Tribeca Panel Series: Actor, Producer, Family Member on "United 93"

In a somewhat unprecedented move for a Hollywood producer, Levin downplayed Universal Studios' desire to make a profit from the film, saying, "studios do have a heart, somewhere."
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On Wednesday, April 26, the Tribeca Talks panel discussion program opened with "Visions of Truth and History: Artists in Action After 9/11." The panel, hosted by WNYC Radio's Brian Lehrer, consisted of "United 93" producer Lloyd Levin and star David Alan Basche, as well as Ann Hoog, curator of the September 11, 2001 Documentary Project at the Library of Congress' Folklife Center, and Paula Berry, wife of September 11th victim David Berry and the sole family member to serve as a juror on the World Trade Center memorial design selection committee.

The discussion centered around "United 93," specifically on the controversy and debate concerning the film's timing and potential for exploitation of the attacks. In a somewhat unprecedented move for a Hollywood producer, Levin downplayed Universal Studios' desire to make a profit from the film, saying, "studios do have a heart, somewhere." Sure they do; it's stashed in a storage warehouse in West Hollywood behind boxes of old reels and ancient printouts of weekend grosses. Benevolent motives aside, it's highly unlikely that Universal does not care whether or not they make money on this film. No one begrudges artists compensation for their work -- and studios who sink money into a film's production are not wrong to want to recoup those costs and more. But it is disingenuous to disclaim any profit motive whatsoever.

Basche, who plays passenger Todd Beamer, admitted feeling "reticence" and "trepidation" upon being cast, though he said his worries dissipated after spending "about 16 seconds with [director] Paul Greengrass," whom Basche recounted as being "so passionate" about the film's importance. The other members of the panel agreed that, though they all had reservations about seeing it, there was no good reason that the film should not have been made. Even Berry, who hasn't seen the film ("I wasn't ready yet," she said. "We're all in it still...I just can't go there."), nonetheless supported the film's release. "The timing is fine," she said. "[The public] can't question the timing of all forms of expression about 911." Hoog made the point that the first art dealing with September 11th was visible as early as September 12th, in the form of posters and memorials on the streets in New York and Washington D.C.

Throughout the discussion, Basche and Levin emphasized the historical importance and supposed lack of dramatization in the film. Levin said that, while much of the public objection was likely caused by apprehension over the expected "Hollywood-ization" of the topic, Greengrass and the studio had made no attempt to make the film "glossed," "user friendly" or "glamourized." He also re-emphasized (it has been noted in much of the pre-press) that "United 93" had not been approved until members of every flight 93 victim's family had been contacted and expressed their support. Basche, who said that the actors were "wonderfully supported by family members," did not speak with Beamer's family to prepare for his role, instead trading e-mails with Beamer's father and reading wife Lisa Beamer's book "Let's Roll: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Courage."

Despite the proverbial elephant in the auditorium trumpeting: "Who will shell out ten bucks and spend a Friday night seeing this?" Levin and Basche remained guardedly optimistic about the film's appeal to viewers. To the question, "Will anyone actually see this movie?" Basche answered that Universal's promise to donate 10 percent of its opening weekend gross to the Flight 93 National Memorial Fund could encourage filmgoers (note that that figure leaves out 90% of the opening weekend gross plus all the proceeds thereafter). He also said he hoped that that younger viewers would see the film to "learn a lot they didn't know about the events in question." Levin said that a growing audience wanted to be "challenged and provoked" by films, rather than simply entertained. Challenged and provoked, yes. Morbidly and utterly depressed, maybe not so much.

Basche shared a wealth of details about the production and filming, revealing that Greengrass had prepared meticulously for the project: rather than a formal script, he instead used a 20-page treatment containing the timeline of events and personal information about each passenger including their nationality, hometown, final destination, purpose for travel and exact seat location. All cell phone calls placed immediately prior to and during Flight 93 were carefully documented in the treatment and their content recreated from either the recipient's recollection or answering machine recordings. During filming, Greengrass placed a large clock behind the camera and began rolling, while actors ad-libbed dialogue and placed their designated calls at the correct times. Individual takes could last from 20 to 50 minutes, with all events occurring in real time. Basche also said that he and the other cast members playing the passengers and crew were kept separate from the four actors portraying the hijackers. The two groups stayed in separate hotels, ate separate meals, and did not meet prior to filming, all according to Greengrass' instruction.

Levin and Basche worked hard to stress the film's importance as an accurate historical documentation, but seemed reluctant to admit that much of the dialogue was potentially fictional. Basche noted that Ben Sliney, who plays himself as chief of air-traffic-control operations at the FAA's Herndon, VA command center on September 11th, could provide Greengrass with far more accurate recollections of the morning's events because the day was still recent and fresh in his mind. Basche cited recently-released black box recordings from Flight 93 as evidence that the film "got it right" (warning: the linked article has a lot of very upsetting details); but he later said that certain interactions between passengers were entirely the "actor's choice." In particular, a scene in which German passenger Christian Adams (Erich Redman) attempts to appease and negotiate with the hijackers is not based on any historical evidence. When questioned about the arguable fiction and possible misrepresentation in the scene, Levin called the character's views a "deeply human reaction, and truthful." Neither man seemed willing to acknowledge that, with entirely ad-libbed dialogue mapped only by documented phone calls, the room for actor dramatization was pretty expansive.

Throughout the event, the panelists avoided the words "conspiracy theory" like ebola in an elevator. Levin was openly dismissive of any mention of disputed facts concerning both the attacks on the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93. After one audience member passionately expressed her belief that the truth about September 11th had not yet been revealed, Berry responded diplomatically that "a place existed" for "those ideas," before moving on to another question. Levin was also careful to mention that the film's intent was "not to indict" any members of the military or current political administration, adding that the film has had "a prismatic effect on people" where politics are concerned. Considering the growing movement questioning the facts of 9/11 -- which has now made it into the mainstream media, not to mention the comments section on this blog, the panelists' reluctance to openly acknowledge the issue seemed overly optimistic at best, and naive at worst. After all, the panel was about the expression of thoughts and ideas, and the audience was not shy about sharing theirs. No doubt this is not the end of the discussion. While I found the panel's words fascinating and often poignant, like much of the rest of the audience the event solidified my resolve not to see the film.

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