Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Sony Pictures today releases Paul Greengrass‘s Captain Phillips. It’s a reminder why, if you follow auteurs like I do, you can’t beat this time of year. Just last week, I was as astonished by Alfonso Cuaron’s 3D marvel Gravity, especially after covering its twists and turns when Angelina Jolie dropped out and Universal let it go; when no studio would touch it until Warner Bros’ Jeff Robinov took a shot; and even then, casting was difficult and none of the studios co-financing partners wanted to share the risk on a film with an $85 million budget and two actors floating in space. It seemed like only Cuaron believed in this film, and good for him that it’s minting money.

There’s nothing like the resolve of an auteur-level filmmaker. I’ve felt it on Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Michael Mann’s Heat, Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men, Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. That brings me to Greengrass, who left me feeling the same way with Bloody Sunday.

I’ve told my readers that every year I read his pitch for United 93, the 2007 film about the heroism of passengers who lost their lives wresting control of a plane and crashing it in Pennsylvania before terrorists could slam it into the White House or the Capitol Building on September 11, 2001. I read it every year because to me, it is a compelling example of pure artistic passion, burning desire and urgency. Readers asked me to publish the United 93 pitch last time I mentioned it, and so I asked Greengrass if I could. Not only did he give Deadline permission, he graciously set the stage and explained why this document sprang from him like a torrent. If you stay with it, what you’ll get here is a glimpse into the creative process of a writer/director who plays the game on the highest level, and who raised his game here. I still can’t believe United 93 got made by a major studio with no stars and a tragic ending everyone knew was coming. But as you will see, Greengrass was not to be denied.

“I remember it vividly,” Greengrass told me, about the day he wrote the United 93 pitch. “I wrote it in the aftermath of 7/7, what we call the bombing of four tube subway trains in London. I had wanted to make [United 93] for awhile, but I hadn’t gotten the courage to do it. Now, 7/7 it wasn’t as large a loss of life as 9/11, but at the time it looked like it could be of catastrophic proportions. I was in my office and somebody came over and said, you need to put on the television. They first say there was a bomb in the subway, then it’s two, three and four, or three subways and a bus. You get the little ones off to school, but my son, who was a teenager at the time, was out and about. I remember speaking to his mom. Like so many people did that day, you have that terror for an hour or two. He couldn’t have been on one of those, could he? Turns out he’d gone to a friend’s house, and he was fine. But for a couple of hours…I remember later that day saying, I’m going to write this thing. What is going on in our world is so intense and so frightening and so throwing the axis of our world off, that I must explore it. I must find a way of talking about it. I’ve got to go to the heart of it, where it began, and what I’ve got to do is say, what does it mean? I’m not interested in what people tell me it means, I’m not interested in what politicians tell me it means, I’m not interested in what we fear it means. As best we can, if we can make a film and start at the beginning, the struggles for the control of an airplane. That was the heart of it. What does that mean for our world? And next day, I wrote that document. That was July, and we sent it out and I was shooting that film by the end of the year.”

Flight 93 Treatment

What does it mean?

That’s the question we ask ourselves over and over again. Does it mean war without end? The onset of a new fascism. A shadow over all our lives.

Or is it instead a chance to renew our vows or patriotism? Of heroism. A chance to write a burnished page in history.

Perhaps it’s a wake up call. An event so calamitous that it forces us to acknowledge the fire raging outside. Makes us engage with the world. Drain the swamp.

Or was it just a chance event. Something terrible and unrepeatable that lacks meaning beyond itself. We mourn, remember the victims, but draw no lasting conclusions.

I doubt it.

I think we all know that somehow, in some way, it changed things in our lifetime forever.

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There’s lots of ways to find meaning in the events of 9/11, especially as we move towards next year’s fifth anniversary.

Television can convey events as they happen. A reporter can write history’s rough first draft. Historians can widen the time frame and give us context. Politicians can seek to ride the waves of emotion. The best of them can lead us too. Religious leaders divine spiritual meanings and give us comfort. There are many ways…

Well I make films and I believe they have a small part to play, too. And I also believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something precious, something much larger than the event itself…the DNA of our times.

Hence a film about Flight 93.

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Here is the perfect metaphor of our times.

Think of the plane – a beautiful state of the art Boeing 757. Sleek contours, advanced avionics, the awesome power of those Rolls Royce engines. A silver skinned bird able to defy gravity and vaule across time and space at unbelievable speed. It is truly the finest creation of our Western civilization – a thing of beauty, power and poetry. But before it took off that morning in the clear blue sky it needed, just as we all need…

Gasoline. Thousand and thousands of greedy guzzling gallons of gasoline.

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Then think of the passengers – rising to alarm clocks; throwing on their branded clothes, racing in cars, grabbing Starbucks coffee and newspapers, hurrying to catch that plane. Each with private loves and lives, each meeting at the check in and leaving those lives behind. There was nothing special about them. They could have been me. They could have been you.

And they gathered together in that gas guzzling silver metal tube full of the most advanced technology our world can provide and sealed themselves in hermetically. Literally sealed themselves away from the rest of the world, as the pilot and stewardesses conducted those strange secular safety rituals that comfort us in our outrageous modernity.

They thought they were safe. They were tragically blind. Appallingly unlucky. Because on this day, September 11, 2001, the world out there, viewed dimly in the casually glanced at pages of newspapers, or in occasional television fragments…the world of anarchy and poverty and anger and resentment…was not far away at all.

It was sitting in four first class seats right next to them.

*                                *                                       *

And then imagine the hijackers.

Three uneducated Saudis, led by a wealthy Lebanese reformed playboy. Think of their prayers, the intensity of the beliefs that drove them to strike in a suicide mission at the heart of America’s power. They were terrifyingly devout killers. But of course they were blind too – to humanity, to decency – to pity – driven as they were by deeply irrational religious hate.

Above all, of course, they were real. And as we weigh the crucial issues before us today – where do we go from here, how do we deal with the post 9/11 world, we should never forget that central fact. The threat is real. Or so it seems to me.

*                                *                                        *

And the question asked of the passengers on Flight 93, the terrible dilemma they faced, is the same question we have been facing ever since. Do we hope this all turns out okay, or do we fight back? Do we strike at them before they strike at us? And what will be the consequences if we do?

This is why, I believe, the events on that plane continue to hold such immense power over us…for although we can only dimly understand the shape of what went on during that ninety minute flight, we can know enough – from the two dozen phone calls, from the 30 minutes cockpit voice recordings – to know that at some level it distills and symbolizes everything that we face today.

The hermetically sealed world disrupted by a savage and violent act. The passengers herded to the back of the plane. The hijackers turning the plane round and setting course for Washington. The passengers searching for intelligence as to what was happening to them, reaching out to the authorities on the ground and to loved ones via air phone, only to discover that they were caught in some vast suicidal plot.

Then as Flight 93 begins to close on the Capitol, the rational debate that we know the passengers conducted amidst the terror – do we strike back and risk destruction, or hope for the best and risk destruction? And then even more extraordinarily, the passengers vote, whilst in the cockpit, there are only prayers and suicidal devotion.

And then the fightback. The struggle for the controls of the plane – a struggle that went on and on and on for perhaps seven minutes. Until finally the plane crashes…

That final image haunts me, draws me grimly into its embrace – a physical struggle for the controls of a gasoline fueled 21st Century flying machine between a band of suicidal religious fanatics and a group of innocents drawn at random from amongst us all.

I think of it often. It’s the struggle for our world today.

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I hope watching this film will make its audience think very carefully about where we are right now – in a world where the threat is so real and clear and present, that we have come to believe that pre-emptive strikes are our only salvation. Because sitting where I sit now, it seems to me that the choice faced by those poor souls on Flight 93 was no choice at all. If they did nothing, their work died. If they struck back, their world died.

We’d better find other choices, and fast. Before it’s too late – preferably beginning at the G6 summit in Gleneagles next month. Because right now, we are all on Flight 93…

*                                 *                                     *

So that’s the pitch.

A film about Flight 93 that will look and feel like Bloody Sunday – clearly structured, but heavily improvised – with the same raw, unflinching immediacy and truthfulness.

It’s not a film with neat character arcs. It’s not even a film about individual character at all, for in truth there are only two – the hijackers, and the hijacked – though each speaks with many voices. It won’t press sentimental buttons. Be judgmental. Or exploitative – though it may be attacked for being so.

What it does do is pick up forty five individuals as they congregate at the airport for a plane journey, follow them as they enter the plane, and take their near ninety minute journey (from entering the plane to the crash) in real time, cutting away only to the various air traffic control centres (a kind of God’s eye view) that follow their progress, on whose screens the entire horror of this full 9/11 operation is played out.

The result will be a film which shows in remorseless detail what must have happened…and in so doing challenges us head on to contemplate the meaning of 9/11; a film of complex truths wrapped in a cloak of terrifying and compelling reality.

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So what are the ethics of making this film? Is it voyeuristic, exploitative, intrusive? What could one say to those family members who may perhaps wish, entirely understandably, to leave the anguish of those events unexplored?

Only this…

The events surrounding Flight 93 have been pored over endlessly across the last four years – in newspapers, magazines, books, on line and in television documentaries. It’s possible there may yet be a television version in due course.

Nearly all these projects have had the co-operation of some of the families of those who died, ranging from consenting to long interviews to, in Lisa Beamer’s case, writing her own best selling book. Such participation has consistently gone way beyond news responses.

Most importantly of all, the story of Flight 93 (and the entire events of September 11th) have been analysed exhaustively by various congressional and government bodies, culminating in publication of the 9/11 report, investigations which came into existence precisely to meet the public’s demand to understand as completely as possible the meaning of those events.

9/11 was a public event with immense implications for all of us, not just those individual families tragically caught up in it directly. The meanings attached to it now and going forward from here, matter to each and every one of us profoundly.

With all respect to those who would rather that the events of 9/11 remained sacrosanct, I assert my right to explore it and speak of it in the medium of my choice – film, pointing to my previous work exploring the impact of terrorism on individuals and societies and recognizing that any film can only ever be its own justification. If the film I make has power and truthfulness, it will justify itself to its audiences. It not, I will have failed.

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Production requirements as follows:
1. Assorted exteriors in and around New York as people converge on Newark Airport.
2. Motel interiors for hijacker preparations.
3. Airport exteriors and interiors for check in; security; travel to Gate etc.
4. 757 Plane interior.
5. Various air and military traffic control centres.

We will hire 45 actors and rehearse for one month, until we have created in effect a ninety minute uninterrupted ensemble recreation of the entire event in real time.

Then shoot for 40 days, beginning October 1st.

Post Production beginning December 1st.

Completed film ready for Cannes 2006.