On October 11, the cast of Only The Brave premiered their movie to an audience of Denver’s first responders. Firefighters, EMT and police officers filled the movie theater seats and watched as the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was told.
Only the Brave depicts the story and the lives of the elite wildfire firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and their battle the Yarnell Hill Fire — one of the deadliest wildfires in US history. Denver was chosen as one of the cities to premiere the movie because of our first responder community.
Earlier that day, 303 Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, James Dale Badge and Jennifer Connelly to talk about their roles, the difficulty in shooting the film and bringing not only authenticity but respect, to the characters and their lives and their support and humility with the firefighting community.
303 Magazine: Did you have any prior knowledge to the Yarnell Hill Fire or the Granite Mountain Hotshots and did it help in your decision with taking this role?
Josh Brolin: I was a volunteer firefighter for the past 30 years so I knew about [Yarnell] because I follow that stuff and I lived within the firefighting community. My best friend knew Eric Marsh [Brolin’s character]; he went to the funeral. I know a lot of people who knew Eric outside of family and friends that I met because of the movie. I was very aware of it and it didn’t make me want to do the movie more — it made me more skeptical. I wanted to make sure that Joe Kosinski [the director] was in the right place.
James Badge Dale: I lived in New York City; I’m a New York City kid. I had a completely different relationship to wildlife firefighters in that it doesn’t exist. The week of the Yarnell Hill Fire, I was riding the subway downtown and the New York Times has a two-page article on these guys [the Hotshots]. I was struck by that story; something seemed deeply important and it deserved to be told.
Miles Teller: I never lived in a state or a county where we had wildfires and I hadn’t really seen one on the news. I thought for wildfires, a plane flew overhead and dropped water down. That’s not true.
303: Was there any hesitation or resistance when taking the role?
JBD: There are things about him [Jesse Steed] that made me nervous because I didn’t know if I had that within myself and it was something as simple as the fact that this man had bravery and strength to walk up to people and give them a hug and say, “I love you, man.” That scared me more than anything.
JB: It was harsh, at first, which I expected. There was one point where I wanted to get out of the movie and I was emotionally affected by it and I was like, “I don’t know if I want to do this.” I feel like I’m a fraud. It’s why being an actor is so wrong on every level. Am I faking it? Who am I? I’m trying to do research and piece together this story and feeling like an asshole through most of this process. There was natural resistance; I don’t know if I want to see this, is it too soon, if we had waited two, three, four years would it be too late? There’s never the right time. To me, it was a movie that honors people who should be honored who don’t in anyway shape or form exploit themselves but I think it’s important in order to educate people and be aware and conscious that don’t forget that these people are doing this every day – (especially now with California wildfires and Puerto Rico). And then, when it finally comes down to it, [is it] did I convey the spirit of who I felt these guys were? Ultimately, yes. The first thing Eric’s mom said to me was ‘my son was a lot taller than you.’ She came up to me the other night and said, “I’m sorry I insulted you the first time I saw you, you understand how hard it was for me.” I said, “I completely understand,” and I told her, “I will never be your son. I will never try to be your son. I will never convey your son perfectly.” They were very kind to me.
Jennifer Connelly: There are plenty of movies where the guys are the protagonist and the women are just backup. Amanda [Marsh] is not that woman and it was really important that she was going to be reflected in this movie, that we were trying to reflect her the way she really is as a really permeable person and strong person. So I was really happy the way she was depicted in the film and continue to try to develop it through rehearsals and through conversation with Amanda and brought things to the writer.
303: What was training like for this?
JBD: (laughing) There wasn’t a day someone wasn’t going,”holy shit this is hard,” and there wasn’t a day we weren’t competing with each other. You start to take pride in your work. You don’t want to take a break, you don’t want to sit down, you don’t want to take your pack off. I never experienced anything like this. Come to work with 25 guys every day, all day, no matter what. And all of them came with the right attitude and gave to the film. From Josh Brolin and Miles Teller all the way down to guys who were doing their first movie.
MT: The worst part was wearing the boots. And the altitude. We were filming at 7,500-feet and 10,000-feet above sea level. We were doing a lot of hiking with 45-pound packs and these boots that sucked. The collective suffering was very tough but that was also the best part because I just felt like right off the bat, you just keep putting one foot in front of the other. The spirit of being Hotshots was really running through all of us.
303: In some of the training scenes in the movie, as Hotshots, you had to cover your bodies with deploy bags in a matter of seconds. Were they as hard to get on as they looked?
MT: (laughing) We probably did over 30 times practicing that thing. You have to velcro it on and shake it but getting it on is not that hard. Folding it back was the biggest pain in the ass because then you have to fold it back because it fits in this square casing. It even gives you instructions on how to fold it. And there was this one guy who was always the best and was like [imitating a man’s voice], “Uh, done. I’m done!” And I’m looking around at this thing thinking I have no idea how to do it. That was frustrating.
303: How did you mentally and emotionally prepare for the role, especially for those of you whose characters were no longer alive?
JC: I talked with Amanda [Marsh]. She’s amazing; she’s so open and honest and forthright and she spent time with and answered all my questions I had. She shared her memories with me and shared her stories and was really frank. Her honesty was really invaluable to me.
MT: Pat McCarty was a [Granite Mountain] Hotshot who worked really closely with Marsh and all these guys. He was our technical advisor.
JBD: We had five former Granite Mountain Hotshots train us. They trained us physically and technically. At every moment on that set, there was someone who was there for you, supporting you and also telling you that you’re doing it completely wrong (everyone laughs). You start to get into it. These guys had a lot of pride in their work. The strength isn’t outward, their strength comes from within. We took a lot of pride in our work. Even as actors we would be like, “Hey man, look at that line. That’s a nice line.”
MT: Yeah, Brendan was just great to me. I could ask him anything. He was really helpful to me at the end of the movie. Specifically, the scene where I come to the gymnasium; that really happened to him. Just talking about what that experience was like for him, it was something I had a hard time figuring out — what he would be feeling in that moment. And the feeling that he had was he wanted to just disappear. He went to the gym to grieve with the families and then as soon as he walked in he felt that that was the biggest mistake of his life because all the family members were looking at him; sad and pissed off that it’s not their husband, it’s not their brother. [For the other guys] Brendan knew a ton about these guys and he was our guy. We really cared more about authenticity than we did about making it “Hollywood.” From the top, we wanted to get it right and Brendan helped us.
303: Family plays a big role in the film, with the marriage of the Marsh’s in the forefront. How did you [Jennifer] and Josh prepare for the marriage and relationship side of the roles?
JC: [Josh] is also just a really good actor. We would sit down with Joe [Krosinski] during rehearsals and talk about the scenes and talk about what’s here. “Do we need to tweak it? What can we find? Are there any specific details that we can find that tell the story of a marriage?” And then we looked for certain things and choices to make together.
JBD: I feel like there are two heartbeats in this film. There are guys up there on the line and then there’s Josh and Jennifer. Two people who are flawed – as we all are – and to see those characters trying to navigate each other because they love each other, but they’re both sacrificing and both giving something up and both trying to give to each other. That’s an important part of our story. That’s part of the story that’s relatable to everybody. Everyone can relate to the Marsh’s relationship.
JC: There’s so much story to tell, we also had to be careful with it in trying to capture that dynamic of their relationship and the progression of their relationship. We continued to try to hone in on that with rehearsals and conversations and develop scenes. I was happy everyone was on board with it being messy; with the performances being messy and the emotion being a little bit messy and everyone being on board; the writers being on board and Joe and Amanda – letting them be in conflict in scenes in the film.
303: Miles, you were in a pretty bad car accident when you were 20 and first responders played a tremendous role in saving you. Did that experience help transform over to this movie, using your personal experience to give to this character?
MT: Absolutely. I got lucky when I got in my car accident. My buddy was driving and lost control going 80mph on the highway lane to the grassy median area. We flipped eight times and I flew out the window. We got lucky, we were only 15 minutes from a hospital and an ambulance was there almost immediately which was vital to me for the condition that I was in. First responders helped save my life. In terms of preparing [for the role], a year after that, two of my best friends died in a car accident, five weeks from each other. So I can relate to Brendan on that level. It was only four years after his closest friends, his brothers, had passed away. I think if you grieve — if you went through grieving then you know it. If you haven’t, then you’re fortunate but you will experience it at some point. It’s this weird thing. So I can relate to him on that level.
303: What are you hoping people will take away from this film?
JC: I really like the line on the poster. I think that’s a lot of what this movie is about. All these men are confronting these challenges, but remember the people who support them and stand beside them.
JBD: I think we can all learn something from this and take something from this. This movie is a celebration of life, a celebration of love. This job was special from the beginning.
MT: I think on a surface level it’s very informative. I think for people who don’t know what [wildfire] firefighters do, you will leave this knowing exactly what they do. And then I think the film is just a really heartwarming story. You’re going to laugh, you’re going cry. I think that’s a credit to the film we made and the type of lives these guys lived.
JBD: I’m proud of this film and all the actors I got to work with. We didn’t stunt double people. It takes a lot of trust to trust an actor with a chainsaw.
303: Like the scene where the firefighter takes a beer bottle cap off with the chainsaw.
JBD: That actually happened! On the last day of boot camp, we brought out a bunch of beers and we’re all sitting around watching the sunset and this firefighter, Brandon Bunch, who was on the [hotshot] crew for a number of years, goes, “guys check this out,” and he fires up a chainsaw and opens a beer bottle with the chainsaw. And Taylor Kitsch is like, “No. Way.” and filmed Brandon Bunch opening the beer bottle with a chainsaw and brought it to Joe (the director) and said, “you got to put this in the movie.”
303: Having now trained as a firefighter, talked and interacted with them and now acted as one, I image your relationship and perception with the firefighting community has completely changed.
JB: There are a lot of different professions that are tainted with this distrust, whereas firefighters are untouched by that. Firefighters, to me, in my experience working with them for the last 30 years, have a purity about them. They’re as real as they get; they’re as ribbing as they get. It’s a very tough community to get in, but when you get in, there’s no loyalty like the firefighting community.
MT: To fight Mother Nature with an iPhone is not going to help you. An app isn’t going to help you. Even machinery isn’t going to help you. It’s just all by foot. And to think it’s just men and women, these little worker ants just cutting line for miles and miles and miles to defend fire. It’s cool to see this movie but when I meet these guys now, I’m like, “I know you work your butt off because there is no other way to do this job.”
JB: When it comes down to it, these first responders and firefighters put themselves in massive danger in order to protect your home and your safety. I have a huge amount of respect for them. What I love about this movie is that it goes back to dealing with their everyday lives…What they sacrifice is not just themselves, but family.
303: You all are extremely close, and it plays across in the movie. What did you do to bond outside of the set? Do you have any funny stories from on-set?
JB: We had this rock that I had bronzed for everybody called ‘Silent Rock’ and I made everybody wear 45-pound packs all the time that were randomly weighed. They couldn’t stuff foam in there or do something like that or cheat. We would throw rocks at each other whether hard or trying to trick somebody into dropping the rock. If you dropped the rock you did 25 pushups or 25 squats or 25 sit-ups with the pack on. There was another game, you have to drink four liters of water under four minutes. I have a lot of video of people throwing up. (Laughing) For me, that’s fun.
JC: We played games. I had my family there. Jeff [Bridges] and Josh played guitar and there was a band so there were jam sessions. It was a really nice feeling on set.
JB: There were a lot of tears on set, often and also there was a lot of fun. Out of respect for the spirit of these guys, I think that we created a community that surpassed just being actors and that’s why we’re still in contact with each other. There’s a text thread that goes on that’s the most inappropriate text thread that I’ve ever been a part of. We stay in contact every day; somebody writes something every single day.
303: Who keeps it fun in the group text?
MT: Well [Taylor] Kitsch keeps it weird. I think that’s the great thing about this — you have some guys who it was their very first movie and then you have Josh who’s done 50 movies and who was in The Goonies. He would tell us every day, “I was in The Goonies.” (Everyone laughs). We definitely joke about that. He had such an open door policy and now it’s this group chat. In the movie, everyone’s wearing the same uniform. It doesn’t matter how many movies you’ve done – we’re all Hotshots now.
Only The Brave hits theatres everywhere October 20.