There are lots of ways to find meaning in the events of 9/11. Television can convey events as they happen. A reporter can write history's rough first draft. Historians can widen the time frame and give us context…Filmmakers have a part to play, too, and I believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something much larger than the event itself--the DNA of our times…Hence a film about United 93.
Filmmaker PAUL GREENGRASS--the compassionate and socially aware writer/director behind films that study the impact of terrorism in Northern Ireland in Bloody Sunday and Omagh, racial violence in The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and one soldier's abandonment in Resurrected--now focuses his cameras on the day that changed the world forever.
In United 93, Greengrass creates a gripping, provocative drama that tells the story of the passengers, crew and the flight controllers who watched in dawning horror as United Airlines Flight 93 became the fourth hijacked plane on the day of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil: September 11, 2001.
The filmmaker explores the events of this day by telling the story of a single flight and the ordinary, random sampling of flight crew, businessmen, wives, grandparents, students and others bound for San Francisco aboard a Boeing 757. In the course of the just over 90 minutes that the plane was aloft, the world below entered a new and violent age--viewed through a fog that slowly dissipated to reveal that America herself was under attack.
Faced with the daunting task of re-creating the events that took place onboard the doomed plane and down below, Greengrass and his researchers called upon a myriad of sources, conducting countless hours of face-to-face interviews with the families of the 40 passengers and crew, members of the 9/11 commission, flight controllers and other military and civilian personnel who took part in the events of the day. These interviews were distilled and, along with details from flight recordings, public record and historical fact, became the basis for the film. It was then played out by an ensemble of talented, yet largely unknown actors--democratically presented as random people sharing a flight--whose fact-grounded and acutely directed improvisations provided the highly charged human drama captured by Greengrass' cameras.
The result is a trenchant study--chronicled and filmed in real time--of the incendiary collision of modern day and old world…and the courage that was born from such a crucible.
Greengrass asserts, "One of the reasons why United 93 exerts such a powerful hold on our imaginations is precisely because we don't know exactly what happened. Who among us doesn't think about that day and wonder how it must have been and how we might have reacted?"
Painstakingly researched with the support of the families of the passengers and crew who lost their lives, United 93 paints an unforgettable and inspiring portrait of everyday people confronted with an unthinkable situation…who unwittingly become the first denizens in the new era of global terrorism that began that September morning.
In choosing the cast, the filmmakers sought to bring together an ensemble comprised of gifted actors (and, in some cases, real-life flight crew members, controllers and other personnel) who came armed with the talents and skills necessary to create vivid and real snapshots of the actual men and women onboard and involved with United Airlines Flight 93. All approached the subject matter with the utmost sensitivity, keeping two goals at the forefront of their minds--to dignify the memory of those they were portraying and to arrive at, as Greengrass puts it, "a believable truth" of what happened during the 91-minute flight.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Paul Greengrass has spent the larger part of his career crafting socially-aware, humane films about some of the thorniest issues of our modern day--the flashpoint at which politics turns to violence, beliefs slip into zealotry--in addition to helming an international blockbuster thriller, 2004's The Bourne Supremacy.
He is perhaps best remembered for his critically acclaimed, cinéma vérité exploration of the 1972 incident in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, when 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators were shot by British soldiers--2002's visceral drama, Bloody Sunday. In his review of the film, Los Angeles Times' critic Kenneth Turan called it, "A compelling, gut-clutching piece of advocacy cinema that carries you along in a torrent of emotion as it explores the awful complications of one terrifying day. Bloody Sunday shows the power of real events dramatically conveyed. Made by writer-director Paul Greengrass out of a sense of communal outrage that has not gone away, this film never wavers, never loses its focus or its conviction. Bloody Sunday does the spirit of that awful day full and unforgettable justice."
Greengrass is, therefore, uniquely qualified to tackle a film that concerns the events that occurred on September 11, 2001, possessing both sensitivity to the subject matter (and its larger themes) and the cinematic talent to handle such a project (with its multiple story threads and constantly shifting viewpoint). Since that autumn day nearly five years ago, the filmmaker has been intent upon telling a story of the epochal events of 9/11, with the question being, "At what point is it okay to put such a painful time on the screen?"
According to Greengrass--informed with interviews from more than 100 family members and friends of the 40 fallen passengers and crew--the right time is when the families say, "Yes."
Greengrass says, "There are all sorts of films made. We make films to divert us, to entertain us and to make us laugh--to take us to fantasy worlds and to make us understand love. But also, there's a place for films that explore the way the world is. And Hollywood has a long and honorable track record of making those types of films as well."
What Greengrass believes is that in examining the story of United 93, we see, in shocking microcosm and within the span of a mere half-hour, the challenges that now face our world as a whole. He continues, "Forty ordinary people had 30 minutes to confront the reality of the way that we're living now, decide on the best course of action and act. They were the first people to inhabit the post 9/11 world--at a time when the rest of us were watching television dumbstruck, unable to understand what was going on. At that moment, those people onboard that airplane knew very well--they could see exactly what they were dealing with--and were faced with a dreadful choice. Do we sit here and do nothing and hope for the best, hope it turns out all right? Or do we do something about it? And if so, what can we do?
"It seems to me that those are the two choices that face us today and have faced us ever since that day. When you look at what happened on that airplane, you can see that there was a debate, an anguished debate in the most terrible of circumstances. That group of people weighed those choices, made a decision and acted upon it. And I think that if we look at what happened, we find a story of immense courage and fortitude--those people were very, very brave. But we also find wisdom."
With regard to the timing of a motion picture about 9/11, Allison Vadhan, daughter of UA 93 passenger Kristin White Gould, offers, "It's never going to be over for us families who've lost loved ones. It's never going to be over for the country, anyone who witnessed it on TV. It's always going to be touchy, awkward…and something that a part of us don't want to see again. But I feel the more films, the better. We can't forget. We have to remember what happened, why it happened. And we can't fool ourselves into thinking that it won't happen again if we forget about it."
Sandy Felt, who lost husband Edward P. Felt on the flight, explains, "There are lots of things in life that are difficult to do, and we do them because they're the right thing to do. This is one of those situations--I got involved in this because it was the right thing to do. I can't deny its existence. I don't know that it's going to be any different for me a year from now, two years from now--it's happened, we deal with it. So I'd rather give you the story, and I'd rather remember the man that he was and be able to keep him alive for myself that way."
Kenny Nacke, brother of passenger Louis J. Nacke, II, shares, "I'm glad it's being made because it's the fifth year anniversary of it--and I would hate to see those 40 individuals forgotten. What if roles were reversed? I've done that, I've said, 'Well, what if I was on Flight 93, and my brother was here today?' And that's why I'm involved. I think he would have the loudest voice. He would say, 'These individuals need to be honored, cherished and remembered.' And I'm going do my part to see that they are, and they're given the credit that they're due--not only for who they were, but what they did that day."
Genesis of the Film
Well before his contact with the families had bolstered Greengrass' intention to make a 9/11 film, the writer/director had been vigilantly following the media's coverage of the day and its aftermath. After the completion of The Bourne Supremacy and the interruption of a subsequent studio project, the filmmaker's thoughts about making the film returned, "But I wasn't sure it was the right time."
He discussed his idea with producer Lloyd Levin: to use United 93 as a focal point, a prism through which to view the events of the day, to give the audience "an extraordinary way into 9/11." Greengrass then sat down and, drawing on his previous work and research, composed a document that included his feelings and ideas about the project, which eventually became a 21-page treatment. Completed, it contained his reasons for making the film, as well as a time-coded, scene-by-scene plot, telling the general story of the morning as viewed by those in the flight towers and centers on the ground and those aboard the plane itself. This, in turn, was used to pitch the project; eventually, production and distribution deals were secured in the summer of 2005.
Greengrass' aim to keep the story among the flight controllers and the flight's passengers and crew was intentional. Quoting from the treatment, he says, "It's not a film with neat character arcs. What it does do is pick up 44 individuals as they congregate at the airport for a plane journey, follow them as they enter the plane, and take their 90-minute journey in real time, cutting away only to the various air traffic control centers that follow their progress, on whose screens the entire horror of the full 9/11 operation is played out."
In August, Greengrass tapped associate Kate Solomon to act as researcher and family liaison. Solomon began by sending a letter to all of the families of United 93's passengers and crew. In the letter, Greengrass' goals for the project were discussed, and he asked for their cooperation in helping to establish profiles of all of those onboard. Ultimately, nearly all of the families participated in the process. What followed in September and October was seven weeks of face-to-face interviews with the families and friends--more than 100 were conducted in all.
Solomon provides, "They wished to be involved, to honor and remember their loved ones. It's still a painful subject, but many felt that their involvement would help us get it right."
The families were also kept involved all through production of United 93. They were notified once casting had been completed, and were sent a full cast list and a cast picture of the actors who would portray their family members--some of the actors personally met with the families, while others got in touch on the phone. Solomon also sent out bi-weekly newsletters, which kept them informed of the production's progress and brought them inside the filming process with articles about Greengrass' methods of filming and things like set construction, sound recording and other aspects of moviemaking. The director also recorded a video message for the families that was viewable in a privately accessible area of the web site. The result was an open channel of communication between filmmakers and families, which not only kept all mindful of the film's goals, but also allowed for an ongoing exchange of information. ("Some of the families have taken to calling it 'our film,'" Solomon adds.)
To cover the ground personnel who paid witness to the unfolding tragedy that September day, Greengrass enlisted writer and former 60 Minutes II producer Michael Bronner to conduct a second series of interviews--this time with a wide-ranging group of civilian and military personnel. As the big picture of the day only began to come clear once geographically dispersed puzzle pieces were assembled, Greengrass knew his narrative would include sequences in several key sites: the control tower at Newark International Airport (where UA Flight 93 originated and which, because of its location, provides a bird's-eye-view of Manhattan); Control Centers in Boston (where the hijacked AA Flights 11 and 175 originated) and New York; the Federal Aviation Administration's operations command center in Herndon, Virginia (under the command of national operations manager Ben Sliney, experiencing his first day in that position on 9/11/01); and the military's operations center at the Northeast Air Defense Sector (NEADS) in upstate New York. Bronner's detailed recounting of the events that morning would play a major part in the construction of Greengrass' script.
Additionally, Bronner researched other factual information on everything from the hijackers to the other planes (commercial, military and private) in the air that morning. Valuable information was also gained from the 9/11 Commission Report; members of that Commission advised on the film prior to start of principal photography and were present on the set during filming.
Greengrass explains, "What we did on this film was to gather together an extraordinary array of people wanting to get this film right--aircrew from United Airlines; pilots; the families of the people who were onboard, who gave us their sense of what their family member might have done given the type of person he or she was in any given situation; controllers and members of the military; the 9/11 Commission. We had a lot of expertise that, in the end, allows you to get a good sense of the general shape of events."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS