This Summer’s most controversial film “World Trade Center” sees Director Oliver Stone tackle the difficult topic of the events on 9/11 by doing a film about two Port Authority policemen who become trapped under the rubble of the falling twin towers. Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello star in the project and the quartet, along with Stone, have been doing press conferences across major US cities including New York itself. Here’s what they had to say:
Question: Mr. Stone, this movie seems like such a departure from you, so what attracted you to doing a movie about these events at this time?
Oliver Stone: Don’t pigeonhole. I change. We don’t have time, but I think if you go through the film-by-film list, there’s quite a bit of changes that go on. I mean, it goes from “Heaven and Earth” to “Natural Born Killers,” and then… pigeon holing… This film is another one. It’s just another departure in the sense of stylistically it’s a simpler film, a modest film about working class people, and we have here a series of facts, a line, a chain of evidence, that’s amazing, and it’s still fresh enough after five years, that we can go back and have Will [Jimeno], John [McLoughlin], Scotty Strauss, Scotty Fox, numerous rescuers, the transcripts of Chuck Sereika and Dave Karnes, to help us actually put together–I can’t say a documentary–but it isn’t cinema verite. It isn’t “United 93.” It is a very tightly connected, emotional, in the tradition of Hollywood, the tightly connected emotions of four characters. Two wives, two husbands. That’s a challenge, to do things that way. That’s not to say I’ll do it always that way. I might surprise you next time and do something with fantasy or sci-fi.
Question: Since the events of 9/11 were so traumatic, what drew you to this particular story?
Oliver Stone: There’s three thousand dead, approximately, and twenty survivors. These two men–I can’t speak for the other eighteen–but these two men went through the epicenter of the story symbolically, they were at the very center of the collapse, and because of John’s foresight, they went to the elevator shaft that saved their lives. Only two of the five made it. And it’s a story waiting, dying to be told, and the rescue of the men by this accountant in Connecticut, this ex-Marine, is something from the Hollywood movies. People don’t believe it at first. We had previews, people were shocked, they didn’t think that this guy existed. He did. He went to Iraq. And the rescuers themselves, Scotty Fox played himself, many of the rescuers played themselves, Scotty Strauss cooperated with us in the beginning. Each rescue was very complicated; Will was a rescue onto itself. That was finished by midnight. Very few people realize that John was rescued from about midnight to seven thirty in the morning. That’s a whole other ball game, so two different types of rescues, so many challenges in this movie. Why not tell that story, because it’s dying to be made.
Question: Did you make a conscious decision to go away from your last movie, “Alexander,” or does a certain film just come along and catch your attention?
Oliver Stone: It’s partly that. And Andrea [Berloff]’s script caught my attention, slammed me in the side of the head and said, “This is it. This is the one to do.” And partly because, you know, I’ve been in the world of Macedonian royalty and politics and Persian courts for three years. It certainly was refreshing to come back to working class New York. I had done working class movies, “Born on the Fourth of July,” part of “Wall Street,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Platoon”–it’s good to come back and remind yourself, these are very extraordinary people because they do it everyday, they do it consistently. John McLoughlin wakes up at three twenty nine. Will gets up at what, four o’clock. I mean, these guys are out the gate and they go to work, and they’re not thanked very often for it. It’s a tough job.
Question: For the actors, what were your conversations like with your real-life counterparts? What did you pick up from spending time with them?
Nicolas Cage: Well, I never met anyone before who had been tested to the level that John McLoughlin had been tested on that day. So I did go into those first initial meetings with some nervousness, but he put me at ease right away. He allowed me to video tape him and ask him literally thousands of questions about the experience, how he got through it, what he relied on, images of his family, Will Jimeno, the two of them, keeping each other alive in prayer. So it was enormously helpful. I really wanted to get it right. I didn’t want to let John McLoughlin down, I didn’t want to let Will down, I didn’t want to let the rescue team down, the families, and Oliver Stone. And all the producers and creators of this film. Without John McLoughlin’s help, it wouldn’t have happened.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: Everyone’s been answering it, but I think, I heard that Michael [Pena] kind of moved in with you guys. He was there all the time, and he would sort of more, what you’re saying you did, ask thousands of questions and spend lots and lots of time with Will. And with Allison [Jimeno] and I, it was a little bit different. I guess I felt like I also didn’t want to let anyone down, and I wanted to make a movie that was as affecting as possible. I guess for me, I thought the way to do that was to experience the things that Allison experiences in the script, myself. I felt like I was worried about falling into the trap of trying to imitate Allison as opposed to experiencing it myself. But at the same time, every time I was with Allison, there was this really intense experience that really impacted me, and I think I was mostly interested in just being near her, less than actually asking her about the specifics of the day, although we did some of that. Most of what was going in was just being near you [this is said to the actual Allison Jimeno who is in attendance], but then when I watched the movie, I kind of thought I’d be like her, and I think that has to do with you [to Stone], actually. I think you had more to do with that than I.
Oliver Stone: [to Allison] I had the instinct of Maggie and you. You and I met, and it was good; we had conflict. I like her, she’s a thoroughbred.
Michael Pena: I did some of what they both did, We got along right off the bat, and I asked him a lot of questions, and I was asking so many questions, so many questions, and I really, just like everybody else, I didn’t want to let anybody down. And I just felt fortunate that I was even in this movie.
Oliver Stone: Well that’s just not true. Will was complaining to me, he said, “How are we gonna get this wimp to play me?” And we had to build Michael up. We had to send him on running expeditions with Will. Right, Will? Tell the truth.
Michael Pena: The thing that I wanted to get right, more than anything, is I don’t know, just the brotherhood, and the real feel of like un-cheesy love that you had for the people that you worked with and the people that you’re trying to save. There’s a line specifically, he said, “My whole life I just wanted to be a cop.” I’m like, “I think we should cut it.” And the first time I met him, that was like the second thing out of this mouth, so I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to re-evaluate the whole thing.”
Question: Michael, being the least experienced of the cast, what was it like getting to work with Nick and Oliver Stone?
Michael Pena: Well, I would have to say it’s an amazing experience. When they tell you that Oliver Stone wants me in his office, he wanted me to be in this movie, you think that they’re joking. I thought it was bull crap. I did. But it was amazing. Working with Nic was very specific and very, very prepared going in, and I took some lessons from that, and actually to be honest with you, it was very easy to work with him, and he was encouraging me, like any chances that I thought were interesting, he really encouraged me. I’m glad that the first of these roles that I had, was with somebody like him, and then Oliver also did the same thing and encouraged me, and was saying that I’m gonna bring, you know, hopefully every role that attention to detail. He has tremendous passion for that, and it was sometimes more important how he said something, as opposed to what he said, because of the passion. He would say, “You’ve just gotta get it right.” [laughs]
Question: Maggie, do you think you can better identify with the character you played now that you are pregnant yourself?
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I really was a little bit pregnant at the end of shooting. I was a little bit, but no one knew but me. But most of the time, yeah, most of the time I wasn’t pregnant. Yeah, I think being pregnant now, trying to imagine what pregnancy is like I think for anyone who hasn’t been pregnant is very hard. I mean, it’s very different than you kind of think it’s gonna be. So, yes, I do think maybe now I can relate to some things that Allison went through. At first I just got hit by how – you’re so emotional when you’re pregnant, but I’ve also found that I’m also pretty strong and pretty clear in pregnancy in a way that I wasn’t before, so maybe there’s a kind of mix, you know, it was probably both more emotional and kind of a little more rooted, for Allison, that I imagined it might have been.
Question: Oliver, can you talk about how you created the Ground Zero site?
Oliver Stone: Yeah, we built these vast interior halls in Playa del Rey in California, as well as an exterior rubble set. These were vast sets, and we had the actors in different modules, and they never saw each other, in the whole time. That’s an interesting aspect to that scene. They don’t even have visual contact, so it’s all suggested. I think the key is lighting, I really do. There’s not much camera work you can do, and I think [director of photography] Seamus McGarvey deserves tremendous credit for the work he did to really give it. When you see it, I hope you appreciate the shot. To me, the story is always about shadow and light, and they were in the darkness but they were reaching for the light, and one of the great shots, is Nick coming out of the hole at the end, into the light, and his struggle for the light, and even at home, that’s why we go out to the families, because there’s light there, as the day sets and their hopes diminish, you see the night comes on, so it’s sort of we reversed the holes, in the domestic situations, where it becomes darker, and the holes become lighter at the end. So there’s a whole kind of concept of light and dark that we’re playing with.
Question: How did it feel being trapped on that set for such a long time while making the movie?
Nicolas Cage: Well, it was actually quite liberating, I’m a very kinetic actor, I like to move, but I was in that hole, boxed in like that. I didn’t have to think about movement, so I was able to go inward and rely on my imagination to try to re-create, in some small way, what John’s experience might have been like.
Michael Pena: Similar thing to me, in a weird way, for me, dealing with that, it was almost like doing one big monologue, and then whenever he spoke, it was like it was his thoughts that were in my head.
Question: Can each of you tell us where you were on 9/11 and what was going through your mind?
Nicolas Cage: Thoroughly unexciting. I was at home and I got a phone call saying you can’t believe what’s on television, turn it on. And I saw those images, and like the rest of us, I’ll never be able to get out of my head. It’s as simple as that.
Oliver Stone: Me, too. I was in Los Angeles at home, sleeping. My wife woke me up.
Maggie Gyllenhaal: I was living here [in New York], but actually alone, out of the country at the time. And I happened to check my email and my mom said, before anyone knew what had happened, that the World Trade Center had been bombed. Then I did everything I could to get home, took a little while, it was hard.
Michael Pena: Yeah, I was at home in Los Angeles. I got the phone call, and it brought about some interesting instincts that I think the movie touches on as well. At that point, you had like the need – I went to a friend’s house, and it was funny, like twenty, twenty-five people went there. That’s a reason that I was excited about this movie in particular, is because we all know what happened on that day, but this is a different story, and more of a story that touches on the need to be with each other, and like how people, they pull together in times like this.
Question: How did you try to express this rollercoaster of emotions that New Yorkers went through on that day?
Oliver Stone: Through the wives. I mean, we can only do it through the wives, Donna and Allison, and what they go through. We wanted to not only get out of the hole, to relieve the burdens of the hole, but to get to the light, to go back to Jersey. But these women went through hell. I mean, there had to be a moment in that day when they accepted that their husbands would probably not come home, and that was a very important moment, to go beyond clichés, you know? And what makes Donna–married to John for 25 or 30 years with four children–what keeps them together? It’s just a cliché. If you say you’re married, that doesn’t mean anything. What is marriage? What are the little things in life that they will miss, take for granted. You have to ask Allison and Donna, we did, Maria [Bello] and Maggie played it the way they thought was right. And for them, it was hell. So that’s the only way we can relate to it, we can’t live the New York experience, only through them. And the Marine.
Question: You had the Marine in the movie express that the attacks were an “act of war.” How did you feel about the resulting war and the fact that we still haven’t found Osama?
Oliver Stone: I think it would’ve been politically correct to sanitize that, and I couldn’t live with that. The film is accurate to every single person that was in it, and their emotions are naked, sometimes with things we don’t like, but we gotta live with. Our movie ends on 9/12, and that’s probably the story we’re gonna tell. You’ve gotta go one day further and say, “Where were we on September 12th 2001, and where are we now?” I think when you answer that question honestly, you have to wonder that something went wrong.
Nicolas Cage: I really don’t want to attach politics to this movie. This movie is a triumph of the human spirit, it’s about survival, it’s about courage, and I think trying to link it to anything else right now, would take away from what the movie is really about. It’s a very emotional film, it is not a downer, you walk out feeling like yeah, angels do exist, these people are heroes.
Question: How does this film exemplify the way civilians are the primary victims of conflicts, rather than soldiers?
Oliver Stone: We made the point at the end of the film that citizens from eighty-seven countries were destroyed. Most of them were civilians. It’s the nature of modern warfare since Dresden, since World War II, and it’s gotten worse and worse and worse. Where is it gonna end? I don’t know. And I can’t. I can’t tell you, I’m not a war expert. I just hope to God that we can move to a peaceful world, wherein we can respect the rights of civilians, and I don’t know how to do that except through international bodies and a sense of commitment from everybody to stop this destruction of civilian life.