TheWrap speaks with 20 filmmakers, executives and journalists about the legacy of the attacks on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11
Twenty years after the Twin Towers at Manhattan’s World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001, Hollywood is still grappling with the repercussions — along with the rest of America.
Stories and storytelling were changed both in the short and long term. The world was no longer seen in black and white, and filmmakers started down a long road toward reassessing the types of narratives to fit the rapid and profound changes in society.
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“We’re still grappling with how this era has changed us. And in some ways, probably the great films of the post-9/11 era possibly haven’t even been made yet,” filmmaker Greg Barker, director of the documentary “Detainee 001,” told TheWrap. “We’ll be living with this shock to our national psyche for some time.”
TheWrap spoke with 20 filmmakers, industry executives and journalists who shared their memories of 9/11 and how they feel Hollywood and the media have evolved in the years since. They’ve observed how art has helped provide context and emotional closure for Americans, how it has reshaped our relationships with the news, military and people around the world, and what Hollywood’s obligation is to a generation too young to remember the attacks.
“How do we who live through history and make sure we’re telling stories accurately and reflecting the truth or clearly making it entertainment?” Arianna Bocco, president of IFC Films, said. “There’s a responsibility we have as storytellers and purveyors of stories that for future generations who didn’t live through it will be looking at.”
(These conversations have been edited for clarity)
Robert Gillings, creator of “Paper Empire” and director of “American Fright Fest”
Everybody knows where they were. There’s no doubt about that… My sister Melissa was working on the 12th floor of the North Tower. She always paid tribute to the fire department because over the intercom they were told to stay at their desks, everything is OK and then the fire department came charging in, and they immediately told everybody to evacuate. She attributes the fire department to saving her life. I still get choked up.
The 9/11 attacks completely changed entertainment. You can just tell by the series that were on before and after. “Homeland,” coming out immediately after. Even more interest in the FBI and CIA, and straight across the board patriotic interests. The 9/11 attacks did the opposite of what they wanted to do; they wanted to tear this country apart and instead they put it together in a patriotic way… Nobody could’ve dreamed up the movies, the real-life stories that came after. Hollywood scrambled to answer questions, and they added real-life trauma and worth-watching stories of true events.
The antiheroes became the heroes. One of my favorites being Jack Bauer, a one-man war against terrorism in “24,” an incredible series. He’s my favorite TV hero. And then I come to think about what’s going on right now, and I think that politicians could actually learn from Hollywood TV shows. Because never would you see a TV series where we pull our military and our protective services out first leaving our citizens exposed and vulnerable to harm. In television no one is left behind.
Robert Smigel, Writer, “Saturday Night Live”
Comedy was never really the same after that. People were just so much more invested in current events from that moment on, and it’s never really gone back. There was a period when Obama was in charge, where it sort of calmed down a little bit, but for the most part, it’s just been a very intense time and “The Daily Show” sort of started to flourish at that time, and that show has had more influence on late-night than anybody else.
Arianna Bocco, president, IFC Films
I was living in Los Angeles and was in Toronto in between jobs. The announcement of my new job at Miramax in New York was on the front page of the September 11 New York Variety issue. I have that front page framed because it’s such an odd day. It took almost three weeks to find out if I even had a job anymore.
Film certainly reflects the culture we live in. We entered into a period where there were a lot of stereotypes. But I think too about a generation of teenagers and twentysomethings who didn’t live through it and don’t know it except as a piece of history. How do we who live through history make sure we’re telling stories accurately and reflecting the truth or clearly making it entertainment?
Richard Lorber, president and CEO, Kino Lorber
My wife had gone to Greenwich Village to pick up our daughter in school there. She called to tell me what was happening. I had just awakened at our temporary apartment on the Upper West Side while our new co-op was in renovation. I had the forever indelible memory of seeing the first tower collapse through my window. Twenty years later, I’m living literally across the street from the new tower in the Financial District, overlooking the reflecting pools. The memory of 9/11 is with me every time I look out my window now, and the beams of light emanate from a rooftop adjacent to my building every 9/11, as if i need another reminder each anniversary.
9/11 is part of our culture and tribal memory with so many extensions of meaning into every aspect of life and media that it’s impossible to parse any precise outcome in the entertainment media. One enduring impact for me: looking out my window as i saw one of the towers collapse — in silent slow motion that plays over and over again in my mind, it was nightmarishly dreamlike beyond anything Hollywood would have theretofore imagined, and it seems they’ve been reimagining dystopias and nightmare realities ever more compulsively as though the creative imagination itself post-9/11 has incurable PTSD.
I can’t pin this all on 9/11, but we’ve seen a steady uptick of narrative films, particularly entertainment that focuses on tragedy…Is that because of the traumatic events of 9/11? Maybe, maybe not, but it seems to converge with that. Beyond that, we’re also seeing uptick in the documentary form. It’s the embrace of real life as filtered through the media sensibilities as a way of grappling with these horrific tragedies at an epic scale that we would’ve never imagined before. That’s not to downplay other recent events in history like WWII, but this was such a concentrated and colossal event that I think it just set everybody’s minds on what is real and what is not real.
Neal Baer, former showrunner on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and president of Baer Bones Productions
I was at Chelsea Piers in New York. That’s where they were shooting “Law & Order: SVU” then, and I was showrunner. I was also showrunner for a miniseries about terrorism (“Terror”) that was going to feature all the characters from “SVU” and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” I had been at the World Trade Center the Thursday before, and we were scouting locations… we were ready to start casting when everything happened. I stood at Chelsea Piers and watched both buildings come down. Then I saw people running up the West Side Highway covered in debris and soot. It was terrifying, an almost out-of-body experience… I just remember feeling aimless, just walking down the street and there was soot and ash, it felt like a kind of demented “Twilight Zone.”
We didn’t do the miniseries. It just wouldn’t have been appropriate. The first thing was, we had to change the opening credits of “SVU,” we had to remove the Twin Towers because the towers weren’t there anymore… It was paralyzing; everything just stopped for some time. COVID is unfolding in a very different way.
Kelly O’Donnell, White House correspondent, NBC News
Covering 9/11 provided proof in those early days and a powerful memory now that I can never again disregard the unthinkable. As much as life since paved for us layers of new normal, I remain quietly wary that a beautiful day can be disrupted with danger and utter disaster. That knowledge is often carefully packed away but when there are new threats or warnings today during my assignments on the White House beat, I take a deep breath knowing the unimaginable can become real.
My memories from covering 9/11 for NBC News most often settle on sensory recollections of the scale of destruction at Ground Zero with its acrid air, the stretch of charred field at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the neighborhood street corners covered with candles and posters of the missing.
Had that day not happened, I would not have been sent to cover military operations in the Middle East and war in Iraq. But 9/11 influences how I think about all kinds of news assignments because it’s scarred the country and changed many parts of everyday life. That influence makes me ask questions and view events with a pained perspective that 9/11 showed us unthinkable things do happen and can become the stories we tell.
Steve Doocy, co-host of Fox News’ “Fox & Friends”
I remember that morning I was outside a couple of times and thought that the weather could not have been more perfect… not a cloud in the sky. I was walking back into the studio after doing an outdoor interview with Mr. Peanut from Planters peanuts when a producer said into my ear, “Get inside. We’re going live. A plane hit the WTC.”
How could a plane hit the World Trade Center? Not a cloud in the sky. “It had to be a radio station’s traffic reporter,” I thought. Then we heard it was a big plane, maybe 767 — a fully automated plane — and I surmised it had to be a navigation or air-traffic control error. Then the second plane hit live on TV and we quickly realized it was a coordinated hijacking by terrorists. America was under attack and I thought again about how that Tuesday began… The most beautiful weather on the most terrifying day of my life.
Suddenly there was great interest news about international security issues, Americans looked beyond our own borders and started wondering who else out there in another part of the world might be plotting or planning to hurt our homeland and I think that continued through Bin Laden’s death. At that time, there was great excitement and a lot of people thought, “We got him. It’s over — we won the War on Terror!” As we’ve seen in Afghanistan this summer, it’s not over.
Nick Fituri Scown, director, “Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11”
I was actually looking at film schools at the time of the attack and visited New York shortly after. I didn’t end up attending Columbia or NYU, but the overwhelming pain felt in the city at that time left a huge imprint on me, to the point where 20 years later, I’ve made a documentary about that pain and how the city and country managed to recover from it with the help of comedians and entertainers like David Letterman and Jon Stewart.
As a Libyan American filmmaker, the biggest change I’ve witnessed in Hollywood in the past two decades has been the depictions of Muslims, Arabs and other people of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian descent. Even before the attacks, but especially during the Iraq War era, the only portrayals in news coverage, film or television seemed to be that of the dangerous, scary terrorists.
While we as a nation are obviously still struggling with Islamophobia, as witnessed by the previous administrations’ travel ban which blocked people like my father and siblings from visiting America, it is heartening that at least in Hollywood there has been some actual progress made. We finally get to watch things like “Ramy” or “Master of None” or “We Are Lady Parts” or “Persepolis”that show that whatever cultural or religious differences may exist, at the end of the day we have the same struggles, longings and foibles as everyone else.
David Wild, executive producer of 9/11 Day’s “Shine a Light” special on CNN
I remember waking up before dawn that Tuesday morning here in Los Angeles to catch up with my wife and our two young boys, who had then just recently turned 2 and 4 years old. I remember my wife and I trying to make sense of the surreal images on the TV screen, all while shielding our young children from seeing what we were seeing. Like everyone else, we were in an extended state of shock for days, gradually hearing terrible news about a cousin of mine and a work colleague’s wife who were among the many casualties of this tragedy. Then that Friday evening, I got a call from Joel Gallen asking me to be the head writer for what would soon become the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” all-network telethon.
Being a part of putting together that broadcast over the days that followed was life-changing in many ways. Among them, it gave those of us on that team a positive way to channel our sense of loss and feel in some small way of use. Over the past two decades, Hollywood has changed in a million ways that seem good, bad and ugly. Yet working in recent days on “Shine a Light” I have been reminded once again that despite all the cynicism about the Hollywood community, artists and entertainers still have meaningful parts to play in honoring the very best in us, in expressing compassion and helping us seek some much needed common ground to stand and rebuild upon. Even on our darkest day — perhaps especially on our darkest day — there is still a way for all of us to do our part and shine a light.
Brian Knappenberger, director and executive producer, Netflix’s “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror”
On 9/11, a friend woke me up to say, “Turn on the television” and for a week I couldn’t look away from the screen. I had a creeping sense that life as we knew it had changed. The floor beneath us all had disappeared. Who had done this and why? I was deeply compelled to understand it, and so I picked up the tools most familiar to me — a camera and microphone — and found my way to Kandahar to create one of my first films. There is no question on that day we felt united as a country, but an angry thirst for revenge also emerged that made me uncomfortable. The events of 9/11 and what came after shattered everything I thought I knew about my country.
Even though it was waged in the digital age, the war in Afghanistan is one of the most underreported — and least understood — wars in American history. There was a widespread notion in media that people just weren’t interested. Combine that with entrenched secrecy in the war on terror and that fostered disinformation and conspiracy when details would emerge. As a country we have suffered as a result, but the independent documentary community was a rare beacon of light. It is one of the few places that told stories from the region, followed war developments, uncovered injustices and generally spoke truth to power. To those of us engaged in the documentary world, I think it emerged stronger and has never seemed more vital.
Lesli Klainberg, executive director, Film at Lincoln Center
We didn’t know what was happening. I remember coming into the edit room and saying we have to look at the window. And I remember so clearly that the shades were drawn up in this very theatrical way, and suddenly this reveal, the towers and Tower 1 was on fire, but it wasn’t clear what had happened yet. I pulled out my video camera and started shooting. I maybe have an hour, hour and a half of footage from that day. Some shots were used in a documentary. But I just had this in instinct to start recording and shooting it.
We saw the second tower get hit, we didn’t see the plane but we saw this huge flame burst, and then we watched the towers fall. Everybody was just screaming as the first tower came down, and we were just in disbelief as we were watching it, and the second tower again. It was a surreal day for everyone… It was like a movie playing out in front of us because it was in a big window. It was right there and the perspective was perfect. After a little while, people started to walk up from Lower Manhattan up Lafayette Street, and they were all covered in dust. There were no cars, just people coming up Lafayette Street, and every single one of them was covered in dust.
The whole transformation of Lower Manhattan and consequently the reinvestment in the cultural institutions in the city was really spurred on by a post-9/11 desire to rebuild the city and reclaim it a bit. There was a big investment made in cultural institutions and businesses that are downtown, but you can look at the Lincoln Center campus and the money that’s been invested in here over the last 10 years or so in Alice Tully Hall and our Film Center.
Joe Pichirallo, Producer, ex-studio executive and faculty member at NYU Tisch School of the Arts
I was at the Toronto Film Festival. I had just gone to an early morning screening and when I came out there were several phone messages from my wife, who was in L.A., telling me that she and our son (who was 1 at the time) were all safe. I had no idea what she was talking about. With all the U.S. flights canceled, it was tough to be stranded in a far-off city away from my family.
Certainly, documentaries are a bigger deal in general, and 9/11 and terrorism-related stories have been a subject explored in numerous documentaries. Immediately after 9/11, people were hungry for feel-good films that made you laugh. That interest was best exemplified by the strong and unexpected audience response to the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which far exceeded box office expectations at a time Hollywood was moving away from romantic comedies and into franchise films.
Laura Benanti, actress, “Worth”
I remember I lived on 62nd Street, and I opened up my shades, and I saw people in their suits, covered in white, walking home, in the middle of the street. They had walked home from all the way downtown, just covered in dust like zombies. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The horrendous fear and loss of that time was immeasurable, but to also be a New Yorker, on that day, and then in the days and weeks and months following, and to see how everyone banded together, was really a testament to the human spirit and leaning toward the light and good versus evil. So all of that is woven into the fabric of who I am as a person.
We can remember a time where we were all able to cross the aisle and do the right thing for each other, without being politicized for the most part. We were all able to come together in service of one another in our country. And I think if we need to hear anything right now, it is that message.
Greg Barker, director, “Detainee 001”
My strongest memory was the next day living in London, going down outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral where there were about 50- or 60,000 people gathered. The Queen was doing a moment of silence inside. But I was outside with these huge crowds. There was this sense of camaraderie and one family. It was a mixed crowd, because London is a diverse city, of people showing their revulsion at the attacks and the sense that we all had to come together to counter hatred.
Over the last 20 years, a lot of the news media has failed to give proper context to the events that unfolded. There’s been a lot of cheerleading and not a lot of reflection and context. Films, long-form storytelling, novels, have tried to fill that void. We’re still grappling with how this era has changed us. And in some ways many probably the great films of the post-9/11 era haven’t even been made yet. We’ll be living with this shock to our national psyche for some time.
Bob Woodruff, journalist and war correspondent, ABC News, Co-Founder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation
All of us had no idea this was going to be what it ended up being. We never really realized this war would last for 20 years. Back then, we thought it would maybe be short. Maybe in some ways this country would be freed up. Osama bin Laden would be eliminated quickly.
After we were hit the next couple of days, my wife was telling me all the neighbors in London were flying American flags. They were so on our side. They were imagining what it would be like for a country to have their major city of New York just hit by multiple planes and the same time at the Pentagon and there in Pennsylvania. This really took what always seemed to be distant battles against terrorist groups were suddenly in our own backyard.
We came out of an era of war coverage that was really a huge separation between the media and the military world. But now that we had a country of our own that had been attacked from someone from the outside, the mission seemed to be shared with the media different than other wars like Vietnam in the past. I embedded twice, both of them in Iraq. And it was in 2006 we were badly hit by an IED. My life changed in an instant. My personal relationship with the military of course skyrocketed. They helped to save my life.
Don Mischer, producer of the Emmys and “9/11 Remembered: The Day We Came Together”
On that Tuesday morning, I got up early, I was making Cream of Wheat for breakfast and my wife was going to take the kids to school. I got a call. You’d better turn on your television set and see what’s happening in New York. It was earth-shattering; my 9-year-old son came and sat with me, and I was trying to explain what was going on, and he said: “But Daddy, then the hijackers, they died too.” He just couldn’t figure it out.
I was in L.A., five days away from the Emmy Awards, which I was producing with Ellen DeGeneres as host. We rescheduled the Emmy Awards and made an entirely new show that combined L.A. and New York, for another try in October. We were in the middle of a dress rehearsal when (another staffer) came up to me and said, “My mom in Kansas just told me this show is canceled.” (The show, postponed again due to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, eventually aired in November.)
The morning of 9/11 changed my life for 20 years, because we have produced annual commemorations throughout that time. What happened has become part of our collective consciousness. I don’t think that it specifically triggered a lot of changes in Hollywood, but to be honest with you, this 20th anniversary special is more important than anything we’ve ever done, there is interest from around the world. Maybe because of COVID and all the other depressing things we are going through, it seems to have more resonance today.
Justin Lacob, head of development, XTR
I was in my senior year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and was just about to get ready for class when my housemates burst into my room to tell me that a plane just hit the World Trade Center. We watched in horror as another plane plowed into the second tower and watched in shock as both towers fell to the ground. As a New Yorker, it was surreal, a punch to the gut moment of heartbreak, grief, outrage, anxiety and sheer terror. This was a moment before widespread cell phones, before social media, and with telephone networks down across the world, our inability to get in touch with each other provided a whole other level of fear. At that moment, in those hours, before we knew what happened, my friends and housemates and I just had each other.
The rise of escapism as entertainment. The fantasy and superhero genres that crossed from fanboy culture to the mainstream. I don’t think we have would have the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without the heroic efforts of first responders on 9/11 or fantasy epics like “The Lord of the Rings” or “Avatar” without audiences seeking imaginary worlds to escape from the horrors of the real world. Family-friendly reality competition and celebrity driven series that created an aspirational culture of fame that ultimately drove the success of YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. And of course, the surge of intense patriotism and an America first mentality within Hollywood storytelling that foretold the rise of Trump, as well as false narratives that have inspired a generation of journalists and documentary filmmakers seeking the truth.
Dan Lindsay, executive producer, NatGeo’s “9/11: One Day in America”
I can never describe it but I will never forget the smell in lower Manhattan. I will also never forget the image of all the missing posters posted up around the city. I also have a very clear memory of being at Arlington National Cemetery in D.C. when I looked up in the air and saw the first plane I had seen in the sky in days. Something about that has always stuck with me.
My experience working “in the industry” more or less started that day. 9/11 was obviously an inflection point for history but in many ways it was for me too.
Ellen Goosenberg Kent, director and producer, “Rebuilding Hope: The Children of 9/11” on Discovery+
9/11/2001 was my son’s first day of first grade. I wanted to turn on the news and see and hear what happened but I definitely didn’t want my son to see it. How do you explain a terrorist to an innocent child? I remember my sense of relief when he told me he thought the people in the Towers dug tunnels to get out. We couldn’t go home because we lived seven blocks away from Ground Zero and there were police blockades. I will never forget the stinging, burning odor and yellow-gray color of the air in our neighborhood and that gorgeous cloudless blue sky. The film I made this past year references all of those haunting sense memories and the heavy feeling that my son would grow up in a new and more threatening world. But his generation is determined to do better than ours.
There’s a slow-growing awareness that we desperately need a wider array of voices and storytellers to help us understand and make sense of our global community and the lived experiences of peoples of color and different world cultures. More women are directing and writing more films — still far too few. Hollywood is slow to change even while those who work in our business are some of the best educated, socially aware people around. But Hollywood is developing more backbone and television is leading the way. We’d all love to see more independent films finding homes.
Mike Flanagan, director and writer, “The Haunting of Hill House”
I was 23 when the towers fell, living just north of Baltimore. I was just out of college and working as an editor on a local television production. My boss came in as we were starting to work and told us there was an accident in New York. We turned on the TV. Everybody got very quiet. And shortly after, we all just started filing out, heading home. I went back to my apartment, which I shared with two roommates, and we were glued to the TV all day. My father worked in Washington, DC, at the time and we started trying to call him. We couldn’t reach him at first and I remember that fear.
Later in the day, a group of us got organized enough to go give blood, but for the most part we sat and stared at the television. There was crying, there was silence. I remember realizing that none of us had eaten anything, and it was dark out by then. There was disbelief. We didn’t know yet just how much the world had changed… I remember someone saying, “What if the world hasn’t changed, what if we’re just seeing what it’s really like for the first time?” That stuck with me.
Beatrice Verhoeven, Diane Haithmann, Andi Ortiz, Lindsey Ellefson and Tim Baysinger all contributed to this report.
Film Reporter • firstname.lastname@example.org • Twitter: @brianwelk