Lloyd Levin, Producer of United 93
David Alan Basche: stars in United 93 as Todd Beamer
Ann Hoog: Library of Congress, curator of "September 11 Documentary Project".
Paula Berry: Lost husband in WTC, on advisory council of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation
Brian Lehrer, morning anchor on NPR's NYC affiliate, WNYC
Though ostensibly about the role of art in response to the events of September 11, this panel essentially functioned like an expanded press conference for Paul Greengrass' United 93. Lehrer, who is usually nothing if not a muscular journalist, did his best to stir up a discussion, but those involved with the film brilliantly deflected each attempt to steer the talk off a "go see United 93" course. Still, there were some strong moments – particularly when Lehrer pressed producer Levin on what Lehrer feels are aspects of the film that "really ripp[ed] the government, and when Levin admitted that some of the marketing on the film (including its first trailer) may have been misguided. My notes follow; I couldn't type fast enough to quote word-for-word, but it's pretty accurate.
Brian Lehrer: When we first heard in the media about this film coming out, it generated immediate negative responses from the callers to my show. We've heard a lot about this "too soon" thing ... and of course there was that whole thing that happened with the trailer on the Upper East Side. ... But when I talked [on the radio] about the consultation that went on with family members ... I think it's very interesting, people's gut, first reaction, and then gradual reaction ... when they hear some of the facts, some of the context.
Lloyd Levin: I worked with Paul Greengrass, from the inception of his idea to make the film, all the way through the making of the film ,and the completion of the film, as well as on the marketing. Not as a financier.
Lehrer: Talk about the contact with family members ... because I gather there's going to be some skepticism about a Hollywood studio making a film like this ... when obviously a studio is not going to do it out of the goodness of their heart.
Levin: I would correct you on that statement ... because that's ... I think that's kind of a blank statement -- studios do have a heart .. somewhere. I think Paul's premise -- and this was largely due to his experience over a number of years, he's spent over 20 years working in film, with films that deal with terrorism and their impacts on society -- his mandate, from the very start, was that the movie could only be done with the unanimous support of the families. He made it clear to everyone that he would not continue without that support.
Lehrer: Paula, were you involved with the producers of the film?
Paula Berry: Not at all.
Lehrer: Oh, because your husband died in the Trade Center, not on Flight 93.
Berry: I haven't seen the film. I'm not ready to see the film. But I think the timing of it is fine. You really can't question the timing of all forms of expression to 9/11. If you were to keep them down, you would be holding back an expression. I think you said earlier, how can you even speak about the timing? When is the right time? And it's all such a personal sense we all have.
Lehrer: And it seems to me that there was art that got made the day after, on posters on the street ... there's art that's going to be made 50 years after...
Levin: I think the "too soon" debate suggests some deeper anxieties, which are maybe justifiable. It's too soon for these events to be Hollywoodized, sensationalized. That was the hurdle we had to overcome ... to say, "No, this is straightforward." There's no attempt to make it user friendly.
Berry: I wonder if the "too soon" notion is the fear that it becomes locked, that what you're producing is the end-all, be-all, and the debate ends there. I think there's a sense that we're still in it ... that would be my anxiety ... that no one would revisit it again.
Lehrer: Was the "too soon" debate discussed during the making of the film?
David Alan Basche: That issue came up as soon as we were cast ... I personally had my own ... little bit of trepidation about the project. Then I spent about 16 seconds with Paul Greengrass, and that was it. The man is so intelligent, so passionate about telling this story without gloss, without glamorization. Everybody seemed interested in telling a story that was not politicized in any way, but would provoke more discussion. .. The film seems to be provoking quite a bit of discussion ... and I think that's what art should do, provide a question, not an answer...all of the actors were wonderfully supported by the family members ... I did not speak to anyone who knew Todd while we were filming ... I had read his wife Lisa's book, and ... I really felt I had quite a bit to go on, perhaps because Todd was one of the more publicly recognized figures ... I did speak with Todd's father, via email ... and then I met them last week for the first time, and that was astounding, to have David and Peggy Beamer look me in the eye and say, "We think you got it right."
Lehrer: What was the impetus behind this project?
Levin: It was Paul, Paul's initial impetus. And this story did jump out at him. Because for him, the passengers aboard that plane were the first people on 9/11 to have to address the question of "What do we do?" and act on it. And it's his belief that it's a question that we all face today, and our children will have to face as well.
Ann Hoog: Our division was one of many that immediately responded ... we came back on the 12 and a lot of folks were needing something to do, and as archivists, librarians, we thought it important to capture the stories, the personal experience narratives, the responses communities had in terms of the shrines that were showing up in NY, Arlington, Shanksville, and across the country, where people were hundreds of miles away, but felt very close, very affected, and frequently as targets themselves. And we felt it was important to capture these stories. [She goes on to explain at length that her department at the Library of Congress asked folklorists to conduct interviews, and ended up with about 800 tapes from all over the country, plus a few from an Army base in Naples, Italy.] People often didn't know what to do, so they expressed themselves, with signs of unity. It was cathartic, in a way, to provide people a purpose to talk about these stories. So now we have these materials preserved at the library, forever.
I did see the movie, last night, When I was first invited to see the movie, I was a little bit trepidatious. About half way through the movie, I was thinking how impressed I was about how it was put together ... I was trying to stay away from these stories I had heard of the Hollywoodization of it, and think of it as a work of artists .. and think about how historically accurate an attempt it was. In my personal opinion, it was not sensationalized at all. And I have to say,I think I might want to see it again.
Lehrer: David, Lloyd, have you thought about who might want to go see this movie? It's a very difficult movie to watch.
Basch: It is difficult. I've been trying to answer that question in the press and say, there are people who will never see the film, and that's okay ...
Lehrer: But who do you think will? People who watch 24 and want it a little more intense? [audience laughs]
Basche: I'm starting with people who won't. I think there are people who will see it on DVD, in privacy of their living rooms ... I think the people who were most deeply affected by Sep. 11 are those who lost family members .. It seems like such a pat answer, but it's about choice. Choice is what those people were fighting for on that plane, it really is ... I think people are braver than we think. I think that young people who are passionately expressing their opinion about everything, at colleges, universities, will turn out and support it ... I think they'll learn a lot they didn't know, about that day, and specifically about this flight.
Levin: I kind of feel ... there's a large audience that would rather be challenged and provoked rather than tranquilized. Whether people are ready for it or not, that's their decision...
Lehrer: You said the movie doesn't politicize the events, but I ... was not prepared for the scenes of air traffic control, and to me, this is where the big news is about the film. This film delivers news, because there are a lot of underreported facts that get emphasized in this film. Particularly, the failures to connect the dots at the highest level ...
Basche: ... the rules of engagement ...
Lehrer: ... this film doesn't have to tell us that the President was reading My Pet Goat, because of all of the context it gives us. Lloyd, was that part of the point?
Levin: I think it is, because all of those facts exist in the 9/11 report ... but this film lays out facts as experiential. Those facts hit harder than when given in an academic, cerebral context. Those facts are out there, but seeing them like this, there's more impact.
Lehrer: So what were you trying to say? Were you trying to indict civilian leadership, or the Pentagon? It seemed like you were really ripping the government.
Levin: I would object to that ... I think hopefully, and maybe we didn't succeed, but I think the point was not to point fingers .. but to put it together as a believable truth, and different people come out of it with different points of view. It seems to have a real prismatic effect on people ... I think if you look back on what happens in the movie, it's factual --
Lehrer: But is it not intended to be pointed?
Levin: I think it's important to make clear, and it's been a frustrating aspect of this, people have their right to interpretations, but the facts are there. There's a great deal of conspiracy theories, and fair enough if you want to subscribe to them, but I don't and I don't think they're appropriate in this case. And I think what the title cards do is set the record straight, as far as what happened that day. [The plane] was not shot down ... the military didn't know about the existence of Flight 93 as a hijacked aircraft until four minutes after it crashed ... there was no protocol on that day.
Basche: There was also a slide [in the film] that said something like, "By 12:06, all aircraft in the US had been grounded." That's also a fact ... I saw that as a positive one, kind of giving credit for the ability to land, I think it was 4,200 planes .... I think that, you brought up a great point, which is that so much of this film happens on the ground ... I personally knew nothing about those areas of this event ... but perhaps those title cards were there at the end because those are the areas we have the most questions about. ... Oddly enough, Rush Limbaugh loved those cards. He said the film made him angry and ... I don't know, I read the transcript of his radio show ... again, it can go on either side of the political fence, which is fascinating.
Hoog: One of the best things I thought about the film, and those cards at the end, was to show the chaos, and the communication problems that happened that day, because there was no protocol. [The police at the Pentagon] were getting so much news, all they knew was that there had been an explosion in the building they were in, but they didn't know about planes ...
Lehrer: I thought just about everybody on screen was portrayed positively ... I thought, it was the people who you never saw, high up in the chain of command, who implicitly got ripped. But that's just me [Audience titters].
Berry: I'm thinking about why I'm not ready to see this film -- and this is so personal -- the most macabre, the most painful part of it all, is what happened for my husband that day. And I just can't go there. So seeing other victims go through it ... it's just too much. I guess that's why I can't see it, and anything along that line, I'd have a real difficult time seeing.
Lehrer: We went through a process where the Freedom Center and the Drawing Center ... were essentially deemed as inappropriate art. Were you involved in that?
Berry: I was involved in that, and it's bruising my heart. ... The idea of something being appropriate meant an awful lot to me, and to this day, I measure everything along that line. ... I think we were ahead of our time. We needed the Memorial. If we came out with our plans after the Memorial, I think we would be received the way we hoped to be received.
Lehrer: David, how much of the dialog was improvised?
Basche: The film itself was in no way scripted. Paul had a 20 page treatment that he started with, based on all the facts he could gather, and then he went from there. When I arrived at the studios, Lloyd and his team had a big timetable [of the events] .... each passenger who made a phone call, what seat they were in, if they used an Airphone ... information about altitude ... we had all these facts, that Paul had laid out, and the dialog came in between ... We really tried to fill those gaps with the most credible version of what happened. Paul said, "There were things I want said," because we know they were said ... but otherwise, we made it all up.
Lehrer: Since its a realtime film, the final product .--
Basche: We had a timeline, every time the camera rolled ... we had the first assistant director with a clock. Sometimes he would shout out what time it was, and the most nerve wracking was 9:27, because at 9:28, we knew those men were going to stand up ... so we just had to hope there was a camera nearby. The takes were 20, 30, 40, I think our longest takes were 53 minutes, and Paul always had at least two cameras going. He would say, "Look, this is just the truth of this airplane. You make the truth, and trust that I'll be there. ... maybe docudrama is a way to put it.. .. I'm not sure if I've come up with the correct vocabulary.
Lehrer: Going back to the "Is it too soon?" question ... one of the important things about it being made now, is that it will stand ... to as close to a historical document as could be made. ... somebody trying to make that film 20 years from now ... couldn't have been as accurate.
Berry: No one said, when Titanic the film came out, is this too soon? As far as I'm concerned, this is the perfect time.
Lehrer: Yeah, as far as I'm concerned, this goes in the vault.
Hoog: It wouldn't go in the collection we have, but it's certainly in that genre. It goes to all the challenges that everyone faced, and continues to face about that day.
Q & A starts, and I get up and say some version of the following:
"As a film journalist, I've talked to other journalists who feel like they can't treat United 93 like a "normal" film – they're trepidatious to be critical about it in the usual way for fear of being branded as "insensitive." If we can agree that it's not too soon to make art about 9/11, how do you feel about that art being candidly critiqued?"
Basche: I don't think anyone wants a glossed over, happy ending version [of the events], and I don't want glossed over reviews ... I'm not interested in people saying nice things [about the movie], simply because people perished.
Lehrer: And, anyway, it doesn't matter, because if the mainstream papers shrink from something, the blogs will cover it, and the MSM will report in horror, "Look at what the blogs are doing ..." [audience laughs and claps].
Lehrer: Do you think it's relevant to the film that the director is not American?
Levin: I think it's relevant that he has the filmmaking experience ... to take on this story. I don't know if there's anyone equipped to take on this story as him.
A victim's sister-in-law asks, "When [my husband and I] saw the preview ... we looked at each other as if it was sensational. When you go to the preview, it's generally geared towards the audience that sees the movie ... I was thinking of the kids, who have seen action movies ... I think the way you're explaining it now, it sounds admirable, but ... I mean, the Spike Lee [movie the trailer played before], it's a thriller, it's the kind of audience that might not go to a film to have an intellectual discussion.
Lehrer: Yeah, I thought the trailer was cut like an action film.
Levin: A lot of us are in new, unexplored territory with this. The conventions of moviemaking and marketing and distribution don't necessarily ... aren't appropriate. What we've been learning as we go ... I think in hindsight, I think maybe the trailer should have been handled differently. I think, catching someone unaware, in that environment of a night out for entertainment, might not have been the right way to go about it. We've been trying, we've been listening, and adjusting, and a different way of approaching the audience was then created ... well, I agree with you! [audience laughs] I think if we were to start over again, we'd try to do everything we could to foresee the reaction --
Lehrer: Is that the one thing you weren't prepared for ... the [reaction to the] trailer?
Levin: We weren't as sensitive as we might have been. But, anecdotally , the reaction in NY is different than in other parts of the country.
Basche: Paul's a filmmaker, and this is more like docudrama, but it's not a documentary. I don't think it's meant to be. It's compelling. Like it or not, that plane waited on the tarmac for 40 minutes. That does create suspense.
Lehrer: So Frederick Wiseman might have done it differently. Thanks for coming ...