Fire captain gets to go Hollywood for a day

Special To The Sun

HOLLYWOOD HAS come to Baltimore, and Frank Hazzard had a chance to be part of it last week.

Touchstone Pictures is shooting Ladder 49, a film starring Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Jacinda Barrett and Morris Chestnut on location in and around Baltimore until next month. The film is about firefighters, and the Baltimore City Fire Department is taking a "co-starring" role.

Hazzard, who is captain of Baltimore's Engine 58 and lives in Hickory Ridge, will go down in movie-making history as the fourth guy from the left in the front row in the Medals Day Ceremony scene. He was part of the ambiance as the characters played by Phoenix and Robert Patrick received medals in a scene with (the real) Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The main hall of the War Memorial Building in Baltimore was transformed into a movie set teeming with firefighters in dress uniforms - both real and actors. There were cameras on tracks, and cranes and lights covered in balloons and blankets to create even, soft lighting throughout the room. About a dozen hair and makeup artists buzzed around the set, primping actors and extras between takes.

Ten or so continuity editors snapped Polaroids to be sure the extras were crossing their legs and leaning in the same direction on the fourth take as they had been on the first to ensure that when the film is put together, the visuals will be seamless.

Outside, trailers serving as dressing rooms and rest areas for cast and crew lined the streets. Security was tight. Hazzard was one of about 400 extras filling the main room of the War Memorial Building.

Travolta sat on stage with members of the real Baltimore Fire Department command staff, including Fire Chief William Goodwin, Deputy Chiefs Antonio R. Thomas and Frank F. Snyder, division chiefs, some battalion chiefs and captains.

When the scene was set, Hazzard was given a coveted seat on the stage, closer to Travolta, and thus a better chance of his part not being left on the cutting-room floor. But when higher-ranking officers arrived, Hazzard was bumped off the stage into a front-row audience seat.

"My first big Hollywood disappointment," he said, joking.

But that's all right with him. The movie stint was "just a hoot" for Hazzard, who has not been bitten by the acting bug.

When he heard that a movie was to be shot in Baltimore and that he could be an extra, Hazzard thought it would be a "cool thing to do. It's a chance to try something I don't know much about," he said.

On Thursday, Hazzard, along with hundreds of other extras, most of them firefighters, arrived on the set at 6 a.m. Each went through the wardrobe, hair and makeup departments.

"We don't do anything drastic," said makeup artist Janice Tunnell. "We work with what we have. Yesterday [in a funeral scene], we had a woman with pink hair. We just put a hat on her."

Hazzard said they told him he was good to go. "They said I didn't need any makeup. They did fuss with my hair a little and they ran a lint brush over my uniform," he said.

After that, it was hurry up and wait. About 10 a.m., everyone was seated and the work began. The word "action" came over the loudspeaker. First, there was the master shot: Mayor O'Malley read flawlessly from his script about two fictional firefighters who braved a blaze to save a young girl's life. O'Malley read his part once for rehearsal, then twice, three times more. Then it was time for the real thing - and he read it again. At specific points in his speech, the movie audience, which included Hazzard, applauded and cheered.

The cameras were reset for close-ups. A track was built down the center aisle for the camera to move on. Cast and extras waited. And the mayor read his speech again. Hazzard and the rest applauded and cheered again and again.

For eight hours, according to Hazzard, the same scene - perhaps about five minutes on film - was filmed from every angle.

"The attention to detail was incredible," Hazzard said. "Their continuity people were telling people to lean to the left, or cross their legs to the right, or brush their hair back. There was a girl spraying the walls with an aerosol can to make them look shinier."

As he had hoped, Hazzard did get to learn about the movie business.

"The set is much more involved than I thought it would be," he said. "I didn't know that nothing is left to chance. When they film a street scene with hundreds of people walking by, everyone is involved in the film. No one is really just passing by. They shot a funeral scene yesterday where they had rows of guys standing there that won't be in the film. They were there for the actors' benefit. It's hard to believe that the price of a ticket pays for all of this."

Of course, no one would ever get rich working as an extra. Hazzard was paid $50 for his 14-hour day.

"I don't even want to think what the hourly wage is," he said. "But we got a really nice lunch."

And another reality check: "All the lead actors in this film went through the fire academy for a couple of weeks. And a couple of our guys are acting as consultants on the film," Hazzard said.

"We are pleased that the department will be seen in a positive light," said Michael Maybin, chief public information officer for the Fire Department. "Joaquin Phoenix took to firefighting like a fish to water."

After completing their training, the actors were given the option of actually fighting fires. Actor Tim Guinee was part of a rescue and will be receiving recognition, Maybin said.

As for Hazzard, his curiosity is satisfied.

"It was great to be an extra once," he said. "But a lot of it was really long and boring. I won't ever view a movie the same way again. My disbelief will be heightened. I will be thinking about how long it took to film each scene. But it will be nice to be part of something permanent - even if it is make believe."

The movie is due to be released next year.

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