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LADDER 49

Training The Cast
Firefighting is not just about courage — it's also about skills and instincts that are honed in intensive training regimens that are famous for their brutal difficulty and ability to separate out the truly fit and daring from everyone else. In order to forge a tightly bonded team of authentic-seeming firefighters on screen, LADDER 49 director Jay Russell asked his actors to undertake a good chunk of that grueling training themselves. It was more than just a test of the actors' commitment, it was an essential initiation into their roles and the mindset of young firefighters. Even Russell attended "Fire Camp,” for an intensive introduction to his film's subject and themes.

"If I was going to ask the actors to put on 100 pounds of gear every day, get inside a fire, be blinded by smoke and experience a thousand degrees of heat right next to their faces, I figured I should be willing to do it myself,” explains Russell. "So I did do it, and honestly... it was terrifying.”

Among the many nerve-wracking drills at Fire Camp was one that many of the cast found the most daunting — The Maze. Created to simulate a situation in which a firefighter is trapped inside a building, The Maze requires that a person make his way through a pitchblack, smoke-filled, debris-packed room, often crawling, lurching and stumbling blindly to find a safe way out. For many, The Maze was a real eye-opener that revealed just how mentally tough and physically agile a fireman must be to succeed.

"Inside The Maze you can't even see your hand in front of your face,” recalls Russell. "You almost start to hallucinate because you're trying to picture the space around you, and just hoping you find your way out. It's extremely difficult and very frightening. But it was also a great thing for me to go through because it helped me to come up with visual ways to convey the confusion and chaos of a fireman being lost inside the smoke.”

John Travolta was also taken aback by The Maze. "Fire Camp was a whole new universe of experience,” he says, "but my absolute least favorite part was The Maze. It's very claustrophobic and not something I'd ever like to do again. Still, I did find it extraordinary and life-changing in a way, because it really alters your perspective and gives you a chance to experience pure instinct.”

Another adrenaline-pumping exercise several cast members had to attempt was learning how to rappel on a thin climbing rope down the side of a multi-story building, with nothing but air below. This turned out be a favorite of Morris Chestnut's. "I was never truly scared, because I thought it was so fun,” admits Chestnut. "It's really amazing what it is possible for humans to do when an urgent need strikes.”

For Jay Hernandez, the most awe-inspiring moment came when he was given the chance to experience up-close-and-personal the 1,000-degree heat of a major blaze in progress. "It was incredible to be right next to real fire. We've all seen it before on the news, but to be right up close, so close our helmet visors were melting, that's a whole different thing.” John Travolta adds: "Another thing I did not comprehend before is how much smoke a fire creates — you can't really comprehend that kind of density until you see it. You get maybe an inch or two of visual information. You might see someone's feet, but that's about it. And firefighters move through this with a hundred pounds of gear on them that's knocking them off-balance!”

The Baltimore firefighters consulting on the film watched with personal glee as actors who, under any other circumstances, would be considered to be in great shape struggled through exhaustion, frustration, soreness and fear. "It was comical at times and at other times it was flattering to us to see these strong guys struggle with what we do every day,” c

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