Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez each brought separate ideas to their documentary “BURN.” Putnam has previously worked on documentaries, feature films and action sports shows. Thanks to his sports background, he brought a multi-camera perspective to the film, incorporating dolly moves, Glidecam and 2.35 widescreen, something rarely seen in the documentary world. But Sanchez, who has made a number of music-based documentaries, always wanted to make sure the focus of the film was on the characters, not letting the spectacle overwhelm the human moments.
What it’s about: A documentary about Detroit told through the eyes of its firefighters, who are charged with the thankless task of saving a city that many have written off as dead.
Directors Putnam and Sanchez say: “We hope it will give audiences a real, boots-on-the-ground look at what firefighting is, which is something we’ve never seen before. We live in an era of relentless cutbacks to public employees, their pensions, and the infrastructures they support. ‘BURN’ shows you what can happen when those cuts go too far.
“Detroit isn’t unique in its problems. It’s simply a few years ahead of the rest of America. If we don’t educate people to what firefighters do, and what they need to do it, before long every city will be in the same precarious position that Detroit is in.”
On the challenges: “There was a great deal of reluctance from both the city and the department, both of whom have been targets for bad press. We were sent to Engine 50 to film, and when we got there the firefighters hadn’t even been told we were coming. So we began by sitting down with each one of them for an hour-plus interview. Of course, these were often done in pieces, grabbing whatever time we had between fire calls!
“Once they heard the types of questions we were asking, and saw what we were pointing our cameras at, they began to open up. No one has ever asked them what they do or who they are. These are people who want the world to know what they’re dealing with, and once they realized what kind of movie this was going to be they became hugely supportive. As we keep telling them, this is their movie, we’re just making it.
“Another big challenge with the film was the technical. No one has made a true firefighting documentary before, let alone sent cameras into burning buildings. So when we started we were using the (then) brand-new technology of DSLR cameras and HD helmet cameras.
“By attaching these to the firefighters we’re able to see the world as they do. We go right through the doors and into the danger with them. It gives you an appreciation for what they do that’s impossible to capture from out on the sidewalk.
“Plus after a year of filming some of the guys have turned out to be pretty damn good cameramen as well. After the first few shoots the guys would get back from a fire and ask us to show them the ‘dailies’ so they could see how things were looking and adjust their camerawork, which is an amazing collaborative relationship to have with your subjects.
“These guys put out fires fast, so you have to be on your toes and cool under pressure to get the critical moments before the flames die.”
What would you like Tribeca audiences to come away with? “There is so much media on Detroit right now, and so much good happening: Business investment, activism, urban farming. Things are changing. But our firefighters are risking their lives for the city. Our heads get filled with somewhat two-dimensional, heroic images of firefighters. I hope people will come away with a more complex understanding of who they are and what they’re about.”
On their inspirations: “We talked more about fiction films than documentaries when putting ‘BURN’ together. We approached it like a war movie, where we’d be embedded with a tight-knit group of guys over a year long tour of duty. The spectacle and epic nature of the story would be the background, and never the focus, of the story.
“Detroit, and Engine 50 in particular, also reminds you of the Old West. E50 is like a frontier outpost or fort. So we talked a lot about Westerns and how to capture the scope of the devastation and the environment in which these guys work and live. That’s why we chose to shoot the film in 2.35 widescreen, which is very unusual for a documentary, particularly a run and gun doc like this one.”
Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival.
Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch for the latest profiles.