A day after screening his latest project for studio executives, director and screenwriter Paul Greengrass spoke by phone about United 93. It is the first feature film to deal directly with the events of September 11, 2001. Told in approximate real time, the film follows United Airlines Flight 93, scheduled to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, but hijacked soon after take-off. It was the fourth plane in a scheme that resulted in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the only one that failed to meet its target. Instead, it crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after a struggle between passengers and their hijackers.
Greengrass, a British director who started out in documentaries, is acutely aware of the controversies surrounding his subject. But he points to a long tradition of movies dealing with sensitive issues, and feels that it is time for filmmakers to address 9/11. "Political violence has been the dominant theme of my films," he said. "I've had a lot of experience with the subject, and I hope my work speaks to my seriousness and responsibility as a filmmaker. I just felt that I wanted to make a contribution."
Best known in the United States for Bloody Sunday (2001), a documentary-like look at one of the worst days of violence in the conflict in Northern Ireland, the director had been planning an adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen. When that project was postponed, Greengrass gave himself a week to come up with a 9/11 story.
"The meaning of Flight 93 had nagged me for years. What is unique about it is that its take-off was delayed by a mere quirk of fate. So by the time the passengers faced the ordeal of the hijack, at around half-past nine, 9/11 was substantially over. It was moments before the third plane struck the Pentagon, and the first two planes had already hit the World Trade Center.
"We on the ground still didn't know what was going on. Obviously, there was some coordinated act of terrorism. But who, why, what? We had the luxury of being able to be in shock. But those passengers didn't. In a sense, they were already in the post-9/11 world. They had to face that crucial question: What do you do? How do you respond? And they only had minutes to decide it."
Examining that response became the crux of Greengrass's script. "But before you could think about making a film," he cautioned, "we needed to know what the families involved felt about it. The families of the victims of political violence suffer a particularly difficult grief. They have to come to terms with the boundaries between the public and the private. It's a complicated emotional road. So we met every single one, in person at their houses."
Greengrass expected a certain amount of resistance, but instead found complete unanimity. "I never imagined there would be such a strength and extraordinary generosity towards us. But one of the things these people understand is how easy it is for us to continue our lives unchanged. Of course 9/11 has changed the world, but in our day to day lives we don't want to admit that. We don't want to admit that we are still facing a tremendous problem. These people have experienced it firsthand, and they wanted the story told."
With the families' approval, and the support of Universal Pictures, Greengrass was ready to proceed. "Then it just became a question of assembling a coalition of people who share your concept, something similar to what I'd done in Bloody Sunday. I cast basically from the New York theater community because this wasn't going to be about 'movie stars.' We also cast a lot of professionals, real airline pilots, for example. It's like an experiment in filmmaking–you gather together for a couple of months with all the known facts and try to create a 'believable truth' about what happened. It was an inspiring experience."
From a twenty-page treatment, he worked up a ninety-page blueprint of facts, culled in large part from the 9/11 Commission Report. "To make sense of what happened on the plane," Greengrass decided, "you had to interweave that story with the air traffic control environments. You couldn't explore that in an unstructured way, you had to include a great amount of detail."
Bloody Sunday was dense with information, and Greengrass promises that United 93 will be as well. "I welcome an element of confusion because it's part of what makes a film feel real. The 'fog and friction of war,' something all military commanders understand. Remember, confusion is one of the prime goals of any political violence, and in a fast-moving, chaotic situation, things are not always clear."
Greengrass worked with the added burden of portraying the events in real time. "We followed the time line of the 9/11 Commission, but as you rehearse you don't stand with a stopwatch and say, 'Well, now you're two minutes slow or three minutes fast.' But essentially we did play it in real time. The skein of real life has got a different tempo than screen life, which is more processed, more compressed. This is a different time register, it has a slightly less formal feel to it."
The director worries about how Muslims will respond to the film. "I and the four actors who portray the terrorists had a special burden creatively, which we discussed many times. We had to put as much effort into exploring their motivations as into anything else. Because you begin to understand things when you look at their behavior. You see very clearly that 9/11 wasn't aimed at us. We were not the real audience. This was designed to wake up the Muslim world, not us. They were going forth into the devil's world to strike a mighty blow, to light a flame that would awaken the Muslim world from a thousand years of slumber, cowardice, what have you. Five years on, you have to wonder if they haven't had a measure of success."
United 93 avoids easy answers. "When you see the moral blindness of those four men," Greengrass says, "it makes you think about the very great difficulty we face in dealing with this kind of zealous fundamentalism. It's beyond our political discourse, it's like a flight to medieval orthodoxy, a total rejection of modernity. As a liberal, that's hard for me to grapple with."
In fact, making this film has worn away a lot of Greengrass's optimism. "I've spent a good amount of time studying and talking to people who have either fought or been in the Provisional IRA. I think I understand what motivated those men. You were fighting for truly political goals, and everyone knew that in the end a deal between the British and the Irish would have to be negotiated.
"But it's hard not to be bleak about this current cycle of violence. You can try to trace this back to the roots of Islamic fundamentalism or to Egyptian universities in the 1950s or whatever, but the truth is this is going to have a long time span. We are not going to solve it in our lifetimes. I fear it's going to be grim. But I believe the values of tolerance and diversity will win out. It's going to be our defining struggle. I think you can see that in that airplane, and I think those passengers could see it, too."