25 years ago this May, Backdraft hit theaters nationwide, and remains to this day the highest-grossing firemen film of all time. Written by The Highlander and The Prophecy screenwriter, Gregory Widen, it was inspired by his experiences as a volunteer firefighter, including having seen a fellow fireman killed by a "backdraft" (a rare and dangerous explosion caused by an influx of oxygen when a door in a burning building is opened). Directed by Ron Howard, the film featured an all-star ensemble including, Kurt Russell, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, J.T. Walsh, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I sat down recently with Mr. Widen to take a commemorative look back, and talk about the possible future of the franchise. He also shared some candid photos from the set.
LR: There have been only a handful of movies about firemen, and to this day none has come close to the success of Backraft. How did you sell this script to Hollywood, did you have a contract with Imagine Films?
GW: The film was originally a pitch I made to Dino Delaurentis’ company in 1987. Probably the worst pitch of my life where they actually stopped me half way through and said: “does he live?” Confused, I said “uh, Yes.” And Dino said, in an Italian accent, “It’s good thing this is such a wonderful story, because you’re a terrible pitcher!!”
I’d barely finished my first draft for Dino when his company went belly up. An exec there snuck it to David Friendly at Imagine and they bought it out of the bankruptcy. There was a few more years of development and we went into production in the summer of 1990.
LR: What was it like working with Mr. Howard? You also had an acting cameo in the film, how much time did you spend on the set?
GW: Ron was great. At the time I had plans to direct and so hanging around was like a second film school. I was there the whole 112 day shoot. I would have paid to be able to do it but one of the reasons I think Ron cast me as a firefighter was to keep me around in case I was thinking of leaving. I certainly had no aspirations to be an actor. I think Ron liked having me around because of the vibe I brought as not only an ex-firefighter (We had several of those on the set) but my particular take on fire as an animal and my own slightly skewed vision of life in a firehouse.
When I did my scene, it was long tracking shot and I thought I did ok till Ron asked me to talk slower. I sounded like a nervous chipmunk (I got better). Ron always threatened to re-voice me with a more Chicago sounding actor and I was expecting that till I saw the final version at a screening at George Lucas’ ranch and there was my real voice. Ron laughed. It was all a joke. “I’d never have done that!”
LR: This movie had a huge cast of superstars, share with us the experience of filming with a team like that. I'd love to hear a story from the set.
GW: I saw Kurt Russell recently and reminded him that in may ways he was responsible for a great deal of the sense of realism in the film. Though Kurt could be tough in rehearsals getting his way, once he started shooting he simply decided he was going to give 150% and that was that. And in a film where there is virtually no CGI and it’s all real fire, the actors were really uncomfortable and were constantly getting burned. Some started to whine about it, but because Kurt refused to complain no matter what we threw at him (plenty), the others didn’t want to look like pussies so the shot got done. I was always impressed by that.
It was fascinating watching De Niro. For him, he has to first understand and feel comfortable with his props. So we’d spend hours with him just handling and experimenting with them so they’d feel right to him before he’d worry about getting the dialog right. Another thing I remember, on our nights off he’d almost never come out to bars with the rest of us but instead have quiet dinners with an arson investigator’s family he got to know. He’s actually kinda shy.
Donald Sutherland, hands down the best “looper” I’ve ever seen. Ron was busy so in post I actually directed him during his ADR (When an actor has to go into a booth and re-do lines that were recorded badly on set). Normally they do it in small bursts, but he could do an entire monologue perfectly and in absolute sync. It was amazing.
LR: This movie has some memorable quotes, like "You go, we go." , that are truly epic. As a writer, do you have a conscious precognition of which lines are going to be remembered?
GW: Well, “You go, We go” was something I heard an actual fireman say on the job, so if it stayed with me, I guess I thought it might stay with audiences. One I never expected to see repeated so much but I see everywhere on fire department web sites, sometimes as a home page banner, was “The thing about firemen, no matter what, they’re always firemen.”
LR: What's your favorite scene, in terms of dialogue?
GW: I think the more films you do, the scenes that you feel happiest about tend to be the ones that have a breezy, effortless quality. In Backdraft the kitchen scene where they tease Brian about the mannequin he saved is one. Another that was cut from the theatrical film but shows up in the TV version is a scene where the station brings groceries to the wife of a dead fireman they knew. Afterward, sitting reflectively on the curb, they admit the guy was kind of an asshole. It’s such a simple moment but is
nicely acted and says a lot about the camaraderie of the job and its gallows humor.
LR: After 25 years of reflection, do you have any regrets or wish you could have written it any differently?
GW: Oh God, lots. Every time you look at scene you think how it could have been better. That’s just the reality of this work.
LR: These days, Hollywood seems to be rushing to reboot and re-franchise movies at a rapid pace. Have you been approached about a sequel or remake, or would you ever consider it?
GW: There’s been talk at Universal about a sequel that they came to me with. It’s still in the talking stage.
LR: Tell us what you're currently working on, and for aspiring writers out there in need of guidance, can you offer some words of wisdom or give them advice in achieving the success you've had?
GW: Just finished a bio pic of Genghis Kahn for a studio. Had a novel published called “Blood Makes Noise”and I'm currently doing a TV pilot. If I can do it anybody can. I didn’t have any family connections in the business, just a script I wrote at UCLA film school. And the other obvious thing: write. Writers would always rather talk about writing than write. But you have to be generating new stuff constantly.
LR: Thank you, Mr. Widen, it's truly an honor
Call me nostalgic, but I'd love to see this film get a sequel or a reboot. The intensity of firefighting makes for the perfect Hollywood backdrop, and the stories of heroism and pain can be lit ablaze. Maybe Mr. De Niro could be persuaded to put the hat on one more time.
Gregory Widen is a graduate of UCLA Film school, and currently resides in California. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/gregorywidenwriter/