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It's not smoke and mirrors

The scenes and sets are sizzling in 'Ladder 49,' where volatile fuels mix with measured risk to take reality to the 300th degree.

September 26, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Director Jay Russell's edict on "Ladder 49," his 9/11-inflected tribute to the workaday lives of firefighters, was to keep the blazes as furiously lifelike as possible. Visceral, pulsating and intensely smoky, the fires in "Ladder," which stars John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix, were choreographed over many months, with Russell aiming for the gritty realism of Ridley Scott's 2001 war film, "Black Hawk Down."

"I wanted us to feel what it's like to be inside the fire with the actors," Russell says of the film, which opens Friday. "Not just have stuntmen halfway across the room who look like the actors but actually somehow figure out a way to put the actors in there themselves. I think the more you saw Joaquin's face in those situations, the more you care about him. There was only one way to do that, and that was put everyone in the fire. That was an extremely dangerous situation for everyone."

The film opens with a spectacular fire at a 20-story grain elevator on the docks in Baltimore, a location that spooked Lt. Mark Yant, a 17-year veteran of the Baltimore Fire Department and the film's fire advisor.

"When you are dealing with grain, you have so much dust and stuff in there that if things go wrong, they are going to go wrong big time," says Yant. "But when we started shooting and when they set up all the fires and we had our fire prevention people and our specialists there, I was amazed how they were able to control everything."

One scene required a massive explosion in the building, in which the fire would become intense enough to blow out the windows.

"I remember it blew and it blew -- so unbelievable -- and me and the rest of my firemen ran into the building thinking this whole place is going to be on fire. And there was nothing [burning]. They had it thoroughly under control."

But it didn't seem so at first to Russell ("My Dog Skip," "Tuck Everlasting"). When his special effects coordinator, Larry Fioritto, hit the switch to set off the explosion, the director thought, "My God, we've killed everyone. It was as large and amazing as it looks on film and was even more terrifying being right there on the ground with it. You could see it all over the Baltimore area." The city's 911 operators, he says, were deluged with calls.

Russell describes the process of making "Ladder 49" as a "learn-as-you-go situation, simply because there haven't been that many films made that deal with firefighting and deal with this much fire."

Before filming began in March 2003, Russell and Fioritto met repeatedly to work out the fire design. Fioritto and his crew spent 9 1/2 months in Baltimore preparing, starting three months before production.

To ensure authenticity and safety, the cast and crew went through fire training, and Phoenix and Travolta trained with a class of rookie firefighters until they graduated. With temperatures reaching 200 to 300 degrees in some scenes, the crew wore protective clothing, and special gear was designed to protect the cameras.

Russell admits Disney was concerned about putting his cast and crew at risk. But "they trusted that I wasn't going to get anyone hurt and I promised them they wouldn't. When you look at some of those explosions, it is just unimaginable that no one got hurt. But not a single person did. I am very proud of that."

When fire sequences were shot inside a warehouse set, Russell instituted a 25-yard rule. "Whenever the set was live, no one could get within 25 yards of the set," Russell says. "It was too dangerous. There were all kinds of propane tanks, and if anyone had a stray cigarette or whatever, we could have all gone up with a big blast."

Elevator rises to the occasion

"Ladder 49's" centerpiece is the grain elevator fire, in which Phoenix's character is trapped after a floor collapses. The grain elevator itself was used for the outdoor sequences, and Fioritto, with a crew of 30 to 40, worked 12-hour days, seven days a week for a month and a half to ready it for the five-day shoot.

"The building has been hollowed out and the company that owned it was in the process of trying to sell it," says Fioritto. "They basically said, 'You can do anything you want to do -- just don't hurt it.' "

Though concrete doesn't burn, says Fioritto, who's worked in special effects for more than 20 years, "we still had things to do. What we normally do is put a fire hood behind each window, and what it does is keep the fire going out the window instead of inside. Because we shot in the building over the course of five days, we had to light up the building and keep it going. Needless to say, we went through thousands of gallons of propane gas and thousands of gallons of diesel and gasoline mixed together." (The mixture, says Fioritto, created the big fires needed to make the scenes effective.)

"Larry is really a magician with this stuff," says Russell. "He put these giant cannons in the windows, so while it looks like the place is an inferno, in reality it's just happening outside the window."

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