Monday, March 4, 2013

Reader question: 9/11 scripts

Sand Man asks:

Is Hollywood receptive to 9-11 scripts.? Think Murder/Thriller, separate from the attacks, but happening on the same day.

This is a harder question to answer than I thought at first.  I was ready to say, "If the 9-11 elements are integral and the script is brilliant, yeah, go for it." But then it occurred to me that there's probably still a portion of the audience that would take offense to 9-11 being "exploited" in a genre pic.

I first came out to L.A. a little more than a year after 9/11.  At that point, I was a low-level intern who was just learning the basics of coverage by reading the slush pile stack that was one step ahead of being recycled.  And I swear that not a week went by when I didn't read SEVERAL 9-11 scripts.  Some of them were what I call "therapy scripts" where the writer was clearly working through their own trauma at having lost someone that day.  Others opted for a more serious "from the perspective of the police and firefighters" angle.

The bottom line is - there were a lot of 9-11 specs floating around.  Most of them felt exploitative, rarely going beyond a surface level retelling of events unless it was to wallow in melodramatic misery.  All of these were easy passes because at that point, no one was sure how to treat the subject with the appropriate reverence, to say nothing of the fact of how fresh the wound was at that point.

A decade later, we've seen a few films that manage to pull that off, like UNITED 93.  So have we come far enough that we're ready for a murder/thriller that uses the events of those day as a backdrop?

I honestly don't know.  It's all going to come down to execution.  If you really wanted to play it safe, I'd say explore any way of telling the story without that 9/11 connection.  But let's assume it's necessary.

For some people, it'll probably be a loaded subject. I say just accept that now.  Others might like it and immediately begin scheming how to remove 9/11 from the plot.  And then there will be readers who might have more open minds - your job is to make sure that nothing else in the script gives them a reason to say no.

So is Hollywood receptive to it?  I haven't seen any of those sorts of scripts get far with the people I work for/with.  I'm sure that at some point, this won't even be an issue.  Without knowing just how the events of September 11th weave into your story, I'm reluctant to be too strong of a naysayer, so I think the best value I can give to you is what I have done - take you through the thought process that my reaction to that concept triggers.


  1. I can see where 9/11 could be used in a thriller, perhaps as a backdrop in the same way. For example, The Eiger Sanction used a treacherous mountain climbing expedition as the backdrop for a thriller. Perhaps the killer is going after a target in one of the Towers, and is prevented from getting to the target because of the attack. A chase takes place as the two characters are trying to stay alive during the disaster. And of course, you've got cops everywhere, mobs of civilians, phones cutting out, and so forth.

    But as you pointed out, using 9/11 itself as the backdrop the story is going to color the entire thing. The writer would be better off manufacturing some other kind of fictional disaster and using it, rather than something so emotionally charged.

  2. During and right after the attacks, there were all kinds of rumors sweeping the East Coast: that dozens if not hundreds of airplanes had been hijacked, that the Air Force was shooting all airliners out of the sky, etc.

    The urban legend that I found most amusing (though at the time you couldn't crack a grin at anything related to 9/11, witness the incident I saw at Providence Public Library, where some guy making a sarcastic comment about "day-trader martyrs" was almost assaulted by others waiting in line to check out books): a janitor at Windows-on-the-World, when he saw what was happening, jumped in a dumpster and RODE THE COLLAPSING SKYSCRAPER DOWN, dusted himself off, and walked away never to be seen again.

    If that seems crass after almost twelve years, imagine what it seemed like at the time ...

    As for using 9/11 as part of a movie: I don't think it has the legs or the drama of the Titanic sinking, which is its closest end-of-an-era disaster equivalent. In any event, who would use the Titanic sinking, (or 9/11) as "part of" a movie scenario? The weight of the event itself would tear a hole through your script.

  3. I feel like you have to ask yourself: is it really necessary? Is it adding anything to the script, or is it a gimmick?