''The most not-so-well-kept secret amongst the fire-fighting community is that they didn't care for 'Backdraft,''' says director Jay Russell (''My Dog Skip''). ''There were so many liberties taken. We're no less exciting [with this film], but we're going to portray the firefighting accurately.'' In between the blazing heroics, Russell tells the ''cleverly disguised love story'' of Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix), who reflects on his life and marriage while trapped inside a burning building awaiting rescue from his comrades. ''This is more 'Black Hawk Down' than 'Backdraft,''' adds Russell.''These guys just won't leave one of their own behind.''
Filming the drama, though -- which features John Travolta (who, along with Phoenix and other cast members, prepared for his role by attending a real firefighter academy for a month) as Jack's mentor, Robert Patrick and Morris Chestnut as fellow firemen, and Jacinda Barrett (yes, ''Real World: London'' fans, it's that Jacinda) as his long-suffering wife -- was not without its problems. Russell considered locations on both coasts before returning to Baltimore, the site of his previous two films: ''It's very gritty. The bulk of firefighter calls are to situations that are not pleasant.'' And then Mother Nature decided to get tough. Spring blizzards struck, and a cold June rainstorm nearly halted filming of a spectacular (and purposely set) fire that engulfed an 11-story grain elevator on the city's docks. ''It was a horrible problem!'' says Russell. ''Most of the snowstorm you see in the film was part of that blizzard.''
Though ''Ladder'' was written long before 9/11, Russell says that that terrifying day's overriding themes resonate here: ''It's a great love story, an action movie, and a human tale about our next-door neighbors who just happen to be real-life superheroes.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE Travolta needs a hit, and with Phoenix -- who's hot off ''The Village'' -- at his side, this could be his reversal of fortune.