Detroit Fire Filmmakers Aim for Spring Release

Supporters say the story of the department's trials and tribulations has taken on national significance.


More than a year ago, movie makers started filming fires in Detroit planning a full-length documentary on the city’s fire department and its trials and tribulations.

Today, they have a much different film in the works - one that has taken on a national significance - and the makers aim to release it in time for the spring film festivals.

The project got a big boost last summer when actor/comedian Dennis Leary, who is also a long-time supporter of the fire service, became an executive producer of the film. It also got a push from General Motors, which contributed financially to the project.

“It has been a very busy year,” said Tom Putnam, one of the California-based filmmakers involved with the project called “Burn: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit.”

Last year, fire departments nationwide suffered layoffs, station closings, and painful budgetary cuts – just like Detroit. Consequently, and somewhat by serendipity, the movie has a far wider audience by making Detroit the poster child for the plight of the nation’s firefighters.

The documentary was conceived by Brenna Sanchez, co-directed with Putnam. Sanchez, a native Detroiter, has a goal of documenting firefighters’ efforts to save the Motor City by spending time talking with them and filming their actions. The project began in the Summer of 2010 with the chronicling of Engine 50 and resulted in a critically acclaimed 10-minute trailer that caught the attention, and purse strings, of important people. Now the film is more of a reality than ever and Sanchez and Putnam say circumstances make the film more relevant than ever.

Thanks to the financial and creative support the filmmakers have received, filming for the documentary is essentially complete with more than 500 hours of video to edit and condense, Sanchez said. She added that a film crew might have to go back to Detroit one more time soon to do “pickup work,” which is filling in gaps and pieces that may be missing in the ultimate story line.

During this past year, Putnam said the Detroit Fire Department has experienced highs and lows, like hiring a brand new commissioner from outside the ranks, and a devastating fire that paralyzed a firefighter and injured others. These and other happenings in the department have changed the focus of the documentary movie slightly and given it a more national feel, the producers say.

After realizing the potential good the movie could good for the Detroit Fire Department, as well the nation, Leary, who is the creator, star and executive producer of the cable television firefighter drama “Rescue Me,” decided to lend his support.

Putnam said Leary and a second “Rescue Me” executive producer, Jim Serpico, teamed up to assist the project.

“They know the power this kind of project can have and they realize what this kind of film might do for the fire service,” Putnam said. “They get it.”

In exchange for the support, the a portion of any proceeds the film makes will go to the Leary Firefighters Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing funding and resources for fire departments. Specifically, the portion of proceeds will go to the Detroit Fire Department to help them purchase some much needed new equipment.

“This is just a small way to give back to the community,” Putnam said.

“It’s an incredibly unique fundraiser,” Sanchez said.

With the jump start from Leary and Serpico, Sanchez said the filming ramped up and shooting started in earnest last summer.

What excites Sanchez the most about the project is that it’s a true story told by real firefighters, allowed to tell their stories and let the audience experience their realities.

Sanchez said that by following a group of firefighters for a year (and in some cases more,) the viewers will get a good look at firefighting in Detroit and how the jobs and situations affect firefighters’ lives.

“You don’t know whose life is going to change or how it will change,” she said. “It’s a very dynamic story.”

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