On Friday, October 20, Only The Brave opens nationwide. The story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots and the tragedy of the Yarnell Hill Fire shocked the nation on June 30, 2013, as 19 firefighters lost their lives battling the intense, and unpredictable wildfire. The new film, directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) and starring Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Taylor Kitsch, James Badge Dale, and Jeff Bridges, depicts not just the fire that killed so many brave civil servants, but it focuses on the firefighters themselves and their stories.
This is the story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, an elite group of young men who died battling a blaze that threatened a small Arizona town that nobody had heard of before the fire. But it also focuses on the relationships between these men, their families, and their community, leaving the politics of what happened and the exploitation of the “disaster film” genre on the way side.
Recently, we sat down to talk with the cast of the film, including Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and James Badge Dale, along with the director Joseph Kosinski, and even country music star Dierks Bentley, who wrote the film’s theme song, “Hold the Light.” We were also able to talk with the only survivor from the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, Brendan McDonough, and Pat McCarty, a Prescott firefighter and technical consultant on the film. Throughout the interview, many themes came up, each painting a broad picture of firefighting and filmmaking and how Only The Brave brings them both together to tell an amazing and powerful story of brothers who gave their all trying to save lives.
“I wasn’t interested in making a political movie,” director Joseph Kosinski said. “I don’t think there’s any politics in this film. Wildfire doesn’t care what your political affiliations are, so I didn’t want this to be a political movie. I wanted it to be what it was, which is a very inspiring movie. I think there is a misconception about what the film is, obviously that we are trying to change. This is a very inspiring film, you are going to walk out of this film having so much more respect for firefighters than when you walked in. I think most people are who don’t know what they do.”
Pat McCarty, a Prescott firefighter and consultant for Only The Brave, talked about how the film shows that human side.
“They really captured the brotherhood and the camaraderie and it’s so important to show people that, you know, how organic it was for our crew, our brothers, they did a phenomenal job being able to portray the personalities of how these men were and what these men were like, not only our crew but other crews as well. It rings out throughout the film, this is about the brotherhood, the family, which is what the film is about. That was important to the film, the cast, everyone involved. That’s what gets you through the job, when you’re out there on the line in 16 hour shifts for two weeks at a time, it’s the person beside you, how you get through such a physically and mentally demanding job.”
Josh Brolin had the heady task of portraying Eric Marsh, the supervisor of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. On top of playing the lead, Brolin also had the support of Marsh’s widow, Amanda.
“She said ‘good’, which I thought was huge,” Brolin said of Amanda’s critique of his performance. “Being a guy who doesn’t need a lot of compliments and all that, you know she’s like my little sister. I talk with her almost every day, I just like her. She’s dealt with this, and especially recently has had an outpouring of love from the firefighting community. I think it’s been a great thing for her, it’s not intended to be a great thing for anyone, other than just ‘let’s pay respect for these guys’ who are all very shy, obviously it’s a business and you’re looking for a profit, but what a great story. Stories like this don’t get told a lot.”
Josh Brolin once worked as a firefighter — in Arizona, actually. He spoke about the difference between fighting a structural fire and working a fire in the wild, based on his knowledge of both.
“You don’t have water to protect yourself, that’s the biggest thing,” he began, talking about the biggest difference. “I have been a structural firefighter, you can protect yourself with a full wall of water, these guys are in fires that can be 100-200 feet high and they have a shovel, that’s all they have, each other and the training, the unpredictability of the ‘flame monster’ out there, it’s like being in a war. Had those guys left five minutes earlier they would have made it to the ranch, had they left five minutes after they would have seen that massive wind change. There was no reason why they shouldn’t have gone down in that gully, when a flame come around at 100 ft high, like ‘what just happened, this is not supposed to happen.’ The fire can totally create it’s own weather, it becomes it’s own weather pattern. Look at Anaheim, Santa Rosa right now. Most of my family is in Anaheim and Irvine, we are deeply embedded. I understand how unpredictable that stuff can be, it’s so scary.
Weather played a huge part in the tragedy in Yarnell. The shifting winds caused the Hot Shots to become surrounded by flames on all sides. One question on the minds of many in regards to wildfires is are they related to climate change?
“Is there a lot more war once they started to broadcast Vietnam? There’s always been war,” Brolin said. “I don’t care who you are, red or blue, whatever, it’s just a scientific fact we are getting into hotter globe now, it’s just a reality, to deny it is to deny all the first responders, firefighters. I think it’s the most disrespectful thing you can do is to deny that fact, all these people who are out there putting themselves on the line for the safety of their community.”
Miles Teller is the heart of Only The Brave as he portrays Brendan McDonough, the only survivor of the unit. Both men (Miles and Brendan) discussed what is was like working together to recreate the story onscreen vs. real life.
“Yeah, it’s nice, man, I think that we were all so close when we were making the film,” Teller explained. “It was such an incredible experience for me having Brendan there and then having another couple guys on the Granite Mountain Hot Shots there helping us out. People usually go their own way after filming, so doing these premieres is nice, it kind of brings that community back together and Brendan is such a solid dude, I like to see him doing well. This is a nice moment for him.”
“We had a really great experience working with Miles,” Brendan McDonough revealed. “He’s so intentional and purposeful. Josh Brolin, and the other actors took a sense of responsibility to portray these men in the highest manner, and it was a really good experience. I gained a new outlook on Hollywood, we met some really amazing people who put so much effort into Only the Brave.”
Miles Teller elaborated on meeting Brendan for the first time.
“[We met] just a couple weeks before we started filming,” Miles explained. “I had five weeks off, flew down to see him, this guy dealing with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt, so I got to go without any agenda, just to hang with him, got food, talked to him, his family, his boys, I got a feel for Prescott, which is nice because these guys represented their town. I feel like by getting to know the town I got to know these guys a little more.
“I did look up some interviews and stuff, obviously it’s tricky because all of the interviews are of him after the tragedy, and he’s changed. When you go through PTSD you are biologically different. I was trying to figure out who Brendan was before, my research was just talking with him, I’m not doing an imitation of Brendan though there was certain things I did pick up on and hitting those moments in his life… being a father, he’ll tell you that was the most significant event in his life and it really did change him, so I wanted to make sure I got that.”
The sense of brotherhood between the Granite Mountain Hot Shots comes across really well in the film. That same brotherhood carried over to the cast and crew during filming, as the heavy emotions hung over the entire production, but they still had a job to do. And getting themselves physically ready for the film was a task all its own.
“It was a great cast, not just the people whose names are above the title, which is impressive,” Miles Teller said. “That’s a great group of people. I think for Joe (Kosinski) and everybody involved it was about authenticity first, honoring these men first, and their families first, and then making a movie people can have popcorn at second. There’s 20 guys on set, filming out in the middle of nowhere, most of the time there’s no cell phone service, no one is going in their trailers, we’re all hanging around playing horseshoes, doing pushup contests, a lot of testosterone, but so much fun, you don’t usually get that kind of experience making a film.
“It doesn’t take long to learn the skill set for this job, we are using primitive tools, there’s no technology with this job, to have Marsh’s job, the higher leadership, that takes years and years of experience to be able to figure out how to defend strategically. It’s endurance and labor, but we are actually cutting line in the movie, we learned how to do that in the week of Boot Camp.”
The idea of the pre-production “boot camp” came up multiple times in the interview. Director Joseph Kosinski explained the importance of the actors coming together.
“I was out there filming them and observing,” Kosinski said. “I was not digging line like they were, but it was not only to understand what wildland firefighting was but I wanted them to build that camaraderie, and nothing really does that like collective suffering. After a week or two in the wild I went out saw them. They weren’t 20 actors anymore, they felt like a real HotShot crew, the brotherhood was there for real, and I knew if I could capture that on screen it was really going to help the story.”
As the on-screen “supe,” Brolin took control over the young cast in getting them ready for filming, while also getting himself ready in the process.
“I was a little tough on the guys at the beginning,” Josh Brolin admitted. “I came from a movie where I was big, 240 pounds, I had to lose a lot of weight and get in shape for this movie, I was really paranoid, I would have to be working with 20-30 year old guys, ‘you have to get your shit together,’ and it really motivated me because of my relationship with the firefighting community and my vanity, so when I showed up I was really in top shape, probably the most interior shape I have ever been in.
“I did a lot of CrossFit, we went through hell just to get me in shape, so I put them through hell to get them in shape. There were a couple guys who were lagging, but it was important that, you know, some joking when we really didn’t know each other very well, when we had that emergency deploy, I would make some guys stand under the bag for longer than they probably should have, just to make sure we were all on point. Once we got that kind of community, that community kind of solidified, then we had more of a station mentality, a lot of ribbing, a lot of humor, we really created a family. That initial thing was really tough.”
The cast and crew still found ways to have fun wth each other, even during such a heavy, physically demanding, and emotional project.
“The familial feeling you get during a movie, the emotions are so intense and you literally find your best friend in two months, then you might not talk to them for ten years,” Josh Brolin said. “That’s the nature of what you do. With this community, maybe because of the subject matter or because everyone gave 1000 percent instead of 100 percent, we still talk every single day, we have a text thread that literally someone writes something inappropriate almost every single day, there’s always that thing back and forth.
“I created, I think I created it, something called Silent Rock. During shooting between scenes where we’d have to wait around, sitting under a tent or something and I made everybody wear their 45 pound packs all the time. I would randomly weigh them to make sure guys weren’t putting foam in them, guys would have their 25 pound saws, so we did this thing called ‘Silent Rock’ where we found a rock and threw it at each other hard. Everyone was bruised, if you drop the rock you have to do 25 sit-ups, pushups, or squats, your choice, with the pack on. I think everyone did an average of 250-350 per day and that’s how we stayed in shape, but like I said even in some movies, you finish a scene and everyone goes their own way, this wasn’t like that. We never, ever left each others’ sides the whole time. I like that, I’m very family oriented.”
James Badge Dale, who portrays Jesse Steed in Only The Brave, recalled meeting Josh Brolin and the cast for the first time and how they all hit it off immediately.
“Josh and I bonded right away,” Dale said. “We both like to work like that, he had an open-door policy, we’re just hanging out all day every day, no one was hiding out in their trailers, we were playing horseshoes and laughing, became a very tight-knit group. I’m also an actor and love all those old-school actor stories, when I can sit down with Josh and talk about what it was like on this or that. The other day Taylor Kitsch was talking about wildland firefighting as an art form, and what Pat McCarty and what these guys did was impart their art form on us.
“Not a lot of people know about these guys and what it takes to do what they do. The tools of the trade haven’t changed in 70 years. They are still out there with Pulaskis cutting line, this is what they do, man. In the same way, acting is a little bit in the same way, it’s an art form, our tools haven’t changed in generations.
“I have been lucky, I get to work with actors who will take me aside and tell me, ‘this is your Pulaski, man, this is what we do.’ What I enjoyed most of all was watching the young guys in our cast, in their first movie, to have this as their experience and to learn from this, that’s cool, I loved watching that. I tried to be careful in telling them it isn’t always like this, this is special. Soak this up, be present, you get once chance at this, there’s no ‘Season 2,’ you give everything and don’t leave anything on the table.”
Arizona native and county music star Dierks Bentley was given the task of writing the theme song for Only The Brave, a track called “Hold The Light.” His participation was just as important to the production and the finished product.
“Three weeks after the fire, we did a show in Prescott to try to raise some money and some spirits,” Bentley explained on how he got involved with the film. “I think we did that a little bit, it was just one of those nights that’s so heavy, and that’s what Amanda (Marsh) said to me, ‘that’s the first time I smiled in three weeks’ and so it’s good to hear that the power of music works like you hope it does. I think it was out there, my connection to the community was already established because of that concert.
“The director, Joseph Kosinski, came out to L.A. with Mike Mitchell, who had researched all the stories and all the families to make the movie as authentic as possible. We watched the movie together and they offered me a chance to write a song for it. They had a song started, that Joe Trapanese, the actual composer of the entire movie, had a melody and lyrics. I wrote the bridge, tried to put some words from the movie that might have an impact.
“As far as writing a song for a movie for the first time, I couldn’t have had a better set of ‘training wheels’ with Joe, he’s an unbelievable composer. The way Joe does it, the whole movie has bits and pieces of the song woven through it. I learned so much, it’s so different than what I do on my records. I had a lot of help and a great head start, it’s been an ideal way to learn how to do this.”
Unlike the cast, Dierks Bentley got to see a version of the finished film before he began his work on the project.
“I was playing a show in Las Vegas, the director was either nearby or flew there to show me, we watched it in a theater alone, with Mike Mitchell,” he recalled. “The three of us had the theater alone, which I have never been a part of. I didn’t know what to expect, I thought it might be a documentary about this. I didn’t realize it was like ‘Top Gun’ meets wilderness firefighters, this energy, AC/DC soundtrack, a totally different movie than I was expecting, that bravado that energy, that’s what it felt like to me.
“He had it cranked up to ‘11’ it was so loud, I was walking around in a daze for three weeks, it was so heavy, so important, I’m so thankful they made this movie.
At the time of the interview, the mass shooting in Las Vegas was still in the minds of many, and Dierks Bentley explained how the theme in his song permeates to all kinds of tragedy.
“I just got back from Las Vegas,” he said. “I stopped in to a hospital to hang out with first responders, doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMT workers, when people are going through a hard time, they just want someone to hear their story.
“I feel the song is about, it’s ‘Hold the Light’ in a time of darkness, it’s about holding on to that hope, that light, I feel like it leaves you with that sense, I just got to read this book called Man’s Search for Meaning, about the holocaust camp, he was a psychologist before he was taken to this camp, he looks at it from that clinical approach, the people that made it through were the people that had something to hold on to, something to look forward to, through that time. I feel that’s what the song, the movie accomplishes, yeah, life’s complicated and there’s a lot of suffering, but there’s a lot of hope too.”
For his final thoughts, Josh Brolin summed up the day by talking about how in the end, a movie like Only The Brave is a story about people — real people — who gave up their lives for the safety of others. It’s not a fire movie, it’s a firefighter movie, and that, he says is inspiring.
“The movie is not necessarily about the tragedy, like Las Vegas, those people aren’t defined by what happened, they are defined by how they lived their entire lives. That’s why, I really like how quick it all happens at the end, it shocks you and slaps you in the face, that’s how death happens. It’s the same thing, even though it’s a fictional story, that’s the shock of death.
“What it inspires in me is just live for the moment, live the best you can, live that idea of ‘yeah I wanted to say I love you, maybe I should have,’ just say it. From a very selfish place, I do movies like this, but I get very inspired in doing movies like this, looking for movies like this, to make myself a better person.”
Only The Brave is in theaters on October 20, 2017.