After sitting on eight hours of exclusive footage shot at ground zero on 9/11, writer/director Lou Angeli had to completely re-invent his vision when he started putting together his doc Answering the Call: Ground Zero’s Volunteers last August. The reason? More than 12,000 pages of documents and audio tapes released by the city of New York, thanks to a Freedom of Information suit filed by The New York Times.
A firefighter for more than 25 years, Angeli had been waiting for the right time to make his 87-minute doc about the tent community of rescue personnel that flourished among the rubble of the towers. While he gave copies of his footage to FEMA, the FBI and the National Institute for Standards in Technology – all of whom were responsible for finding out why the landmarks fell – he chose not to license the lion’s share, save for a six-minute clip reel he made available to news outlets.
But the release of the documents opened new opportunities that changed the film’s development. For example, the first four-and-a-half minutes of Call – which originally set the stage by quickly taking viewers through the events of 9/11 using only fire and police radio communications – were scrapped in favor of new and far more dramatic firefighter audio. In turn, this forced a more melancholy score.
The tapes also eliminated the necessity for re-enactments, which Angeli wanted to avoid. At one point on 9/11, emergency services personnel and 30 civilians were trapped under rubble, their only way out being a triple-pane window they couldn’t break. A trapped police officer emptied his revolver into the glass to shatter it and they broke free. That drama was destined to be recreated, but Angeli found the radio call in which the officer warns he’s about to shoot, and it was enough to carry the scene.
The documents also had an impact on National Geographic’s 2 x 1-hour series Inside 9/11, although senior VP of production Michael Cascio says they served as more of a fact-checking tool than anything else. Nat Geo already had fire department recordings it preferred, though it did add the Able Danger (an intelligence unit looking for al Qaeda terrorists) info and made minor changes. But even these retouches were enough to trigger an editing crunch in August, when the nearly completed film was re-examined against the new documents to ensure its veracity.
‘The question is,’ asks Cascio, ‘when do you stop? At some point you just have to say: this is what we know… Some say [events are] news for seven days, and after the seventh day [they're] history. I don’t subscribe to that. But certainly four years after the event it was time to take a comprehensive look at 9/11… We are the first draft of history, and it’s pre-dawn comprehensive.’
Inside 9/11 pulled in a record-breaking 18 million viewers during its two-night run, exceeding normal ratings by 900% at points during its broadcast. And the audience actually grew for the second night. The series airs again September 8 and 11, and will roll out internationally in Q1 ’06.
For its part, Call is in limited digital theatrical release through Illuminare Entertainment in L.A., but it will go wider when 35mm prints are made this month. The plan is for a nine-month run to qualify for an Academy Award position. Versions are being prepped in French, Italian and Mandarin. bc