Winter 2018


Fire and Ice

Two directors embrace the challenge of working in extreme conditions, taking full advantage of their environments


(Photo: Richard Foreman, Jr./Lionsgate)

Joseph Kosinski

Filmmaker and Crew Can Stand the Heat

In the wake of one of the most staggering fire seasons in the western U.S., Joseph Kosinski's Only the Brave—about the real-life Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting unit that operated out of Prescott, Arizona—not only depicts how unpredictable and destructive wildfires can be, but how vulnerable mankind is in the face of unbridled natural disaster.

The film also points to the challenges of placing cast and crew near harm's way so that they're safe and sound. "Shooting fire, particularly wildfire, is a very difficult thing to capture," says Kosinski.

The filmmakers took advantage of real wildfires that were burning in southern New Mexico during production, as well as manufactured fires ignited on a set built on the backlot of Santa Fe Studios—a few acres of artificial forest that combined both real and synthetic trees. In some scenes with the actors, digital fire was placed on top of practical fire to add to the intensity.

"Generally, when actors are working very near a fire, it's real," says Kosinski. "I wanted this film to feel as much in camera as possible, so in the very wide shots, where Marsh (the Hotshots leader played by Josh Brolin) and the guys are looking at a forest fire that's burning 100,000 acres on a nearby mountain, that is digital. But anytime the fire gets in close proximity to the actors, you have to have real fire, because it is a light source and it alters the behavior of the actors in a way that makes it feel more visceral and realistic."

To help ensure safety, Kosinski had the benefit of local fire departments with water trucks at the ready in case things got out of hand, and for authenticity, he consulted with real Granite Mountain Hotshots Pat McCarty, who acted as a technical advisor, and Brendan McDonough, played in the film by Miles Teller.

"The guys went to Hotshot Camp and learned how to do backburns (pre-burns designed to limit the spread of a wildfire)," says Kosinski. "They learned how to cut down trees, they learned how to dig line, they learned how to look like real Hotshots onscreen."

One of the most perilous scenes involved Teller's character fueling a backburn, which requires a volatile mixture of kerosene and diesel, when his torch malfunctions and he's suddenly surrounded by flames. "That was all real fire, right in the middle of our fire set," says Kosinski. "I think we all were astounded by how much heat even a relatively small fire can put off. And it gives you real respect for what these guys encounter out there in the real world."

That heat can range from a few hundred degrees, from which the actors were protected with fire-suppressant suits and gels to help protect their skin, to the thousands of degrees—hot enough to make rocks explode.

The controlled set also featured an escape route, says Kosinski, "so if anything did catch, we all knew exactly which direction to run to get out of there as quickly as possible."

(Photo: Kimberly French/20th Century Fox)

Hany Abu-Assad

Rocky Mountain Peril

For The Mountain Between Us, in which a photographer (Kate Winslet) and a doctor (Idris Elba) are stranded on a snowy ridge after the light aircraft they commission crashes, director Hany Abu-Assad insisted on physically arduous locations for authenticity's sake.

"If you are shooting this in a studio against green screen, you have to play that it's cold, or that it's dangerous," explains Abu- Assad. "We were in a very cold, dangerous place, so you don't need to play that. What you have to do is to concentrate on your story."

Remote, rugged terrain in British Colombia doubled for Colorado's Rocky Mountains, with cast and crew holing up in a hotel in the small town of Invermore, from which they would travel about an hour on a logging road into the wilds to reach their base camp, at approximately 4,000 feet. From there, in stages, they would use a helicopter to lug 50 members of cast and crew, as well as equipment in order to reach the site of the crash another 7,000 feet up—weather permitting.

"You can't fly every day," explains Abu-Assad. "We had to find a solution. If we couldn't fly, would do something around the valley. So we had to build a lot of sets there."

That included a cabin that the stranded couple happens upon in their struggle down the mountain, as well as the approximation of a frozen lake, around which trees were planted to add to the effect.

"Our motto was 'embrace the weather,'" says Abu-Assad. "Every morning we would come and have no idea what scene we were going to do. If it rains, no, because there was no rain (in the scenario). If it's going to snow, we do this scene. If it's going to be windy, we do this scene. If it's going to be sunny and you can fly, then you have to fly up and do this scene. We had four to six call sheets [on any given day]."

Without that flexibility, says the director, the 45-day shoot could have easily doubled.

A seemingly simple scene, as when Elba treks up to the crest of a ridge to check for signs of civilization, must be negotiated with surgical precision. "We followed him from behind with a Steadicam, in deep snow," says Abu-Assad. "It was a windy day, so any kind of wrong move, you could end up down in the valley. Then we filmed 360 degrees around [Elba], to realize that wherever you look, there is nothing. And with no cuts and it had to be one take because of the pristine snow."

Temperatures dipped as low as minus 38 degrees Celsius (minus 36.4 Fahrenheit). The elevation was such that some crew members fainted from the thin air, and the Alexa cameras they were using had to be kept on 24 hours a day because, as the director explains, "there was no guarantee that they would start if you turned them off.

"You are hungry, you are cold, so any decision you make as a director is a more honest decision than if you are sitting in a studio in a comfortable chair," says Abu-Assad. "Any mistake could be fatal. So you create a kind of brotherhood, so there is no hierarchy anymore."

Problem Solving

Directors discuss overcoming challenges and, in effect, making lemons into lemonade when circumstances are less than ideal.

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