When director Joseph Kosinski made his 2010 feature debut with Tron: Legacy, he was almost instantly heralded as an impressive visual stylist with impeccable attention to detail. He solidified that reputation with his follow-up, Oblivion, another science fiction tale — this time starring Tom Cruise — with impressive visual aspirations, even if it didn’t quite land from a narrative perspective. Along with other newcomers like Neill Blomkamp, Kosinski appeared to represent a new generation of science fiction filmmakers, ones whose commercial and visual effects backgrounds made them uniquely suited to a genre where the images often feel like the most important element of a story.
That’s what makes Kosinski’s latest film, Only the Brave, such an interesting change of pace. Gone are the futuristic worlds and sleek design chops. Instead, Only the Brave tells the real-life story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of firefighters from Arizona that distinguished themselves under the leadership of a grizzled veteran named Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin). It’s a patient film, filled with quiet character moments as it tells the story of recovering addict Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who joins Marsh’s squad. In advance of the film’s release, I talked to Kosinski about why he wanted to challenge himself by stepping away from science fiction, the emotional ramifications of telling a story about real-life heroes, and the challenges of creating the film’s hyper-realistic wildfire sequences.
I’ve primarily thought of you as a science fiction filmmaker up until this point, but Only the Brave is a different kind of story, and one I’ve never seen depicted in a movie. What called out to you about it in the first place?
It was very different than anything I'd done before, and that was something I was looking for. Like you, after I read the first draft of the script, I was kind of embarrassed by how naïve I was about who these guys are and what wildland firefighting is all about. I, like most people, assumed these were the same guys that you see driving around in firetrucks in the city, but it's a very different job. So I realized this world hasn't been put on the big screen in a long time. I had to go back all the way to Red Skies of Montana from the 1950s to find another kind of serious wildland fire movie.
But really, it was the approach. The point of view of Eric Marsh, the guy at the top trying to do something that hadn't been done before, and in parallel, you've got the guy at the bottom, Brendan McDonough, a rookie whose life was not going in the direction he would want. And I just found it fascinating that these two guys who on the surface, seem like very different people, were actually connected by something much deeper. And what Marsh did for Brendan, I found so inspiring: giving this kid a second chance when no one else would. I just thought it was a fascinating way into this story.
You’re coming from films that are heavy on effects and design, into this movie that is full of intimate moments with just two or three characters — along with some tentpole firefighting sequences. Did that change the way you prepped, or your overall approach?
In the first two movies I did, so much effort went into building these worlds. I had to design everything — something the size of a city, down to the silverware on the table. That's a tremendous amount of work that goes into building that world, and with this, there was nothing for me to design. All I had to do was figure out how to capture reality, you know?
So that allowed me to really focus on the script, and really dive into the performances. And actually be more like a director in the traditional sense, in that it was more about working with the actors and knowing that the heart of the story was their performances. So it was a nice change. It was exactly what I needed, and it was a very fulfilling process for me to go through.
I'm curious about your process crafting the visuals. Are you usually pretty driven by storyboards and pre-visualization? Did your mechanics change here, given the more grounded aesthetic?
It depends on the sequence. I usually storyboard almost everything, and pre-viz things that need to be pre-vized: action sequences, things that get very technical. Certainly there are sequences in this movie that I needed to be very precise. Sequences like the Yarnell Hill Fire were things where I had to engage my OCD, precise approach in order to get that exactly right, because it really happened, and I wanted to make sure that I depicted it in the most accurate way possible.
There’s an interesting dance that happens where the aesthetic feels very naturalistic, but you’re also using some very modern techniques. I saw this at a Dolby Vision, high-dynamic range, screening, and there’s a great moment early on where Josh Brolin is in silhouette against a very bright kitchen window, but you still get all this great detail in his face. What camera did you shoot with?
The movie is meant to have a very low-fi feel, but the truth is, there's a lot of technology involved in how we made it. It was shot and mastered and finished in 4K from end to end, which is actually, I think, a first for Industrial Light & Magic, who did the visual effects. That's how you get the detail you're seeing. We shot on the Sony F65, in 4K RAW. Shot in high-dynamic range, so we could release in Dolby Vision and IMAX Laser. The sound mix is in Dolby Atmos, which is a tremendous surround-sound system. Graded at Technicolor with Mike Sowa, who I did Oblivion with as well.
All the visual effects were done by ILM with effects supervisor Eric Barba, who also did Tron and Oblivion, so it was a very different thing for him, too. In fact, what we did in this movie was probably the hardest thing we've done, even after those first two movies we've done together. Fire is so complex, and capturing that unpredictability and chaos that it has within it was a very hard thing to do. So there is a lot of technology in the film, it's just… I never wanted it to take center stage. It should always just be part of the storytelling.
There are a lot of controlled burns and fires in this movie. What was your philosophy between practical and digital effects?
Well the idea was to capture the film in-camera as much as possible. There was nothing shot on a soundstage, this was all shot outside in New Mexico; a couple scenes were shot in Prescott, Arizona. So whenever I could capture fire practically, I did. Any time we could do it safely, I did. So any scenes where we have actors near fire, interacting with fire, that's all real. We shot real wildfires that were burning in southern New Mexico, a lot of aerial stuff. I don't know if you remember, there's a shot in the movie where we see an elk running toward a flaming front, that was captured in-camera.
That moment was so operatic; I wouldn’t have guessed that was actually real.
There's a lot of practical. Obviously there are a couple of fire sequences where the fire is so intense, we're talking about a very rare, essentially firestorm condition, where the fire moves at a speed and rate that has only been seen a few times. That's where we had to lean into visual effects, and in that case, the idea was to make sure it was seamless with all the practical photography in the movie.
What’s the key to making fake fire work?
There's so many layers to it. It's not just the fire. It's the wind that's blowing through the brush before you even get to the fire. So it's first creating the environment, a dynamic environment, because fire is fed by wind, and oxygen is the fuel as much as the brush is. So you need to create an environment that feels dynamic and windy and blowing, and then once you've got that working, then you have the propagation of the fire through moving organic material. And this is something that can't be animated. You basically need to set up massive, fluid simulations in the computer, so you're talking about scientific-level computations that are taking hundreds of terabytes of memory to simulate.
And then you let it go, and basically, it's an uncontrollable thing. It's very interesting when you've talked to the visual effects artists who worked on it. You set up a situation, and then you basically ignite it, and you get what you get. And if you don't like the way it looks, you have to start it over and re-simulate it. So it's a real physical process happening inside the virtual world. And then there's layers of smoke and ash, and this kind of super-heated air that precedes a fire that is igniting bushes ahead of the fire, and all that level of detail had to be combined into those shots to make it feel real.
This kind of effects work is so compelling, because you’re essentially just simulating reality, and that ends up creating what audiences see on screen.
Yeah, but it also makes it very difficult for them, because I'd be like “What happened to that tendril of fire?” And they’re, “Oh, it didn't pop up this time.” Well, run the simulation again, you know? It's a hard way to work.
You said you can have really hyper-focused attention to detail. Is it frustrating when you can’t dig in and just tell your staff to tweak this or that exact thing?
You kind of have to embrace the chaos of the process a little bit, and understand that you're not animating it. You're not telling it what to do. You're setting up these things, and setting up a situation, and you're letting it run wild. It was a different process than the other films I've done, for sure.
This is a movie about real-life events, and these actors are playing real-life firefighters. At the end, you actually show them. Did you consult with their families during the making of the film?
Yeah, I met with a lot of the families. All the main characters of the film. Some former Granite Mountain Hotshots who knew the guys really well, and then some family members. We wouldn't have been able to do that tribute at the end without their cooperation to give us all those personal photographs. So yeah, it was important for me to have their cooperation. I wouldn't have done the movie if I hadn't had that. There's too much responsibility here to go out on your own and make something like this. So it was imperative to have the support, and then obviously their cooperation allowed me to make it feel that much more authentic, because I was getting insight and stories into who these guys were, and what their personalities were like. That's how you get that real, authentic sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that you see in the picture.
You've mentioned the idea of responsibility a few times. Coming from huge films that were full of fictional world-building, and transitioning to a movie about real people and real events… what did that responsibility feel like on an emotional level?
It was very different. Listen, there's always a responsibility in making a film. Typically it's mostly creative, and then the financial weight of spending $100 million is there. But it doesn't compare to the responsibility of this film, in any way. I definitely felt the weight of it on my shoulders in the months building up, to the point where you have these moments where you're thinking to yourself, “Why am I getting into this?” I had a lot of conversations with the actors about it to. It was something we obviously took very seriously, because it's the people's lives. It's their legacies. But at the end, when we had their support, it felt like we could do a lot of good. The story was an important one that needed to be told, and I do think it's inspiring, at the end of the day.
Have the family members seen the film?
Every family member that wanted to see it has seen it. We screened it for them each individually, and the feedback so far has been really positive. One of the wives said, "I didn't really understand what my husband did until I saw this movie," and that was obviously profound. Because now it makes sense: they probably didn't talk. I'm sure a lot of these guys didn't talk about it when they went home. And so you're getting a peek into their job in a way we just haven't seen before.
You really talk about this movie as if you found it personally transformative. Is that an accurate read?
Yeah, absolutely. Every film changes you. You come out the other end changed in some way, and making a film like this, you feel like it's almost bigger than the film itself. You're doing something important, you're informing, you're inspiring, you're giving people an emotional experience. I don't know if I'll ever work on a story quite like this. I do feel like this is a story that comes along once or twice, if you're lucky, in your career. But certainly the experience as a director of making a film that has so much going on, from a character point of view and then script, is certainly something I'm going to keep looking for. Right now I'm working on Top Gun: Maverick, and I'm using the same screenwriter that did this movie, Eric Warren Singer. And now we're diving into the world of naval aviation, and there's certainly a lot of parallels just in what those guys do as well. It's been very interesting.
What about stylistic sensibilities? Did it change what you’re interested in evoking there, as well?
I don't know. I mean, I think certainly because I made two science fiction films, people have kind of pigeonholed me as a design freak. Which I understand. Everyone, they judge you by your work. But I have a lot of interests. And so I'm just interested in switching it up and trying different things and stretching. You know, like you said, trying out, flexing different muscles. In some ways, Top Gun is closer to the world of Granite Mountain than the other films I've done because it is contemporary, it is a world that exists, and it is a group of men and women who go out and do an incredibly dangerous job. And I've always been a fan of capturing things in-camera, so that will certainly be the goal again. It's good to keep people on their toes. You can get put in a box very easily in this business, and it's important to keep trying something new.
Only the Brave is now playing in theaters.