Interview: Director Joseph Kosinski on Only the Brave
With Columbia Pictures‘ Only the Brave set to debut in theaters this Friday, October 20, ComingSoon.net had the chance to talk to director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) about the true story of the firefighters called the Granite Mountain Hotshots. We also discuss his scrapped remake of Disney’s cult classic 1979 sci-fi movie The Black Hole! MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW if you know nothing about the real story.
All men are created equal… then, a few become firefighters. Only the Brave, based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, is the heroic story of one unit of local firefighters that through hope, determination, sacrifice, and the drive to protect families, communities, and our country become one of the most elite firefighting teams in the country. As most of us run from danger, they run toward it – they watch over our lives, our homes, everything we hold dear, as they forge a unique brotherhood that comes into focus with one fateful fire.
The film stars Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2), Miles Teller (Whiplash, Fantastic Four), Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski, Iron Man), James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3), Taylor Kitsch (John Carter, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Jennifer Connelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Hulk).
ComingSoon.net: When people think of your movies, they think of very precision filmmaking inside very immaculately-designed worlds. But in this case, it’s very messy lives and chaotic circumstances. Was that part of the appeal, to sort of go out of your comfort zone?
Joseph Kosinski: Absolutely. This business defines you by your work, and because I’d done two science fiction films, that’s all you’re interested in. And obviously, that’s not the case at all. That just happened to be my first two opportunities. So when I read this story, I loved the idea of doing something, doing a real story, and especially this one. It just felt so kind of emotionally compelling on so many different levels. I loved the challenge of doing something completely different. That was certainly one of the reasons why I decided to go after it.
CS: You’re known for your background in architecture and computer graphics, but you also came from Iowa and Middle American small-town life. Was that part of what connected you personally?
Kosinski: Yeah, in some ways Yarnell, Arizona and the town I grew up in, Marshalltown, are very similar, same-sized towns, very similar design with the town square and the courthouse. So when I went to Yarnell it did remind me of the town I grew up in. And reading all these scripts around town about the superhero movies and then getting a story that felt like it was about real heroes, to me, was very refreshing. And I knew it would be a hard movie to get made because it was so different and because of the subject matter. But it was a challenge worth going after.
CS: If there is one thing there’s a drought of in Hollywood it’s MEN MEN, like real old school guys in the John Wayne, Henry Fonda mold. Josh Brolin is one of the few that really embody that. Can you talk about working with him and bringing out the manly man in him?
Kosinski: I don’t think I had to bring it out. I mean, Josh is a “what you see is what you get.” 100 percent authentic guy’s guy, grew up on a ranch, was a volunteer firefighter in his 20s. And he lived in Arizona for a year, I think. So you know, I’d always been interested in him. When I got this script, he was at the top of my list. There are a lot of great actors out there, but to be able to play a superintendent of a hot shot crew, Josh was, to me, the one to go after. So I flew out to Nashville, where he was filming another movie, and sat down with him for a day and just kind of pitched him what I thought this movie could be and how important it was. He was dialed in 100 percent from our first conversation. I mean, it resonated with him on such a deeply personal level. I just knew he was the guy for it. So it started with Josh, and then a day or two after that, I met with Miles. And Miles is obviously drawn to the idea of working with Josh, and it’s one of those things where it’s kind of critical mass. You start building and assembling once you get a couple of key actors on board.
CS: At the other end of the spectrum, Jennifer Connelly is playing this fiercely strong wife of a firefighter who has to hide a lot of the anguish she feels every time he goes out on the line. What did you find the real wives of these guys were like?
Kosinski: Well, I met with Amanda Marsh, and that was a meeting I’ll never forget. I was struck by her strength, her independence, her fierce kind of protectiveness of Eric’s legacy. I knew that the writer and I did not want this role to be what you would typically see in a movie like this, where the wife is essentially stuck at home wringing her hands or listening on the phone, trying to get in touch. We knew we wanted the role of Amanda to be something much more than that. So again, Jennifer was someone I’ve wanted to work with for a long time, just was able to embody Amanda’s spirit. And because Amanda herself was able to share such kind of personal insight into the issues that she and Eric had in their marriage, we were able to create these scenes, this very kind of compelling look into a marriage that feels real because it is. And Jennifer and Josh were able to just embody that unique relationship that Eric and Amanda had in a way that just, you know, helped show the sacrifices. These first responder families are not just the first responder, but the spouse who has to make it all work when they’re away, and have their own life at the same time.
CS: Are you and Sony shying away from revealing the fate of these guys in interviews and stuff?
Kosinski: No, I mean, I think it’s a known thing, and I think it’s out there. So I’m not shying away from it. What I am saying is that the film focuses on how the guys lived, not how they died. You’ve seen the movie, you’d have to agree that we did not follow the typical structure of a movie like this, where you’re into the events in the beginning of the second half. We really spent time getting to know these guys, in understanding who they were and what the dynamics were between them, because that’s just an important part of the story.
CS: Right. It’s not a traditional arc at all because there’s some struggle along the way, but there’s not a lot of huge failure or setbacks until obviously the other shoe drops for everyone in a big, tragic way.
Kosinski: Right. And that’s because real life doesn’t follow the typical three-act structure, you know? The way that the story really—I wanted it to be as authentic as possible and the events of the Yarnell Hill Fire, that was one part of the film that I put a lot of work into making sure we’re as accurate as possible, down to the call on the radio was taken from the transcript and the details of who went into the fire, and everything was something that I had to spend a lot of time figuring out, but I knew that it had to be accurate.
CS: Was the success of a movie like “Lone Survivor” a factor in getting the movie financed? Because that movie had sort of a similar vibe.
Kosinski: Yeah, to be honest with you, this was a hard movie to get made for all the reasons we’ve already talked about. I mean, this is a hard one, and I’m so grateful that Black Label Media and Molly Smith, Trent and Thad, who were behind that label, really understood the potential of this movie and stepped up in a huge way to get it made. So it was basically outside the traditional studio system, when we made it. It was not the movie that you walk in and pitch and everybody in town wanted to make it. Let’s be honest.
CS: And you got to reunite with Jeff on this movie.
Kosinski: This is a fantastic reunion for us.
CS: How was it different from your time in “Tron” land?
Kosinski: I mean, it couldn’t be more different, you know? On “Tron,” we were so ambitious in terms of the amount of technology that we were throwing into that story, which we had to, because of the nature of what that movie is and what that world is and what that story was. So on this one, for Jeff and I to work in that more traditional director/actor relationship and really just kind of hone in on the character and try to… we got to work with the reall Duane Steinbrink, who helped us out with the film and really helped Jeff get into character, so it was fantastic.
CS: I was very excited to hear a few years ago that you were doing “The Black Hole” remake, because I’m still a fan of that movie and the look of it and how it’s essentially “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in space. But it’s also a very flawed movie with very silly robots and a weird pseudo-religious ending. What were your thoughts on the original, and what your vision for the remake?
Kosinski: I agree with you. This movie did have a distinct look. You know, I was pitching the idea of making a grounded movie about real deep space exploration and the amazing kind of phenomena that surrounds a black hole. We had kicked around a couple of different ideas, and I think when “Interstellar” came out it felt like it was really close to what we were thinking about. So that one needs a little bit of a re-tooling to figure out what our version would be to make it different enough, and also make it something that Disney would be interested in making.
CS: Right. Because obviously they already have “Guardians” and they have “Star Wars.”
Kosinski: Yeah, it’s just, they’ve got so much amazing IP now, it’s really hard to make a case for something else at this point, but you don’t know.
CS: To me “Black Hole” is a best case for a remake because it’s something that had a lot of potential, but that wasn’t necessarily fulfilled by the movie itself. There’s a lot of room to grow.
Kosinski: Yeah, science fiction is a really difficult genre to work in. You have to be very careful that you’re not appealing to just one demographic, which might be our demographic, you know? You need something like “Star Wars” that’s across—because they’re such expensive movies to make, they kind of, by nature, have to be broader. And so, you have to celebrate when a movie like “Blade Runner” or “Oblivion” gets to get made, because it just doesn’t happen very often.