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Fire, fear and ... the maze

Travolta, Phoenix discuss 'Ladder 49'

By Stephanie Snipes

Joaquin Phoenix faces a horrific fire in "Ladder 49."
John Travolta
Joaquin Phoenix

ATLANTA, Georgia -- Hollywood's past attempts at honoring the dangerous world of firefighters have resulted in many cinematic stereotypes.

You've seen them: crying children, screaming women and soot-covered faces sucking oxygen out of a plastic mask. (And, meanwhile, the crafty arsonist lurks in the shadows, playing with fire.)

Overlooked in these theatrical interpretations are the real day-to-day stories of firefighters. Jay Russell, who directed the new film "Ladder 49," says it's in these real-life events the drama of firefighting unfolds.

"We think we know who they are and what they do and what their life is like, but we don't. So, I felt it was important to give a truthful glimpse into their world, said Russell ("My Dog Skip"). "It's a very specialized world, its kind of an exclusive club in a way."

John Travolta, who plays a chief named Mike Kennedy in the film, echoed Russell's sentiment.

"We really had a commitment to the firefighters to finally get this movie right. Especially after September 11. We really wanted to put our best foot forward and kind of leave our egos at the door and really be what these guys are, which are a lot of selfless wonderful men and women that want to help," said Travolta.


"Ladder 49" tells the story of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) as he matures from firehouse rookie to veteran hook and ladder man. The film follows Morrison as he battles blazes, gets married, has kids and faces his own mortality.

For Phoenix ("Gladiator," "To Die For"), accepting the role of an everyman firefighter was a great honor and responsibility. To prepare he enrolled in Baltimore's acclaimed Fire Academy.

Phoenix, who has a reputation for being nervous when speaking with the press, was light-hearted and relaxed as he told stories about his training experiences to the Atlanta news media.

"It was terrifying at times. One of my first fires I went into at the academy -- and this was controlled fire by the way, this was with two instructors on every floor -- I still panicked and called out 'mayday' right in the middle of the fire," said Phoenix.

A bigger challenge was getting over his paralyzing fear of heights. At the beginning of filming Phoenix couldn't even bring himself to slide down the fireman's pole.

By the end he was dropping down six-story buildings.

Phoenix and John Travolta had to go through the "maze," a smoky, fiery labyrinth, as part of their training.

"What the training did was teach me to trust my equipment and trust the other people that I'm working with," said Phoenix. "The firefighters will say, 'You should always be scared. If you're not scared then you should get out of the department because that's when you get hurt.' You have to have a level of fear and a level of respect for what it is you're doing, and if not, I think it breads a level of complacency, which is very dangerous."

After the academy, Phoenix joined a real Baltimore firehouse and put his skills to the test. For three weeks he worked typical firefighter hours -- 2 days a week for 10 hours a day, and 2 nights a week for 12 hours a night. He was so successful that the fire academy offered him a job.

"They're getting very desperate in Baltimore," joked the self-effacing Phoenix.

Panic in peril

On his days off from battling real-life fires, Phoenix joined his castmates, which included Morris Chestnut ("Confidence"), Robert Patrick ("Terminator 2") and Balthazar Getty ("MacArthur Park"), at their modified version of training -- "Fire Camp."

Described as "awesome" by Phoenix and Patrick, some of the other cast members felt a little shaky about the experience. Especially when faced with the "maze."

The maze is an elaborate labyrinth created to simulate what it feels like to be trapped in a smoke-filled building with no obvious escape route. Dressed in full gear, participants are required to crawl through the confusing web, which is pumped full of thick black smoke, and find their way out.

A laid-back Travolta described his encounter with the frightening training tool.

"The maze ... was such a mind-altering and life-changing experience. ... My gosh, I mean for something that's pretend it changes your viewpoint on life," said Travolta.

Russell had a similarly frightening experience.

"I totally freaked out, I got claustrophobic. I started almost hallucinating," he said.

For cast and crew the in-depth training, although terrifying, was crucial to bringing the lives of firefighters to life on the big screen in a respectful and truthful way.

"You and I, we'll go to work everyday and in all likelihood we're going to come home. When they go to work and they're saying goodbye to their family ... they know that could be the last time," said Russell.

For Patrick the reality hit close to home.

"You realize they are your brother, they're your sister, they're your neighbor, they're just average citizens out there that have a particularly exciting job. And they're willing to put their life on the line for total strangers," said Patrick. "They really are the equivalent of superheroes."

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