9/11 is a date that has become a reference point in American history. It is a moment by which our lives are divided into “before” and “after.” What we experienced and shared as a people on that fateful day has no equal in our past.
Fifteen years later, this momentous tragedy still impacts us, and the filmmakers of 9/11 wrestled mightily with the question of what a new feature film about such a painful chapter could accomplish. Could it provide new insights? Could it bring closure? More importantly, could it serve as a respectful tribute to all those impacted?
Numerous books, documentaries, and other forms of media have already been created in an attempt to help us come to terms with the events that transpired on 9/11. How could this film be different? To answer that question, the filmmakers decided to tell the story from the inside, a point-of-view not often presented in relation to this tragedy. Much of the imagery of that day was captured externally, such as the sight of the World Trade Center being hit and ultimately, crumbling.
In contrast, 9/11 comprises an interior story, in every sense of the word. The setting being an elevator in the North Tower of the World Trade Center; the characters are five individuals who randomly board and thus witness their fates intertwine in a way none could have anticipated. The film provides an intimate portrait of individuals who are forced by circumstance to attempt to survive America’s greatest tragedy. Although less seen than the stories chronicled from the outside, the interlocking stories inside the elevator are no less real or dramatic. They are stories rooted in the reality of what some people endured that day.
Director and co-writer Martin Guigui, came by the story through actor-producer Deacon Drawdy, who had optioned the stage play, Elevator. Initially, Guigui had some doubts and questioned why make this into a film now? Ultimately though, “[I] couldn’t get the story out of my head. I saw it as an opportunity to explore not just the issues around this horrific event, but to plunge into the humanity that arises out of the circumstance,” Guigui recalls.
Still, Guigui and his producers were concerned about whether they could do the material justice. After all, no matter how poignant the story or noble the effort, this film would chronicle what other people had actually lived through, whose lives had been irrevocably altered by tragic events. They had lost loved ones, livelihoods, and, for some, their physical and mental health. How could they make a film that paid tribute to the memory of those lost, to these experiences, in a way that didn’t exploit or trivialize them?
Guigui set about to gain the insights necessary to preserve the integrity of the story, visiting the Freedom Towers and interviewing those who had been there on September 11, and found the connection very inspirational. “I realized it was a story that had to be told, in order that it wouldn’t be forgotten,” he says. Guigui later added, “Fifteen years ago, the country came together as one. Through this tragedy, we all experienced the same emotions, the same reactions. Fifteen years later, we’ve forgotten some of that. That’s why I wanted to dive into this film, this story.”
One key to the authentic execution of the material was the inclusion of real-life firefighters, both as consultants and actors. Since they not only lived through the event but experienced the loss associated with it firsthand, with more than 300 of their brethren perishing in the line of duty on 9/11, they brought a level of “gravitas and emotion to the set. Every day, we could just feel their energy. We felt privileged to work alongside them and knew we had to get it right,” says Guigui.
James Quattrochi, who provided firefighter consulting services, believes that the research, consultations, and casting paid off. “This film is a tribute, not only to the New York Fire Department and to the NYPD, but to everyone, to the innocent citizens who lost their lives or lost those they loved. This movie honors them all,” he asserts.
For Producer Dahlia Waingort, who developed the project at Sunset Pictures, it was the human journey in the story that appealed to her, and the ability to tell a story in an authentic and enlightened way. She contrasts that with the “reality TV culture in which we live, where people become inured and de-sensitized to so many things around us. The film’s point-of-view offers an intimate look at a small group faced with extreme adversity, attempting to survive while also coping with one another and their own intricacies.”
Waingort hopes that “the families affected know we are honoring them,” offering a window into the more personal stories of the events that forever changed their world, and ours.
It wasn’t just the individuals behind the cameras that wanted to pay tribute to and honor those affected on 9/11.
When actress Gina Gershon, who plays Eve Cage, read the script, she felt an immediate personal connection to it, perhaps because she herself lived through 9/11. “The windows in my New York apartment looked onto the World Trade Center,” she says. “At Ground Zero,” she recalls, “everyone was helping each other. In contrast to the familiar stereotype of the harsh New Yorker, when the chips were down, New Yorkers banded together. The bravery of the New York Fire Department, as well as that of ordinary citizens, was nothing short of amazing.”
When considering the timing of the film, coming at the 15th anniversary of the attacks, Gershon grows somewhat philosophical. “Before, it may’ve been too soon. In a sense, making it now is our own way to understand what happened. Perhaps only now do we appreciate what we all went through and see what is there, what endures,” she says.
Veteran character actor Luis Guzmán who plays Eddie, the building maintenance engineer, strongly concurs that now is the right time to make this film. “I know, because I lived it,” he states. “Everyone, every corner of humanity, was affected: single people, families, gay, straight, black, white, Latino, Asian. There’s always another story on top of a story. We dedicate this film to all people who lost someone on that day and trust they will see it as a testament that there is always hope and love. I’m very proud to be part of this film,” he adds.
Guzmán, who grew up in New York and saw the Twin Towers go up, always felt these iconic buildings were an important symbol of New York and of the country. When they were struck, he couldn’t believe what was happening. “I just got in my truck, picked up my children, and started driving, without knowing anything,” he remembers.
Thus, the story 9/11 tells is very personal for Guzmán, who asked that his character be named Eddie in tribute to his close friend Eddie Sambrano, who perished in the attacks.
Read 9/11: About
Read 9/11: The Cast
Read 9/11: The Filmmakers