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Lt. Mark Yant of the Baltimore City Fire Department got involved in a lot more than he bargained for when he agreed to serve as Technical Advisor to movie makers on "Ladder 49."
After training the actors at the fire academy for two weeks in March 2003, Yant spent four months working on the movie set, and in addition, was asked to perform a speaking role in the film. The most rewarding aspect of it all, he said, was the bond he shared with the actors as he guided them through the firefighting world and they guided him through theirs.
During live fire training, Yant told a wary John Travolta, "Don't worry, I won't leave you." Later, when Yant was reluctant to perform the movie lines he'd been handed, "I said John I don't do this," Yant said. "And he says, 'Don't worry I won't leave you.'"
Yant told the almost surreal story of his experience with the big stars - which included a weekend stay at John Travolta's home.
He explained that he was working as an officer at Baltimore's Truck 16 in February 2003 when department HQ called to ask him if he'd help out on a movie.
"Being a smartass I said, 'What, they went alphabetically and no one wanted to do it, and they got to me?'" Yant joked.
One day soon after, he was introduced to Joaquin Phoenix. "I was like wow, this is for real," he said.
Things got rolling in March of last year, and with the help of Capt. Lenny Zinck and Pump Operator Tom Denisio, Yant trained the group of actors who would be portraying firefighters in the film: Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Robert Patrick, Morris Chestnut, Kevin Daniels, Kevin Chapman, Balthazar Getty, Jay Hernandez, Billy Burke, Tim Guinee and two stunt men.
On the first day they went over the gear and other basics, and by the second day they were throwing ground ladders. A worried assistant director told Yant, "Mark, you can't do this!" but after much debate with production officials, he was given the green light to do whatever training was necessary.
This included putting the actors on an aerial ladder six stories up, having them practice rapelling, putting them through the maze, and doing live fire training. The actors were enthusiastic about all of it, Yant said, and wanted to make the experience as realistic as possible.
"They did fantastic," Yant said. "Joaquin Phoenix's first time in the building he asked, 'How do we know where we're going?' None of them could get over it."
On one of the last days of training, Yant said they had the burn structure really rolling with fire, and Phoenix knocked it down with Travolta behind him.
"The guys were fantastic. They got the team concept right away and that's what this job is all about," the lieutenant said. One of the stunt men for the film had also worked on Backdraft and told Yant, "What we're doing here is 10 times what we did for Backdraft."
Yant said he also worked separately with John Travolta to prepare him for his role as a captain, on issues such as radio communications, procedures of directing, and how to place the hose on a pipe man's shoulders.
And of course, Yant said, the firefighters and actors conspired to stage a prank one day. During a rapelling exercise, they brought a dummy up and made sure an assistant producer later saw it free fall to the ground. "The humor was always there, right away," Yant said.
On top of all this training, the department had the actors working at night with real Baltimore fire crews. In addition to getting a taste of the firefighter experience, Yant said, the actors took this opportunity to meet real firefighters who resembled the roles they would be playing. The actors then portrayed these people so accurately that during an early movie screening, Yant could pick out the personality of each firefighter they had observed.
"I walked out of the screening and said 'No, I want to wait for the movie to come out,'" he said.