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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Firefighters

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None of us plan on leaving our irons on (or pressing the wrong button when microwaving popcorn, or finding our cat stuck in a tree), but it’s comforting to know the fire department is prepared for when we do. Firefighters serve everyone, but not many people know much about them beyond what they’ve learned from movies and TV. We spoke with a few members from departments around the country to see what goes on behind the action.

1. FIRES HAVE GOTTEN HARDER TO FIGHT.

You’d think that modern advancements would make firefighting easier, but that isn’t always the case. According to a study conducted by Underwriters Laboratories, newer homes burn eight times faster than those built between 1950 and 1970. One contributing factor is the increased popularity of open floor plans.

"The houses you see today, they’re all open," says Russ Wiseman, a career firefighter of 26 years from Seattle. "There are no doorways, nothing to contain the fire. It’s nice to live in; it’s just not great for firefighting." The open interior also adds more fuel to the blaze by allowing for faster airflow. (Consider that before tearing down the wall between your kitchen and your living room.)

Today’s homes are also furnished with more synthetic materials than they were 30 years ago. These substances burn fast, and they also produce an especially dangerous smoke. "Smoke from things like PVC pipe in plumbing, PVC in electrical wire, or any plastics burning are generally loaded with toxins," says Darren*, who has been volunteering as a firefighter for two years. "They can incapacitate or kill you in short order."

On top of that, the way modern houses are built has made structural failure a greater possibility than it ever was. "A lot of [today’s] buildings don’t depend on the math of a two-by-twelve; they depend on the geometry of a truss," Russ says. "These trusses are really strong when used in a certain way but they tend to fail much faster in a fire."

2. MOST CALLS AREN’T FIRE-RELATED.

Actual fire emergencies makes up just a fraction of most fire departments’ responsibilities. "We’re plumbers, electricians, psychologists, and mechanics—whatever we need to be," says Michael, a retired captain of 30 years who worked for a large fire department in the metro Atlanta area. He's currently working as a volunteer firefighter in his community and as an EMT for another department. "Broken pipes, electrical issues, fall down and can’t get up, medical alarm, weird smell, can’t light your water heater, car broken down … If the dispatcher doesn’t know who to call they send us," he says.

The majority of calls firefighters receive are actually medical, which is why there’s a great deal of overlap between firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). "Just about every firefighter working today is at least an EMT. Some are paramedics,” Michael says. "In a lot of communities, especially poorer communities, the citizens don’t have doctors. They use us and the emergency departments as their doctors." And yes, firefighters are also responsible for rescuing cats from treesthough that’s not as much of a problem as TV shows would have you believe.

3. THEY DON’T CARE IF YOU BROKE THE LAW.

Just because firefighters are uniformed government employees who turn up after you’ve (likely) done something stupid, that doesn’t mean they want to get you in trouble for it. "We get confused for law enforcement. Sometimes it can hurt us in our jobs," Michael says. "If we go out on a medical emergency call and illegal drugs are involved, our patients may not be forthcoming about what they took because they think we’ll arrest them."

And while some people are hesitant to talk for fear of the consequences, others over-explain for the same reasons. "When firefighters show up we don't care how your car got 20 feet off the road, managed to go airborne for 30 feet, and land in the middle of someone’s roof. We just want to get everyone out safely,” says Matthew Hagerty, a firefighter of nine years from Michigan. "We already know you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed; you don't need to explain that to us."

4. THERE ISN’T MUCH DOWNTIME.

Even on a "slow" day, firefighters don’t have much freedom to sit back and relax. "The perception that may have been at one time [about] guys sitting around playing cards has long been gone," Russ says. "The day’s pretty well-packed. It’s a challenge to get everything done these days."

Firefighters make time for non-emergency tasks when their schedule permits, which may include checking fire hydrants, conducting fire safety inspections, and completing training exercises. Even when they’re not out and about, there’s plenty to be done at the station as well. "People tend to think we are not working when they can’t see us," says Robert, a 12-year firefighter working in Connecticut. "We maintain our station and equipment. Just because you don’t see us doesn’t mean we aren’t working."

5. BUT THEY FIND WAYS TO HAVE FUN.

Being a firefighter is one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting jobs there is. Perhaps it’s for this reason that firefighters value the importance of having fun when they can. "I’ve never had a job where people had as good a time. … We just loved to laugh and make fun of each other," Russ says.

Though never a prankster himself, Russ recalls several pranks that department members would pull on each other back in the day. "They’d put the IV bag in the ceiling with the needle dripping down so it’d drip on someone’s head at night. Or they’d send a rookie for some fictitious tool on one of the rigs and they would look for hours … There’s a story of a guy who got this new car and was bragging about the mileage. When he wasn’t around they would put more gas in his car until he was getting close to 50 miles a gallon. Then they start siphoning gas out the next month."

In addition to the harmless pranks, there are also stunts that more closely resemble something you’d see in a fraternity. "There’s stuff you can’t even talk about," he says. We’ll let you use your imagination.

6. THINGS REALLY DO GET CRAZY AROUND A FULL MOON.

You may have heard an old wives’ tale about bizarre and dangerous things being more likely to happen during a full moon. People who work in emergency services don’t just believe this—they plan ahead for it. "If there’s a full moon out, we’re busier than heck. That’s not superstition. That’s an unwritten rule," Matthew says. "There was a full moon last week and I ran my butt off for three days in a row."

Matthew says the calls that come in during a full moon vary too widely to point to one specific cause. The examples he gave included car accidents and psychiatric issues, although there was no mention of werewolf encounters.

7. IT ISN’T WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE IN THE MOVIES.

A still from the movie Ladder 49, courtesy of Buena Vista.

Hollywood loves to show scenes of heroic firefighters racing through flaming buildings, but real firefighters say that if their work was accurately portrayed, there wouldn’t be much to look at.

"Most of the time we are working in low-to-zero visibility. TV and movies try to show you everything," Robert says. A lot of the "drama" firefighters experience in a burning building comes from making sense of their immediate surroundings. Matthew recalls one time he tried to climb a chair mistaking it for a staircase he’d just passed, and another incident when he stumbled over an open balcony and was convinced he’d fallen through the floor.

"There’s never pretty bright flames around to help you look for stuff," Russ says. "It’s hot. It’s incredibly smoky. It’s easy to get disoriented."

Another big aspect the movies always get wrong is the importance of a firefighter’s air pack. "I can’t count the number of times I see in movies and TV shows a firefighter running in and pulling someone out holding their own mask on the victim’s face," Matthew says. "While this looks heroic it’s really not realistic. You can’t help anyone if you can’t breathe yourself. They would be instantly overcome with heat, smoke, and poisonous fumes and would then need rescuing themselves."

8. YOUR SOUNDPROOF CAR MAKES THEIR JOB HARDER.

Next time you see someone wait too long to pull over for a fire engine, their fancy car may be to blame. Cars are better at keeping out sound than ever before, which can be a source of frustration for firefighters in a hurry. "The car companies spend millions advertising the fact that their cars are soundproof and have awesome sound systems. Unfortunately, that also cancels out the sirens and horns on the trucks," Michael says.

"Add to that people wearing headphones, talking on the phone, eating, and generally being distracted and they just don’t acknowledge us." So even if your car’s stereo system can reach 170 decibels, that doesn’t mean you need to prove it to the rest of us.

9.  THERE IS A (FRIENDLY) RIVALRY BETWEEN THE FIRE AND POLICE DEPARTMENTS.

The rivalry between local fire and police departments is another trope that’s often played up on-screen. But this idea has some basis in reality. "The rivalry is real," said Mike, who’s been a firefighter for four years, in his Reddit AMA. "I have respect for what they do, but our rivalry is based on who each other thinks is in charge [when called out to a scene]."

The NYPD and FDNY, which have more overlapping services than most city police and fire departments, are notorious for their historic beef. While this sometimes takes the form of friendly competitions, like the annual NYPD-FDNY charity hockey game, it's also been known to get violent—like when that same hockey game devolved into a straight-up brawl in 2014.

This competitive attitude is rarer in quieter, rural areas. Even in big cities, members from both departments know that ultimately they’re on the same team. "I guess I would liken it to military rivals," Robert says. "We like to tease each other but at the end of the day we fully support each other."

10. THEY HAVE TO PAY FOR THEIR OWN FOOD.

Earlier this year, a video was uploaded of what appears to be a man chastising a group of firefighters for having the nerve to go grocery shopping on his taxpayer dime. Yes, firefighters need to buy food to eat just like the rest of us, and they also dig into their own pockets to do so.

"We pay for all of our food at the station," Michael says. "Many citizens have made comments to me and my guys about 'What are we buying you for supper tonight?' when they see us in the store. I have to correct them and inform them that we buy all of our own food."

11. HANDLING THE HOSE NOZZLE IS A PRIVILEGE.

Ask a preschooler the best part about being a firefighter and they might tell you it’s getting to spray the hose. This is something the grownups find fun as well, and for that reason not everyone gets to do it right away. "The big thing is who gets to be on the nozzle. That’s the top position; that’s where a lot of the fun is," Matthew says. "So [when I was] this new kid straight out of college coming into the department, even though I had experience, if I touched that nozzle I’d basically be committing a cardinal sin."

Getting to drive the fire engine isn’t half-bad either. Rob says that as a firefighter, "there's a lot of work and training involved and there's an inherent risk of death or great bodily injury—but they let us drive a big red truck with a siren, so it all seems worth it for us." 

12. THEY DON’T ALL LIKE THE FACT THAT IT’S A BOYS’ CLUB.

Despite the fact that nearly half of female candidates pass the physical tests, less than 4% of today’s firefighters are women. This is something many people within the industry would like to see change. "I think a common misconception is that women aren’t or can’t become firefighters," Matthew says. "I would like to see this change as there are a lot of women that can do this job very well, and in some cases better than men."

America’s first known woman firefighter, a slave named Molly Williams, became a part of the Oceanus Engine Company #11 nearly 200 years ago. Women have been working as firefighters ever since, and there were even two entirely female-staffed departments in Illinois for part of World War II. 

13. THEY’RE A FAMILY.

After working together in high-pressure situations for shifts lasting up to 24 hours, it doesn’t take long for members of the department to form a tight bond. "Some guys become very close. We truly become a family," Robert says.

Michael recalls the dynamic in his own department: "We meet each other’s families, have birthday parties for our kids when we have to work, share holiday meals. We talk about each other’s lives, the older guys trying to give advice to the younger guys. Guys will tell each other things that we wouldn’t tell our wives or families," he says. "We see and experience things on this job that the average citizen wouldn’t be able to handle, but since we all see and experience the same things, we can talk about it."

*Name has been changed.

All photos courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

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11 Single Facts About Bridget Jones’s Diary
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While it's not officially a holiday movie, so much of the action in Bridget Jones's Diary happens around the most wonderful time of the year that the rom-com has become essential wintertime viewing for many movie fans. Based on Helen Fielding’s novel of the same name, it tells the story of a very single, and hopelessly romantic, working professional named Bridget (Renée Zellweger) who is determined to improve her love life. Enter two strapping gentlemen (Colin Firth and Hugh Grant) to vie for her heart. Get to know more about the timeless dramedy that’s been delighting audiences since 2001. Just as it is.

1. THE SOURCE NOVEL CAME ABOUT FROM AN ANONYMOUS COLUMN ABOUT SINGLE LIFE.

In the foreword of Bridget Jones’s Diary, author Helen Fielding wrote about how she came to conjure up the story: “The Independent asked me to write a column, as myself, about single life in London. Much as I needed the money, the idea of writing about myself in that way seemed hopelessly embarrassing and revealing. I offered to write an anonymous column instead, using an exaggerated, comic, fictional character. I assumed no one would read it, and it would be dropped after six weeks for being too silly.”

2. SEVERAL CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON PEOPLE IN HELEN FIELDING’S LIFE.


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These include Jude (Tracey MacLeod) and Shazzer (Sharon Maguire, also the film’s director). In a column for the Evening Standard, MacLeod described how she didn’t even realize she inspired part of her best friend’s story until Fielding’s book launch party. “At the launch party for the first Bridget book, I was cornered by a smug married friend, ‘So ... what's it like being Jude?’ she asked,” MacLeod writes. “I was outraged. Of course I wasn't Jude, with her self-help books and horrible boyfriend. My boyfriend wasn't anything like Vile Richard ... But as more people began to believe that Jude and Shazzer were thinly-veiled portraits of myself and Sharon, I secretly got to like the idea.”

3. TONI COLLETTE DECLINED THE LEAD, AND KATE WINSLET WAS CONSIDERED FOR IT.

Before Zellweger stole the show, Aussie Toni Collette and Brit Kate Winslet were up for the part. According to AMC, “Toni Collette declined the role because she was on Broadway starring in The Wild Party at the time, and Kate Winslet was considered but the producers decided she was too young.”

4. HUGH GRANT ONLY SIGNED ON WHEN RICHARD CURTIS WAS ANNOUNCED AS THE WRITER. 


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“The only reason [I was a hard sell] was because I didn't feel they had the script quite right for a long time,” Firth told Cinema.com. “And I kept saying, ‘It's not working. Just get Richard Curtis to come in and help rewrite it.’ Eventually they did, and as soon as Richard came on board, I signed on the dotted line. So that's all it was.”

5. RENÉE ZELLWEGER GAINED 17 POUNDS FOR THE PART.

Zellweger’s weight gain for the role had the media abuzz for a while. According to The Guardian, “In order to play the eponymous heroine in the film adaptation of Fielding's bestseller, the actress gained 17 pounds, consulting a dietitian and endocrinologist who devised a regime of three full meals a day, multiple snacks, and no exercise.”

6. ZELLWEGER WORKED AT PICADOR FOR THREE WEEKS.

Zellweger went full Method for her iconic role, and became a temporary employee of the Picador publishing house. “We came up with a plan: she would be Bridget Cavendish, Bridget for obvious reasons and Cavendish as she was to be passed off as the sister of Jonathan Cavendish, a friend of one of our company chairmen,” Picador publicist Camilla Elworthy told The Guardian. “That last bit at least is true, and no one was to know that Jonathan Cavendish was one of the film's producers.”

7. ZELLWEGER KEPT A PHOTO OF JIM CARREY ON HER DESK.


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While working at Picador, Zellweger kept a picture of Jim Carrey on her desk—which made her alter ego Bridget Cavendish seem like some sort of obsessed fan. “Under the name Bridget Cavendish, she answered phones, served coffee, and made photocopies—without being recognized by any of her co-workers, who offered career advice and wondered privately why she kept a photo of Jim Carrey (her then-boyfriend) on her desk,” noted Hollywood.com.

8. ZELLWEGER INVITED HER BOSS AT PICADOR TO BE AN EXTRA ON SET.

In Camilla Elworthy’s write-up for The Guardian, she noted how she became a part of the production. “Renée sent me a thank you letter and gift after she'd gone and I have seen her a few times since then," Elworthy wrote. "She invited me on to the film set one day. She informed me that I had to stick around and be an extra and made sure that I was put somewhere that I would be seen ... As a result, half my head can be seen for half a nano-second in the launch party scene.”

9. THE EPIC FIGHT SCENE BETWEEN GRANT AND COLIN FIRTH WASN’T CHOREOGRAPHED.

You can thank the two actors for the hilarity of the iconic scene. In a Vulture article about the greatest fight scenes in movie history, writer Denise Martin recalled the improvised spar, writing, “No stunt coordinators. No elaborate choreography. Just a perfectly realized wimp brawl between two upper-middle-class Englishmen coming to awkward fisticuffs in front of a Greek restaurant.”

10. FIELDING ASKED FRIEND SALMAN RUSHDIE TO CAMEO IN THE FILM.

Recalling how he came to be part of the film, famed novelist Salman Rushdie told Texas Monthly, “Helen Fielding, the author of the book, is an old pal of mine, and she asked if I’d come along and make a fool of myself, and I said, ‘Why not?’”

11. GRANT DIDN’T HEAR ZELLWEGER SPEAK IN HER AMERICAN ACCENT UNTIL THE FILM’S WRAP PARTY.

Zellweger was so engrossed with Bridget Jones that one of her leading love interests didn’t meet the real actress until the end of the shoot. “Not once did she stop speaking with that accent, until the wrap party,” Grant told Cinema.com, “when suddenly this weird ... Texan appeared. I wanted to call security, I didn't know who the f*ck she was!”

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15 Surprising Facts About Scarface
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Say hello to our little list. Here are a few facts to break out at your next screening of Scarface, Brian De Palma’s gangsters-and-cocaine classic, which arrived in theaters on this day in 1983.

1. IT WASN'T THE FIRST SCARFACE.

Brian De Palma's Scarface is a loose remake of the 1932 movie of the same name, which is also about the rise and fall of an American immigrant gangster. The producer of the 1983 version, Martin Bregman, saw the original on late night TV and thought the idea could be modernized—though it still pays respect to the original film. De Palma's flick is dedicated to the original film’s director, Howard Hawks, and screenwriter, Ben Hecht.

2. IT COULD HAVE BEEN A SIDNEY LUMET FILM.

At one point in the film's production, Sidney Lumet—the socially conscious director of such classics as Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men—was brought on as its director. "Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what's happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman," Pacino told Empire Magazine. "He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly."

3. OLIVER STONE WASN'T INTERESTED IN WRITING THE SCRIPT, UNTIL LUMET GOT INVOLVED.


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Producer Bregman offered relative newcomer Oliver Stone a chance to overhaul the screenplay, but Stone—who was still reeling from the box office disappointment of his film, The Hand—wasn't interested. "I didn’t like the original movie that much," Stone told Creative Screenwriting. "It didn’t really hit me at all and I had no desire to make another Italian gangster picture because so many had been done so well, there would be no point to it. The origin of it, according to Marty Bregman, [was that] Al had seen the '30s version on television, he loved it and expressed to Marty as his long time mentor/partner that he’d like to do a role like that. So Marty presented it to me and I had no interest in doing a period piece."

But when Bregman contacted Stone again about the project later, his opinion changed. "Sidney Lumet had stepped into the deal," Stone said. "Sidney had a great idea to take the 1930s American prohibition gangster movie and make it into a modern immigrant gangster movie dealing with the same problems that we had then, that we’re prohibiting drugs instead of alcohol. There’s a prohibition against drugs that’s created the same criminal class as (prohibition of alcohol) created the Mafia. It was a remarkable idea."

4. UNFORTUNATELY, ACCORDING TO STONE, LUMET HATED HIS SCRIPT.

While the chance to work with Lumet was part of what lured Stone to the project, it was his script that ultimately led to the director's departure from the film. According to Stone: "Sidney Lumet hated my script. I don’t know if he’d say that in public himself, I sound like a petulant screenwriter saying that, I’d rather not say that word. Let me say that Sidney did not understand my script, whereas Bregman wanted to continue in that direction with Al."

5. STONE HAD FIRSTHAND EXPERIENCE WITH THE SUBJECT MATTER.

In order to create the most accurate picture possible, Stone spent time in Florida and the Caribbean interviewing people on both sides of the law for research. "It got hairy," Stone admitted of the research process. "It gave me all this color. I wanted to do a sun-drenched, tropical Third World gangster, cigar, sexy Miami movie."

Unfortunately, while penning the screenplay, Stone was also dealing with his own cocaine habit, which gave him an insight into what the drug can do to users. Stone actually tried to kick his habit by leaving the country to complete the script so he could be far away from his access to the drug.

"I moved to Paris and got out of the cocaine world too because that was another problem for me," he said. "I was doing coke at the time, and I really regretted it. I got into a habit of it and I was an addictive personality. I did it, not to an extreme or to a place where I was as destructive as some people, but certainly to where I was going stale mentally. I moved out of L.A. with my wife at the time and moved back to France to try and get into another world and see the world differently. And I wrote the script totally f***ing cold sober."

6. BRIAN DE PALMA DIDN'T WANT TO AUDITION MICHELLE PFEIFFER.


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De Palma was hesitant to audition the relatively untested Pfeiffer because at the time she was best known for the box office bomb Grease 2. Glenn Close, Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Kelly McGillis, Sharon Stone and Sigourney Weaver were all considered for the role of Elvira, but Bregman pushed for Pfeiffer to audition and she got the part.

7. YES, THERE IS A LOT OF SWEARING.

According to the Family Media Guide, which monitors profanity, sexual content, and violence in movies, Scarface features 207 uses of the “F” word, which works out to about 1.21 F-bombs per minute. In 2014, Martin Scorsese more than doubled that with a record-setting 506 F-bombs thrown in The Wolf of Wall Street.

8. TONY MONTANA WAS NAMED FOR A FOOTBALL STAR.

Stone, who was a San Francisco 49ers fan, named the character of Tony Montana after Joe Montana, his favorite football player.

9. TONY IS ONLY REFERRED TO AS "SCARFACE" ONCE, AND IT'S IN SPANISH.

Hector, the Colombian gangster who threatens Tony with the chainsaw, refers to Tony as “cara cicatriz,” meaning “scar face” in Spanish.

That chainsaw scene, by the way, was based on a real incident. To research the movie, Stone embedded himself with Miami law enforcement and based the infamous chainsaw sequence on a gangland story he heard from the Miami-Dade County police.

10. VERY LITTLE OF THE FILM WAS ACTUALLY SHOT IN MIAMI.

The film was originally going to be shot entirely on location in Miami, but protests by the local Cuban-American community forced the movie to leave Miami two weeks into production. Besides footage from those two weeks, the rest of the movie was shot in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Barbara.

11. ALL THAT "COCAINE" LED TO PROBLEMS WITH PACINO'S NASAL PASSAGES.

Though there has long been a myth that Pacino snorted real cocaine on camera for Scarface, the "cocaine" used in the movie was supposedly powdered milk (even if De Palma has never officially stated what the crew used as a drug stand-in). But just because it wasn't real doesn't mean that it didn't create problems for Pacino's nasal passages. "For years after, I have had things up in there," Pacino said in 2015. "I don't know what happened to my nose, but it's changed."

12. PACINO'S NOSE WASN'T HIS ONLY BODY PART TO SUFFER DAMAGE.

Still of Al Pacino as Tony Montana in 'Scarface' (1983)
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In the film's very bloody conclusion, Montana famously asks the assailants who've invaded his home to "say hello to my little friend," which happens to be a very large gun. That gun took a beating from all the blanks it had to fire, so much so that Pacino ended up burning his hand on its barrel. "My hand stuck to that sucker," he said. Ultimately, the actor—and his bandaged hands—had to sit out some of the action in the last few weeks of production.

13. STEVEN SPIELBERG DIRECTED A SINGLE SHOT.

De Palma and Spielberg had been friends since the two began making studio movies in the mid-1970s, and they made a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Spielberg was on hand for one of the days of shooting the Colombians’ initial attack on Tony Montana’s house at the end of the movie, so De Palma let Spielberg direct the low-angle shot where the attackers first enter the house.

14. SOME COOL TECHNOLOGY WENT INTO THE GUN MUZZLE FLASHES.

In order to heighten the severity of the gunfire, De Palma and the special effects coordinators created a mechanism to synchronize the gunfire with the open shutter on the movie camera to show the huge muzzle flash coming from the guns in the final shootout.

15. SADDAM HUSSEIN WAS A FAN OF THE FILM.

The trust fund the former Iraqi dictator set up to launder money was called “Montana Management,” a nod to the company Tony uses to launder money in the movie.

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