Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Backdraft: Fighting Fire with Fire

As wildfires continue to rage across Southern California, scorching thousands of acres and putting homes (and lives) at risk, my thoughts return to a 1991 film that treats fire with the respect it deserves.

Backdraft began as a concept by screenwriter Gregory Widen. Before entering film school, Widen had spent three years as a Southern California fireman. In the line of duty, he saw a buddy blown across a six-lane highway and impaled on a metal post by the deadly explosion known as a backdraft. Widen’s goal was to write a tense thriller built around the working lives of firefighters and their heroic dance with danger.

When Ron Howard came aboard as director, he chose to play up the complex rivalry between two brothers from a Chicago firefighting family. Stephen (Kurt Russell) and younger brother Brian (William Baldwin) are both still reeling from the death of their fireman father. Stephen has grown up with a personal vendetta against fire: he’s the first to rush into any precarious situation, and he refuses to wear a gas mask. Brian, having tried in vain to stay away from the family profession, is both enthralled and intimidated by his elder brother’s brash heroics. He sees in Stephen’s crumbling marriage a reminder of the price some firemen pay for their obsessive insistence on grabbing every fire by the throat.

Where Backdraft works best is in its depiction of fire itself. Howard discovered that firefighters see fire as a living creature with a will of its own, one that “has its own thought patterns, it behaves in odd ways, it slithers and it laughs and hisses and giggles, and we’re trying to create a sense of that in the fire scenes.” Through state-of-the-art visual effects by Industrial Light and Magic, but also through the gutsy willingness of cast and crew to move in close to actual flames, Backdraft conveys the elemental power of fire in a way no previous film had ever done.

The Backdraft team chose to focus on the Chicago Fire Department because of its reputation as the most stubbornly macho in the country. Chicago firemen traditionally disdain those who stay on the perimeter of a burning building, shooting water from hoses in what they call a “surround and drown.” Their own preferred method is to rush inside and tackle the blaze, thus exposing themselves to the possibility of great personal harm. In shooting Backdraft, Howard and his crew followed much the same pattern. Though camera operators were encased in fire-suits and though the leaps of the flames were carefully choreographed, danger was always present. By the time shooting ended, there had been more than one close call. An actual fireman playing a minor role had his eyebrows singed off, his first accident after twelve years on the force. The moment production wrapped, Howard nearly wept with relief. He insisted that if movies, like Olympics events, were judged on a degree-of-difficulty scale, “this would be a nine and a half. I was constantly riding this line, trying to maximize the excitement and be safe at the same time.” No wonder he’s never considered a sequel.

Since Backdraft’s release, Howard has been treated as a hero by firefighters throughout the nation. His heightened awareness of the hazards faced by firemen has led him to appear on Capitol Hill, lobbying for federal funds to improve their training. But his serious interest in the work of firefighters never kept him from appreciating Universal Studio’s now-shuttered Backdraft theme-park attraction, in which visitors experienced an actual chemical blaze. Said Howard, appreciatively, “You can feel the heat on that ride.”

Dedicated to the many brave fire fighters now on the front lines in California and elsewhere

No comments:

Post a Comment