I have flown in and out of Newark International Airport many times, and I’m familiar with the sights from the monorail as you head into the heart of the airport – the Budweiser sign, the fleet of Hooters Air planes (yes, they’re real). But the day I visited the set of Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (then still titled Flight 93) was the first time I had really given thought to the fact that his was the airport where that doomed plane had taken off on the morning of September 11th.
Greengrass and company had come from England, where they had shot the plane interiors and some of the boarding, all the way to New Jersey as part of their quest for authenticity. Being true to the people and the events is first and foremost on the minds of those involved with this film – I don’t know if I have ever heard of another movie set that had a researcher available at all times. Nobody knows everything that happened on that plane, but the philosophy on this set is to know everything that can be known, and then to try to figure out the rest from a position of highly informed speculation.
It’s a winter day when I visit, the last day of principal photography, but it’s bright and sunny – a visual dead ringer for that Tuesday morning in 2001. A lot of people forget how gorgeous that day was. The passengers of United 93 would have been arriving at the airport on a really beautiful late summer morning, on the sort of day that makes you believe winter is never going to come. In 2006 it is winter, though, and the extras may be dressed in shorts and t-shirts but the rest of us bundle up when we’re going outside. There’s this one guy with a surfboard who has to keep going outside and coming back in for this one particular shot, and he’s really dressed like it’s 85 degrees. Sometimes between takes he’ll have to stand outside for five minutes, and I feel pretty bad for him.
The production has taken over a small section of the terminal, and they’re shooting the passengers checking in. I meet up with producer Lloyd Levin and get a headset, which makes me feel super important. The headset clips to a radio pack on my belt, and when I’m wearing it I can hear the audio that the mics are picking up. Knowing when to wear your headset, by the way, is a big deal. I notice that a lot of people keep theirs on just one ear, so I try to do the same. Sometimes I hold it up to one ear like I have seen innumerable recording engineers do in the movies.
There are two cameras circling the line of extras and actors waiting to check in at what has been turned into a United counter (we’re actually in the international terminal, Terminal B. The real passengers checked in next door, in Terminal C), and a few feet away is a little video village, as they call it in “the biz.” Two screens show what the cameras are recording, and it’s here that I get maybe my greatest insight into Greengrass as a director.
Greengrass directs like a composer. Standing before the two monitors (although standing may not be the right word – Greengrass seems congenitally incapable of standing still. Even eating with him later is a wonder of motion and activity) he’s actually more like a composer than a director. He holds up a hand before each monitor and directs the cameramen through gestures – gestures which are decoded by his assistant director and radioed to the them. It’s thrilling – you can see how the guy is creating controlled chaos in his shots. He tells me that he’s “finding the edge – total control at the moment before no control.” The people who complain about his style in The Bourne Supremacy should watch him in action – his camera isn’t going randomly. Every bit is on purpose, orchestrated like every sound in a John Zorn piece.
Like I said before, authenticity is what they’re going for. I spend some time with Michael Bronner, one of the researchers on the project. The researchers have spent hundreds of hours going through every official document, speaking to the families of the people who were on that plane, speaking to pilots and stewardesses and air traffic controllers and other people in high places who can’t be named. They didn’t find every door open to them. The FAA, for instance, wouldn’t cooperate at all.
“The reason they gave is that the current administrator of the FAA, who is a Bush appointee, wasn’t there on 9/11 and doesn’t want anything to do with 9/11 and was quote unquote hostile to the project,” Bronner tells me. “But there were some people within FAA headquarters who wanted to help and did what they could here and there. One of them discreetly gave us a lot of the radar data so that we could recreate the actual movements of the plane. It was mostly like altitude radar data, but it was incredibly helpful. There are people there who want this to be technically accurate.” It’s important to note that this is all, supposedly, public domain data that the FAA just sat on.
The production also found friends in the air traffic controller’s union, who proved invaluable, as well as Ben Sliney, who was the FAA Operations manager on 9/11. Ben was the guy who made the order to close down American airspace that day and ground every plan. He got so involved in the film that he ended up playing himself. Look for my one on one interview with Ben later this week.
The military was more helpful, Bronner says, but it was a slow start. “I got to go up and interview some people at the Northeast Air Defense Sector in Rome, New York, which they call NEADS. It’s the part of the military National Guard that protects the whole East Coast. I had a couple of interviews there that were helpful. It was a gradual process. The military has a system where they decide whether or not to cooperate with a movie, and once they do that, it seems like there’s huge cooperation.”
The authenticity extended to the casting. At the airport I met Trish Gates and JJ Johnson. JJ plays Captain Dahl, the pilot of the doomed flight, and he’s an actual United pilot in real life. He showed up to his audition in his uniform. Trish plays stewardess Sandy Bradshaw and – you guessed it – she’s a real life United stewardess. And by the way, if you have any doubts about the veracity of Trish’s life as a stewardess, a few minutes chatting with her will take them away. She’s as gregarious and friendly and sweet as you imagine the perfect stewardess to be.
Sadly my interview with Trish was ruined by ambient noise (memo to self: airports are noisy. Take more notes). I can tell you this from memory: her natural, bright smile came down a notch when she talked about checking the names of the flight crews on 9/11 to see if any of the dead were her friends.
The day of filming that I saw was fairly low key – the most difficult stuff was people pulling up in cars to the terminal; they managed to lose a bus when it went down the wrong road and started heading out of the airport. What I saw was nothing compared to the filming that had been going on at Pinewood studios in England. The actors would be seated inside a closed airplane set – no walls would be removed for the cameramen, which made everything all the more cramped. There would be two, three, sometimes four cameramen going at any time. The actors never knew when they were on camera or not, so they had to be acting at all times. When one camera would run out of film, fresh stock would be hurried over as the other cameras kept filming. There was no script but rather a lengthy treatment – most lines were ad libbed, except in cases where actual dialogue was known, such as in recorded cell phone conversations between passengers and those on the ground.
What was probably most difficult for the actors was the length of the takes. Greengrass would run the entire hijack from beginning to end in one take. And when the thirty or forty minute scene was done, he would do it again. Millions of feet of film was shot. No one measured how many boxes of Kleenex were used, although many takes did end with actors staggering off the set in tears.
“It all began with the 44 families,” Greengrass told me over lunch. “I would not have done this film without their unanimous support.” This is probably the area that people seem to not understand the most. Surfing the web I see tons of posts on message boards and blogs where people seem to think that the families weren’t consulted, or that the film is exploiting their loved ones. Nothing could be further from the truth. For more on the perspective of the family members, click here to read my interview with the parents of Todd Beamer and the brother of Edward Felt.
My day on set wrapped up as the crew rushed to catch the final light of the setting sun. I had a trip back to New York to make, and they were going to a nearby hotel to film the terrorists preparing for their horrible deeds. The final shots I saw had the terrorists parking their car. I managed to grab Lewis Alsamari, who plays one of the terrorists, and talk to him about his escape from Iraq after he went AWOL from the army. Click here to read that.
What’s amazing about filmmaking is how you can spend a whole day watching scenes be shot and then when you see the film the footage amounts to mere moments. I finally saw United 93 last week, and the Newark Airport stuff that I watched really adds up to about a minute, minute and a half of screentime. Don’t look for me in the crowds, though – I was too chicken to ask if I could be an extra.
I’ll be writing more about this film as the week goes on, including bringing you exclusive interviews with Ben Sliney and Paul Greengrass, and talking with three of the lead actors in the movie (including David Alan Basche, who plays Todd Beamer. We chatted at lunch at Newark and he was kind enough not to slug me when I joked that a good merchandise tie-in for the film might be a breakfast food called “Let’s Rolls”). I won’t be bringing you an official review of the film, though. That’ll fall to Russ Fischer because I’m a little too close to the production, and I don’t want to cross any ethical boundaries. I will be bringing you some of my thoughts though, on what this film accomplishes and what it means. And I hope it’ll be the start of a very long and educational dialogue.