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<i>Ladder 49</i> Portrays Firefighters as Imperfect Heroes

Real-life everyday heroes who fight fires and save lives come to the screen in a sweeping drama set at a big city fire station in the new film, Ladder 49.

In firehouse jargon, a "ladder" is a truck equipped with a long extension ladder to reach high up to burning buildings. Ladder 49 is the story of the crew of ladder truck number 49 in the East coast city of Baltimore.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison who goes from novice, fresh out of the fire academy, to skilled firefighter, putting his life on the line. To play the role, Phoenix and fellow cast members went through intensive training with real firefighters and on the set they dealt with real, not computer-generated, flames.

"It was amazing to go into the training and face a lot of these fears. You don't overcome the fear, you learn to control it," Phoenix explains. "That's what the firefighters will say: if you're not scared, then get out of the job. You have to have a level of fear and respect for the fire, but you never get over the fear. It's always there; it's just that you learn to control it."

Phoenix says Ladder 49 portrays the crewmembers as real human beings, not perfect heroes.

"Typically in Hollywood when we tell stories about heroes, it seems that everybody obsesses over 'how can we make them as perfect as possible? How can we make them sympathetic?' That's always the concern," he explains. "With this we felt we were able to explore the less savory moments, in a way."

John Travolta, who has played his share of Hollywood heroes, is the captain in charge of the firehouse in Ladder 49. He says meeting the real-life counterparts to these film characters verified the instincts that he had about firefighters.

"I knew them to be very humble men and women that really didn't want a lot of attention and didn't like looking at themselves as heroes," Travolta says. "That made me feel that they deserve the attention and this movie much more than anyone."

Travolta also says he took on the role of captain with the mostly younger cast off-screen as well.

"It felt like my seniority to these guys ... I'm older than they are, I've been around, they kind of grew up on me, [and] I'm the first person that Joaquin Phoenix ever asked for an autograph from when he was nine-years-old ... it felt like that was a built-in, innate thing I could play," Travolta says.

Director Jay Russell admits he was hesitant to take on this film when it was first offered to him just about a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"The thing that excited me about the project was also the thing I was very hesitant about. I was skeptical, to be honest, with the motivation behind the making of the movie," he admits. "My uncle was a 25-year-plus veteran of the fire department and I just did not want to make this movie unless our hearts and minds were in the right place. There was no way any of us involved in this movie myself and the actors were going to make it if it felt like an exploitation."

However, filmmaker Russell points out that the original script had the story set in New York and, even though the action was moved to another city, he acknowledges that 9/11 influenced the film.

"Is this a tribute to the firefighters of 9/11? Of course it is; but it's also a tribute to the firefighters of 9/10 and 9/12 and 9/13," he says. "The story is the same. The world saw that particular day, in the extreme, what we do every day. That was my motivation and the story that I wanted to tell."

Joaquin Phoenix says the entire cast and crew shared that sense of responsibility to 'get it right.'

"If firefighters see this film and like it and feel that it's authentic, that's all we could ask for and that takes precedence over whether the film is considered financially or critically successful," he says. " It's just been amazing to go to firehouses and meet these guys and have them come up, shake our hands and say 'thank you for making this movie.' I've never had that experience in my life. No one has ever thanked me for making a movie before."

Ladder 49, written by Lewis Colick, was shot on location in Baltimore with a cast that also includes Robert Patrick and Morris Chestnut as members of the fire crew; and Australian actress Jacinda Barrett plays the wife of Phoenix's Jack Morrison character.