'Dead' Author Relives 911 Days

While out on a call during his paramedic days, Bringing Out the Dead novel author Joe Connelly rushed to rescue a man impaled on a spike above New York's 42nd Street. Up on the building's 16th floor, Connelly found the man with arms stretched and legs crossed "just like Christ," the writer recalls.

Years later, Connelly told this tale to the man adapting his book into a movie, Martin Scorsese.

"There's no way I could [include] that," replied the director, who, on the other hand, had no problem helming the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ. Apparently, such a vision in this film would just be too far-fetched.

A Reel-Life Emergency
Click here for a Salon.com review of the movie.

Scorsese ultimately did recreate the scene in Bringing Out the Dead — but without the religious imagery. Sometimes, the real-life experiences of the New York City paramedic were just too over-the-top for a film itself a bit over-the-top.

Starting in the late '80s, Connelly spent ten years serving the New York City Emergency Medical Services, jotting down his experiences along the way. The book that evolved from these experiences was technically fiction, narrated by a first-person fabrication, a paramedic named Frank Pierce (played by Nicolas Cage). But for Connelly, the scenarios evolved from truth.

"They're all composites of different calls I've been on," says Connelly. "There's not a single call shown in this film that I don't think could happen."

And might that include the movie's scenario in which ambulance men sometimes hesitate in accepting a radio dispatch? "This is very much a historical piece," Connelly answers.

"When I worked in the late '80s and early '90s, it was sort of a desperate time for New York City EMS," he explains. "It was still going through growing pains. This whole idea of taking care of people in the streets was still pretty new.

"And the pay was terrible, the turnover was incredible, the ambulances were constantly breaking down. And we happened to have been going through a crack war and an AIDS epidemic all at the same time. And there were all kinds of characters out there. I tried to take some extreme examples of how workers try to bottle up that stress and how it comes out in different ways."

In the movie, that includes a scene where one paramedic actually assaults a street character with a baseball bat. In reality, We never had anyone beat someone with a baseball bat," Connelly says. "But you have to understand, a lot of times, patients are trying to beat you up. And if they're not trying to beat you up, they're often trying to kill temselves."

Despite his being a mere writer (plankton in the Hollywood food chain) and the fact that it was writer/director Paul Schrader who penned the actual screenplay, Connelly was invited on-set during filming.

"I was on the set as a technical consultant, officially," Connelly says. "And I was actually told by the production supervisor, 'Maybe it would be best if you left the novelist at home for a while.'"

Still, while scouting locations with Scorsese, the author talked about the book and told stories.

"Scorsese showed so much respect for the book and so much faith in my work, I was happy from that point on just to do anything I could." In fact, Connelly even snagged a cameo in the movie as a drunk thrown out of a hospital.

Having left EMS the day Hollywood optioned his novel in 1997, Connelly's making a full-time go of it as an author. Being a guy who writes what he knows, Connelly's currently working on a book about a guy whose life is made into a movie.

And New York City is also doing well, he says. At his former beat, the Times Square/Hell's Kitchen area, "the change has been dramatic — the drop in violence and that despair that had been a hallmark of 42nd Street. Also, the fire department took over New York City EMS and has organized it a bit better, though I still think the medics out there aren't getting near the respect they deserve."

And whenever Connelly sees an ambulance race by, he has one thought: "God bless those guys."

Written by Rob Medich