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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.