh, she’s knocked it out of the park.
Josh Brolin: She killed it. Killed it.
Q: In your conversations with Amanda or other spouses of firefighters or hotshots, how do they cope with their husbands or wives doing such a dangerous job?
Josh Brolin: My brother-in-law is a fireman. He’s a wildland firefighter, so my sister waits. (A wildland firefighter’s) life is like an actor’s life, but with danger. You (leave), and you become comfortable in that highly intense (environment) with electric nerves. You come home, and you’re supposed to just mellow out in a normal domestic life, and it’s impossible. So, (it’s difficult to) have some semblance of a real relationship. People are constantly having to readjust and readjust. There is no set paradigm, where people can find comfort. It’s hard, and it was hard for Amanda. She told me a lot about it, and Jennifer, thank God, she was the one (cast), because a lot of people were vying for this role. She and I started rehearsing, and we just started screaming at each other. I don’t know why, maybe we had it out for each other.
We’re two actors saying, “I can scream louder than you.”
We had it out, and Joe Kosinski said, “Set up the camera. Do it again. Do it again.”
We did it again, and it wasn’t like (the first time).
He said, “No, you guys go back to what you were doing.”
We tried to go back, and you have to find it. It’s not organic. It becomes inorganic, because it has already happened. You don’t have the same fight twice. You are just two actors doing a scene, and you are trying to find that really uncomfortable, yet magical moment between two people who are crazy about each other, (but) who have every obstacle in front of them that gets in the way of just having a nice, normal, loving relationship.
I think it was conveyed in that scene, and I think a lot of that was Jennifer. I think I was okay. My wife was crying, when she watched it. She said that it was the most raw scene (that she has) seen in a long time, but I laugh because I see how scared I actually was. (Jennifer’s) great!
(** Contains Spoilers **) Granite Mountain Hotshots Brendan McDonough and Pat McCarty
Q: This was a traumatic event that everyone in Arizona remembers very well. How difficult is it to sit through the film and relive it?
Brendan McDonough: We’ve watched it a few times, and that film has brought such great life to our brothers’ stories again. It’s so honorable and reminds us of so many great memories that we have. (In this movie), you laugh, and there might even be some relatable experiences. (The film does) get to this tragedy, but it’s no greater honor for us to see our brothers on the big screen and for people to learn about them. You watch this film, and you learn something. You either learn something about (wildland) firefighting, the guys, the families, the community, or you learn something about yourself, and I think that everyone is going to be able to take away something from this film.
Pat McCarty: We are in such a unique situation here and have a great opportunity to tell the world about these men. Not only them, but the men and women who do this job every day. Anybody who has lost a loved one would love the opportunity to share who those people really were with the world, especially if they die in such a tragic way. So, we are in a great situation to share that, and I feel like “Only the Brave” really does justice to not just those men, but those men and women that still do this job every day.
Q: Obviously, it is a big story to take on and tell it the right way. As somebody who was so involved and part of the crew, how well did the movie capture the Granite Mountain Hotshots?
Brendan McDonough: I think (the filmmakers) did an amazing job (in capturing) what it is like to be on a hotshot crew, and what that brotherhood and comradery look like. The men and women who worked on this film are so authentic, and when we did the boot camp, the actors really took on a sense of responsibility to honor them. We saw the actors form an organic brotherhood with each other, and that really gave so much depth to the film.
Pat McCarty: The movie is so true to the hotshot life, because when you are out there on the line and working as hard as these guys are, sometimes it can be miserable. It’s those stories, it’s those little interactions throughout the day with your buddies, and being out there with 19 or 20 other people, there’s always a new story. Somebody always went home and had a new story to talk about. Somebody broke up with a girlfriend. Something’s always new. So, it’s those organic brotherhood stories that really shine in this movie and (are) true to the hotshot lifestyle.
Q: Brendan, you joined the team, because the girl you were seeing became pregnant. You felt that you had to take some responsibility in your life and spoke to Eric Marsh about a job with his crew. If that significant event did not happen, where would your life have taken you?
Brendan McDonough: Oh. I don’t know where I’d be today without my brothers, and that life changing moment of becoming a father. There’s a difference between having a child and being a dad. At that point, I had a child, and my brothers brought me to (becoming) a father. So, (I’m) just so grateful for everything that they have given me. I wouldn’t be here without them, and I wouldn’t be the dad that I am today without the lessons that they taught me. Being a great firefighter, but most importantly, a person of a community and hitting that dad aspect. We had such great mentors, and they just brought so much life into me. I’m just so honored to be called a Granite Mountain Hotshot and to be a dad.
(** Contains Spoilers **) Dierks Bentley, who contributes a song, “Hold the Light”, to the film
Q: You are from Arizona, so the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ story is a hometown tragedy for you.
Dierks Bentley: Yes, it was, and it is still home. I love Nashville, but Arizona will always be home. Living here, you are always aware of the fires and fire seasons, so you are cognizant about it. Even if you are cognizant of it, after watching the movie, I realized (that) there is so much more that I didn’t know (about the Granite Mountain Hotshots).
Q: In the movie, Eric Marsh says at one point, “If this isn’t the greatest job in the world, I don’t know what is.” When I watched the film, I certainly got a taste of that, but I don’t think one really knows until you actually do that job. When you heard Eric say that line, what thoughts went through your mind?
Dierks Bentley: I love that line. I feel the same way about what I do. Throughout the day (when you are) on the road, you are tired. You are away from your family, but the second my feet hit the stage, this feeling of sheer joy washes over me and wonder and appreciation for what I get to do. I hate to relate anything that I do with what (hotshots) do. (Hotshots are) a band of guys together, out there, in nature, working to serve and save lives in (their) communities. They embrace the “suck”. It’s 105 degrees at 9am, and they are digging through the dirt, weeds and rattlesnakes, and it’s dusty. How can this be the greatest job in the world? It’s a feeling about (being) a part of something that’s bigger than yourself.
(** Contains Spoilers **) James Badge Dale, who plays Jesse Steed
Q: I loved the early scene when Jesse Steed went to work. He said goodbye to his wife and small children, and this scene established that even though he is doing a very risky job, he is going to work like anyone else. At the same time, there is a chance that he won’t come home. How did you approach that scene?
James Badge Dale: When (these guys) get up and go to work in the morning, (they) want to come home. They expect to come home, (Jesse) did (this job) for a long time. He was 36 years old, when he passed. He loved this job. He’d go to work, and maybe he would (be gone) for a week or two at a time, but he’d come home. (He) wanted to come home to his family, and that was one of the big things that struck me, when I talked to his wife before filming. She said to me that this man would go to work for 16 hours a day, and then come home and be with her and their children, as if he hadn’t spent that time (working incredibly long days). He was present at home. He was loving and funny, and he gave to his family. That’s what I thought about in that moment. That was a beautiful little scene.
Q: Brendan wasn’t really accepted with the other firefighters right away, but Eric gave him a chance. After a long run, Brendan was exhausted, and Jesse offered him a water and some words of comfort. Do you feel that was an important moment in the film, and does it go back to the brotherhood that these men generally felt about one another?
James Badge Dale: 100 percent. Absolutely. That moment, when Eric Marsh says, “Alright, we’ll see you on Monday.” Jesse Steed’s job is to turn around and say, “Okay.” He’s that big brother that we all wanted to have. Jesse Steed would never come down on a guy. If you were not doing it right, he’d come up to you on the line and start (working) with you. He would lead by example. He would lead by attitude, and that was so important for me to find in this film for Jesse. Even when Jesse is on the line, yelling (at the guys to) pick it up, there’s this love to it.
Listen, you let people in and give them a chance. Jesse Steed was (a giving) type of person. You know, I learned a lot from that, and it was important for me to be a part of (this) film. I’d just (like) to say that maybe I’ve spent time in my life taking, and I didn’t know Jesse Steed, but he’s taught me something. I’m trying to be a better person because of Jesse Steed.
(** Contains Spoilers **) Miles Teller, who plays Brendan McDonough
Q: You had a different experience than the other actors, because you play the sole survivor. How did you go about your preparation during your conversations with Brendan?
Miles Teller: I flew to Prescott to hang out with Brendan, and I didn’t have any type of agenda or anything. When I met him, the incident only happened (a few) years prior, and he was dealing with a lot of post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt. It’s sensitive material, so I didn’t want to come down and be like a journalist. I just came down, we got food, we got some drinks, and walked around Prescott, which I felt was important, because these guys represented their town, and their town was a piece of them. I come from a small town in Florida, a country town. I take a lot of pride (in) where I come from, so I was able to absorb a lot just being down there. I think a lot of people (who worked on the movie) benefited from having Brendan around, because he was a great resource for all the (actors). Because of (Brendan), we were able to personalize each of these roles. The movie is about authenticity first and entertainment second.
Q: One of the best scenes in the movie is when Amanda reaches out and comforts Brendan.
Miles Teller: Yea, and that’s true. (That happened.)
Q: When you were playing Brendan, what did that moment mean to you, and do you know what it meant to Brendan?
Miles Teller: That was a moment.
I lost two of my best friends in car accidents five weeks from each other, when I was 21 years old. Two guys who were really close to me. So absolutely, Man. I went through grief, but that moment (in the movie, when he discovers all of the hotshots – except for him - perish in the Yarnell Hill Fire) is completely unique to Brendan, because (it just) happened, and he was still kind of numb from it.
So, he said that it was such a low self-loathing (moment), (and he just wanted) to disappear. So, yes, I got to talk to him about that, and (it) was really tough to try to capture, but I can be in his skin a little bit. When Amanda comes to him, he’s not looking for sympathy. He doesn’t want anybody to feel bad for him. He doesn’t want to make this moment about him, (but) Amanda does want him to be okay with the fact that he survived. Eric would have wanted that, and so it’s a surreal moment that’s unique to Brendan.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.