Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) and Chris MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch) plan to do the backburn at the Chiricahua Mountain fireline in Columbia Pictures’ Only the Brave, the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. (Photo by Richard Foreman)

A Story to Tell

Connor Dziawura

When the Yarnell Hill Fire resulted in the deaths of 19 of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots in 2013, millions across the country were stunned. The tragedy was the greatest loss of firefighters’ lives in the United States since the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Now four years later, the story of the brave men who made up the special skills team that tackled the massive wildfire is being told in one of the most immortalizing ways possible–film.

Only the Brave, which will be distributed by Columbia Pictures on October 20, aims to honor the firefighters and the sacrifices they made for their families and community.

Directed by Joseph Kosinski and supported by an A-list cast, the film stars Josh Brolin as Eric Marsh, Miles Teller as Brendan McDonough, Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink and James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed, with Taylor Kitsch as Chris MacKenzie and Jennifer Connelly as Amanda Marsh. And with such a large cast, each actor was affected by the story in a different way.

“I live in New York City. I couldn’t be further from here,” says Dale, who, along with several other cast members, was in town for a red carpet premiere at Tempe Marketplace. “The week of the Yarnell Hill Fire, I was riding the 6 Train downtown. So, I’m in the subway and New York Times had a two-page article on these guys. I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Dale read about Marsh, Steed and MacKenzie and how hard they worked to become a tier 1 firefighting crew.

“I don’t know how to describe it but that moment meant something to me,” he says.

When Dale received the call offering him a role three years later, the answer was an obvious choice.

“It all came flooding back and I just said yes,” Dale explains. “We’re storytellers and I think I have something to give to the story.”

Teller, on the other hand, wasn’t familiar with the 2013 tragedy. Teller plays Brendan “Donut” McDonough, who is the lone survivor of the 20-man hotshot crew. McDonough served as the group’s lookout during the fatal fire.

“I was excited that they were making a film about this,” Teller says. “These are our countrymen. These are our first responders, these are the people who – when we have a crisis in our country – are going out there to save lives. I was excited to work on this because a lot of the guys who do this job, they reminded me of friends of mine. I just think they’re the best types of individuals that we have.”

The subject matter and character arc spoke to Teller, he says.

“The sacrifices these guys make, the type of character that they had, the amount of integrity and pride they take in their job,” Teller says. “For me, personally, just playing Brendan, I felt like Brendan had a really unique arc that I hadn’t necessarily seen before. I wanted to lend myself to that.”

For Dale, the subject and men of the story were also inspiring.

“For these guys, there was never just OK,” Dale says. “It was, ‘How do I go to this?’ There was something about their work ethic, their passion, what they did to become tier 1. It’s infectious and I think that’s the best of us as human beings. And then it was the fact that not one of them left each other’s side. Not one of them left each other’s side.”

Despite the price paid by the men of this special unit, many people still do not know what sets a hotshot crew apart from traditional firefighters. Hotshot is a term specially designated for a firefighter trained to fight wildfires. They use special techniques and training to prevent the spread of these large-scale fires. In preparation for the film, the cast worked with multiple former Granite Mountain Hotshots to ensure accuracy, part of which required a special boot camp to train the actors.

“The boot camp was pretty tough,” Teller says. “It was really hot, it was uncomfortable, it was a week long and it was pretty intense. It was a lot of hiking at altitude–a lot of hiking carrying weight. I mean you have these guys hiking up these really kind of steep inclines with a lot of tools and chainsaws and a lot of weight in their packs. It’s a unique skill set that these guys have.”

“They just gave us a little taste, and they were clear about it,” Dale adds. “They were clear, like, ‘This is not real. You guys aren’t firefighters. You can’t do what we do but we can’t do what you do, and so we’re going to give you a taste of this.’”

Nonetheless, the firefighters were supportive of the film, he adds.

“They could not have been more supportive and more giving to us in saying, ‘Hey man, you can do this. You can tell the story of Jesse Steed; he was one of my best friends and I trust you,’” Dale says. “That’s just a metaphor for the way these guys live. They gave to us as actors even while we’re filming.”

For the actors, meeting other first responders and their families was important for the preparation process. Prior to filming, Teller flew to Prescott to meet McDonough, who he describes as an “open book” and a “subject matter expert.”

“We had a lot of guys come into boot camp who knew these guys on a very personal level and professionally, and so we got a good taste of it,” Teller says. “And then I think as far as the families go, we’d have a couple of them on set and that was just a reminder of this is real life and we can put the uniform on and take it off, and we can make the movie and then we can finish it and do another movie, but for these families this is forever. Making this movie is going to affect them for the rest of their life.”

Now after months of intense preparation and filming for the emotionally demanding roles that comprise Only the Brave’s true story, the complete work hits its stars hard.

“It was emotional because, for the actors, when we watch it, we got to live through it,” Teller says. “It’s like, yeah you’re acting, but when you’re doing it you better not feel like you’re acting. Hopefully you’re able to get inside that person’s skin and to feel like you’re living that moment vicariously.

“It was tough. I went through that as Brendan. So when I watch it I get those emotions back. Those last couple moments are really tough but for the most part I’m watching I’m smiling a lot of the time because I’m thinking back on how much fun we had.”

“This experience has been very humbling for me and all I can say is that I hope we’ve told the story with honor and respect, that Jesse Steed’s family looks at the film and are able to say to the kids, ‘that’s your father,’” Dale says. “I hope that all the family members are proud of their boys and how much they gave.”

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