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Starting Fires
Creating Authentic Blazes for LADDER 49 Going into LADDER 49, Jay Russell knew he wanted to capture two aspects of a firefighter's reality that he felt had never been adequately seen on film before: first, the conflicting emotions and family ties that grip firefighters even as they risk their lives; and second, the visceral nature of fire itself, which is blinding, confusing and mercurial, as if, as many firefighters have said before, it has a twisted mind of its own.

Early on the filmmakers made the decision to cautiously set real, so-called "controlled fires” for the production in real buildings — rather than relying primarily on computers or studio environments. Obviously, for safety and environmental reasons, they couldn't simply burn real buildings to the ground, but they went as far as possible while remaining safe for the cast, crew and community.

"We ultimately created some of the largest fires ever committed to film,” notes Russell. "We felt strongly that digital fires just don't seem real enough, and that extremely controlled studio fires just weren't going to give us that visceral excitement of being in a real fire. So 99% of what you see in LADDER 49 is actually happening. When you see Joaquin Phoenix crawling through an apartment engulfed in flames, that really is Joaquin crawling through an apartment engulfed in flames. It's a character-driven film but I really felt that the more believable the fire scenes, the more the audience would become involved with these characters and what they're experiencing.” He adds: "I certainly didn't want to make another artificial Hollywood movie about firefighting. I felt we had a responsibility to these brave people we are depicting to get it right, and the only way to do that was to get it as real as possible.”

With realism as the end goal, the filmmakers were faced with how to achieve it with an appropriate margin of safety. They walked a fine tightrope of managing risk through much of the film. "Logistically, this movie was a nightmare,” admits Russell. "I honestly believe there's a reason not very many firefighting movies have been made and the biggest reason is that it's so dangerous. It's almost like shooting under water because you're making a movie with oxygen masks on!” Adds Casey Silver: "I think that the filmmakers and the cast were extraordinarily courageous in the way that they approached the fire scenes. These were challenging sets to work on. It was hot. It was smoky. It was frightening. If it looks difficult on the screen, that's because it was difficult — even with all of those precautions that real firefighters don't get to rely on in the course of their daily experience.”

When asked, many firefighters agreed that the one thing they'd always felt was missing from Hollywood depictions of raging fires was the thick, black, lung-clogging smoke that is the bane of the firefighter's existence. To give the behind-the-scenes talent a better idea of what that smoke looks and feels like, as well as other ineffable qualities of fires the filmmakers wanted to capture, several members of the production were also sent off to Fire Camp, including director of photography James L. Carter. Through this intense, unforgettable experience, Carter determined that what he most wanted to reveal through the camera lens is the disorienting, isolating feeling of being without the basic human senses that normally keep us sane.

Because of the potential danger involved in shooting the film's seven "fire events,” each scene was meticulously planned out and storyboarded — but even that wasn't a guarantee that nothing would go wrong. Explains the film's fire consultant, Mark Yant: "The thing about fire is, no matter how much you think it's controlled, the truth is — I've never seen a truly controlled fire. You just ne

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