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Filmed 10 years before the catastrophic events of 9/11, when firefighters were heralded as national heroes, and decades before wildfires became a year-round phenomenon as a result of climate change, the 1991 movie Backdraft was a veritable recruitment poster for a profession already viewed as selflessly noble.
Critics were unanimous in their praise of its special effects but less impressed by the film’s crisscross storylines involving sibling rivalry, a collapsed marriage and a pyromaniacal murderer. Moviegoers liked it, though — so much so that the Universal/Imagine feature broke a record for a Memorial Day weekend premiere and grossed $77.9 million total domestically ($156 million today).
To commemorate its 30th anniversary, Backdraft will be rereleased for two days (Sept. 5 and Sept. 8) by Fathom Events in approximately 600 theaters nationwide. In the Chicago-set film, Kurt Russell and William Baldwin star as warring brothers who follow in their father’s footsteps, despite his tragic death in a high-rise conflagration, and Robert De Niro plays an arson investigator — a sort of fire whisperer given to such lines as, “The only way to kill it is to love it a little.”
But Backdraft is most riveting when its characters are literally in the line of fire. As director Ron Howard points out, practical, not digital, special effects made the action sequences harrowingly immersive, using a combination of miniatures, matte work, full-sized sets and actual flames.
“The fire was all in-camera,” Howard tells THR. “We had gas burners and fire retardants and a team of 10 Chicago firefighters around us at all times with extinguishers at the ready, and they needed to move in at times. No matter how well planned, [we] just never knew when the fire was going to get away from us. And it did on occasion.”
Miraculously, nobody was seriously injured during the shoot. Howard says he hasn’t seen the film since its release but has fond memories of the bonding among cast and crew — and De Niro’s method-actor prep.
“De Niro met different fire investigators,” he recalls. “When they rolled cameras, I realized he adopted the posture of one guy, the attitude of another and the sort of cadence and command of the vernacular from a third. And I realized this is what he does. It was a master class in preparation and application.”
This story first appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures