“Ladder 49,” the Touchstone Pictures drama about the men of a Baltimore fire station and their families starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix, has been called a post-9/11 response to the sacrifice of firefighters who died in the World Trade Center tragedy. But during a recent Dallas interview director Jay Russell insisted that was too limited a view. “People ask me, is this a tribute to the firefighters of 9/11?” he noted. “Yes…[but] it’s also a tribute to the firefighters of 9/10 and 9/12. We now see firefighters, and I think it embarrasses them, as overly glorified figures getting medals in ceremonies. They did this job prior to 9/11 and they’re going to do it after 9/11. This movie could have taken place ten years ago.” In fact, he explained, the 9/11 disaster almost made him turn down the project. “The original screenplay was set in New York; it was written prior to 9/11,” he said. “The producer, Casey Silver, was actively developing it, trying to get it made. Was it green-lighted because of 9/11? Going back to the skeptic in me, probably. Did that have anything to do with my interest in making the movie? No. When I read the script, I originally passed on it, and it wasn’t because of the quality of the script. I quite liked the script. Firefighters…live heightened experiences. They can experience a wide spectrum of life in a single day. They can see birth, they can see death. That’s for me the stuff of movies–that is good filmmaking material, when you have lives that heightened. And it doesn’t mean overly dramatizing it or going overboard. But I was hesitant and skeptical in terms of the studio’s motivations for making the movie. I was skeptical in terms of their allowing a filmmaker to make adjustments if we needed to, to make it more accurate. And frankly I was skeptical of them being brave enough it go with the ending as it was. It was like a chain reaction of skepticism. When I met with Joaquin he had the same concerns. When we met with the chief of the fire department in Baltimore”–where the action was relocated for a variety of reasons–“he had the same concerns. [The studio executives] assured me that all of my concerns were not going to come to pass, they convinced me that was the case. So I signed on. I kept waiting while we were shooting for that call to come in from the studio that said, ‘Okay, why don’t we go ahead and shoot, like, three endings?’ To their credit, the call never happened.”
The choice of Baltimore as the new site of the story resulted from several factors, Russell said. “I shot my previous film there so I felt comfortable there; it was familiar to me. That was important because I knew I was going to have a lot of other things going on….I [also] wanted it to be set in a gritty East Coast, blue-collar city, and that is Baltimore. Finally, it needed to be a city that could accommodate all of the things I wanted to do in the film in terms of the size of fires, explosions, and so forth. And I didn’t want it to be miniatures or sets or things like that. And probably unfortunately for them and fortunately for us, Baltimore is a city with a lot of empty, abandoned buildings. A lot of those buildings are going to be torn down anyway, so they allowed us to light them up.”
The fire sequences, of course, had their special technical problems. “I was happy that the studio saw the sense–they complained about it, but at least they agreed to let me do pre-shoots on a lot of the fire events, to test it, for numerous reasons. We wanted to see how the camera would react–if it would melt. We wanted to see how the lighting would react. But more importantly, we put really trained stunt people in, to walk through and do the things so that I knew in advance, ‘This is a scene where I can put the actors in,’ or ‘There’s no way we can put the actors in.’ It was a learning process to get it so that on the day, there was going to be no guesswork. You couldn’t have guesswork for a movie like thus. It was just too dangerous, and even still we had a couple of close calls.”
Russell added: “I challenged the fire effects guy, a man named Larry Fioritto. I said, ‘I want to try to show the most realistic-looking fire that we’ve ever seen. I want you to come to me with ideas.’ And again, we did these tests. We did a lot of stuff out in the parking lot in Burbank. He set up an apartment in the parking lot and burned it. I said, ‘Yeah, Larry, but that looks like a Universal City tour ride.’ I would just challenge him, and then we would show firefighters. They’d say, ‘You got that right, but not that.’ It was a constant process of trying to improve upon it….I felt like if it was going to work for a larger audience, it first had to work for them. Because what’s the point of telling a story if you’re not going to try to tell it accurately?”
Russell’s other main concern was casting. “The script came to me without any actors attached,” he said. “I had to start with the lead character, Jack”–a rookie whose career and marriage forms the narrative arc–“and started to think about who are the actors in this age range who are willing to commit to the point of disappearing into the part, who are not going to allow their egos to make it a movie star role, but…would just play this character and would disappear into this character. It’s a short list of those young actors willing to commit like that–I can think of maybe two, and one is Joaquin. And Joaquin is the one I went after. And my hopes in him were fully realized, in the sense that like his other parts, no matter whether he’s playing a Roman emperor or a teen-ager…he’s not the characters that he’s playing. He is in no way the guy in this movie. He disappears into the part without any ego.”
The other lead role was that of the veteran head of the firehouse who becomes Jack’s mentor and protector. “I knew I was going to need a veteran actor to play that part, and I needed somebody who could short-hand it for the audience. I needed someone who commanded a certain presence…right away. Again, a short list, and John was one of them. John contacted me and showed interest in the part, and I was a little bit skeptical: ‘Am I going to get John the movie star, or John the actor?’ But I met with John and quickly realized that he motivations were pure on this. I knew that he was coming at it from the right place, and after I knew that, I felt he was going to work in the part.”
Travolta, who was actually piloting the plane ferrying Russell and his fellow actors to various cities on the promotional tour for the film, sought out his role partially because of his experiences after 9/11. “I was one of the first people to visit the September 11 site, and then after that I went to several fire houses around the country,” he explained. “So even before the movie, I had gotten to know a lot of [firefighters].” He was also pleased to work with Phoenix, whom he called “an original” and enjoyed seeing in a role that, like his own, was a departure from much of his work. “He doesn’t act to the beat of anyone else,” Travolta said of Phoenix. “He has his own original kind of presence and style of acting. Cagney was an original, Bogart was an original. He’s an original [too]–there’s not anyone really like Joaquin. And I liked seeing him in a straightforward role. Like me, he’s very good at playing the offbeat, villains, and we both do that very well. Here we’re summoned to do straightforward, ‘Apollo 13’ type performances…and that’s a nice change. It was refreshing not to play evil.”
Phoenix, hearing Russell’s and Travolta’s comments about his acting style, demurred with almost boyish modesty. “I’ve never thought that I was an actor,” he said. “I don’t know what you’d call it, I just try to BE. I don’t know, ‘acting’ just feels disingenuous. But I think part of the process is losing yourself and what makes you comfortable and what reminds you of yourself. I don’t really communicate with my friends and family when I go to work. It’s always great to go to a city that is foreign to you so that you have no connection to it and don’t know anyone there. That’s really the first step–just forgetting about yourself and what makes you comfortable, or reminds you of yourself. And then it’s just research, research, research. I can’t express how important that is. I don’t know how to work any other way. I dread the time when I have to do movies back to back and I don’t have two months to prep for something, because it’s the way I’ve made the last few movies that I’ve done, and I feel it’s the only way that I can work from here on out. I don’t know if I’ll have directors like Jay who support that and understand it. He did the research himself, and came with us on the firehouse runs, and spent time with us. It’s rare to find a director that’s willing to give over their time as well, so I was really fortunate on this movie.”
One of the things that Russell demanded of his actors–including Robert Patrick as well as Travolta and Phoenix, all of whom came to Dallas for the tour–was that they go through training at the Baltimore fire academy. “Jay Russell really wanted everyone to do it,” Travolta recalled. “He felt it was vital that we all train–and he was right, because what we got out of it was expertise, we got bonding together, and we got to do stunts, because he couldn’t film stuntmen doing it–he had to film us doing it. So he won on all fronts by demanding that we go to school.” Travolta noted that it was his personal practice to train for “every movie that demands a special skill,” but admitted that in this case it was different. “This is more life-threatening in its feeling,” he said. “I got caught in a fire where I couldn’t get out, and I was in the box-maze where I thought I was going to die from claustrophobia. One mistake and you’re dead. So it’s different from riding a mechanical bull. That’s dangerous, but not in the same way,” he joked.
Phoenix also recalled the training vividly. “Basically you’re just battling your instinct,” he said. “Everything in your body says, ‘No, I don’t want to be in a small dark space with hot things around me. I don’t want to dangle off the side of a building.’” He added: “We did all sorts of things that expose your fears, and for me, a big one is I’ve always been scared of heights. A big part of the training is that it teaches you to trust the team and trust the equipment. They tell you if you’re not scared, then get out of the department, that you should have a level of fear, but it’s about controlling and harnessing that fear and trusting your equipment. I remember getting to the top of this tower and leaning over and saying, ‘Captain, I can’t do it–it’s really the one thing I can’t do.’ And he said, ‘You can.’ And I said, ‘I’m telling you, I can’t!’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to trust this equipment…and know that I’m here with you. Look into my eyes.’ Man, I looked into his eyes–I looked into his soul, I stared so intently at him! He just repeated, ‘Look into my eyes.’ I just looked into his eyes and I leaned back and I did it.” He admitted: “I still have a fear of heights. You don’t ever get over that.”
Phoenix remembered with special relish how, after completing the training, he actually went out with the brigade on some calls. “I kind of expected just to hang out at the firehouse and soak up what that’s like…but they said, ‘You coming in with us?’ I said, ‘In where, exactly?’ ‘Into the fires.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m willing to try, but I don’t want to get in the way. I don’t want you guys to worry about me. I know you have a lot to do, and I want you to do your jobs.’ They said, ‘Look, if anything gets really bad, we know that we can get you out of there.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I’m willing to try it, at least.’ Of course I was shaking and crying on the inside, but I thought I’d pretend I could handle it. As I was walking up the stairs–it was the most amazing image–the flames were coming down the staircase. The fire was on the top floor, but it was just pushing the flames and they were coming down. And I looked down, and I just watched as the flames went around my boots. And [the guys] said, ‘Okay, let’s go up.’ It’s so difficult to describe what it’s like. It’s really almost out-of-body, because you really are just functioning on your training. You’re no longer thinking; you don’t have time to think. You’re just reacting.” But like Travolta, Phoenix felt the experience was vital to the success of the film. “I couldn’t have done the film without the experiences,” he said. “I think they helped inform the character, and I think they also helped to inform the film as a whole.”
Patrick agreed. “Going through the academy, the toughest thing was going into a building that’s fully engulfed in flames, and even though you know it’s controlled,…we’d go into a room with a couple windows…and we’d all huddle up and they would set it on fire. You’re now watching the flames go over, and slowly the room gets fully engulfed in smoke, and you can’t see, and you’re starting to get scared, and you grab the other guy that you’re with and you’re realizing how hot it is….If I hadn’t had [the lieutenant] behind me, I think I would have run the other way.” But he too felt that the experience, as frightening as it was, was an important part of making the film convincing.
And that was important to all the actors. “When 9/11 happened, I was trying to figure out how do I get to participate?” Patrick recalled. “With guys like Bruce Springsteen, they get to sing songs and I envied the fact that they could do stuff to help the nation mourn–and I was stuck with ‘The X-Files.’ That’s not a slam at ‘The X-Files’–I loved that job. But it was hard to focus on what we were doing when the rest of the country was so focused on what was happening. Anyway, my agent told me, ‘I’ve found the perfect thing for you for that, this film called “Ladder 49,”’ and I begged Jay Russell to let me have the role.” He added that he’d had the opportunity to introduce the picture at the International Fire Chiefs’ Convention in New Orleans and saw the effect it had on the audience. “They stood up when it was over, and these big, huge guys, tears had been going down their faces, some were still crying, some were so moved they didn’t want to talk to me. They started filing past me and shaking my hand. I couldn’t deal with it, it be honest….It was really a very unique moment to witness, because they’re the guys we’re making the film for.” Travolta, who not only had visited firehouses after 9/11 but was taking his colleagues to a local one in Dallas after the interviews were completed, added, “We really wanted to get it right for them, and I think we did, and they responded to it. You feel good when you get it right for them.”