"Ladder 49" Director Jay Russell spoke with Firehouse.com about his upcoming film starring Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta, and why he chose to take on a project about the fire service.
Russell touched on everything from his first move of calling up his retired firefighter uncle, to the guidance he received on location from Baltimore firefighters, to the fulfillment he and his crew have felt at the so far overwhelming approval the movie has received from the firefighter community.
The director also touched on his artistic approach to the movie, saying anyone, firefighter or not, can identify with the theme that runs through all of his films: that life is precious. He said the story is about the appreciation of moments in life, which Phoenix's character explores as he reflects on his life while trapped in a Baltimore high rise inferno.
Firehouse.com: Before "Ladder 49," did you have any prior experience or interest related to the fire service?
Russell: I've sort of been around it all my life, but the real interest came when I began making the movie. My uncle was a career firefighter and retired after 30-some years on the service in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is where I grew up. And one of my friends from high school became a firefighter, and has been a firefighter over 25 years now.
So I've been around it a long time but have sort of always taken it for granted. When I got involved in this project the first person I called was my uncle to talk about it. So it was both familiar and unfamiliar to me.
Firehouse.com: What was it that made you want to get involved in a story about the fire service?
Russell: With any film that you take on it's all about the characters and the story. These characters in this story are strong no matter what the situation is, and the situation happens to be that they're firefighters. That's the way I always approach a film, is first do I care about these characters.
Firehouse.com: When making this movie, did you get your inspiration from anything in particular, such as a certain story or person, or September 11th?
Russell: I think on September 11th, on that unfortunate date, the world learned the sacrifice firefighters are willing to make. And once you dig below the surface, beyond September 11th, you see that those sacrifices are being made every single day. That's when I really started to get emotionally involved in this story.
It's a challenging lifestyle because any given day something can go wrong, and that's a very dramatic and very difficult way of life.
Firehouse.com: What did you do personally to prepare for this movie?
Russell: I got to Baltimore as soon as I could. Joaquin Phoenix and I were the first two on the scene; we both arrived in Baltimore about the same time which was easily two, two and a half months in advance of shooting the film. And Joaquin, of course, having to portray a firefighter in the film, went the whole distance and enrolled in the academy, and really went through a lot of the experience of what it takes to become a firefighter.
I was around the whole time and spent time in firehouses in Baltimore, would stop in and observe Joaquin at the academy when I could, and then did a little bit myself. I put on the equipment and went through the maze, went into the burning structure and experienced the blackout of the smoke, and put myself through as much as I could to experience it firsthand.
I went out on any number of runs with different companies in Baltimore and caught two fires. When I got in there I actually went into one of the buildings that was on fire, and once I got up on the third floor of this row house I suddenly got that feeling of "anything could happen." I felt safe with the guys I was with, but I mean this building could collapse at any second. It was really both exciting but also a kind of frightening experience.
Firehouse.com: What made you choose Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta for the lead roles?