Franchise Fred Interview: Gregory Widen on Backdraft 2 and Highlander

Franchise Fred would want to talk to the writer of Backdraft 2 no matter who it was. But when the writer of the original Backdraft, Gregroy Widen, wrote the Universal Home Entertainment sequel, I definitely wanted to talk to him. Widen also created one of my favorite franchise mythologies when he wrote the original Highlander.

Backdraft 2 stars Joe Anderson as Sean McCaffrey. That’s Kurt Russell’s son from Backdraft. William Baldwin returns as his uncle and Donald Sutherland also returns as the arsonist informant in prison. Backdraft 2 is available now and Widen spoke with me by phone last week about returning to Backdraft and all his movie franchises.

Franchise Fred: Was there ever talk of a Backdraft sequel in the ‘90s?

Gregory Widen: My memory of it was at the time, Ron Howard didn’t want to do sequels to his movies. I think that was the main reason.

FF: What did you think when they said they were interested in Backdraft 2 all these years later?

GW: I thought it was an interesting idea to explore. In a weird way, it almost made more sense because you could take another generation because so many of the principals died in the first one.

FF: Was it important that the events of the first Backdraft still impacted the McCaffrey family?

GW: Yeah, I think so. I think that was kind of a reason to do it really. That was just my take on it. When I was asked if I was interested in it, I thought an obvious one was about the little kid from the end of the first movie who would be in his 30s now.

FF: Was writing a Backdraft movie today a lot different than it was back then?

GW: Yeah, very much so. Part of it is that this is a much smaller movie. It’s more like an independent movie really. It’s a much smaller scale then the original movie so it focuses more on emotions and personality and investigation than big set piece fires.

FF: At the same time, today can they do a lot more with CGI fire?

Okay, that one’s probably real.

GW: They can and they do. Backdraft had almost no CGI on it. Pretty much everything that’s burning was actually burning. Obviously today they can sweeten stuff and change things. It makes that part of it easier.

FF: Has arson changed in 30 years?

GW: To some degree, yeah. The general materials that you find in a building now are different. Buildings are way more dangerous now than they used to be.

FF: They’re more dangerous now?

GW: Well, they’re less likely to catch on fire but when they do catch, the materials used now are far more toxic and have much more fuel load capability than they did in the past. There’s a lot of manufactured petroleum products that are in furniture so they burn stronger.

FF: That sounds counterintuitive.

GW: Yeah, it’s weird. We’ve made a lot of advances in firefighting in terms of preventing fires from starting in the first place, and also smoke alarms, getting them while they’re little. Once they get going, many of the materials that we live with now are far more dangerous when they burn. In the old days, furniture was made out of wood.

FF: When Sean calls his mom, was there ever a version where we might have seen the other end of that conversation?

GW: It never came up. It would’ve meant bringing in Rebecca DeMornay for one scene and I wasn’t really part of that conversation if they wanted to do that or not.

FF: Have you kept up with firefighters since the original Backdraft?

GW: Yeah, I did. I see them all the time.

FF: Did you do any new research for Backdraft 2?

GW: Well, I do that all the time just because I know those guys. I’m relatively up to date with the way they do things.

FF: Are you a VIP to firefighters?

GW: Yeah, I don’t have a problem getting a cup of coffee in most fire stations.

FF: All three of your films have become franchises: Highlander, The Prophecy and Backdraft. Did you ever expect them to be so lucrative?

GW: No, because all of them have an ending. If those were written in the modern era, they would have been much more open ended but they all had pretty definitive endings. The main players achieved what they wanted or died, so it was kind of unusual that they had second and third lives, but I guess the IP was popular enough that everybody tried to figure out a way to bring them back.

FF: I’ve always had a question about the Highlander mythology.

GW: Sure.

FF: So they’re immortal unless you cut off their heads. What if you sliced one down the middle? Would each half stay alive until you sever the neck?

GW: Uh, I never encountered that so I don’t know.

FF: Neither did Russell Mulcahy when I asked him.

GW: You know, I think in many ways, at least from my perspective – you have to remember I didn’t do any of the sequels or any of the mythology that came after that tried to grapple with certain things. So I can’t claim ownership of that. I only did the first movie. – To me, the head chopping off, even though it’s a literal thing, it’s also kind of metaphor. Now, you’re done. Whether it literally had to be a head chopping off or if it was some other, what if you threw them in a meat grinder? I think they’d probably die too. That becomes a kind of visual humiliation in the end that finishes them off. That’s the way I looked at it.

FF: It’s just such a fun mythology, it’s fun to think about.

GW: It is, it is, for sure.

FF: Where has your career as a screenwriter gone since the big ‘80s and ‘90s films you wrote?

GW: I worked in television for a while. I’m currently doing two films. There’s a film at Lionsgate that I wrote with Chadwick Boseman called Yasuke. Then there’s a project I’m doing with Margot Robbie at Warner Brothers called Pope Joan.

FF: What can we expect from those two movies?

GW: They’re both historical dramas actually. One takes place in 1580 Japan and one takes place in ninth century Rome.

FF: How did the research for historical films compare to modern day firefighter research?

GW: It’s a lot different. I like history a lot so I read a lot of this stuff naturally. I’m drawn to it so it’s not a chore for me to do it but it’s obviously very different than hanging out with people in a world that I know very well naturally, that I used to be a part of. The difference I guess would be you struggle in a historical film to create a sense of verisimilitude like a stray comment or the way someone would hold a glass, just the day to day stuff is intimidating because you don’t have any personal knowledge of it. Whereas you write a firefighter film and it’s so easy to just have one liners and attitudes that you instinctually understand having lived in that world.

FF: In success, if they decide to do a Backdraft 3 even sooner than they did Backdraft 2 would you be on board?

GW: I’d certainly talk to them about it, yeah, sure. If we could all come up with a story we thought was good, yeah.

FF: Have you left any threads to pursue in a sequel?

GW: The main character is still alive so if you wanted to carry on with him as an arson investigator, you certainly could.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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