Firefighters' Extraordinary Battle to Save Detroit in 'Burn'

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Burn, a feature documentary in progress, tells the story of a year in the life of a fire company in Detroit, a city with one of the highest arson rates in the country. With unprecedented access, Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez approached production as if they were "making a war movie," shooting hundreds of hours of footage "on the front lines of the battle to save Detroit." Why, they ask, would anyone risk their lives to save the abandoned buildings that are deliberately set on fire every day?

David Miller, one of the firefighters in the film, and his family were featured earlier this month in National Journal’s “Diverging Dreams,” by Jim Tankersley, Ron Fournier and Nancy Cook. The story looks at the mounting challenges that face the American middle class:

If upward mobility is the American Dream, the next few years will be a measure of the resilience of that ideal. Dave has one foot in the past (firefighter, union member, government pension) with his eyes fixed on a brighter future (striving small business owner). He’s a man with 21st-century ambitions holding down a dangerous and dirty 20th-century job. Can he pull it off? 

Read the full story here. The filmmakers share their experiences making the film in an interview below, as well as some of the jaw-dropping helmet cam footage that provides a firefighter's eye view of diving head first into a blaze. To support the film, visit their website.

The Atlantic: Are you Detroit natives?

Brenna Sanchez: I grew up in the city, at Grand River and Lahser on Detroit's west side. And like most native Detroiters, even though I've moved away I still think of it as home.

How did you find this story? Was it difficult to get access? 

Tom PutnamWe started working on the film after a Detroit firefighter named Walter Harris died in the collapse of an abandoned building in November 2008. Brenna was back in Detroit for the holidays and walked down to her local fire station. Our journey as filmmakers, and one of the central questions of the film, is why, in a city with 80,000 abandoned structures, would someone put their lives on the line to save one? What kind of people care about this city, a place many outsiders have written off, enough to put their lives on the line every day to save it? 

Sanchez: One of the things that's been exciting for us is to get unprecedented access to the fire department. We approached the film as if we were making a war movie and spent a year-long tour of duty with the guys on the front lines. Like many civil servants, the department is fighting for its life, and were truly our partners in this process. Every day is a real struggle for these guys and they were just so happy that someone was finally paying attention and trying to tell their story. The truth of the matter is that this is their story, we're just the people telling it.

What camera did you shoot with?

PutnamWhen we did our initial trailer shoot in 2009 the Canon 5D digital SLR cameras had just been released. In fact, our director of photography brought one as an afterthought and just opened it when we got to the location. That shoot was also a camera test where we tried out nine different cameras, and the DSLR was the only thing that got the job done. It's so small and has such great low-light capabilities that it could go places and film in lighting conditions that would have been technically impossible any earlier than now. Plus we also wanted cameras that were essentially disposable so that we'd never hold back from getting a great shot because we were worried about destroying the gear. So the Canon 5D and 7D cameras quickly became our primary cameras, utilizing a mix of Canon zoom lenses and Zeiss primes.

Sanchez: To those we added a ton of Contour HD helmet cameras that we put on the firefighters' helmets, on the trucks, and in other key locations. Those allowed us to get some wonderful HD images and go into and on top of the burning buildings to truly see things through the firefighters' eyes. It's a look at fire that you've never seen before -- one that really shows you the difficulties and dangers of the job.


Footage from Burn, shot on a Contour HD helmet cam.

How long did you spend shooting with the firefighters?

PutnamPBS/ITVS gave us a small grant to film for five days in August 2009. They agreed with us that this was a compelling and important story, but they frankly weren't sure if we'd get enough fires to keep things moving. Well we hadn't even unpacked when a fuel oil factory caught on fire down the street from our hotel and we started filming. In fact I don't think we ever did get unpacked. We ended up shooting for about 100 hours over the five days and were just in awe about the volume of fires these guys got.

Sanchez: We used the footage from that initial five days to cut a sizzle reel for the project and then started working to raise charitable donations to start the feature. We began filming that in December 2010 and are still continuing to film. We'll have our last shoot late next month, just before Thanksgiving. We're actually not sure how many hours we've filmed but it's easily between 400 and 500 so far. One of the reasons we've filmed so much is that this is as very dangerous job and there's no way to know whose lives would change over the course of the year, so we began by following a wide variety of characters, and then slowly narrowed it down as the year progressed and the most compelling storylines began to emerge.

Did anything surprise you in the course of shooting?

PutnamBrenna's from Detroit, but I'd never been there before working on the film. The thing that initially surprised me the most was the sheer scope of the dysfunction and the destruction in the city. You can drive for block after block and see nothing but burned out and destroyed buildings. It's like being on the set of a zombie movie. But then, as we continued to film and spend time in these neighborhoods, we began to discover that there was a vibrant and important community here -- hardworking men and women who are struggling to hang on, and who have some very good reasons for believing that this city is worth saving.

What stage is the film at now? When will we get to see the full story?

Sanchez: The film is 95% shot and about 70% through the editorial process. Denis Leary and his producing partner Jim Serpico, who made the great firefighting series Rescue Me, have just come aboard as our executive producers. But because we've been entirely financed through charitable donations we're constantly fundraising to pay for the next stage. Our goal is to finish by early 2012, but to do that we need to raise the next round of donations.  

For more information about Burn, visit http://detroitfirefilm.org/.

Via Laughing Squid.

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Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.
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