Jeff Bridges has a long history with fires. It comes with the territory of being born and raised in Southern California, and then also having a penchant for owning beautiful stretches of rugged terrain in spots like Montana. This long personal saga even contributed to the appeal in doing Only the Brave, a film about hotshots—the 20-man “Type 1” crews who stop and suppress wildfires. After all, the fires have taken plenty from the otherwise always amicable Dude.
“Man, it’s fascinating you go to that question,” Bridges chuckles when I ask about his personal history with wild blazes, “because I have lost a house to a fire in Malibu, back in the ‘80s maybe; my wife Sue has evacuated our house in Santa Barbara three times by herself while I was out making the movies; and we lost 400 acres in our ranch not too long ago in Montana.” Bridges even marvels at his fortune, all things considered, since he was just back up in Montana earlier this year to attend the wedding of his daughter Jessie, and they saw how close wildfires came to encircling the community on the big day. “So fires are all around,” Bridges sighs.
Thus it’s safe to say that Bridges has a history with fires and the men who fight them, including when it was himself during at least on occasion.
“I remember a friend of mine came up to Montana,” Bridges recalls. “I was visiting him, and we were out on a lake, floating around, and saw some smoke and he said, ‘Ah gee, that looks like my house over there!’ We go over there, and sure enough a wildfire had ravaged the house, and with a shovel in my hand I was putting out the fire.”
With an appreciation then for those who deal with wildland flames in our increasingly warming and volatile world, joining the cast of Only the Brave as a gruff, cowboy-hat wearing, hard-drinking, good ol’ boy who still knows how to break out a country guitar from time to time was an easy sell to Bridges, particularly given the Granite Mountain Hotshots’ story.
A profile in true courage, they were a group within the fire department of Prescott, Arizona who became the first local municipality firefighters to be “Type 1.” In other words, rather than just clearing scorched trees after federal firefighters, starting in 2008 they were the ones stopping the fires themselves. That is until the local heroes lost the vast majority of their crew during the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire of June 2013. It’s a story that Bridges reunited with his Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski to tell, and it’s one that all the filmmakers involved felt the serious weight of tackling.
“We were very fortunate to have onboard a couple of people who actually went through this whole experience,” Bridges considers, including Duane Steinbrink, the former Wildfire Division Chief of Prescott. “He was retired when the Yarnell Hill Fire broke out, but he was partly responsible for creating these hotshot teams. And who was also onboard was Brendan McDonough, who was the only survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire. So having those guys onboard was most important.”
Yet the biggest seal of approval might be that the film has already been shown to some family members in Prescott, which, according to Bridges, proved to be a poignant but successful evening for the community.
“I understand the movie was just recently shown to some of the families of firefighters who didn’t make it, and it’s a very hard experience for most of them, seeing what their children and their brothers and sisters, and their friends went through. But they also thought that we honored those hotshots.”
Still, in preparing to play the cinematic version of Duane Steinbrink, Bridges was also able to find more than a silver lining in what could have been purely somber material. For Steinbrink, as it turns out, is part of a country music band. And considering Bridges won his Oscar for playing another folksy vocalist in Crazy Heart, it proved too enticing of an opportunity to pass up getting behind the mic again.
“That was so wild!” Bridges purrs about the scene where Duane leads a band into a rollicking number at a local Prescott bar, complete with line dancing. Apparently, the sequence was even the selling point when Kosinski first approached Bridges for the movie. “He said, ‘Well, Duane Steinbrink also has a country cowboy band called the Rusty Pistols… and we’re going to put that in the movie!’”
Quite literally, as it is the real members of Steinbrink’s band who accompany Bridges as he hams it up on a whiskey-soaked stage.
“We got my good buddy T Bone Burnett to cut that tune, and the real Rusty Pistols are the band that are backing me up in that song,” Bridges reveals. “That was another thing, when Duane Steinbrink came out to visit me, we spent a couple of days together… And we also broke out our guitars and jammed. That’s a great way to get intimate with somebody, to play music with them.”
It also paid off in the film, with Bridges bringing some older statesman gravitas to the proceedings—and some needed humor as co-stars like Josh Brolin and Miles Teller inch ever closer to the decisive day in 2013 when the Granite Mountain Hotshots were called in to save a community from an arid lightning strike.
Considers Bridges, “There’s a great line that Josh Brolin has about firefighting. He says, ‘This is the best job in the world!’ These guys are risking their lives, and they’re going right where most of us would avoid going, and you talk to these guys, and they say part of this is how you find peace in the most uncomfortable situations. And that’s something that can inspire all of us to look into our own lives, and go, ‘Well, what can we be braver about?’ The world situation now, in my mind, is frightening. [So it’s about] not just throwing up your hands and getting cynical about things, but saying what can I do to help?”
One such thing is to go to Only the Brave website and find out how to donate and support wildland firefighting communities like the Granite Mountain Hotshots. You can do so by clicking here.
Only the Brave is out in theaters on Friday, Oct. 20.
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