Filming the drama, though -- which features 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; Patrick and Chesnut as fellow firemen, and 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. (Oct. 1)
It may have earned Michael Caine an Oscar nom in 1967, but ''Alfie'' isn't exactly a movie cineasts clamor to see remade -- even with a leading man like Law. ''You can't really remake a classic, but you can pay tribute to it,'' says the actor, who clearly has deep regard for the original. So how did director Shyer and producer/writing partner Pope pay tribute? By throwing out the old film. ''We went back to the novel and took stuff from there that wasn't in the movie,'' explains Shyer, whose ''The Parent Trap'' and ''Father of the Bride'' films (both done with ex-wife Nancy Meyers) make him an unintentional expert on remakes. We also went back to the play. So it's not like we're doing ''Oliver'' on Broadway for the eighth time.''
Of course, some things about the story haven't changed. Alfie is till, uh, kind of a creep. ''He's a bit of a misogynist,'' Shyer admits of the character, who plows through a string of casual affairs with Tomei, Krakowski, Long, and Miller. But Shyer says he's not worried about trying to sell an unsympathetic lead: ''Alfie's not a terribly likeable person. But at the end of the movie you can really empathize with him.'' No small thanks to Law. ''The camera picks up who you are, and Jude is a good person,'' adds the director. ''There's something about his soulfulness. I could say a million actors you would hate in the role. But not him.''
During filming, Law had to navigate his own rough relationship waters. Fresh from splitting up with his wife of six years, Sadie Frost, the actor developed a romance with costar Miller. ''I had been through a divorce not long ago, so I tried to empathize. But he handled it well,'' says Shyer, who had far fewer problems with the couple than he did with paparazzi. ''They'll do anything to get a shot. We were doing a beach scene so we said, 'Come, take your pictures, then please leave.''' Still, says Shyer, ''This is the best experience I've ever had. For the first time in my life I'm confident as a filmmaker.''