What was the genesis of the film?
This film was envisioned shortly after the towers collapsed. I was a documentary filmmaker prior to September 11th, but that day’s events changed everything. I was on the street watching when the first plane hit WTC 1. I knew my brother Doug was working on the 105th floor. I watched as the second plane crashed into WTC 2 exploding into the fireball. I turned to everyone around me on the street and they were no longer the same as me. I was involved in this, in the most profound way possible, and that fact would be the defining element of my life from that moment forward.
The film began as a way to document what I was living through. It is an attempt to capture one unbelievable story of September 11th — Cantor Fitzgerald’s huge loss, 658 people lost in a moment. The film was also a reaction to the massive national focus on the firefighters and the rescue effort. The attention was so overwhelming that it threatened to distort what had actually happened here. Thousands of people had died because they had gone to work.
On a personal level, the film allowed me to investigate every angle of September 11th. If I thought about the events as a family member, I couldn’t bear it. If I approached it as a filmmaker, I could explore, delve into, uncover, and ask questions. There are no answers but the exploration allowed me to think.
What do you hope the film achieves?
I hope that the film flips the audience’s perspective from observer to participant, from outside the buildings to inside the buildings. My aim was to move the audience from the public view to a private one. I hope the film changes the way they look at September 11th.
As a September 11th family member, what do you think most people don’t think about?
This film is a journey into what happens when you wake up one day and find yourself at ground zero of Ground Zero. One morning we found ourselves – shocked and grief-stricken — at the epicenter of the most shocking event in recent American history. The film poses the question, what is it like to be handed an impossible set of circumstances?
Years earlier, I had watched the horror of Oklahoma City but never realized what happens to families whose lives are eviscerated by public tragedy and thrown into history. For the September 11th families and for Cantor Fitzgerald, we literally found ourselves in a new world. We waited for a rule book of what to do next, for an experienced guide, for governmental agencies informing us what to do, some clear path forward. Neither guide nor guidebook ever arrived. So we made it up ourselves.
What were the challenges in editing?
There were a lot of challenges.
We had a lot of material covering a number of topics. There are so many elements to what the family members went through after the attacks and I filmed a lot of them, from the Medical Examiner’s to the Fresh Kills search for remains to the frustrations of the rebuilding effort at the site.
So the first challenge was to decide how much we could fit into one film effectively. Cantor’s story was so complicated in itself and so unbelievable (taking out a $70 billion loan one day after the attacks; having to open for business the next day before you know who is alive) that the story of the company and the families needed the full focus of the film. I mourn those other films left on the cutting room floor. As unbelievable as this story is, those stories are as well.
The next challenge was keeping the strict chronological flow that our story demanded. A lot went on in a very short period of time. Our audience had to feel the extreme heightened time pressure as well as understand what the employees had to achieve to keep the company going.
Time passage was a fundamental filmmaking challenge. The film tells the two intertwined stories of the family members and the employees. For the family members, time appears to grind to a halt, as they wait for any news of their loved ones. The exact opposite happens to the employees. For them, time speeds up. They need to achieve a month’s worth of work in hours, under horrific circumstances, having just lost their co-workers and friends, with incredibly high stakes. Creating these two time frames – and their accompanying emotional states – was a challenge to edit in a way that the audience would feel both sides.
Lastly, there was the huge and heavily debated question about whether to use footage of the buildings. There was a period after September 11th where the constant replaying of the horrible footage began to seem gratuitous. I could never allow that to happen in our film. I wanted and, as a family member, needed those images to retain their emotional impact. Years later, I realized that, even after countless replays, the burning towers had not lost their power; the horror remained potent. Ultimately, we decided to use carefully chosen images of the buildings. For the film to work, we needed the audience to re-experience the event from the vantage point of someone who had a loved one in those buildings.
Then the problem became that I had pointedly chosen, after being an eye-witness to the attacks, never to watch TV footage or photos of the events…..it was just too painful.
In the end, I watched, because I had to to make the film.
In short, the challenges were endless. Sort of like the aftermath of the event itself.
How is this film different because it was made by someone directly involved?
Part of the reason I made the film was because I knew I spoke the same language as the family members. There was no one else who could ever gain real entry into this horrible, but very specific new world. A common language of shared feelings and sentiments and experiences emerged. And you could only be part of it if you were a fellow sufferer and traveler. I had a privileged position here and I could talk to everyone involved in a wholly different way than any outsider ever could. I hope the film captures how open, candid and emotionally honest the interviews were. (The family members were fantastic and truly wonderful people I feel forever bonded with.)
The downside of this access occurred because the subjects spoke in this new language. It was a language long on short-hands, gallows humor and macabre phrasings about memorials, burying pieces of remains, standing on lines for charities, struggles within families, trauma envy, the stares of other people, hysterical therapists, and bizarre coping mechanisms. We had to edit around this language because other people wouldn’t be able to understand it. So, comprehension and translation became our next problem.