After the press conference for World Trade Center, I went up to Oliver Stone and told him that his films are one of the main reasons I was sitting with the press corps that day – Stone’s movies were one of the crucial links between film as fun and film as something meaningful for me.
As excited as I was to ask Stone questions (I managed to get a paltry two in here), I was a bit more bummed that the situation would be less than ideal. It was a big press conference, and on the panel was Stone, Nic Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, the real Will Jimeno, his wife Allison, the two producers and the screenwriter. Quite a gaggle for about thirty minutes of available time, and with thirty or forty press present. It’s something we’re seeing more of, and it’s something I don’t like. I don’t mind having to fight to get good questions in – God knows, you often have to elbow past the mind-numbingly stupid and insipidly personal questions at these things – but at this point these massive press conferences are little better than shouting questions at people as they pass on the red carpet.
Especially with a film like World Trade Center (read my review here). A big action film doesn’t demand discussion, but a movie like this does, and it would be nice to get Oliver Stone for enough time and in the proper situation for him to get a little reflective. I’m happy with the questions I was able to get in, but this is a master filmmaker, one of the great directors of our time. I can only hope for a future interview that has a little more elbowroom.
Q: Mr. Stone, your filmography is filled with movies that contain morally flawed characters and whose stories examine the grey zone between right and wrong. World Trade Center is very different in that the characters are all heroic and the moral throughline is very clear. Why did you decide to tackle a story like that at this stage of your career?
Stone: Don’t pigeon hole me, I change. And I think if you go through the film by film list, there’s quite a bit of changes that go on, I mean, it goes from Heaven and Earth to Natural Born Killers. This film is another one, it’s just another departure in the sense of stylistically it’s a simpler film, a modest film about working class people, and we have here a series of facts, a line, a chain of evidence, that’s amazing, and it’s still fresh enough after five years, that we can go back and have Will [Jimeno], John [McLoughlin], Scotty Strauss, Scotty Fox, numerous rescuers, the transcripts of Chuck Sereika and Dave Karnes, to help us, actually put together almost a – I can’t say a documentary, but it isn’t cinema verite, it isn’t United 93. It is very tightly connected, emotional, in the tradition of Hollywood, in the tradition of, tightly connected emotions of four characters. Two wives, two husbands. That’s a challenge, to do things that way. That’s not to say I’ll do it always that way, I might surprise you next time and do something with fantasy or sci-fi.
Q: The day was so traumatic and has so many stories – what drew you to this particular one?
Stone: There’s three thousand dead, approximately, and what, twenty survivors. These two men, I can’t speak for the other eighteen, but these two men went through the epicenter of the story symbolically, they were at the very center of the collapse, and because of John’s foresight, they went to the elevator shaft that saved their lives. Only two of the five made it. And it’s a story waiting, dying to be told; the rescue of the men by this accountant in Connecticut, this ex-Marine, is something from the Hollywood movies, people don’t believe it at first. We had previews, people were shocked, they didn’t think that this guy existed. He did. He went to Iraq. And the rescuers themselves, Scotty Fox played himself, many of the rescuers played themselves, Scotty Strauss cooperated with us in the beginning.
Each rescue was very complicated; Will was a rescue onto itself. That was finished by midnight, very few people realize that John was rescued from about midnight to seven thirty in the morning, that’s a whole other ball game, that’s – so two different types of rescues, so many challenges in this movie. Why not tell that story, it’s dying to be made. Dying to be made.
Q: For the actors: what were your conversations like with your real life counterparts? Did you really get to know them, what did you pick up?
Cage: Well I never met anyone before who had been tested to the level that John McLoughlin had been tested on that day. So I did go into those first initial meetings with some nervousness, but he put me at ease right away, and he allowed me to video tape him and ask him literally thousands of questions about the experience, how he got through it, what he relied on, images of his family, Will Jimeno, the two of them, keeping each other alive in prayer. So it was enormously helpful. I really wanted to get it right, I didn’t want to let John McLoughlin down, I didn’t want to let Will down, I didn’t want to let the rescue team down, the families, and Oliver Stone. And all the producers and creators of this film. And without John McLoughlin’s help, it wouldn’t have happened.
Gyllenhaal: Everyone’s been answering it, but I think, I heard that Michael [Pena] kind of moved in with you guys, you know, he was there all the time, and he ask thousands of questions and spent lots and lots of time with Will. And with Allison [Jimeno] and I, it was a little bit different. I guess I felt like I also didn’t want to let anyone down, and I wanted to make a movie that was as affecting as possible. And I guess for me, I thought the way to do that was to experience the things that Allison experiences in the script, myself. As opposed to –
Q: By getting pregnant. [Gyllenhaal is very visibly pregnant. In the film her character is about eight months pregnant]
Gyllenhaal: [laughs] I didn’t do it quite in time. But for me, I felt like I was worried about falling into the trap of trying to imitate Allison as opposed to experiencing it myself. But at the same time, every time I was with Allison, there was this really intense experience that really impacted me, and I think I was mostly interested in just being near her, less than actually asking her about the specifics of the day, although we did some of that. Most of what was going in was just being near you. But then when I watched the movie, I saw that – I kind of thought I’d be like her, and I think that has to do with you, actually, I think you had more to do with that than I.
Stone: Maggie and I met – it was good, we had conflict, it was good. I like her, she’s a thoroughbred.
Pena: I did some of what they both did. We got along right away, right off the bat, and I asked him a lot of questions, and I was asking so many questions, so many questions, and I really, just like everybody else, I didn’t want to let anybody down. And I just felt fortunate that I was even in this movie.
Stone: Well that’s just not true, Will was complaining to me, he said, how are we gonna get this wimp to play me? And we had to build Michael up, we had to send him on hunting expeditions with Will. Right, Will, tell the truth.
Pena: The thing that I wanted to get right, more than anything, is kind of sort of like – I don’t know, just his – you know, the brotherhood, and the real feel of like un-cheesy love that you had for the people that you worked with and the people that you’re trying to save. There’s a line specifically, he said, ‘My whole life I just wanted to be a cop.’ I’m like, I think we should cut it, you know. And the first time I met him, that was like the second thing out of this mouth, so I was like, okay, I’ve got to re-evaluate the whole thing. So yeah, but that’s basically it.
Q: Where were you on 9/11, and what was going through your mind?
Cage: Thoroughly unexciting, I was at home, and I got a phone call saying you can’t believe what’s on television, turn it on. And I saw those images, that are like the rest of us, I’ll never be able to get out of my head, it’s as simple as that.
Stone: Me too, I was in Los Angeles at home, sleeping. My wife woke me up.
Q: Did you think terrorism right away?
Stone: Yes. Well, we had a clearer picture than John and Will did. We knew that the second plane had hit.
Gyllenhaal: I was living here, but actually alone, out of the country at the time. And I happened to check my email and my mom said, before anyone knew what had happened, that the World Trade Center had been bombed. And then I did everything I could to get home, took a little while, it was hard.
Pena: Yeah, I was at home. I got the phone call, and it brought about some interesting instincts that I think the movie touches on as well. At that point you had like the need – I went to a friend’s house, and it was funny, like twenty, twenty five people went there, and that’s a reason that I was excited about this movie in particular, is because we all know what happened on that day, but this is a different story. And more of a story that touches on man, like the need to be with each other, and like how people, they do pull together in times like this.
Q: How did you try to express this roller coaster of emotions that New Yorkers went through on that day?
Stone: Through the wives. Through the wives. I mean, we can only do it through the wives, Donna and Allison, and what they go through. We wanted to not only get out of the hole, to relieve the burdens of the hole, but to get to the light, to go back to Jersey. But these women went through hell; I mean, there had to be a moment in that day when they accepted that their husbands would probably not come home, and that was a very important moment, to go beyond clichés, you know. And what makes Donna, married to John for thirty years, or twenty-five years, with four children, what keeps them together? It’s just a cliché, if you say you’re married, that doesn’t mean anything. What is marriage? What are the little things in life that they will miss, take for granted. You have to ask Allison and Donna, we did, Maria [ Bello] and Maggie played it the way they thought was right. And for them it was hell. So that’s the only way we can relate to it, we can’t live the New York experience, only through them. And the Marine.
Q: It was interesting to use the marine character to express his particular point of view, of this was an act of war.
Stone: Yeah, I think it would’ve been politically correct to sanitize that, and I couldn’t live with that. The film is accurate to every single person that was in it, and their emotions are naked. Some people with things we don’t like, we gotta live with.
Q: How do you feel about the resulting war, and not finding Osama, and all of that?
Cage: My comment is, our movie ends on 9/12, and that’s probably the story we’re gonna tell.
Stone: And you’ve gotta go one day further, and you can say, where were we on September 12th, 2001, and where are we now? And I think when you answer that question honestly, you have to wonder, something went wrong.
Cage: I really don’t want to attach politics to this movie, this movie is a triumph of the human spirit, it’s about survival, it’s about courage, and I think trying to link it to anything else right now, would take away from what the movie is really about. It’s a very emotional film, it is not a downer, you walk out feeling like yeah, angels do exist, these people are heroes.
Q: How does this film exemplify the way civilians are the primary victims of conflicts, rather than soldiers?
Stone: We made the point at the end of the film that eighty-seven countries, citizens from eighty-seven countries were destroyed. Most of them were civilians. It’s the nature of modern warfare since Dresden since World War II, and it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. So you’re talking about, it’s the nature of modern warfare, where is it gonna end? I don’t know. And I can’t – I’m not an expert. I just hope to God that we can move to a peaceful world wherein we can respect the rights of civilians, and I don’t know how to do that except through international bodies and a sense of commitment from everybody, to stop this, destruction of civilian life.
Q: Do you think you can better identify with your character now that you are pregnant?
Gyllenhaal: I really was a little bit pregnant at the end of shooting. I was a little bit, but no one knew but me. But most of the time, yeah, most of the time I wasn’t pregnant. Yeah, I think being pregnant now, trying to imagine what pregnancy is like I think for anyone who hasn’t been pregnant is very hard. I mean, it’s very different than you kind of think it’s gonna be. So, yes, I do think maybe now I can relate to some things that Allison went through. At first I just got hit by how – you’re so emotional when you’re pregnant, but I’ve also found that I’m also pretty strong and pretty clear in pregnancy in a way that I wasn’t before, so maybe there’s a kind of mix, you know, it was probably both more emotional and kind of a little more rooted, for Allison, that I imagined it might have been.
Q: How did you film Ground Zero? How was it to be trapped the entire time?
Cage: Well, it was actually quite liberating, I’m a very kinetic actor, I like to move, but I was in that hole, boxed in like that, I didn’t have to think about movement, so I was able to go inward, and rely on my imagination, to try to re-create in some small way what John’s experience might have been like.
Pena: Similar thing to me, in a weird way, for me, dealing with that, it was almost like doing one big monologue, and then everything – whenever he spoke, it was like it was his thoughts that were in my head, and yeah.
Q: And Oliver, creating Ground Zero?
Stone: Yeah, we created – we built these vast interior halls in Playa Del Rey in California, as well as an exterior rubble set, these were vast sets, and we had the actors in different modules, and they never saw each other the whole time, so that’s an interesting aspect to that scene: don’t even have visual contact, so it’s all suggested. I think the key is lighting, I really do, there’s not much camera work you can do, and I think Seamus McGarvey deserves tremendous credit for the work he did to really give it – you haven’t seen the final film out, you’ve seen the tape, but when you see it, I hope you appreciate the shot – to me, the story is always about shadow and light, and they were in the darkness but they were reaching for the light, and one of the great shots, is Nick coming out of the hole at the end, into the light, and his struggle for the light, and even at home, that’s why we go out to the families, because there’s light there, as the day sets and their hopes diminish, you see the night comes on, so it’s sort of we reversed the holes, in the domestic situations, where it becomes darker, and the holes become lighter at the end. So there’s a whole kind of concept of light and dark that we’re playing with.
Q: Mr. Stone, how do you choose your movies? Is it a conscious decision to change things up or is it just an instinctual reaction to a story?
Stone: It’s partly that. And Andrea’s script caught my attention, slammed me in the side of the head and said, this is it, this is the one to do. And partly because, you know, I’ve been in the world of Macedonian royalty and politics and Persian courts for three years; certainly was refreshing to come back to working class New York. I had done working class movies, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, part of it. Any Given Sunday, Platoon. It’s good to come back and remind yourself, these are very extraordinary people because they do it everyday, they do it consistently. John McLoughlin wakes up at three twenty nine, Will gets up at what, four o’clock – I mean, these guys are out the gate and they go to work, and they’re not thanked very often for it, it’s a tough job.
Q: What was it like to work with Nick Cage and Oliver stone?
Stone: Make it good, Michael. [laughs]
Pena: Well I would have to say it’s an amazing experience, when they tell you, Oliver Stone wants me in his office, he wanted me to be in this movie, you think that they’re joking.
Pena: I thought it was bull crap. I did. But it was amazing, it was – working with Nick was very specific and very, very prepared going in, and I took some lessons from that, and actually to be honest with you, and he was very – it was very easy to work with him, and he was encouraging me, like any chances that I thought were interesting, he really encouraged me, and I’m glad that the first of these roles that I had, was with somebody like him, and then Oliver, also did the same thing, and encouraged me, and was saying that I’m gonna bring, you know, hopefully every role, the attention to detail, he has tremendous passion for that, and he would always…and it was sometimes more important how he said something, as opposed to what he said, because of the passion. He would say, you’ve just gotta get it right. [laughs]