LADDER 49 Interviews

by Mark Walters

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with director Jay Russell, and stars Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta to discuss their new film LADDER 49.

This film is a testament to firefighters, and tells their story as realistically as possible.  The director and stars all insisted on the film holding authenticity.  After talking with them, it's clear that this was of great importance to everyone involved.  What you are about to read are excerpts from the interviews that were held.  This is not meant to be a definitive transcript, but rather highlights from what was discussed.

As a film, LADDER 49 has some definite faults, and suffers some basic mistakes that many films tend to do.  But one thing is certain, and that is the film goes out of it's way to remain faithful to it's source material.  It provides an interesting behind the scenes look into the lives of the brave individuals who fight fires for a living.


Was it fun?

Jay Russell:  There were parts of it that were fun, and there were parts of it that were not fun.  One thing I learned is creating the atmosphere of a particular scene... having that be the atmosphere on the set.  There were some days that were fun and funny, and there were some days that were very sad and tense, and quiet.  It was sort of the combination of Joaquin and I trying to find a process, because Joaquin is a very particular actor.  All of the actors are great, and they all have their particular process and moments.  With Joaquin who is the lead character, obviously I spent more time working with him.  With him it's of the ultimate importance to forget that there are people running around with lights and all of that.  I felt the best way I could help him was to create the reality of the scene within the atmosphere of the set.  Everything in the movie in one form or fashion is based on a true story.  I had firefighters on the set the whole time.  There was a chain reaction of skepticism when we initially got the script.  When I was initially offered the script I turned it down, because I was skeptical.  Joaquin came in to it skeptical as well, and John too.  We didn't want to do it unless it was true to their lives.  Everything in the movie is based on the experience of a firefighter.  Joaquin went through 80% of what every firefighter student goes through.  What he didn't go through he just didn't have the time.  As far as I'm aware he went through every sort of physical training that a firefighter goes through.


Have you always wanted to be a firefighter?

Joaquin Phoenix:  I have a great appreciation for firefighters, but I don't think I could handle it.  Every day they're experiencing something that none of us would want to experience.  It's a tough job.  Not only how it impacts the firefighters, but how it impacts their families as well.  They find it difficult to speak to their families about what they experience, for obvious reasons.

Mark:  Were there any hairy situations working with fire while shooting the movie?  Anything that got out of hand, or you experiencing fear while working so closely with fire?

Joaquin Phoenix:  No not really.  I don't know, everyone keeps asking me that like there's something I don't know, or something I forgot.

Mark:  Any moments where you've got a big wall of fire by you, and you had to sit there and stay calm the whole time?

Joaquin Phoenix:  Compared to what I experience in the training field, everything on set was very safe.  We had all these safety people around.  So I never felt in danger on set.  There were a couple of real fires that got really scary, and I panicked.  There's always a level of danger because fire is so unpredictable.

Mark:  You've expressed before that sometimes it's hard to watch yourself in certain movies.  When you see this movie, how do you feel about your performance and your portrayal of the character?

Joaquin Phoenix:  The portrayal of these firefighters lives took precedence over whether it was considered financially or critically successful.  We didn't really care about that as long as firefighters felt this was true to their lives.  The feedback I'm hearing is that they do, and that's really all I was thinking about when going into a screening of an early cut of this film.  Whether our ideas worked and were translated well, cause there were some changes.  There always are during the course of filming.

On playing Johnny Cash in the upcoming biopic WALK THE LINE

Joaquin Phoenix:  I had a lot of help.  Worked on the music with T-Bone Burnett, an amazing producer.  And then there's James Manigold who wrote the script and spent a long time with John.  You know I don't think I would do a biopic if it weren't for the subjects approval, and John really worked closely with Jim on the script.  He gave him a lot of insight into his life, so I felt really good that John approved of the script, and that it was an accurate portrayal of his life.  But it was tough.  We had an amazing crew, and Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter. She's an amazing person and actor. There's a bunch of people represented in it, like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, and we were fortunate that all the actors portraying these people are real musicians.  That was really my biggest concern, because I don't really have any experience with music.  Ironically everyone in my family plays guitar.  Everyone but me.  It was great to have that support of these real musicians.


On playing the father figure.

John Travolta:  The nice thing was there's a built in seniority because I'm older than all the guys.  It solved the initial problem on how to differentiate yourself.

Mark:  Is it more fun or challenging for you to play a leader?  Sometimes you play villains, and sometimes you'll play the hero type, but in this one it's not really one of either, it's more of a leader for other characters.

John Travolta:  Well the truth is that they're all challenging if they're well written and good scenarios.  You know lately I've been playing a lot of villains so it was refreshing to get back to the good guy.  But more importantly I felt like this represented a piece of Americana, that I personally love and grew up with.  The kind of Irish Catholic firehouses.  I just love the ambiance of all that.  It reminded me more of the feeling you had in APOLLO 13.

Mark:  It really felt like you were pulling back the curtain and stepping into their lives.

John Travolta:  It's such a different feeling for an actor to do that.  No w I know the joy that all those actors had on APOLLO 13.  They weren't doing star turns, they were just being honorable actors to the characters.  I love that, it's very refreshing.  Doing an ensemble piece versus a showoff piece.

That's all folks!


Everyone go see LADDER 49 now at a theater near you.

Check out the movie website at

Originally posted on - September 29th, 2004



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