Nicolas Cage as Port Authority policeman John McLoughlin in World Trade Center.
Much like the way moviemaker James Cameron chose to tell the story of the Titanic disaster through the eyes of a young love struck couple, director Oliver Stone deftly co-mingles the intimate with the epic in his latest film, World Trade Center, which opens this week.
World Trade Center is based on the true story of two New York Port Authority police officers - John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) - who become trapped in the rubble of the fallen towers soon after arriving on the scene. But Stone’s film is ultimately about family, and how 9/11’s tragic events impact the lives of the protagonists’ wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively), children and extended families. A New York City native himself, Stone recently explained how he was able to catch up with a topic seemingly tailor-made for his artistic sensibilities.
Q: Before the producers approached you about doing Word Trade Center, had you considered any other film about 9/11?
A: Only briefly - in October of 2001, actually. I was involved in a New York Film Festival panel discussion (“Making Movies That Matter”), and I got into some heated words [with journalist Christopher Hitchens]. It's been so misquoted. David Ansen of Newsweek was the moderator and he – thank God – had a tape recorder. It came up again recently and we had it transcribed. The misquoting was so ridiculous, I won't dignify it by repeating it here. But I was very clear and I think my position was very solid about the attacks. I was resisting the rage by saying that we should have a reasoned response to this thing. There was so much emotion back then, especially in New York.
Q: What kind 9/11 project were you entertaining at that time?
A: I wanted to do a documentary-like film, like The Battle of Algiers. It would be a great idea to do it about the attacks and about the terrorists. At the time, everybody was saying, “let’s run away from realism in the movies” -- remember that whole business? And I was going the other way. I was saying, “Let's be realistic. Let's look at it. Let's not shy away from the face of our fear.” And, unfortunately, my [sentiment] was misunderstood.
Anyway, the film never got made, because at the time, it wasn't the [right] climate. And I moved on with my life. I was in Iran - and I was doing Alexander for three years. So I was in another place and time.
Q: How did you become involved with World Trade Center?
A: Out of the blue, my agent sent me a script. He's a man of literary taste and he said, “I read this script two or three weeks ago, and it stays with me. I don't know if it's ever going to be made. I don't know if it'll make a dime. I don't know if you could get it made it. But read it.”
I read it and had the same impression. It stuck with me. And I said, right away, “I'd love to do it.” I wasn't hesitant. This was a brilliant microcosm of that day. It looked at the smallest people in the pit of hell, where the two buildings collapsed. It's like the poster sort of depicts, and they actually survived and lived to tell their story. And, it was all true. But the irony was it was “passed on” by a few people. I don't know who exactly, as it wasn't mine to begin with -- but it was passed on, because it was so small, because people couldn't see beneath the bushes that there was something here.
Q: It was an interesting choice to focus on two people who didn't get a chance to become heroes. They were heroes in their own way, but how did you relate to their story as a filmmaker?
A: Well, as first responders, that’s what [Cage and Peña’s characters John and Will] were prepared for. Certainly, you know, the 50 or 60 people who plunged into that earth to get these two guys out – some of them thought they were going to die. For example, when Scotty Strauss [Stephen Dorff] says to a guy in the film, “my wife's name is Judy Strauss. Tell her and the kids I love her.” End of story. He really thought he was going to die. These guys that went in, they really took their lives into their own hands.
John and Will were not trained the same way some of these other specialists were. So it was this mix of people. You see in the first few minutes of the movie, methodically, John (Cage) is acquiring the equipment to go up in the Towers. He's smart, he's doing it by the numbers, but he's not doing any Rambo stuff.
Q: What were some of the logistics involved in shooting the extensive scenes of John and Will trapped underground in the World Trade Center rubble?
A: We built modules that were complicated. The actors were in a big hole, but we were able to move them with wires. Will (Peña) was about 20 or 25 feet above and to the side of John (Cage). And because of the aural and visual relationship between two people who can't see each other, they have to look in different directions [than usual]. It took about 25 days altogether to film that part of it. It was like being in a charcoal pit for a long time. It was non-toxic smoke, but it got to me.
Q: Would you ever want to make a film about the Iraq situation?
A: Maybe. I won't disqualify myself from that. This is taking all of me right now. This is a huge effort. Let me breathe and then we'll see what happens. And by the way, I might do something positive also about the military. I view it as a dramatist does. There was a very interesting series of actions in Afghanistan that happened before Iraq, which is a different war. So you can go both ways. Some of the forces are very well-trained and do their job very well, like the Special Forces. I admire the Special Forces.
Q: Conversely, can you imagine yourself doing a lighter movie, like a comedy?
A: Yes, absolutely. I could do a comedy in a second if I found the right thing. If a script came along that appealed to me like World Trade Center did, I would do it in a second. I very much admired Wedding Crashers, the Fockers movies, and I loved Monster-in-Law. You know, I worked with Rodney Dangerfield on Natural Born Killers and I think he was very funny and dark in the movie. He was after me, after the picture, for years to make three of his scripts!
Q: You have said that the film’s postscript, relating what happened to marine Dave Karnes (played by Michael Shannon), was added because people thought he wasn’t real. Did that surprise you?
A: We previewed it in Seattle and audiences thought we had added him, because, I suppose, there's more of a layer of cynicism or skepticism about Hollywood. They thought we'd added a whole layer of fiction, that we wanted to spice up the truth. But we didn't make up a thing.
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