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.
* * *
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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