Baltimore Fire Lieutenant Shares Experience As 'Ladder 49' Technical Advisor

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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.

Yant was extremely flattered by at least one tribute to himself in the film; actor Robert Patrick had a scorpion drawn on his forearm to match Yant's tattoo.

Training wrapped up in mid-March, and then every day, Yant advised the cast and crew on all aspects of how to portray the Baltimore fire service, from dialogue, to how to wear their helmet or carry their axe, to what to have for lunch.

Yant said some of the firefighting and physical activity the actors did on the set was quite impressive, because unlike putting out a real fire once, he said, "Imagine having to do that take after take from every angle." They might spend 12 hours on a one room fire, he said.

"I've got to give them credit, they would keep going," Yant said.

Yant also praised the movie's special effects and accuracy. He said just a few things had to be altered for Hollywood; the smoke had to be lighter than in real life, and the firefighters' nose pieces are missing from their masks so that their faces can be seen.

A few other things that might look like mistakes were actually done on purpose, Yant said. For example, when you see Phoenix as a rookie he does everything by the book, but as his character gets more seasoned you see all the little things that might change.

For example, he might not always have his top button done, or not be belted in on the aerial ladder. "I know that's going to be a problem with some people," Yant said. "We have standard operations and procedures but sometimes it all goes to hell."

There's one scene in particular that has raised some eyebrows - when John Travolta's character is seen having an alcoholic drink at the firehouse.

"People ask, 'Why did you let that happen,'" Yant said. "Look at the years - When Joaquin comes in as a rookie, don't tell me there wasn't booze in the firehouses, in the 80's," he said. "Nowadays we don't do that."

Yant said the most intense part of the movie experience was filming the climactic high rise fire, for which about 300 Baltimore firefighters were involved, "running around and being firemen," Yant said. It was a strange and difficult role for all of them, knowing that an inferno was about to erupt and then having to hold back as the flaming debris rained down.

"I was a nervous wreck leading up to this," Yant said. "We had charged hose lines ready, and were on our knees waiting. When that thing blew - I told all my guys - you can't move - we don't want to ruin this shot. I'll tell you when."

As the firefighters held back amidst the destruction, "I'm like please hurry," Yant said. "We had stuff burning and falling everywhere. It was nerve wracking."

Yant noted that Baltimore at no time lost equipment or manpower to the movie, and that everything was done with reserve or out of service equipment.

Yant himself appears briefly in the film as Travolta's aid during the massive fire scene, looking at blueprints of the building to try to locate Phoenix's character. He stays with Travolta for probably about two minutes of the movie, he said.

When they asked Yant to do this scene with John Travolta, "I said give me two takes, if I mess up bring an actor in," he said. So Yant did it, and was amazed when the director stopped the scene to give Travolta, not him, instructions. "When the director said 'Cut,' he said, 'John I need a little more intensity,'" Yant said. "I was like ooh!"

Yant said it was an eye-opening experience being on the actors' side of the fence after mentoring them for so long, and he got a real taste of what it's like to be in the movie business. After wrapping up on the set he did several interviews for the DVD and other news shows. He was also asked to join the Screen Actors Guild and was offered work on another movie in Chicago. But of the projects proposed to him, he has chosen one: an interview for a children's book.

"You see the money these guys make in Hollywood. It's very alluring but this is what I do," Yant said. "I got my over extended 15 minutes of fame."

And in some eyes, this is what makes him and all of the other firefighters out there the real stars. When two little kids came up to ask Yant for his autograph on their "Ladder 49" movie posters, he told them, "I'm just a firefighter you know, not an actor." One of the children then said enthusiastically, "We know! That's why we want it!"

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