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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Backdraft” (1991) – The 30th Anniversary

In May 2021, Director Ron Howard has two reasons to celebrate his past works. His 2006 thriller “The Da Vinci Code” is celebrating it’s 15th anniversary (May 19th) and his firefighter thriller “Backdraft” is reaching it’s 30th birthday on May 24th. Two very different films that are perfect examples of why Ron Howard has become one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers. Last year during the lockdown, I ranked Ron Howard’s films in a top 10 list and wrote a career retrospective of his work to celebrate his birthday and his artistry as a filmmaker. I’m especially happy to celebrate both anniversaries of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Backdraft”, as they both fill out my top 3 behind “A Beautiful Mind” as Howard’s best works. 

•Both articles on “Ron Howard’s Career Best” and my 15th anniversary write-up on “The Da Vinci Code” is available on mauiwatch.com

“Backdraft” was written by Gary Widen, the screenwriter responsible for “The Highlander” and “The Prophecy” franchises. Widen had served as a firefighter for three years and based the film on the death of a friend in an actual backdraft. Widen pitched the concept for “Backdraft” to Trilogy Entertainment Group producer Richard B. Lewis in 1987. 

They sold the idea to mega producer Dino De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, but the production company went bankrupt before the project could be developed. Widen and Lewis were able to retain the property and director Ron Howard, who was just coming off the success of the Steve Martin comedy “Parenthood” had immediately expressed interest in “Backdraft”.

Trilogy Entertainment Group had agreed to produce the film for the Ron Howard owned Imagine Entertainment and Universal Pictures. “Backdraft” which was deemed an “action-thriller”, was given a starting budget of $15 million and scheduled to begin production in the summer of 1989. Described to be the story of “a rookie firefighter who becomes involved in a complex arson investigation”. However, writer Gary Widen stated in a May 1991 article that director and producer Ron Howard wanted to re-shape the story to focus more on the relationship between two firefighting brothers. 

Widen claimed he was “banished for a year as three new writers were assigned to the script”. Ten months later, the Long Beach Press Telegram had reported that production on “Backdraft” was delayed due to the films script re-writes. Screenwriter Steven De Souza (“48 Hours”, “Another 48 Hours” and both “Die Hard & Die Hard 2”) had been brought in to fix and re-write the brotherhood element of the story. 

Throughout 1988 and 1989, various sources and reports gave contradictory statements regarding Howard’s commitment to the film, as some indicated he was “certain” to direct and others describing his involvement as only “likely” or “possible.” But writer Gregory Widen confirmed that, after the other writers “failed” to integrate the numerous plot points, Ron Howard was eager “to move onto another project”. 

With things a standstill on “Backdraft”, Howard was going to head into his next production of “Far & Away”, the Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman romance film. Within the last moments, Widen spent three intense days salvaging the script to which once done Ron Howard became satisfied and filming was scheduled for the summer of 1990. “Backdraft” would be Ron Howard’s first R-Rated film since his first theatrically released film “Night Shift” in 1982. 

Before filming began, the main cast went out on calls with real Chicago firefighters and attended the Chicago Fire Academy. The actors even carried the real 50 pound fire hoses up stairs instead of using the lightweight prop hose that was on-set. The cast even came face to face with 1200-degree Fahrenheit (649 degrees Celsius) fireballs on set. With training having been completed; Kurt Russell, Scott Glenn and William Baldwin did a lot of their own stunts, that led to stunt coordinator Walter Scott being so impressed by their performances, that he listed them as stunt performers in the films credits. Director Ron Howard had indicated that the sixteen week production schedule (July 23rd – December 8th, 1990), would entail shooting on real locations throughout Chicago.

The films stellar cast includes: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro and J. T. Walsh. In a twist of fate, Brad Pitt had lost out on the role of Brian McCaffrey to William Baldwin, who then had to be released from his contract to play the part of J. D. in “Thelma & Louise” (released the same month as “Backdraft”) and ended up being re-casted with Brad Pitt. 

Stars Robert Downey Jr. and Keanu Reeves were also candidates who screen-tested for the role of Brian McCaffrey. William Baldwin’s real brother Alec Baldwin was considered to play Brian McCaffrey, but he turned it down and recommended his brother William for the role. William Baldwin says that to this day, fire trucks honk their horn whenever they see him. In the role of “Bull” McCaffrey, Dennis Quaid turned down the role and it went to Kurt Russell. He had heard about the film from Tom Cruise, who was trying to cast Russell in “Days of Thunder”. Robert DeNiro’s character Don Rimgale is based on a real arson investigator with the Chicago Fire Department’s Office of Fire Investigation. The real Don Rimgale also appears in the movie.

The fire sequences of “Backdraft”, were done several years before fire effects could even be created by computer animation. Done with all real practical effects, “Backdraft” received tremendous praise for its visual and special effects. So much so that it received three Academy Award nominations for Visual Effects, Best Sound and Sound Effects Editing. However, it did not garner any awards. The special effects and design teams had to overcome the challenges of filming the various fires, that would produce so much smoke and ash that the actors view would become obscured. 

The filmmakers used a “white, haze-like effect” to give scenes the appearance of being filled with smoke. With falling bits of ash created from cardboard and carefully controlled with an air mover, a technique that allowed the filmmakers to capture the ash in specific ways. Effects supervisor Allen Hall set up a fire lab three months before filming, to learn how to control the fires. In the lab, he tested explosions, different types of fuels and how the fire would burn. To draw audiences into the intensity of a real fire, a cameraman was outfitted in a fireproof suit and wandered through the flames with a hand-held camera.

In order to dramatize the fires viewed from a distance, diesel fuel was added to the propane typically used by Hollywood pyrotechnicians, to generate a rich black smoke. Throughout “Backdraft”, the fire presents itself as a personality with a motive and intent, that moves across ceilings and down walls in ways that defy the laws of physics. Filmmakers achieved this effect by building a set upside down and filming the fire in slow motion as it traveled its natural course along the floor and up the wall. 

Cinematographer and director Mikael Salomon (“Hard Rain”) praised the specially designed Clairmont Camera Fireboxes used during production. The camera would be placed safely and protected within the box, while trails of glue and flammable substances were laid down so that the flames raced straight into the camera lens. It’s been indicated that about $1.25 million was spent on the fire effects.

In one incident, the films first assistant director Aldric La’auli Porter ran into a burning room to check on Kurt Russell. Porter said in a past interview: “Kurt Russell was in this smoke filled set that the effects team had just ignited with fifty gallon oil drums. After about four minutes, he hadn’t come out, so I just rushed in after him without a respirator”. 

Porter had to feel his way along the wall with his hands, as he had been trained to go through the intense smoke and heat, but was unable to find Russell. Fortunately, Kurt had already gotten out through a rear exit door. “It wasn’t the smartest thing to do”, admits Porter. “But instinct took over and I wanted to make sure he was safe”. Ron Howard had described Kurt Russell’s approach to the film as “aggressive, but entertaining and totally honest”. 

Although listed to have a final $35 million budget, the is speculated to have likely cost around $40 million. “Backdraft” opened on May 24th, 1991 and grossed $15.7 million over its Memorial Day weekend opening, an industry record for a “non-sequel” film at that time. Overall “Backdraft” had earned a gross take of $147 million worldwide. The films score was composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer and features two songs by Grammy winning musician Bruce Hornsby, “The Show Goes On” (which was previously released on his album “Scenes from the Southside”) and a new song, he wrote and recorded, “Set Me in Motion”. Zimmer’s score was pared to about 30 minutes of play on the soundtrack album, that also features both Bruce Hornsby songs. 

In 1992, a New York fireman had filed a federal lawsuit against Imagine Entertainment, claiming copyright infringement of a script they had written in 1988 and 1989. Four years later in June of 1996, the court ruled in favor of the two men, because attorneys for Ron Howard and Imagine Entertainment had failed to comply with a request for documents. Judge William M. Skretny asserted that Imagine had acted in “willful and bad faith non-compliance” with court orders. The New York firefighters won by default. The judge did not address issues related to copyright infringement, including the alleged “100 similarities” between the claimants’ script and the finished film. Filmmakers planned to appeal the ruling, and the final outcome of the lawsuit has not been public. 

Due to popularity of the film, in June of 1992; a $10 million “Backdraft” attraction was to open at Universal Studios Hollywood. The attraction, included a short introductory film featuring Ron Howard, Scott Glenn and Kurt Russell. Universal Studios marketed the show as an introduction to the art of pyrotechnic special effects, with a terrifying two minute, warehouse-inferno finale. Temperatures inside the soundstage reached 2000 degrees. It was also the first time that a Universal Studios theme park attraction was based on an R-Rated film. The attraction closed in September of 2009.

The iconic promotional image of the silhouette of the fireman, emerging from a fiery doorway appears on firefighters license plates issued within the state of California. In 1991 after the film was released, Ron Howard represented firefighters on Capitol Hill to lobby for more money for their training. Howard even donated some proceeds from the film to his local fire department.

Ron Howard’s “Backdraft” is a burning ode to firefighters, their professional and personal lives they live. But it’s also a visually stunning spectacle with special effects and pyrotechnics coordinated by Allen Hall and a batallion of stunt men. They plunge the camera into the center of roaring fires, so convincingly that there is never a moment’s doubt that we are surrounded by an inferno of flames. “Backdraft” is a throwback to those big screen and big cast epics of the golden age in Hollywood. 

It was such ahead of it’s time in the 90’s that fire has never been portrayed by such convincing, encompassing and gritty authenticity before. “Backdraft” is blazingly good cinema that gives us relatable human drama through the first rate performances, makes us feel the power of a Bruce Hornsby song used to fuel one mean montage and gives us action sequences that never lets up. “Backdraft” was Howard’s first real ambitious project as a filmmaker that only helped to prove that good ole’ Opie, knows what he is doing behind the camera and why he is one of the best American filmmakers. “Backdraft” still remains a craft of movie making magic and after thirty years is as influential as ever.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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