A national tragedy, the Yarnell Hill Fire which killed 19 of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots in June 2013 was most keenly felt here in Arizona. It’s possible that anticipation for Only the Brave, the film dramatizing the incident which opens October 20, is also strongest here.
Phoenix New Times had the chance to sit down with Only the Brave director Joseph Kosinski and star Josh Brolin about the challenges, both physical and artistic, of making this movie.
New Times: How did you approach material like this, to make it both honest and satisfying for an audience?
Joseph Kosinski: My approach was to tell the story in the most authentic way possible. That meant going to Prescott, going to the Juniper Tree, going to Yarnell, getting the input of the people involved, meeting Brendan [McDonough, the surviving Granite Mountain hostshot], meeting Pat McCarty [former Granite Mountain Hotshot]. Amanda [Marsh] was very open with me. The truth of this story was something I didn’t need to dance around.
As demanding as wildland firefighting is, it’s maybe less visual and cinematic than structure firefighting. Was that a challenge?
Kosinski: You’re right, a lot of times it’s just guys digging ditches. But the focus of the movie is really on the guys, and if you felt you knew these guys that would be enough. On the other hand, they do get to see things that not many people get to see. Those trees falling in the Grand Canyon? Pat McCarty told me about that, and I knew I had to get it in the movie. And we shot at a real wildland fire in southern New Mexico. That shot of the elk running ahead of the fire was not digital. That was in-camera. It seemed like such a metaphor for what Brendan was going through.
This movie is very different than most of your earlier work. How did you come to get involved in this project?
Kosinski: It was sent to me. I had done two science-fiction films, and it’s very easy to get pigeonholed. I wanted to do something different. I’ve got two kids now, and I wanted to make a movie that I would want them to see. I felt, certainly, this responsibility was completely different than any film I’ve ever done. It will inform my choices going forward about the kinds of stories I want to tell. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know more about it.
Brolin, who plays Granite Mountain Superintendent Eric Marsh, also described forming close relationships with family and friends of the hotshots, and with the Prescott community.
New Times: How did you go about preparing for the role of Eric Marsh?
Josh Brolin: I met with the family. I loved the mother right off the bat, ‘cause the first thing she said to me was Eric was a lot taller than you. I loved the openness, she felt so honest ... I spent a lot of time with Amanda Marsh. She’s like a little sister to me now; we talk most days. We spent enough time together where she was able to go, like, Oh my God, what you just did was a lot like what Eric did, you might want to incorporate that into the film.
What about physical preparation?
Brolin: We had a boot camp kind of deal for a couple weeks beforehand, where we all had to break in, a lot of bloody feet. I got into good enough shape where I could be in a position to push these guys pretty hard. It was tough, in the beginning. They all got it. I liked it. I always like a great challenge. I like to see what I’m capable of, especially right on the edge of 50. It makes it that much more fun for me…
We were out in the middle of New Mexico, staying in this kind of dilapidated western town, a lot of rattlesnakes around, we did a lot of hiking, a lot of training with Duane Steinbrink, the chief, and three other former Granite Mountain Hotshots, who all knew every single one of those guys who perished. There was a lot of sensitivity, there were times when people had to walk out of certain conversations.
It was great for us to understand what this meant to people who were close to it, especially to people of Arizona and more specifically Prescott, Yarnell, and that area. So it wasn’t about giving 100 percent, it was about giving 1,000, and anyone who wasn’t willing to give 1,000 percent, 100 percent of the time suffered a bit of consequence. Which didn’t happen often, because everybody really gave it their all. But if maybe physically they weren’t up to par in a moment, I’d push them into that moment and they’d prevail.
So you took on some of that role of being the trainer, in reality as well as in the film?
Brolin: Probably mostly out of fear of getting it right. That’s usually what happens; you’re trying to put together the puzzle of this community specifically, even though I’d been around the firefighting community for 30 years, I’d been a volunteer firefighter in Mescal, Arizona.
How did that happen?
Brolin: I just met this guy, randomly, Danny Martin. My kids called him Fireman Dan, growing up. He’s been one of my best friends for 30 years.
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Did you live in Mescal?
Brolin: With him, on his couch. I didn’t want to drive back into Tucson after a day’s work. I was doing a series there, and I ended up staying with him lot …I went on a lot of calls.
Wildland, or structural?
Brolin: I was a volunteer for wildland fires, but I did fight some structures. I like the community, it’s a community I was very attracted to from a fairly early age. I like guys who have to man up. It’s a community that didn’t accept me right away, but when they did it was truly family. And still is, by the way. It doesn’t go away. But I would never call myself a firefighter. They might, but I wouldn’t. I’m an actor who’s fought some fires.
So on the spectrum of projects you’ve worked on, in terms of where it hits you personally, how high is this one?
Brolin: You know, man…
Or is it hard to say?
Brolin: No, it’s not hard to say, it just makes me feel like I’m selling the shit out of the movie, which I am, ultimately, but …the truth of the matter is, it’s my greatest communal experience ever. All of us have stayed in contact for over a year now, that never happens. I think we experienced a level of camaraderie that’s uncommon. And I think that’s purely because of the respect for the firefighting community that we were trying to convey that actually just kind of seeped into who we were. And I think that we’ll always carry that with us from now on.