Paul Greengrass: "They were fighting for their lives and they were fighting to get home."

Paul Greengrass tackles the story of the flight that fought back in the award-winning United 93.
France, May 2006

How do you think this adds to the debate about what happened on 9/11 and do you think it will help in a dialogue between communities?

“OK, well, it seemed to me, starting this film, that 9/11, and particularly this aeroplane, United 93, in some ways symbolically the heart of the event, had been kind of corralled from two sides of a political debate. On the one side you had ‘Let’s roll’ turned into a political slogan, that it meant all sorts of things, you know? And on the other hand you had the kind of conspiratorial left, in a sense, arguing that this was not the truth and the truth, ultimately, was that the bad guys were our government – we were being lied to and so on and so forth.

“One of the things this film is an attempt to do is take those two propositions and say, ‘Let’s try and explore this story based on what we can verifiably know and then, in good faith, using the tools at our disposal, which are the 9/11 Commission, and a group of actors and aviation professionals and pilots, and sitting in a real aeroplane, with the timeline, let’s explore what probably happened, and be faithful to what we know happened.’ Because we know, broadly speaking, what happened; we know when the hijack occurred, we know roughly when it ended, we know roughly where they were in the aeroplane, we know when they started making calls, we know from the many calls over the next 20 minutes, roughly speaking, what was happening, we know from calls made on other aeroplanes, because they were doing the same thing, so we can extrapolate a lot, and the 9/11 Commission did that, and we know when the counter-attack began, and we know from many of the phone calls that it had the character of a mass attack, not just a tiny group of people, and we know from what the plane did in the air what must have been occurring in there, and we know from the 30-minute cockpit voice recording what was going on in the cockpit. So we can know an awful. But, of course, we can’t know all.

“So, using all of that, let’s explore a believable truth, because that has got to be serving us better than either the political sloganeering or the conspiracy mongering, if you like.

“Now why is that important? It seems to me important because, at the moment, in the post-9/11 world, all our societies, but obviously the United States particularly, are riven with a debate between those two poles about what we’re going to do in the post-9/11 world and what our correct response should be. And obviously, clearly, clearly, we’re not improving the situation, the situation’s getting worse. So maybe we should go back to the place where it began. Wherever you are on the political spectrum, I think it’s common ground that something happened that day that caused our perceptions to change. So let’s sit down and tell the story of this one event and see what that tells us.”

How about also looking at the pre-9/11 world and the events and decisions which may have contributed to the reasons for the 9/11 attacks? My concern is that the power of films like United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre could make it appear almost obscene to engage in that kind of debate, that you drown out that kind of enquiry, that things like foreign policy and so on don’t get debated, especially in the mainstream discussion.

“I understand the question. I don’t agree at all. I think precisely the opposite, actually, and I thought that for quite a number of years, and that’s why I’ve made some of the films that I have. I think the attempt to contextualise in some ways leads you into more problems than refusing to contextualise, because one man’s contextualisation is another man’s propaganda, and that then becomes what the film is about. When, in fact, what you want is for people to contextualise it themselves. And I think they do.

“Now why do I think this? Well, I can tell you very clearly why: I can remember, a year ago, starting to explore in a serious way doing this film, but I wasn’t sure. You know, and it was having to do with making films like ‘Bloody Sunday’ and ‘Omagh’, and films like Stephen Lawrence, films about political violence where I’d worked very closely with families, so I was sort of thinking about should I, could I, what would it be, where would it go, and then 7/7 happened [the bombings in London in July 2005]. And I remember, I remember it quite distinctly, my son, we couldn’t find him for about an hour. He was fine, he was nowhere near the Tube, but for an hour, like I’m sure hundreds upon hundreds upon hundred of thousands of people, just like what happened in Madrid, just like happened in New York, just like happened in Bali, there’s this rippling out where you think, ‘Oh my God, maybe this thing has touched me.’ And you feel fear and anger. And when it’s over, and it’s all alright, you like look at this child and just think, ‘How have we got to this place that these things happen and what are we going to do about it?’

“What’s interesting here is it’s about this thing, which is, why involve the families? You have to involve the families, number one, because they’re the foundation of legitimacy. If you don’t have the strongest possible, and widest possible, support from the families, then you have no business making these films, in my view. But there’s another reason which in a way is even more important and it’s this, and I’ve said this many times when I’ve made films in Northern Ireland: If you wanted to understand the sort of real truths that lie at the heart of political violence in a democracy and what it’s about, go and talk to people whose lives have been destroyed by it. Really talk. Spend time with them. And I’ve done it, I’ve been lucky enough to do it, quite a lot in different places, different sorts of violence. The Bloody Sunday families, these innocent family members shot by the British army in a counter-terrorism operation; the Omagh families, people from all across the political spectrum and religious spectrum, blown up by a bomb on a market square; the United 93 families. Stephen Lawrence - it’s political violence, essentially; it’s racial violence the same thing - a Jamaican family, a son murdered in the middle of the street. What you find when you go and meet these people and spend time with them is the absolute reverse of what you think you’d find. You very rarely find bitterness and a thirst for revenge. But what you do find, always in my experience, is this sense of lives destroyed and changed in their direction irrevocably. You find a pattern of many of these people, from different backgrounds, different starting points, then compelled on a journey towards meaning, because their children or their parents or their husband or their wife have been killed, or horrendously injured. Why has this thing happened? What are we going to do to stop it?

“Those of us not touched directly don’t really ever want to engage in these questions. For us, we see these things happen on the television, and of course we’re shocked and momentarily we stop, pay our respects, but then we want to carry on with our lives, untouched, because it’s the World Cup coming, because I’m going to the pub, because I’ve got my holiday booked, and all that. And what we expect of these families is having had their anointed moment as victims, they disappear. But if you’re a family, compelled against your will and never expecting it to happen, parked up against the overwhelming psychological imperative to seek meaning, you refuse to accept victimhood. You demand to speak. You demand that we all address this issue. Why has this happened? What are we going to do about it?

“But we don’t really want to do that because to do it involves profound change, so you find often that we have this question, ‘Is it too early to do a film about 9/11?’ We don’t mean for them. They say, ‘Why wasn’t the film made the day after?’ We mean it’s too early for us to stop having our summer holidays and get to grips with this thing. Because we know what the context of this thing is. Every one of us, from wherever we are on the political spectrum, and whatever we think about what’s going on, know, ultimately, deep down, that our world is divided by this Western pocket of extraordinary modernity and wealth, and the rest of the world is a seething cauldron of resentment and anger. We know that.

“Now, we can have an argument about what we can do about it. But we know that that’s the reality. Somewhere this thing comes from there. But do any of us in any of our countries elect governments who are going to fix that? Would we vote for a party that would say, ‘We’re going to quadruple your tax because we’re going to deal with the problems of the world?’ No. Nowhere would we do that. Of course not, that’s the problem.”

How did you get the families’ permission?

“By asking them and accepting that if they said no you wouldn’t make the film, and by showing them the previous film’s I had made, and by making a commitment to speak to them, because I believe, based on the films I had made, that that wasn’t something that you get. It’s by engaging with them that you suffuse your film with exactly what I’m talking about:: the search for meaning, the requirement to find it.”

Were they all onboard from the start?

“I found this before when I asked, you tend to have three pockets of people: people who definitely want a film made, people who are not sure, and people who are opposed. Then you have to get into a dialogue and explain who you are, what you’ve done, and how you propose to make the film. Then what happened in this case is the undecideds became strongly convinced, and the sceptical people, we learnt a lot more about what their scepticism was based on, and that’s really quite interesting.

“Mrs Felt, her husband died in the plane, and I remember sitting at a meeting with her, and she was initially opposed to this film. She said she would meet and talk about it and I explained as honestly as I could what we were trying to do, and I said, ‘One of the problems, of course, is that any film I make will be quite realistic, otherwise there would be no point in me making it.’ I thought, of course, this would be one of her issues. I said, ‘It would be harrowing, and we must confront that, and if that’s not something people want then I wouldn’t make it. But I am worried that I might create images that would cause you distress.’ She’s a most impressive and formidable person and I’ll never forget it. She fixed me with a very steely eye, and she said, ‘There are no images that you could ever create that would come near the images that I live with every day and have done since September 11. The issue for me is not that. The issue is that I’m opposed to a film being made that doesn’t have them in it, because if you’re not prepared to address honestly the reality of this thing, then I’m not interested in being involved.’ So she came to believe, and I felt the moral force of what she was saying.”

Did you also get the families together?

“Oh yeah, absolutely. And continually. All the way across production and all the way to today. The other crucial issue when you meet families is to say, ‘Let me make my film but you will see it first. And if you don’t like it, of course you will say so publicly. And then the film will be destroyed. And rightly so.’ So you make yourself accountable to them, you know?”

How did you choose who would be heroic?

“There were no problems. In the end what you do is you sit together, collectively, as a group, and come up with rules. And the rules were to have a group of actors interacting with professional people. So, in the air traffic control, it was air traffic controllers and actors, in the military environment it was military personnel, and in the aeroplane flight attendants and pilots. They were real, trained, that’s what their jobs were, and you collectively discuss all the issues, searchingly and at length, and you set out at the outset saying, ‘We cannot know the truth, all we can do is be faithful to known facts, which are quite considerable. We know, broadly speaking, what happened, and we know a lot of the detail. But the choices that we make about what we don’t know, we will all discuss and we will all have reasons for them. Then we must trust that the aggregate of all of those choices, discussed, represents the best that we can do, given that we can never recreate the past.’ You can’t, you never can, it’s a piece of cinema. But you do that on the basis that it will speak to us today. That’s all you can do. Audiences will judge for themselves whether it feels believable and if it’s an insight that pushes back the political ownership of 9/11 from either side and creates this space where you can recognise common humanity, true meaning, in an event that speaks to us today. This event, this violent confrontation in a sealed, hi-tech aeroplane, guzzling gasoline, does that speak to us today? It does to me. It’s where we are, isn’t it?”

Is it difficult not to demonise people when you make a film like this?

“When I made Bloody Sunday, one of the things that film did was play very strongly in Britain, because people saw it for what it was: a truthful and honest attempt to explore what it was honestly like in the early years of the Troubles, without ducking the fact that tremendous mistakes were made and on that day murder was committed. But you didn’t feel that those soldiers were psychopathic monsters turning up to shoot innocent people. You felt what they were: trained soldiers in the middle of a counter-terrorism campaign, who had been told to go to a place to draw a line in the sand, and the build up of tension between the demonstration and the counter-demonstration, military activity created this ballet that in the end marched everybody over the edge. But it didn’t duck responsibility for who did what. And in a sense it’s the same with this film. You have to in some way craft a film that is dispassionate and compassionate so that you understand that you condemn, obviously, the horrendous violence took places on that aeroplane, but yet you understand that those young men are driven by a devout and blind sense of the rightness of their cause. I always used to say to my actors, ‘This is the line Bob Dylan never wrote when he wrote ‘God on our Side’”, because those guys thought they had God on their side.”

How difficult was it working without a script?

“Well we had a document. It wasn’t a formal screenplay in that sense but it probably had more words in it than the normal screenplay. It was 90-pages long, it was actually a prose document, but it was broken down scene by scene, so that we understood at each point where in the story we were. It had some pieces of dialogue in it but not very much. The reasons being that on the one hand, if you’re in, say, an air traffic control environment and an aeroplane drops its transponder, well there’s no point me writing dialogue for what an air traffic controller does at that point because those guys are trained for it all their lives. You just have to create the scenario and then they do what they do. In the aeroplane, of course, it was different, because in the aeroplane you’re mining elemental fear, basically, and there’s a certain point where you, as a director, if you want to express complex, collective eddies and shoals of emotion that race around in a group from individual to individual, that what you’re really addressing is the complexity of the group dynamics than being interested in the specifics of what people say. So what you were trying to do in that is divide off the groupings. You had the stewardesses at one end, the young men at the other, because that’s likely how it would work.”

At the end the film becomes a kind of metaphor, it seems to me, for the human condition, that it’s humanity clawing at humanity, and we’re all headed for disaster if we don’t find a solution to this problem. Was that your intention?

“Well I used to say to the actors, and I’m sure they’ll probably remember, ‘When you get out of your seats to engage in that last seven minutes of violence, you are those men and women then, fighting for your lives and fighting to get home.’ We all collectively felt quite sure that none of them were fighting for a cause or for politics. They were fighting for their lives and they were fighting to get home, and that, incidentally, is what the families felt. But somewhere along the line, as that struggle unfolds, I used to say, ‘I want to feel that you are still those individuals then, but you are us now, all of us now, and all of us tomorrow.’”

And does that go for the terrorists as well because they all seem equalised as human beings in this tragic moment?

“I wouldn’t say equalised. It depends what you mean by equal. Morally, no. But these images of a bloody struggle for the controls of a plane that’s plunging to the earth is an image that speaks to where we’re going if we’re not very careful. But not moral equivalence. I don’t believe in moral equivalence."

©Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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