week I headed over to Newark International Airport to see the last day
of principal photography of Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 film, Flight 93.
It was a great opportunity to finally meet Paul, with whom I spent a
number of hours on the phone in 2005. Paul’s one of the friendliest,
most gregarious people of any profession I have met – he would keep
talking to me even as his next shot was ready to go.

more to tell you about the visit in a fuller report, but I want to let
you know now that after meeting the actors and crew I have no doubt
that Flight 93
is going to be a serious, harrowing and non-exploitative film that can
really bring the events of 9/11 back into discussion without the
jingoism, sloganism or reflexive posturing on both sides of the
ideological aisle that came in the days after. At it’s heart, I think Flight 93 is New Journalism, the cinematic heir to Tom Wolfe.

interview here was conducted via telephone at the end of 2005, when the
production was at Pinewood in England, where the actors spent their
days in a tube of a plane set. You can read the first part of the interview, which took place a few days prior to this one, here.

When we started off, Paul wanted to touch on Watchmen again, a subject we had tackled last time. (As of last week, when I visited the set and spoke with Paul and Watchmen and Flight 93 producer Lloyd Levin, Paul is off the project)

Greengrass: There’s no doubt in my mind that Watchmen will be made. And I really hope’s
me. That’s where I’m coming from. I did believe in that film a lot, and
I do believe in it. And I believe in those things that we talked about,
about a film of Watchmen being relevant now.

regret it. It’s really a shame. It would have been a fantastically
timely film, but it’s time will come. No doubt about it. I hope it’s
me, but when you’re in the middle of a new film, which I am now, it’s
impossible to think about it. And that’s where Lloyd and I have left
it. I’ve parked it in my mind for a bit while I do the one I’m doing.

Q: But you have one coming up right after the one you’re doing, don’t you? Is Bourne next after Flight 93?

We’re talking about it, me and Universal. We’re discussing it, when it
might be, all that’s sorts of things. That’s another film – I would
like to do that film too, because I believe in the Bourne franchise.
It’s a happy position to be in – you’re always looking for things that
are in your register. If you’re a singer, you’re looking for things
that are in your register, things that you can sing. The interesting
thing is that all three of those films, Bourne Supremacy, Flight 93 and Watchmen,
they all appeal to different parts of me, but they’re all clearly
within the same register. They’re all gritty, and they’re all one way
or another about today.

[Note: As of last week Paul confirmed he will be directing The Bourne Ultimatum, starting pre-production three days after Flight 93 is released]

Q: I would include Bloody Sunday in that as well.

Greengrass: Flight 93 is very much like Bloody Sunday
– it’s being made in a similar way, and in a sense it’s one of those
films where you just go, ‘I should make that film.’ I spent a lot of
time over the years, going way back to the very beginning, making films
about terrorism. What it’s about, what it means, why it happens, what
we can and can’t do about it – all of those sorts of things. Most, if
not all of those, have been within a context of Ireland, but the
lessons do travel. There are truths about these things. That’s the
interesting thing about
Flight 93.

point about true stories is that they tell you something very simple or
profound about the way the world is, because they’re true. They really
happened. That’s not to decry fictional stories, because they can tell
you also profound truths. I suppose if you’re somebody from my
background you’re going to be drawn to factual material, maybe, abd be
more confident with that sort of film than maybe another director might
be. To me the challenge of Flight 93 is to get the right tones, first off.

issue we were talking about last time was, when is the right time?
Nobody is going to come up and say, ‘It’s the right time to make a film
about 9/11.’ In a sense you’re always going to have to put yourself
forward and say, I think it’s the right time to tell the story. And in
that sense it puts a responsibility on your shoulders. I feel it. You
have to be right in that judgement. If you’re wrong, and it’s not the
right time, then it’s a mistake. But I do feel – and I’m speaking as
someone who’s done a few kinds of these films a time or before – I do
feel it’s the right time. And I’ll tell you why: I think it would have
been the wrong time to make this film before the publication of the
9/11 Commission Report. In a democracy it’s important that the first
step in asking what happened and what it means is that the people’s
representatives have got to speak.

they’ve done is put a tremendous amount of material into the public
domain – frankly I think it’s an impressive document. There are always
going to be conspiracy theorists who want to shoot it down. But believe
me, if you’ve looked at the problems of terrorism in our society in
Ireland and how it affects the democratic process and poisons it and
damages it, because it makes you overreact, it makes societies contract
and become more secretive and more open – all those things I’ve seen at
first hand myself in the context of Britain and Ireland. And they’re
being played out on a much larger scale post-9/11. But! But there’s no
doubt in my mind – and I’m not saying it’s a perfect document – but
having read it and having much of the supplementary material, I’ve
studied that report in detail – that was an admirable report and that
was an admirable process. I don’t believe, personally, I don’t buy the
deep conspiratorial line. But then it’s not a line I’ve bought in my
life either. I didn’t buy the deep conspiratorial line on Bloody Sunday. I don’t believe in those kinds of conspiracies – I’m notvsd
say there aren’t conspiracies and that conspiracies don’t happen. I am
saying that they are far fewer and more mundane than conspiracy
theorists want to believe.

Q: So you discount the theory that Flight 93 was shot down.

Greengrass: I do. I don’t believe that was the case. In fact I will go further and say I know that’s not the case.

way you have to look at conspiracies, it’s always seemed to me, is that
you can look at the evidence, all the pieces of evidence you have to
look through. I looked through all of them, the wreckage, the white
airplane that was allegedly seen – all the pieces of evidence that is
put forward by the conspiracy theorists. But in the end what I think
you have to do is ask yourself a different question, which is let’s
assume for the sake of argument that the conspiracy theory was correct.
Then you ask yourself this question, which is the most important
question of all conspiracy theories: ‘Assuming the theory is true, how
many people would had have to have known for that conspiracy to be
active?’ And then when you’ve answered that question, ask yourself
whether it’s plausible that that number of people could keep that dark
secret. Is it, on a common sense level, likely to be true?

go back to Flight 93. Let’s assume that the conspiracy theories are
true, that a US military aircraft shot this plane down. Let’s go
through the hundreds of people who would have to know about that. First
and most obviously would have to be the pilot, because he pressed the

I would say 100% certainly, the other pilot who would have been flying
with him at the time. Military planes fly in pairs, especially on
combat missions, and the planes that were flying that day were flying
in pairs. Then the next person who would need to know would be the
person who was in command and control of that airplane. That airplane
didn’t get there without being directed there. There’s got to be
navigation systems, tracking and vectoring, all that stuff has to take
place. You’ve got to assume that nobody tracking that airplane saw a
radar signature or a missile signature. Then look at it another way –
did that pilot act alone? Did the pilot take it upon himself to fire
that missile that took that airplane down? No. He would have had to
have an order, so somebody would have had to have given an order. We
know how an order gets passed to a combat aircraft. They get passed
through the relevant air defense unit.

that needs to be passed through channels, and you can’t have an order
given singularly by a person in a military unit. He would have to be on
a net, there would have to be other people involved in that command and
control system who would have to know. You’re in to the dozens and
dozens before you even blink.

all that aside, what happens when that aircraft goes back to base and
there’s a missile missing? In the real world people load missiles and
ordnance is very, very carefully controlled. You can’t just fire a
missile and come back with an F-16 and expect nobody to notice. All the
ordnance crews would have to know that missile would have gone missing.
Straight off you’re into dozens of people there.

you’ve got to presuppose that all those people would not have covered
their ass by getting approval from the next person up the line. The one
truth about 9/11 when you study it is the sheer inertia of people
finding it hard to deal with the challenge in real time up against the
clock, and the continued desire to refer upwards. In the main – there
were some exceptions to that. In the main, in military organizations,
when crises happen, stuff goes up and down the line. It happens in most
organizations, actually, and the bigger the bureaucracy, the more it’s
true. What would be the likelihood of any person making the decision to
shoot down a civilian airliner without making sure he has the authority
from the next person above? The truth about 9/11 is that that chain
went all the way up to Cheney, and then to Bush. The great problem they
had on 9/11 was working decision-making up and down that line quickly
enough to actually get that decision out in real time fast enough to
intercept any airplane.

I’m saying is that when you examine the numbers of people… The
conspiracy theory is at root that presumably the president and the
vice-president and some higher-ups in the military decided to shoot the
plane down and then decided to keep it concealed from the American
people. That’s the basic thesis, isn’t it? It’s not that a rogue pilot
shot it down on his own. I mean, as if in a sophisticated military
bureaucracy such a thing could happen and there would not be hundreds
of people who would need to have known about it.

I think what makes it so attractive to people is that the plane was up
in the air for so long and it seems like nobody did anything about it.
The conspiracy theory is more comforting than a system that doesn’t

Exactly. It answers a complex situation with a simple truth. It’s a
simple answer to a disturbingly complex situation. But if you free your
mind, I think, of the conspiracy theory, you’ll see something much more
interesting. You’ll see how hard it is to act, not how easy it is. How
imprecise information was. How difficult it was for all the ducks to be
gotten in a row. How much gear crunching there was in the military and
civilian sectors, just the full extent of the utter panic and
confusion. The fog and the friction of the war. How difficult it was to
track an airplane.

guys who planned this operation, Sheikh Mohammed and Atta and all these
guys, they weren’t stupid. They had years to plan this thing. They knew
very well that if you took a civilian airliner and you had the will and
the means to execute multiple hijackings and the technical capacity to
turn the transponders off, they knew in effect those airplanes –
particularly if they dived and turned as those airplanes did – in
effect you were invisible on the air traffic control system. Literally
the problem was to find an airplane that was no longer squawking in the
midst of thousands up in the sky. It was a nightmare task. That was the

not to say that there weren’t mistakes made, but in a sense you get
some fundamental truth about terrorism. Terrorism is asymmetrical
warfare. It’s the engagement of a vastly superior force by a vastly
inferior but clandestine force. That’s how it happens. It’s looking for
one person in a gigantic crowd with hostile intent. It’s looking for
the one hostile aircraft in a sea of friendly aircraft. What happens
when you try to do that is what Flight 93 is about. The truth is that,
if you think about it in metaphorical terms, what is going on in the
world today. And it asks all sorts of questions – how do we target
these people and at what cost? What are the boundaries?

Q: Clear something up for me – are you going to be focusing on the people on the ground as well as the passengers in the plane?

Greengrass: Oh
yeah, for sure. Absolutely, because one of the things you can see
that’s most important about 9/11 is that what happened was during the
course of two hours we moved from a civilian system to a militarized –
we went to war. That’s the simple truth of it. Everything that has
followed is a consequence of that.

can oppose the War on Terror, we can have views on it, we can worry
about its boundaries, or we can approve of it and want it to go
further. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum – we all know
that it happened, and that it continues to this day.

went to war, and that process, if you look carefully enough at Flight
93 on the ground and in the air, you can see that process happen across
about 100 minutes. That, to me, is a much more profound and disturbing
truth than a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theory in the end makes of
history men in black hats and men in white hats. History becomes the
story of how the men in black hats did us down secretly. But that’s not
the world that I recognize.

Q: Are you going to tell that story of the 100 minutes in real time?

Greengrass: Yeah.

I noticed from looking at the cast list that you don’t have big name
actors. Was that a creative, rather than financial, decision?

Yeah, because I want this film to be received for what it is, at a
level of reality, not fantasy. I want you just to go eye level through
9/11, from that morning, and experience it as close as possible as if
you were there.

you see and can understand how it felt to be a civilian air traffic
control grappling with the problem when the planes go missing. Or what
it felt like to be a military commander when you’re drawn into trying
to engage airplanes you can’t find. What it felt like, above all, to be
forty ordinary men and women on an airplane when you face the challenge
that we face today. ‘What are we going to do?’ Except that we have the
luxury that we may have someca
time to think about it, or maybe it’s a decision we don’t have to make.
Those people couldn’t duck it. They had to make a choice – whether to
sit there and hope for the best or to do something and possibly face
the worst. There were no easy answers, because the truth is that there
aren’t any easy answers in the world we’re facing now. If a pre-emptive
strike was the simple solution, it would have worked by now. Equally,
if doing nothing was going to work by now, it would have worked.

complex because there’s no clear answer. For most of us we can duck
that harsh choice – except that we can’t. We can’t truly because it
really does face us, and what’s causing the trouble is that we’re
making choices and we’re not sure they’re the right ones. That’s
exactly what those passengers faced – they had to make a choice about
what to do and face the consequences, and they had to make the choice
in minutes. That’s why I think this film will speak to us. It will
allow us to get not to the simplicity of a conspiracy theory, but to
the complexity of the real challenges we face.

Those forty passengers have left behind family and loved ones who will
be paying a lot of attention to this. Have you been in touch with them?

Greengrass: We
spent an enormous amount of time – you couldn’t make this film if you
didn’t have the full support. I believe it would not be right to make
this film if you didn’t have the support of these families, and that’s
the first thing we had to achieve. We’ve been to see every single one
of those families. Every single one of them. We’ve been to see them
personally, and sat with them, and we’ve had group meetings as well. We
are moving together as a group. I have sat and I have explained my
vision for this film, and we have the support of those families. All of

Q: Were any of them hesitant?

In truth, no. I think there were a lot of them that wanted to know my
vision for it and what was important to me. But no, we’ve been greeted
with extraordinary support. It’s my job to not let those people down.
To tell the truth as I see it.

Q: The other part of that equation is the story of the hijackers themselves. How are you approaching their aspect of the story?

It’s a very important part of the story, and you have to tell it
truthfully. Try and understand what they looked like, what they felt
like, what they did. One of the things they did was to behave in an
extraordinarily violent and blindly cruel way. That’s part of the
story, too. You’ve got to understand what happened that day. And all
those families feel that very, very strongly.

the rest of us the temptation is to move on beyond 9/11. But those
families, like the people on the airplane, know the situation that
really faces us, and really know it. It’s a challenge as to what we do
in the face of that threat of violence that’s facing us. We’re not
going to be able to make an effort to understand what we do until we
understand what we’re facing. What we’re facing, and why they’re doing
what they’re doing. So we have to look very carefully.

time I’ll tell you about being there for the last day of filming, as
Greengrass and crew shot the passengers, crew and hijackers arriving at
Newark that day. Look for it soon.