In few instances do actors in a film rally around a common purpose greater than publicizing their careers. But the cast of “Ladder 49” is different.
Robert Patrick, who plays Lenny Richter in the film, explained that it was made “as a tribute to the fallen heroes of 9/11 and ... a tribute to the firefighters who have been fighting fires for 100 years. It was just totally across-the-board tribute to firefighters.”
The film opens with an extraordinary fire that traps firefighter Jack Morrison, played by Joaquin Phoenix. While he awaits rescue, flashbacks show us the bright-eyed, na?ve firefighter and his maturation up to that moment. The essence of the film is based upon portraying Jack’s “two families,” as director Jay Russell referred to them - his wife and kids, and the men in the firehouse.
Something different and personal drew each actor to the film. For Phoenix, it was the fact that the movie stands apart from the almost prerequisite constraints of most films like this, thus it more accurately reflects reality.
“‘Ladder 49’ is a studio film which has a story line that is textually appealing to many people but is uncompromising in its vision or its telling of a story,” Phoenix said. “There’s a lot in this film that you wouldn’t find in most studio films. There are scenes in which there are unresolved issues that never, ever happen in a movie. You never have a scene in which your wife is pregnant and she’s saying, ‘It’s not just you and me anymore’ and the guy walks out on her. It never, ever happens except it happens in real-life all the time.”
Jacinda Barrett, who plays Jack’s wife Linda, bore the great responsibility of representing the life of a firefighter outside of the firehouse. She was able to personally connect to the film because her father was a firefighter with the Brisbane, Australia Airplane Crash Search and Rescue.
“For the majority of the people seeing the movie, they are going to be in the same place Linda is,” Barrett said. “They don’t know the inside of this world so they’re learning it at the same time she’s learning it. I know a lot of the marketing is that they’re heroes, but it was important to us that it was not a hero tale, but a true story and for it to be based in reality and not in the dramatic scenes, but in the everyday scenes.”
The preparation for the actors was very intense. One of the first challenges they faced before the cameras began to roll was their experience at Fire Academy, where they had to go through the same training as real firefighters. In doing so, they became closer as a cast. They also visited firehouses in Baltimore, the setting of the movie.
Patrick felt an obligation because of the research he had done before filming.
“It made me want to personally stay true to the character because I did personally meet these people in the firehouse,” Patrick said. When asked whether or not he feels the film accomplished this, he responded, “I think we’re bang on.”
Phoenix, like Patrick, recognized all of the actor’s investment in the accuracy of the film.
“When I look back on the film I know that we couldn’t have done what we did without having had the training and all the work that went into it,” Phoenix said. “The guys were there long in advance, spending time with firefighter’s families.”
Morris Chestnut, who plays firefighter Tommy Drake, had a similar experience of learning who firefighters really are.
“When you think of firefighters, you think of a guy who gets on a truck, sprays a hose and goes back,” Chestnut said. “It wasn’t until I went to Fire Academy that I realized, man, this stuff is really intense, all the intricacies you have to go through to fight a fire. It’s crazy.”
In portraying a firefighter, Chestnut has a newfound admiration for the real men and women who slide down the pole and suit up for the blaze.
“I come to work and have a bad day, I want to sit in my trailer for an extra 15 minutes,” Chestnut said. “They go to work, they have a bad day, and someone could die. There’s too much pressure; I couldn’t do that.”
A movie of this caliber has a lot of expectations placed on it but, in directing, Russell had greater concerns.
“This whole thing was never about us,” Russell said. “It’s not at all a plot movie. Predictable or not, I don’t give a fuck. It’s about characters. It’s two parallel timeframes running ... we’re hop-skipping-and-jumping through time, finding out who this guy is ... We’re going to know a little more about him each time so that in the final sequence we’re invested in him as a person. If you want a plot-movie, ‘Backdraft’ kind of covers that, I think.”
Because of an “otherness” that heroic - like those exhibited on 9/11 - creates, it was also essential for the film to portray the more ordinary side of a firefighter’s life, Phoenix said.
“There are a lot of people that felt a need to publicly acknowledge the fire department after 9/11, so many of us felt like we wished there was something we could do. So, in one sense, there was this real opportunity to acknowledge them and say thank you,” Pheonix said. “People are having an interest in every aspect of a firefighter’s lives, even the most detailed parts of their lives. I remember seeing documentaries after 9/11 where it showed them chopping celery and I was like, ‘Wow, well people are really that interested.’ I liked the idea of doing a firefighting movie, but I was scared that it was going to be a typical Hollywood movie, but hopefully we were able to bring a little bit of truth to the story.”
Given how deeply this topic resonates with Americans, who have come to more deeply appreciate firefighters, it stands to reason that they felt a responsibility to get it right. The highest praise for the film lay in the hands of real-life firefighters, some of whom were involved in the making of the film.
“A lot of the actors were spending time in a lot of the houses in [Baltimore] and going out on runs with the guys and these women and then they were around on the set,” Russell said. “They were people we’d horse around with on the set and they became our buddies and people we’d hang out with. They became part of the movie.”
Barrett is encouraged by the feedback she’s received from actual firefighters.
“It sheds light on what they do in an honest way,” Barrett said. “What I’ve heard from firefighters that they feel honored by it and respected by it.”
Amidst the praise, there is also an essential question that Phoenix’s character Jack grapples with, which may resonate with some firefighters: being a firefighter versus being a family man.
“There’s a point where [Jack] wonders whether it’s worth it,” Phoenix said. “Has he had enough of a positive impact on the world to outweigh the negative impact it has on his family? It’s a choice that I think a lot of firefighters make. How do they find balance between their personal lives and their professional lives? There’s certainly a point where he questions whether it’s something he should stick with. It is his purpose and it’s what he’s meant to do.”
When asked if he met any firefighters who embodied Jack’s courage, director Jay Russell responded, “I met a lot of them.”