In 'Only The Brave,' The True Story Of Fated Wildland Firefighters

Oct 21, 2017
Originally published on October 21, 2017 11:20 am

The ongoing wildfires in Northern California have reminded many Americans of the courage — the heroism — of the men and women who fight fires in forests and wilderness.

A new film called Only The Brave is based on the true story of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who battled, and ultimately lost their lives, in Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire during late June of 2013. Hotshots are the elite crews that attack and try to contain wildfires with chainsaws, shovels and flames of their own (to create firebreaks).

Only The Brave is directed by Joseph Kosinski, and features Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly. Josh Brolin stars as Eric Marsh, the supervisor of the crew based out of Prescott, Ariz. In an interview, he says the film takes on new relevance in light of current events.

"With what's happening in California right now, I've had extended family be evacuated from their homes," Brolin says. "It's very close to home. So I think it's very apropos that we have something to bring more awareness to what these people go through every day – these common people doing very uncommon and very dangerous things in order to assure the safety of their communities."

Interview Highlights

On his line "This is the best job in the world"

Me, I was a volunteer firefighter for 3 years in my twenties, and I've been around the firefighting community for 30 years. So I know these guys extremely well, and I've heard that said many times. Many times. Firefighters love what they do because there's a brotherhood. It's like saying, you know, going to war. Guys, troops who are in war will tell you that the brotherhood in war is unlike anything you will ever experience outside of that situation. And I think the same thing goes for firefighters.

On the film's conflict between duty and family

Yea, it deals with the realities, with the tensions that exist when you have somebody in such a heightened reality coming home to somebody who's living this kind of domesticated existence, and trying to keep things, you know, moving forward on the home front. And there's no way that you're not going to have some kind of clash, some kind of compromise that needs to come out of that reintegrating or trying to reintegrate.

On getting his fellow actors to check their egos for the film

During the training of what we did, they had 45-pound packs, and I made sure that they were always 45 pounds. They had shoes that they had to break in, so it was a very bloody two weeks of breaking in those Nicks [boots]. We were hiking maybe six to eight miles a day. We were going from 8,000 feet elevation to 11,000 feet. I mean, they did it. They really, they truly went through it — they had an experience. And what came out of that is a brotherhood and a camaraderie that I don't know if I've ever felt in any other movie to that extent.

Tim Peterson and Viet Le produced and edited the audio of this interview. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The fires in Northern California have reminded many Americans of the courage, the heroism of the men and women who fight fires in forests and wilderness.

A film called "Only The Brave" is based on the true story of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots crew who battled and lost their lives in Arizona's Yarnell Hill fire on June 30, 2013. Hotshots are those elite crews that attack and try to contain fires with chainsaws, shovels and flames to make firebreaks in a wildfire. Josh Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the supe, supervisor, of the crew.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONLY THE BRAVE")

JOSH BROLIN: (As Eric Marsh) And I'm not going to sugarcoat it. This first season as Hotshots is going to be tough. We're going be traveling all over the country. You're going to be working harder, going longer. So it's important that this Granite Mountain family pulls together and looks out for each other because we can't do this without your support. No supe could be prouder right now of his boys than I am of you guys.

SIMON: "Only The Brave" is directed by Joseph Kosinski. It also stars Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly. Josh Brolin joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

BROLIN: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Have recent events in Northern California have made this story a little bit more urgent in your mind?

BROLIN: I mean, it does. I'm so happy that the movie exists as it does. I think its heart is in the right place. You know, every time I see this movie - it's a very visceral movie that deals with both what the firefighters go through but also, equally, their families and their wives and their kids waiting at home and what they go through.

With what's happening in California right now, I've had extended family, you know, be evacuated from their homes. It's very close to home. So you know, I think it's very apropos in that we can - we have something to bring more awareness to what these people go through every day - these common people doing very uncommon, very dangerous things in order to assure the safety of their communities.

SIMON: There's a scene in the film when the Granite Mountain Hotshots save a famous tree in Prescott, Ariz.

BROLIN: The juniper tree, yeah.

SIMON: And they're hanging off the side of a mountain, all smudged and sweaty and exhausted and watching the sunset and choking on smoke. And then, I believe, it's your character who says, this is the best job in the world. Really?

(LAUGHTER)

BROLIN: Absolutely. You know, it's funny we just got - we've had amazing reviews. And we had one guy who - I don't - he wanted to stand out or whatever. And he had the one review saying nobody would ever say that.

Me, I was a volunteer firefighter for three years in my 20s, and I've been around the firefighting community for 30 years. So I know these guys extremely well. And I've heard that said many times - many times.

Firefighters love what they do because there's a brotherhood. It's like saying, you know, going to war. Guys - troops who are in war will tell you that the brotherhood in war is unlike anything you will ever experience outside of that situation. And I think it's - the same thing goes for firefighters.

SIMON: One of the themes of the film is the contest, if you please, between duty and family.

BROLIN: Yeah.

SIMON: You've got firefighters and their families in there - in the film, and certainly in real life - where it's hard on the family. The family serves, too.

BROLIN: Yeah. I mean, it deals with the realities, with the tensions that exist when you have somebody in such a heightened reality coming home to somebody who's living this kind of domesticated existence and trying to keep things, you know, moving forward on the homefront. And there's no way that you're not going to have some kind of clash, some kind of compromise that needs to come out of that reintegrating, or trying to reintegrate.

You know, when I brought on all these guys, these actors, to play Hotshots, it was very important for me to kind of strip down, you know, that entitlement or that vanity that actors always (laughter) - bring with them on some level. You know what I mean? It's just impossible not to.

SIMON: How do you - forgive me - break down an actor's ego short of using nuclear weaponry?

(LAUGHTER)

BROLIN: There you go. During the training of what we did, you know, they had 45-pound packs. And I made sure that they were always 45 pounds. They had shoes that they had to break in, so it was a very bloody two weeks of breaking in those Nicks. We were hiking maybe 6 to 8 miles a day, we were going from 8,000 feet elevation to 11,000 feet.

I mean, they did. They really - they truly went through - they had an experience. And what came out of that is a brotherhood and a camaraderie that I don't know if I've ever felt in any other movie to that extent.

SIMON: Boy. As I don't have to tell you, there's an overwhelming story going on in Hollywood now that we have to ask any Hollywood figure about, and that's the allegations of rape and sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein. Do you know him?

BROLIN: I've known him.

SIMON: Yeah. Had any feeling this was going on? Ever heard stories? How do you feel about what's going on now?

BROLIN: I have a very strong feeling about anybody who's in a position of power who abuses that power. I don't care what position it is - whether it's the military, whether it's the police force, whether it's the presidency, whether it's somebody who's, you know, supposedly a big wig in Hollywood - and can manipulate the insecurities of the supposedly less powerful and use that to their advantage, I think, deserves any consequence that comes with that.

And, you know, and I'm a big believer in karma - what comes around goes around - and if that's what you're doing with your life, it's going to bite you in the ass. And it's biting him in the ass.

SIMON: Josh Brolin, his film, "Only The Brave." Thanks so much for being with us.

BROLIN: Scott, thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSEPH TRAPANESE'S "GROWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.