Resilience Under Fire: Miles Teller Interview for Only the Brave

For inSing

RESILIENCE UNDER FIRE: MILES TELLER TALKS ONLY THE BRAVE 

The actor tells inSing about making the fact-based firefighting drama

By Jedd Jong

Only the Brave tells the harrowing true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of firefighters within the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. In June 2013, the Hotshots battled the fearsome Yarnell Hill fire, resulting in a staggering loss of life. When then-Vice President Joe Biden attended the memorial service for the firefighters killed in the incident, he said “all men are created equal. But then, a few became firefighters.”

In the film, Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now, War Dogs) plays Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a young ne’er-do-well slacker who decides to pull his life together and become a firefighter after his ex-girlfriend gives birth to their daughter. The film also stars Josh Brolin as the team’s leader Eric “Supe” Marsh, Jeff Bridges as Eric’s mentor Duane Steinbrink, and Jennifer Connelly as Eric’s wife Amanda. James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze and Ben Hardy are among the actors who play fellow firefighters. Joseph Kosinki (Tron Legacy, Oblivion) directs from a screenplay by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down, Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, The International).

Teller spoke exclusively to inSing over the phone from Los Angeles about making the film. He discussed meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough, working with Josh Brolin, the physical preparation he undertook to play the role and working with the stunt team to film the realistic firefighting scenes.

INSING: The character you play, Brendan McDonough, starts out as irresponsible and aimless and embarks on a journey towards heroism. Tell us more about that journey.

MILES TELLER: Brendan, he was a little, I guess ‘aimless’ is a good word. I think he was lacking some kind of mentorship or some kind of guidance, something that at that age is really helpful in terms of helping you to become the person you’ll become later. I think at that age; a lot of people are battling with immaturity and irresponsibility. Brendan, he was into drugs and committing some small crimes. He ends up going to jail, and when he goes back home, his mum throws him out of the house. That was an ultimatum. For him, he realised it’s time to stop being so selfish and get his life together. That’s when he decided to try out for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and he met Eric Marsh, who became such a strong fatherly figure for him, up until the day of the tragedy.

Leading on from that, I think that after enduring JK Simmons yelling at you, nothing would faze you, but was it intimidating having someone like Josh Brolin play your boss?

No, it’s actually kind of the opposite of intimidating. I was really grateful, and I think we all benefitted from Josh’s leadership on the film. He got rid of any kind of divide or any kind of ego that could’ve been there, just because he’s done 50 movies and there were certain guys on the movie that it was their very first film. He was the best, man. He was having guys come to his house to work out and his trailer door was always open. He was really such a leader, not even just in the physical portion of the film. He would always be the first guy in the line, whether we were doing running, racing, cardio workouts. He’s in great shape and we really benefitted in the cast by having Josh as #1 on the call sheet.

What about the story of Brendan McDonough and of the Granite Mountain Hotshots resonated with you the most?

I have so much respect for anybody who’s in the position to be a first responder. The town that these guys came from, kind of a Southwest small town, I grew up in the south in a pretty small town. Especially after going to their hometown, I felt like I would’ve been friends with those guys, those were my kind of guys. Then obviously the tragedy that happened, and to get the opportunity to put a story like that of real-life heroism on screen and to do the story justice and celebrate their lives, then you’re lucky, because not every story has that kind of integrity to it.

With Brendan, I like any character who goes on a journey, a big arc or any character who goes through a big transition. And Brendan, starting out on the drugs and committing crimes to where he ends up being such a high-contributing member of society, that was interesting to me.

What was it like meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough?

I flew down to Prescott, Arizona, where the story takes place. I met Brendan, and it was uh, I’ve played a few real-life people at this point, and the first interaction is always…I was going down there basically to show face, and to show him that I was taking this very seriously. I just kind of allowed him to talk, and say what he wanted to say, and get any weird feelings about making a movie about his life out of the way, and then after that, we just hung out. We just got along and hung out for a couple of days. Apart of the work, it was fun, but it was also beneficial in playing the character.

What was it like working with director Joseph Kosinski?

Joe was great. Joe is everything that you want in a director: he’s extremely prepared, he’s extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and he absolutely wanted to maintain the integrity for these guys, he wanted the authenticity to play. That’s something that, for a movie of this budget, you don’t always get that. He was our captain on this thing, and he was also open-minded. He was open to ideas from the guys as to what they wanted to do with the character, and he’s a master behind the camera, but also in front of, in terms of talking with the actors. I couldn’t have asked for a better director.

In meeting with real-life currently active Hotshots and firefighters, what was the most surprising thing that struck you about these guys?

The actual people, like not too much. The work that they do is extremely tough. It is difficult. I have no idea what these guys go through to be able to fight these wildfires. I guess what surprised me about the guys is that they’re guys, they’re Hotshots and you feel “I’m sure I could lift more weights”, but the work they’re doing is extremely tough. And the guys that make it through, some of them surprise you because on the surface they don’t look like it, but really it’s an inner courage and strength that these guys have, that keeps them going week after week, month after month during fire season.

How does the physical work you had to do for this film compare to the preparation for a movie like Bleed for This?

It was different. For this one, we have like a two-week boot camp, where everybody got their butts kicked and got into shape. It’s a lot of physical labour, whereas boxing is such a different kind of training. Boxers are training to go 12 three-minute rounds in a fight, whereas these guys it’s more cardio, endurance, longevity. So the training was a little different, but both are tough.

What was the camaraderie like between the crew when you were training and filming, and out of all your castmates, who do you think you bonded with the strongest?

We had a great camaraderie, and I think it was very smart of the producers and the director to have that be the first introduction to everybody. To me, that brought us closer than any kind of rehearsing the scenes would have done, because you’re all links in a chain. When you’re doing these workouts, it’s not about the individual at all, it’s all about the group. I felt that was a really smart way to get everybody all in. They brought in some real Hotshots to do the training so we knew it was authentic, and everybody just bonded from the beginning.

It wasn’t necessarily one individual. We all got close. There were 20 guys including Brolin, and we were all hanging out. We were in Santa Fe, fairly small town, and we were all just hanging out.

With any film that’s based on a real-life disaster, there’s a balance between how respectful the film has to be while delivering the spectacle it has to, without being exploitative. How do you feel Only the Brave pulls that balance off?

It’s tough, because I don’t know how many people who are going to see the movie necessarily know what happened with the true story; people can look it up. I think a lot of people are going to see it based on the actors that are involved, the occupation that it is, firefighting, Joe the director, and these different elements, but I think what Joe and our screenwriter Eric Singer did is not rushing to the tragedy, not building this movie on the last catastrophe. They really do a good job of showing these guys and what they stood for, and not exploiting them for their deaths. They did a good job of not skipping through the first two-thirds of the movie just to get to that ending, which you know is going to be emotional and tragic and all those things. They did a really good job, and that is difficult to do – and there is nothing cliché about this movie at all.

What was it like working with the stunt team and the special effects crew, learning how to work with the practical fire elements?

The stunt team did a really great job. I had a stunt double for a few things, really not that much, but the entire stunt team and production too, they were able to construct this fake area of wild lands so that they could control the fire. There were times, absolutely, when the fire was really, really hot, but that’s how it goes. In real life, these guys, that’s what they’re feeling and they still have to focus and do their job. It added a sense of realism for the actor, which is always helpful.

It gives you something to interact with and act off against.

Yeah. The fire, there actually will be some CGI fire just to show the scope of it, but when you see the actors feeling the heat of the fire, that’s real fire.

I’m a big comic book movie geek, and in this movie, there are so many actors who’ve been in comic book movies. Were there any moments when anyone on set went “there’s Mr. Fantastic, there’s Gambit, there’s Thanos, there’s Obadiah Stane” and was geeking out over there?

No…I think when we were filming, Josh had [just] been cast as Thanos, so we would chat with him a little bit about that. This story was so important to everybody, everyone was kind of focused on that and wanted to do these real guys justice.

Finally, do blondes have more fun Miles?

Um, they do. When I dyed my hair blonde, I felt just very free and liberated. I just felt better about myself than when I was a brunette.

That really holds true?

Yes.

War Dogs

For F*** Magazine

WAR DOGS 

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast :  Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Barry Livingston, Kevin Pollak
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 54 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Drug Use)

War Dogs posterWar, what is it good for? If you play your cards right, raking in the dough. It’s 2005, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is in full swing. David Packouz (Teller) is a directionless twenty-something living in Miami, reluctantly working as a massage therapist. When his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill) shows back up in town for a mutual friend’s funeral, the two do some catching up. It turns out that Efraim has founded AEY Inc., an arms dealership, and has managed to secure several contracts supplying weapons and other equipment to the U.S. government. David goes behind the back of his pregnant girlfriend Iz (de Armas), who is against the war, and goes into business with Efraim. The pair soon find themselves in way over their heads, travelling to Jordan, Iraq and Albania as they chase lucrative deals. Is it just a matter of time before the dog that is success turns around to bite them?

War Dogs is based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article Arms and the Dudes, which he expanded into a book. Screenwriter Stephen Chin called on his own experience, having travelled to Iraq while trying to buy the rights to the story of two American businessmen who were setting up a radio station there. With War Dogs, director Todd Phillips of the Hangover trilogy fame faces the challenge of making the audience root for inherently unlikeable characters. Both Efraim and David idolize Tony Montana, with a huge poster of the Scarface protagonist decorating their office. They’re simultaneously scrappy underdogs and shady wheeler-dealers. Multiple artistic liberties are taken in the name of making things more exciting, and Alex Podrizki, the third partner, doesn’t feature in the film at all. That said, it does feel like the audience is getting a peek behind the curtain of a world most of us know nothing about. The technicalities of how Efraim and David go about their business are explained clearly enough without being too dry.

War Dogs Miles Teller and Jonah Hill 1

The narrative conceit is that David is the strait-laced one while Efraim is the brash go-getter, and as such, David is our way in and is the narrator of the story. It might actually be that way in real life, but it definitely seems like character traits have been greatly exaggerated to keep things interesting. Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were initially considered for the lead roles, presumably Eisenberg for David and LaBeouf for Efraim. Instead, we have Teller and Hill. The two generate watchable buddy chemistry, and there’s an undercurrent of tension because we know it’s somehow all going to implode in the end.

Few can play dazed and confused like Teller, who for most of the film, is unwittingly being strung along. Of the two main characters, David is ostensibly closer to the traditional ideal of a movie hero, and the real David Packouz has a cameo as a singer at a nursing home. The real Efraim Diveroli wanted nothing to do with the movie. It makes sense that Teller is given the lower-key role, with Hill having the time of his life playing a character who is as boorish as he is savvy. Hill doesn’t have to be endearing or charming, and he steals the show with much gusto on multiple occasions. As expected, de Armas is relegated to the playing the stock nagging girlfriend who actually has a point, but is mainly in the movie to look pretty, since the two male leads don’t.

War Dogs Miles Teller, Ana de Armas and Jonah Hill

The world of “grey market” arms dealing offers plenty of dramatic storytelling possibilities, with room for sanctimonious finger-wagging as well – the compelling Lord of War comes to mind. Phillips tries to play down the seriousness of the subject matter, instead playing up the goofy absurdity of the premise. Just as Efraim and David find themselves in over their heads, it seems Phillips does as well, since the consequences here are graver than any of the mishaps that befell the Hangover Wolfpack. Speaking of those guys, Bradley Cooper makes a brief but memorable appearance as a notorious gun runner. Also, celebrity poker player and infamous playboy Dan Bilzerian cameos as himself. It seems the kind of people who idolize Bilzerian are exactly the target audience for this film.

War Dogs Jonah Hill, Miles Teller and Bradley Cooper

War Dogs mostly steers away from insightful satire, instead taking the “have your cake and eat it too” tack of glamourizing its subjects while also mocking them. It’s inevitable that impressionable younger viewers will aspire to be just like Efraim and David: who cares if it’s moral or even legal if there’s a payday to be made? It seems the takeaway is “if these stoner dude-bros could wriggle their way into multi-million dollar contracts, why can’t I?”

War Dogs Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in Albanian arms warehouse

It is entertaining and intermittently fascinating, but it’s hard to shake the sense that Phillips’ lowbrow slacker dude comedic sensibilities might not be the best fit for the true story. Yes, there’s comedy to be mined, but diving headfirst into the can of worms and actually making a statement about the implications of war profiteering might’ve been a more worthwhile enterprise.

Summary:  War Dogs plays to the strengths of both its stars, but in playing squarely to the dude-bro demographic, it passes up the chance to be searing and impactful.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Four

For F*** Magazine

FANTASTIC FOUR

Director : Josh Trank
Cast : Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 6 August 2015
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

Change is coming, whether we like it or not, with Marvel’s original superhero team getting a do-over in this reboot. Reed Richards (Teller) is a brilliant young misfit who has spent most of his life tinkering away on a teleportation device. Nobody really gets him, except for his best friend Ben Grimm (Bell). Dr. Franklin Storm (Cathey) sees the potential in Reed and awards him a scholarship to the Baxter Institute. There, he gets to work alongside Dr. Storm’s daughter Sue (Mara) and disgruntled genius Victor Von Doom (Kebbell) on a scaled-up version of his experiment. Dr. Storm enlists his hot-headed son Johnny (Jordan) to help out. Together, they crack the code to inter-dimensional travel. A journey to the alternate dimension, code-named “Planet Zero”, alters their physical forms in unfathomable ways. Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben must learn to use their newfound abilities for good and defend the earth from Victor, who has become the monstrous villain Doom.

The first two theatrically-released Fantastic Four movies are generally regarded as goofy, disposable fluff – silly and cringe-worthy but not outright disasters. Therefore, it makes sense that director Josh Trank of Chronicle fame wanted to steer the Fantastic Four in a more credible direction. Here’s the thing: the Fantastic Four are inherently goofy – and that’s fine! They’re a dysfunctional sitcom family with superpowers and it’s right there in the title – “fantastic”. This take seems to want to be as mundane as possible. We’ve arrived at a point where comic book movies no longer need to be embarrassed of their roots, and films of this subgenre have achieved considerable success by embracing the source material and being smart with how they go about adapting the comics. Fantastic Four tries to reject the silliness but becomes all the sillier in spite of this. This is not an uneventful film, but it feels like one. It lacks the crucial element of escapism and entertainment a movie of this kind needs, the buzz-words of “serious” and “grounded” be damned.

What is even more frustrating is that the film does not fall flat on its face in abject failure. There are aspects that work and that are intriguing. The screenplay by Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater and Trank is formulaic, but attempts to give its titular characters a fair bit of character development and have them become more than cartoon characters. Unfortunately, all the exposition makes this seem tedious rather than credible. Also, the visuals are extremely underwhelming. Following the logic that the team’s outfits are “containment suits” rather than superhero costumes, they look very dull. Reed’s suit is supposed to have a homemade feel to it, but that doesn’t make the slinkies on his arms and legs any less ridiculous. Planet Zero feels like a walk-through attraction at a theme park rather than an immersive, treacherous landscape. The Thing doesn’t wear pants. We’ve all heard the jokes, but it does seem like it would’ve been really easy for Trank to avoid the ridicule aimed at this aspect by just giving him pants. Dr. Doom probably suffers the most, looking like he’s covered in glowing gangrene and sporting a comically oversized hood. Many people have left the theatre after a superhero film thinking it would be really cool to own a collectible figure or statue of the characters as they appear in that film. It’s safe to say pretty much nobody will leave Fantastic Four thinking that.

One of the biggest aspects of this reboot that fans seized on was the cast. Nobody really resembled their comic book counterparts and on the whole, everyone just looked too young. To this reviewer’s surprise, the cast wasn’t too much of an issue. As an origin tale, perhaps it doesn’t hurt that they’re all a little younger. It may be a serious take on the whole, but there are still nice moments of levity when the team members are together. Miles Teller’s Reed is appropriately awkward and nerdy, just like Reed is in the comics. Kate Mara makes for a far more credible scientist than Jessica Alba did. The change of Johnny Storm’s ethnicity really wasn’t much of a sticking point for this reviewer, beyond feeling like an alteration merely for the sake of political correctness. Michael B. Jordan’s Johnny is impulsive and showy, but not to an annoying extent.

The casting that really doesn’t work is Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm. We can’t wrap our heads around how anyone looked at Billy Elliot/Tintin and said “there’s our resident big guy”. Apparently, he was cast because he’s the physical opposite of The Thing, which is kind of missing the point of the character, but that’s not Bell’s fault. Reg E. Cathey, a younger and more affordable Morgan Freeman, is a competent Obi-Wan-style mentor figure. Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom barely makes an impact, which is a shame considering how compelling a villain he was as Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Marvel Studios has been churning out superhero blockbusters that have generally been well-received by both fans and critics and have managed to be upbeat on the whole while still packing in sufficient emotion and some depth. Fox wants to hang on to the film rights for the Fantastic Four – that’s the primary purpose this film was made and nobody is going to be fooled into thinking otherwise. We all know it – the property would be handled better at Marvel/Disney. It’s been said before but it bears repeating: The Incredibles is likely the best Fantastic Four movie we’re ever going to get. To go a little more recent, Big Hero 6 did the “science-loving pals become a superhero team” thing with more panache as well. This version is not terribly made, it has its moments and the cast does have pleasant chemistry with one another, but it’s still very much a disappointment.

Summary: This take on the Fantastic Four wants desperately to be regarded seriously, and for the most part, fails. That should’ve been a four-gone conclusion.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong