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MOVIES: Only the Brave Cast and Creative Team Talks Authenticity and Brotherhood

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"I wasn't the nicest guy in the beginning," Josh Brolin says. He's referring to the first week of boot camp for his role in Only the Brave, which tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and the events leading up to the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013, where 19 wildland firefighters lost their lives battling the blaze.

Brolin portrays Eric Marsh, superintendent of the crew who perished, and his chief concern about taking on this project was ensuring that it honored the toughness and the bravery of the men whose stories were being told. That meant not only going through the same sort of grueling physical training that actual hotshot crews complete, but also leading by example while on set.

"In the beginning, a couple of guys were making jokes," he continues. "And I just wouldn't have any of it. I said 'the joking comes after establishing who we are as a community, who we are as a collective. When I feel that everybody has the correct amount of respect for what we're doing, then we can start to joke around.' But it paid off, because everybody really gave a thousand percent to this."

Josh Brolin and wife Kathryn at the Arizona
premiere of 'Only the Brave'
Brolin and his castmates - including Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, and Taylor Kitsch - were put through their paces by Pat McCarty, a former member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and Brendan McDonough, the sole survivor of the Yarnell Hill tragedy. The group lived and trained together for nearly two weeks, waking up every day for seven-mile hikes and wearing packs that weighed upwards of 40 pounds.

"A big thing in the firefighting community is you've got to break in your boots," explains Brolin, who spent three years as a volunteer firefighter in Arizona, and describes the firefighting community as the people he relates to most. "[Everyone's] feet were bloody for two solid weeks."

"We did a lot of miles," recalls Dale, who plays Captain Jesse Steed. "We'd line up and we'd go for a hike... and I'd run up and down the line and make sure the guys are going well, checking everybody's bags and trying to see who's not trying to carry their weight. It was [a lot of] long, intense, hot days, but that's what we're there to do."

Another key part of remaining true to the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was ensuring the onscreen relationships felt believable. "I think they did an amazing job of capturing what it's like to be on a hotshot crew, and what that brotherhood and camaraderie really looks like," says McDonough. "When we did the boot camp and told the actors who our brothers were, they took on a sense of responsibility to really honor them. And we saw the actors themselves form an organic brotherhood within each other, and that really gave so much depth to the film."

McDonough is portrayed by Miles Teller in the film, but even though his onscreen counterpart is positioned as one of the two primary characters, he's quick to emphasize that Only the Brave isn't just his story, but the story of the entire group as a unit.

"That film has brought such great life to our brothers' stories," McDonough says. "[It] reminds us of so many great memories that we have. [There's] no greater honor for us, to be able to see our brothers on the big screen and for people to be able to learn about them."

Former Granite Mountain Hotshots
Pat McCarty and Brendan McDonough
"We're in such a unique situation here," says McCarty. "Anyone that's ever lost a loved one would love an opportunity to share with the world who those people really were, especially if they died in such a tragic way. We have a great opportunity to tell the world about these men - and not only them, but the men and women that do this job every day."

Honoring the memory of the Granite Mountain Hotshots was always the primary goal for director Joseph Kosinski, who spent months researching the real-life events and meeting with the families of the fallen, many of whom were understandably apprehensive about reliving such a painful experience.

"The responsibility of that weighed on me in a way that I've never had on a film before," says the director. "I talked to the families about what the approach to the film was, and they understood that we were really emphasizing how these guys lived. Getting their support meant a lot to me. I don't think I would have done the film without that, honestly, and I truly believe this is an important story that needs to be told."

Telling that story meant learning about the real-life personalities behind the characters, and getting to the core of who each member of the crew really was, in order to remain true to the memories they left behind.

"There's a pressure and responsibility of playing Jesse Steed," says Dale, almost reverently. "[He was] a real man, a real individual, a guy who was a better man than me in a lot of respects. He would lead by example and he would lead by attitude, and that was so important for me to find in this film."

"He was that big brother we all wanted to have," Dale continues. "You let people in and you give them a chance. Jesse Steed was that type of person - he would give to you. I learned a lot from that, and that was important to me to impart in the film. I didn't know [him], but he's taught me something, and I'm trying to be a better person because of Jesse James Steed."

Like the actors, Kosinski was committed to authenticity. He made multiple trips to Prescott, where the Granite Mountain team was based, and also hiked the box canyon in Yarnell where the bodies were found, trying to understand how the events of that fateful day had played out. And even though most of the film was shot in New Mexico, he and the production team went to great lengths to recreate the real-world locations.

Director Joseph Kosinski at the Arizona
premiere of 'Only the Brave'
"With the other films I've made, I've had to design everything," he said. "With this one, I didn't have to create anything, but I had to recreate reality, so that's kind of what I was obsessed with, just trying to get it absolutely right. That's why we had hotshots on set with us every day. I wanted to make sure this was a movie that a wildland firefighter could go to, and feel like we got it right."

"Joe doesn't really look like an outdoorsman, but he was amazing," says Brolin. "I have massive respect for the guy because he was out there every step of the way. Every minute of our time out there, he was out there with the boys and getting dirty with everyone else. He was a great leader."

Getting it right also meant working with live fire whenever possible. Kosinski arranged to shoot several controlled burns with real wildland firefighters, and the production team built a two-acre backlot forest near Santa Fe, replanting more than 600 trees and rigging the entire location with propane. This enabled the filmmakers to produce massive flames anywhere from 30 to 100 feet high, adding an extra layer of realism.

"This was not a movie that I wanted to shoot on a blue screen stage," Kosinksi says emphatically. "The environment that fire creates, because it's a light source, is very unique. That's something that's very hard to create after the fact, so most of the fire in the movie is real. Any time you see actors in close proximity to fire, most of that is done practically."

Working with live fire and real trees introduced another complication: in many cases, the crew would only have a single take to get the footage they needed. McCarty and McDonough were instrumental throughout this process, making sure that each of the actors looked the part and performed the same duties a real hotshot crew would be responsible for.

"We'd get all the guys out there and we'd get them all going to work, and every action sequence was as authentic as possible," says McCarty. "When you're looking at the guys in the background while there's conversation going on, those guys are actually working, and it's actually the actors. They're actually putting tools to the ground."

James Badge Dale at the Arizona
premiere of 'Only the Brave'
"The boot camp really helped out," McDonough chimes in. "Even the actors themselves had a good understanding of [their job]. They had real chainsaws, these were sharp tools, these were heavy packs, and this was live fire."

The circumstances of the Yarnell Hill fire are a major component of Only the Brave, but the film isn't focused solely on the tragedy. Instead, it spends considerably more time on the unshakeable bond between these men, the same sense of fellowship that is often described by soldiers that fight alongside the same unit in battle after battle.

"I think nothing brings a group of people together like going through some sort of tough experience," says Kosinski. "It's about brotherhood, it's about what we're capable of when we can rely on the guy standing next to you. I felt that was a theme that was universal and transcends wildland firefighting. I think movies we remember are ones you can relate to even if you're not in that world, and I just felt like that was what the hotshots were all about."

It's a sentiment shared by his actors, too. "The community you see on film is real," insists Brolin. "It's not fake. The community was very, very tight, and still is very tight. It's the only movie that I've done where I've kept that closely in contact with everybody."

"Oh, it's insane," Dale says with a laugh. "There's a 20-man text message chain. I live in New York, I'm three hours ahead of most of these guys, and I'll wake up in the morning to like 47 text messages. I love these guys."

Only the Brave opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, October 20.

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