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Investigating ‘United 93’: Researching and Honoring a Catastrophe: Part II

"And finally Paul decided to put Sliney in there, because he’s a natural character anyway. He’s obviously fearless of the camera..."
by U.J. Lessing

Former '60 Minutes II' producer Michael Bronner joined an eclectic team of researchers and filmmakers led by director Paul Greengrass. Bronner and his team were asked to conduct the painstaking research needed to portray the events both on the ground and in the air during the 9/11 attacks.

Bronner described the dynamics of the group he worked with. “What was so remarkable about this team was that everyone had a different strength - brought something unique to the table – so everyone was vital, and at the same time no one stepped on each other's toes. It was one of the most positive group environments I've ever worked in.”

His reporting led him to conduct many interviews and learn the inner workings of complex technological systems. In an interview, I talked with Bronner about how his research was used by director Paul Greengrass as a tool for recreating reality.

“It was sort of like a great big training exercise.”

Bronner explained that portraying the air traffic control centers on September 11 was an exercise in recreating reality. “We actually got the radar data from that day, and the production’s technical people programmed it into the scopes. We had all real air traffic controllers in there, and whether they were working that day or not, they were still real controllers that were sitting there.

“There were no scripts for them to memorize. They knew the general story from our treatment, and we would usually have one or two guys who were actually there on that day talking to them in their own language about what happened and how it happened.”

This process clearly had an effect on the performers, “…Paul would run these very long takes, often thirty minute takes,“ Bronner explained, “and (the Air Traffic Controllers would) respond to the actual data that they were seeing on their scopes. So they were responding as real air traffic controllers to the real data. It was sort of like a great big training exercise.

“What made the scenes work was when they would lose themselves in the moment, and so many of them said afterwards that it was like being at work, and they forgot about the cameras.”

“Ben, the production requests that you wear your suit tomorrow. This is not an exercise. This is not a test.”

One of the essential figures both in the research and filming phases of the project was Ben Sliney. Bronner described him as, “…one the biggest characters you could ever care to meet in real life.” Sliney served his first day as the National Operations Manager on September 11, 2001, and became a key player in the events of that day. It was his decision that resulted in the grounding of every commercial airplane in the United States on 9/11. Sliney was such an important resource for the production that his participation in “United 93” was extended.

Bronner explained, “He was so important during the research phase and so straightforward about how everything worked and everything didn’t work that we ended up bringing him out to Pinewood outside of London where we were shooting, as an advisor, to help us organize these very big, unwieldy scenes in terms of how they really happened. ...It was important to have him there to help choreograph.”

Little did Sliney know that he was about to play an even more essential role in the filmmaking process. “We had three days to shoot that scene, and we tried two days with an actor, who’s a very good actor but he just seemed to be having trouble.

“All the real controllers there were trying to help him and it just wasn’t working. And after two days of this we were sitting in a little office at Pinewood in the middle of the night, we probably sat there from 11:30 at night until close to 2 (am), just racking our brains trying to figure out what to do: whether to try to get another actor or whether to switch things around.

“And finally Paul decided to put Sliney in there, because he’s a natural character anyway. He’s obviously fearless of the camera, and such a leader. I was staying in the same hotel as he was in West London, and I slipped a note under his door that night.

One of Sliney’s customs was he would always wear a suit to work. And so I slipped a note under his door saying, ‘Ben, the production requests that you wear your suit tomorrow. This is not an exercise. This is not a test’ [echoing the phrase used during the initial confusion of 9/11 as the military sought to differentiate between the developing attack and a large-scale training exercise that had been planned for that morning].

“And he’s got a great sense of humor and he knew immediately what we were asking him, and sure enough he showed up in a suit and they gave him a haircut, and he jumped in there and was fantastic. That whole scene was shot in one day.”

Bronner’s admiration of Sliney’s sense of authority and uncanny ability to just jump into a major motion picture is apparent. “You meet some people, very few, but sometimes in the course of being a reporter, you meet people that strike you just as natural leaders, and he was definitely one of them.”

“…what’s clear from everything that’s recorded is that because of the passenger’s counterattack the plane ended up crashing, whether they physically overwhelmed them or almost physically overwhelmed them.”

Filming the events aboard United flight 93 was an emotional, physical and improvisational trial. While scenes were mostly improvised, great attention to the known facts kept these moments grounded in reality.

Bronner said, “We …got the radar data, in terms of altitude and movement of the plane, and the technicians programmed that into the hydraulic rig on set so the rig moved very erratically throughout the plane scenes, and those movements correspond to the actual movements of the plane that day.

“On the airplane scenes, the actors would go on to the plane talking to each other and laughing and whatever and they’d often come off with tears in their eyes and often bruised and bleeding from getting thrown around on the rig. It was pretty intense.”

During the scenes on the plane, Greengrass worked closely with the other researcher, Kate Solomon, who spent time with the passengers’ families in order to provide the actors with as much information as possible about the characters they were playing.

The improvised dialogue was carefully structured around specific details that were known about Flight 93. However, educated guesses had to be made in order to fill in the gaps, a facet of the film that has drawn criticism from Paul Farhi of the Washington Post.

Farhi writes, “(“United 93”) is a dramatic re-creation that includes scenes and images that go far beyond what is known about the attacks.”

Bronner didn’t take these criticisms to heart, “We put a lot of reporting into it and a lot of research and ultimately had to take some educated liberties. In terms of the hijack, how it happened itself, there were a lot of things that we did know.

“We did know what seats they were sitting in. We knew where the other passengers were sitting. We knew how many stewardesses were up front and which ones they were. We knew there was a reported bomb on board according to the phone calls. We knew a lot from the phone calls. We knew that a passenger had been stabbed in first class and we knew who it was because all of the (other) first class passengers made phone calls later.

“And then we sat with one of the 9/11 commission members who was most responsible for trying to discern what was discernable from all of this evidence, and we tried to imagine how it could have happened.”

The filmmakers have taken some flack from critics for ending the film with the passengers breaking into the cockpit. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader even went so far as to state that “United Flight 93” perpetuates a myth.
Bronner explained the controversy. “Some of (The 9/11 Commission members) clearly thought that they didn’t fully make it in. Two high-level FBI people who were involved in the investigation insisted that they got into the cockpit. The majority of the families believe that they got into the cockpit. They all heard the cockpit voice recorder in the company of the FBI and came away thinking that they got into the cockpit.

“Whether they did or didn’t in the end is somewhat immaterial because what’s clear from everything that’s recorded is that because of the passenger’s counterattack the plane ended up crashing, whether they physically overwhelmed them or almost physically overwhelmed them.”

Bronner also addressed the hijackers’ choice of target. “One of the other things we were criticized for was the picture of the Capitol on the steering column. There was some discussion in the cockpit in Arabic between the hijackers like, ‘Can you find the Capital.’

“It was unclear whether he meant the Capitol building or Washington. Then in subsequent interrogations some high-level al-Qaeda suspects said that bin Ladin wanted to hit the White House, but that they preferred the Capitol because the White House is so low. The White House is, I think, a very difficult target to hit. One air traffic controller said to me yesterday, ‘Yeah, ten times out of ten, they’re gonna miss the White House.’”

Bronner hopes to be involved in Greengrass’ future projects. He attributes the film’s success to extraordinary teamwork and the group’s decisions that kept the movie faithful to actual events. “Some of those decisions, which seemed small or obvious at the time, were so important in making this what is was...”

“It was interesting. None of the subjective decisions were made lightly. There was a ton of research that went to everything, every decision that was made in the film.”

Director Paul Greengrass consults with the actors portraying the hijackers of flight 93.

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originally posted: 05/14/06 11:53:06
last updated: 11/05/07 11:05:51
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