EXCLUSIVE: Only the Brave, the incredible story of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots who fought and died during the 2013 Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, is releasing into theaters this weekend as fires continue to rage throughout California. The film, which honors all 19 firefighters, came together in a very serendipitous way. The story seemed destined to be told on the big screen.
Only days after the tragedy that left only one man from the team alive — Brendan McDonough (portrayed by Miles Teller in the film) — producer Mike Menchel flew to Prescott, AZ. Menchel told Deadline he felt driven to tell the story of this bravery.
“I was the guy who just rode into town and everyone was skeptical of me, which I understood,” said Menchel, who said the story of these brave men just wouldn’t leave him. He eventually was introduced to Amanda Marsh (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly) and McDonough. He returned 10 times and got to know the families. “I know in telling the story, I had their hearts in my hands and I wasn’t going to let them down,” said Menchel. He wanted to focus on the brotherhood, the strength of the families, the bravery and the camaraderie.
McDonough, who also served as creative consultant on the film, told Deadline: “From day one when Mike Menchel came up and talked about even doing this film, and asked would you be a part of it, and would the families be a part of this because he said the story needed to be told. Pat and a handful of others decided that it did, too.” Pat is Pat McCarty, also a former Granite Mountain Hotshot.
Menchel came back from Prescott having obtained the rights and determined to tell the story. He then wanted to make sure the film would reach the masses, so he reached out to his friend Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a former studio executive who has since produced blockbusters like the Transformers franchise. Menchel relayed what he had been doing and told him the story. “When Lorenzo said, ‘I’m already doing this movie,’ my heart sunk,” said Menchel. “He asked, ‘Why did you call me?’ I said I had the rights. He said he had just bought the article from GQ. I didn’t even know about the article. So, we both got on the phone with Conde Nast and Lorenzo introduced me as his new partner.”
The article Di Bonaventura was referring to was “No Exit” (the original title of the movie), written by Sean Flynn, who took great care in crafting the human story of the Hotshots. By doing so, he also earned the trust of the families — a rare thing for families after such a tragedy as most journalists (let’s be honest) are there only to report on the sensationalism and then move on to the next story.
The producers hired writer Ken Nolan to pen a script. One of the most memorable lines in the movie came from Eric Marsh (played by Josh Brolin): “Sometimes, we don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” That specific line was penned later by Eric Warren Singer, who came aboard for shooting draft of the screenplay.
“Ken Nolan wrote a draft on spec. I read it in the summer 2015,” said director Joseph Kosinski. “It was a first pass but I was immediately struck by a world I knew nothing about, and I was drawn by the two points of view — the guy at the top and then the guy at the bottom. And I thought that was an interesting mystery as to why the guy at the top gave a chance on someone so troubled. The reason why was inspiring. There was something very human at the heart of this.” Kosinski signed on. He went about learning everything he could about where and how the heroes lived.
Conde Nast’s Jeremy Steckler, who was also involved in the development of the film, said within two days “Kosinski was on a plane with us. He immediately jumped in with both feet.” McCarty ended up as a technical advisor on the film and hoisted those heavy backpacks onto the producers and, also, later, the actors — including Brolin, who played the Hotshot super Eric Marsh — and trained them in a kind of boot camp. It was grueling.
“That first trip out, Pat and Brendan gave us chainsaws and backpacks and we took a hike in the Yarnell mountains to walk a mile in kind of these guys’ boots. The load was so heavy, so it gave you an immediate glimpse as to what these guys went through,” Steckler said. They all walked together to the juniper that the Hotshots saved which has since become a permanent memorial for the men taken by the fire.
“I grew up in a small town in Iowa,” said Kosinski. “For me it was not a very different world than I had experienced before and so we met with Amanda, Pat and Brendan and went to the tree and then onto Matt’s Saloon on Whiskey Row and I thought I could do this.”
Enter Black Label’s Molly Smith and Trent and Thad Luckinbill, who started pulling together the financing and began developing with Menchel, Di Bonaventura and Erik Howsam. After they cast the film, bringing in Jeff Bridges, Andie MacDowell and Taylor Kitsch as well, and some of the actors even stayed at the homes of the people they portrayed.
“The goal of the film was to show how they lived not how they died,” said Kosinski. “They had been doing heroic things for no credit every day. This story had to be told. There’s not a cynical bone in this movie’s body.”
In talking to McDonough and McCarty, they also had pure intent to honor the men and families. “All the families have seen the film. For me, as a former Granite Mountain Hotshot and brother, I feel like it does a great job honoring the families,” said McCarty. “It’s not easy being a family member of a hotshot and I think it shines a light on that. It shows how strong the family and spouses have to be. They are extremely strong.”
For McDonough, who survived after losing his firefighting family? “I think this film has done a phenomenal job in honoring our 19 brothers, the families, and the firefighting community in general. It shows the integrity and moral character that they all carry,” he said, adding, “We are honored to be part of this and the film does an amazing job of telling the story of what we went through. You see the brotherhood and camaraderie.”
Added Menchel, who had shepherded the project for years: “That was the most important thing: to honor the firefighters and the families and to tell their story with dignity the way each man lived. This is a great bunch of guys. I always refer to them as my 19 friends who I never met.”
They are: Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carter, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.
The filmmakers have started a Granite Mountain Fund that will benefit firefighters including a few that will help the Granite Mountain Hotshots. They are the Eric Marsh Foundation, Wildland Firefighter Foundation, Prescott Firefighter’s Charities, California Firefighters Foundation, Carry the Load and the Kevin Woyjeck Explorers Foundation.
One note: Joe Woyjeck, whose son Kevin was taken, is a 35-year retired Los Angeles County Fire Captain.
Only the Brave opens on 50 Imax and 63 PLF screens, and with 2,200 Thursday early shows starting at 7 PM.