Only the Brave – A True Story Of Firefighting Heroes

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It’s not what stands in front of you… it’s who stands beside you.

Only the Brave, based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is the heroic story of a local firefighting crew that becomes one of the most elite firefighting teams in the nation. As most of run from danger, they run toward it – risking everything to save a town from a historic wildfire.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON Legacy) the screenplay was written by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, based on the GQ article “No Exit” by Sean Flynn.

A Story About Everyday Heroes

“This is a story about everyday heroes,” says Josh Brolin, who stars in Only the Brave, based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the firefighters who did what no other local city fire crew had ever done before making headlines as they battled the deadly Yarnell Hill Fire. Going deeper behind the story into the lives of the firefighters themselves, the film focuses on the everyday lives of the men who – each for his own reasons – would rise to protect us all.

“In an age of superheroes, Only the Brave is a film about real heroes,” adds director Joseph Kosinski. “It explores notions of brotherhood, sacrifice, redemption, all set in the world of wildfire – something I haven’t seen in the cinema before. It’s a story that needs to be told and a world that should be seen on a big screen.”

“What draws men to fire? What makes these guys want to do this?” says producer Trent Luckinbill. “These guys are risking their lives every day to save others, to save communities, to save people’s ways of life, and this story gets under the hood of why they do what they do. It’s about who they are and the brotherhood of the crew.”

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura agrees that the shared experience between the hotshots is what makes them a real unit. “They start as individuals, and in the forming of a group, and the tortuous training that they go through, they bond in a way that they become a unit as opposed to a bunch of individuals. Their sense of commitment grows during their time being hotshots; like a lot of dedicated people, they become more and more obsessed with their jobs.”

“These guys are the gatekeepers to the wildlands,” says producer Michael Menchel. “Mostly, they are fighting fires on the ground with Pulaskis, with shovels, with burn cans, burning back fires. For anyone who’s spent time in the wilderness, for anyone who loves the outdoors, it’s amazing to think about.”

And as Dawn Ostroff notes, the film goes deep into the lives of this particular hotshot crew. “These heroes deserve to have their story told, for people to know what they did – how they saved this community and put themselves literally in the line of fire.”

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The film is based on the GQ article “No Exit,” written by Sean Flynn.

In Sean Flynn’s 2014 GQ article, he wrote, “What makes hotshots elite is that they’re so damned tough. Physically, yes, because they do hard labor with, at a minimum, a 40pound pack on their backs, and they do it on billy-goat slopes and at the bottom of canyons and on the tops of mountains, and they almost always double-time hike a few miles to get there first. But they are also mentally tough, because they’re able to do that for 16 hours, sleep in the dirt, then get up and do it for another 16 hours, day after day after day, without dwelling on, or at least not surrendering to, the fact that what they’re doing is often quite miserable.”

SEAN FLYNN

Sean Flynn

Producers Dawn Ostroff and Jeremy Steckler of Condé Nast Entertainment identified the story as a possible feature film, and began the development process, working with director Joseph Kosinski and writer Ken Nolan. Meanwhile, producer Michael Menchel, who had also been developing the project following the events in Arizona and visited the Hotshots, Brendan McDonough (played by Miles Teller) and Amanda Marsh (played by Jennifer Connelly) multiple times, united with Condé Nast and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura on the project. At that point, they brought the script to Black Label Media, who joined forces to further develop the screenplay and put the film together.

Many moviegoers will be unfamiliar with the term “hotshot.” As is explained in the film, it’s a special and honored designation: hotshots are the country’s top wildland firefighters – the Navy SEALs of firefighting. “The way they fight fires is very different than people would think: they don’t carry water; they fight fire with fire,” Kosinski explains. “They dig lines and cut down trees and try to establish a border. They light fire, back burns, that they use to battle against the wildfire.”

There are approximately 107 hotshot crews in the US, each consisting of 20 firefighters. The 2,000 or so elite wildland firefighters in the US who are certified as hotshots must be completely trained in wildfire suppression tactics, always ready, and always equipped to travel to field assignments in remote locations at a moment’s notice during the summer fire season. The crews typically fly or drive in, set up camp, strategize their approach, then jump into the front lines.

In her book The Fire Line, Fernanda Santos comments, “Hotshot crews are cohesive units of 20 firefighters, extensively trained, hugely fit, and routinely courageous – but, as they often said, only as strong as their weakest link. If the burning wilderness is a battlefield, they’re the infantry, engaging the enemy on foot.”

It’s a highly dangerous job, and growing more so as worsening fires explode all over the western United States and the world.

What made the Granite Mountain Hotshots different isn’t their skill or ability, but how they rose to the top. “‘Hotshot’ is a term that is usually reserved for Forest Service special teams,” Kosinski continues. “But the Granite Mountain Hotshots were a municipal squad – a bunch of local guys that Eric Marsh dreamed of turning into a Hotshot crew. No one had ever done that before. It was a very difficult process that took years of training and evaluation. They finally did achieve that, becoming the first municipal Hotshot crew in the United States and travelling across the country fighting wildfires.”

Though many people remember the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots – the firefighting crew that battled the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013 – the story of the lives of the crew of 20 is largely unknown. The stories of these heroes is told on the screen in Only the Brave.

It’s a recognition that is highly deserved, but one that a hotshot crew would never seek out. “Most people don’t really know what Hotshots are – most people have never even heard of Hotshots – and that’s just the way Hotshots like it. They want to be invisible, working hard, and building those close relationships on the Hotshot crew. Everybody involved with this movie had a different reason why they wanted to be involved, but the biggest reason that I saw was that they wanted to put a light on what Hotshots and wildland firefighters do,” says Pat McCarty, a former Granite Mountain Hotshot who left the crew in 2010 to become an engineer for the Prescott Fire Department; he also served as a technical advisor on the film. McCarty and other Granite Mountain Hotshots, as well as Brendan McDonough, Amanda Marsh and Duane and Marvel Steinbrink, would provide invaluable advice during filming – not just technical advice about how wildland firefighters operate, but character advice about how the real men would have handled certain situations.

These 20 men are all very different, but share a bond, according to Luckinbill. “The story focuses on the personal level – how teams like these are formed, how those friendships are made,” he says. “You need that brotherhood; you need that trust, that respect for each other, to fight these fires. That necessary reliance on each other resonates in a way that military stories do.”

Kosinski takes it even further: “Only the Brave could be viewed as a war movie – but it’s a battle against Mother Nature,” he says. “I found that to be a refreshing angle on what a hero is.”

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Cinematographer Claudio Miranda and director Joseph Kosinski during filming of Only The Brave

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Ken Nolan

That comparison also struck screenwriter Ken Nolan, who previously adapted the book Black Hawk Down into an award-winning film. (Nolan would collaborate with Eric Warren Singer on the screenplay for Only the Brave.) “Many of these wildland firefighters were a breed apart, like the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers in Black Hawk Down,” he says. “Motivated, indefatigable, and yet human on a level we can all relate to – they got tired, they got scared, they joked around with each other.”

Nolan would go to Prescott, Arizona, and spend time with the families of the Hotshots, meeting Hotshot survivor Brendan McDonough and Amanda Marsh, the widow of Hotshot supervisor Eric Marsh. “Prescott has an amazing small town feel to it,” says Nolan. “People mill about and walk around with family and kids – it’s a super-friendly and welcoming place. It’s also very scenic and outdoorsy. I loved walking around there and getting coffee from my favorite place – the Wild Iris Cafe became my office.”

The more time that Nolan spent in Prescott, the more he began to see the story of the Hotshots in a particular way – one that he felt audiences could get behind. “What interested me was how the team built themselves up to an elite unit and what that entailed. It also offered a great way into the world – through Brendan McDonough’s point of view,” says Nolan. “He was a kid who’d had some troubles and wanted to turn his life around, and did so by joining the team as a recruit. We, the audience, could learn everything about the world of the Hotshots through Brendan’s eyes.”

That approach also gave the screenwriters the chance to explore the relationship between Brendan, the recruit who has to earn trust, and Eric Marsh, the 20-year veteran supervisor of the crew. “This was a hard job, with life and death at stake, and Eric Marsh made sure he had like-minded team members around him. Was Brendan going to make it? Was he going to cut it or not? That’s the story I wanted to explore.”

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“It’s not the traditional mentor/mentee relationship,” says producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “In the movie, Eric sees something in Brendan that reminds him of himself and his own fallibility. That’s the emotional core of the movie – the relationship between a very young man and a more senior man. It’s about coming to terms with the weaknesses in their lives and the way that building this team becomes even more than fighting fires – it’s going to turn them into the people they want to be. In the movie, Eric Marsh had seen that happen to himself and now was helping others, particularly Brendan, remake themselves.”

That relationship – between Marsh and McDonough, but really between all of the men – was of particular interest to screenwriter Eric Warren Singer. “I’m interested in the culture that develops around this brotherhood,” says the writer, an Oscar® nominee for his work on American Hustle.

“I interviewed many Hotshots and asked them what they love about it. They all basically said the same thing,” says Kosinski. “It’s the camaraderie. It’s being with your team, travelling around the country, being with your crew and knowing they have your back as you have theirs. That was the key to this film: making sure we captured that.”

To bring the story to the screen, the producers tapped Kosinski, previously the director of Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. “If you’ve seen Joe’s movies, you know how visually spectacular they are; he’s one of the best visual directors in the world,” says producer Erik Howsam. “He was the right choice to convey the epic scale of what it’s like to be in one of these wildfires.”

“When I read the script, I thought I’d never seen anything like this before – I almost couldn’t believe it was based on a true story,” says Kosinski. “I was drawn by the script’s unique approach to the story of viewing it through two points of view: the guy at the top, Superintendent Eric Marsh, and the guy at the very, very bottom, fresh rookie Brendan McDonough – the contrast between them, but also the similarities, became the entry point to this story.”

Rounding out the film, country superstar Dierks Bentley teamed with Bon Iver’s S. Carey and Only the Brave’s composer, Joe Trapanese, to provide a song for the film, titled “Hold the Light.”
The story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots is one that is close to Bentley’s heart. Bentley first took action in 2013 when he organized and hosted the Country Cares Concert in Arizona, which raised more than half a million dollars for the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

In composing the song, Bentley and Carey worked closely with Only the Brave composer Joe Trapanese. In the collaboration, the songwriters worked Trapanese’s film theme into the music of the song, providing a seamless transition between song and score and resulting in a song that is integral to the film itself.

“This is at the top, if not the most meaningful experience I’ve ever been a part of,” said Bentley. “It hits me harder than any other song I’ve had a chance to be a part of. Over the last couple years I’ve met and gotten to know Brendan, the sole survivor, and my mom has met with some of the guys’ families, and it’s still unfathomable to put yourself in any of their shoes. But, our goal was to create a message of hope and love. I’m honored to have been a part of it.” Kosinski added, “This story resonated deeply with Dierks from the beginning – he was one of the first to raise money to support the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and his commitment has been unwavering since then. The theme comes from the score and the lyrics come from the heart, so it was a natural fit for the film.”

S. Carey said, “Working on this song with Joe, Dierks, and the whole crew was a true honor. My brother-in-law has been a wildlands fire fighter for the last several years so I had a somewhat personal starting point for the creative process. I’m extremely thankful to be able to honor these men, these true heroes, in the form of a song in a beautiful, powerful film.”

Prior to filming, the 20 actors playing hotshots immersed themselves in a Hotshot boot camp in the mountains outside Santa Fe, NM. The boot camp was led by technical advisor Pat McCarty and other former Granite Mountain Hotshots.

“They created a camp that taught the actors how to become not only a wildland firefighter but a Granite Mountain Hotshot,” says Kosinski. “We sent them into the wilderness and they learned all the separate jobs of Hotshotting. They slept out under the stars; they took wildland fire courses. Most importantly, they built that camaraderie of being a unit.

“I sent 20 actors to boot camp, and they came back a wildland firefighting team,” says Kosinski.