Fall 2017

Exposing a Wound That's Still Raw

With The Looming Tower, five directors retrace Al-Qaeda's path to 9/11


(Photo: Sean Adair/Reuters)

On a hot August afternoon, every inch of the River Café, a fairytale-like barge restaurant on the Brooklyn shoreline, was engulfed with television crew or production equipment. The camera operator had painstakingly framed the next scene against the imposing skyline of lower Manhattan. The director, Craig Zisk, had blocked it to his satisfaction. The actors, including Jeff Daniels playing an FBI agent in this production of The Looming Tower—a series that traces Al-Qaeda's path to 9/11—were poised for action.

Then everyone had to pause. And pause. And pause again. Because every few minutes another spanking new ferry heedlessly plowed through the camera's viewfinder. As each cleared the frame, Zisk glanced up and down the river for signs of further period-inappropriate intruders. "OK, I say go for it," he announced.

Much has changed in New York since the destruction of the World Trade Center in the worst act of terrorism ever to occur on U.S. soil. New skyscrapers have replaced the wreckage of the twin towers, and fledgling passenger ferries now churn the waterways surrounding them. For the directors of Hulu's upcoming new series, it therefore requires vigilance screening out the new and reinventing the old.

"Is there going to be air above the towers?" Zisk asks the director of photography, Fred Elmes, ensuring they've allowed enough space in the frame for the formerly massive World Trade Center to be re-created digitally in post-production and not look cramped.

Zisk, who is also an executive producer of the series, is one of five directors shooting the 10-episode season to be unveiled in early 2018. The others are Michael Slovis, John Dahl, Ali Selim and Alex Gibney, who also serves as an executive producer and was instrumental in getting the project greenlit.

Based on Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, the story unveils the deep backstory of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind 9/11. The series, adapted by Dan Futterman, picks up two-thirds of the way into Wright's exhaustive account, when the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, was still just a blip on the radar and the CIA and FBI were hampering each other's terrorism investigations with their resistance to sharing information.

"That seemed a good way of focusing the story," says Gibney. "It's a detective story, really. Obviously, we know what happened. We know that there was a 9/11 attack. What we don't know is the story of the detectives who were on the trail of Al-Qaeda."

To do justice to the book necessitated an ambitious production agenda and an emotional journey for the directors. Gibney tackled the first episode, which concludes with the horrific and almost simultaneous 1998 bombings at U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in which more than 200 people were killed. Slovis directs scenes that represent the USS Cole bombing in Yemen two years later, killing 17 American sailors.

"This is by no means your normal material," says Slovis. "There's nothing fanciful or fantasy. This is a harsh reality show. The material is about as serious as you can get for both New Yorkers and Americans. So I regard myself as custodial about this material on behalf of all of us."

Zisk shouldered the biggest directing load. His final three episodes culminate in the deaths of almost 3,000 people on 9/11, including the Al-Qaeda hijackers. Their story is also being told, he says, "with an understanding of who they were and why they did what they did."

Director Alex Gibney calls the shots on location in New York for The Looming Tower, based on Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name. (Photo: Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

"It's very tricky," continues Zisk, "because you're trying to humanize people that are doing unthinkable, inhuman acts."

To further distinguish those parallel storylines, Gibney implemented dual tones. When shooting the jittery, unstable overseas world of the terrorists, the directors utilize energetic hand-held cameras. For scenes taking place in the U.S. before 9/11, essentially the calm before the storm, Gibney says, "We wanted to define a tone that can convey a sense of power and mostly comfort."

Those scenes are shot more formally with dollies. "The framing is dramatic but not intrusive," says Zisk, who helped craft the tone. He was also charged with bringing the other directors up to speed, incorporating their ideas and ensuring creative continuity.

"I don't like to lock directors into one particular style unless the show is very specific about their tone and look," says Zisk, although he and Gibney intentionally chose directors adept at finding fresh, less conventional camera angles, especially since so many scenes take place in CIA and FBI offices with people sitting behind desks. "We've really pushed our directors to think out of the box when shooting office scenes," says Zisk.

"Jenny was really able to lock into her character early on. Edie and Jon only had the script a couple of weeks before we started shooting. But everyone was and is so professional. Everyone got it, despite everyone's process [being] different."

The directors also needed to be flexible about the language. Many characters speak in Arabic (which will be subtitled for non-Arabic-speaking viewers), and none of the directors, except Selim, speak the language. Even the Arabic-speaking actors, who include Tahar Rahim, a French actor of Algerian descent, playing Ali Soufan, the Lebanese-American FBI agent, had to adapt the regional accent of their characters.

"This adds another layer of trickiness," says Zisk, who directed a long and twisty interrogation scene largely in Arabic. Having a language expert on-hand to ensure that it was correct enabled him to better concentrate on the scene's rhythmic aspects.

"I think it's terribly important," says Gibney. "I mean, one of the key failings of American intelligence, particularly in the FBI, was that we didn't have enough Arabic speakers." In addition, the directors' assiduous attention to detail, he says, "comes off emotionally even if people can't precisely identify why it feels as real as it does."

The scope of the story required multiple locations. Just in the first half, scenes are set in seven countries and 10 cities. To root out options for the directors to pick from, Zisk and Gibney went on several international location scouting missions. As a result, Morocco serves as Yemen. Drone and car travel shots of Pakistani landscapes remarkably evoke Afghanistan.

But they also needed a base, with enough variation in the surroundings to simulate Nairobi, Tanzania, England, Albania and Las Vegas. "To try and find all that in one city somewhere on this planet was a challenge," says Zisk.

It fell on Gibney, who shot the first episode, to introduce a host of characters, all with "very distinct looks." (Photo: Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

They found it in Johannesburg. "Hey, that could be Albania there. I think we can make that feel like Albania," says Zisk, recalling when he and the production designer, Lester Cohen, turned a corner and saw an appropriate-looking house, plus rooftops, alleys and a laundromat needed for a chase scene. They also located a large quarry nestled in mountains where they could build three terrorist cell encampments.

As they were planning to recreate the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, they stumbled across a building in Johannesburg that looked uncannily like the original brutalist-style embassy, which had been seriously damaged. The secretarial school next door was flattened. The South African government shut down a central business district for a week to accommodate the preproduction and production crews while they constructed an enormous pile of debris to serve as the bombing aftermath.

They built the 30' x 90' x 50' pile in sections out of a steel grid in a nearby parking lot. When ready to shoot, they disassembled it, trucked it to the location and reassembled it. "So we had this gigantic rubble mound that in its severity was quite moving," says Zisk.

For the actual bombing, Gibney used stunt people "yanked by ropes" to create the illusion of people being blown by the blast.

All the directors similarly weighed in on the casting, which features Daniels in the lead as John O'Neill, a counter-terrorism expert with a passionate, bigger-than-life persona. Gibney says they weren't seeking lookalikes but talent who could "inhabit the sense of the characters."

Since Gibney shot the first episode, it fell on him to quickly and efficiently introduce O'Neill and a host of other characters, many with long Arabic names, another potential stumbling block for viewers. "One of the ways to resolve it is to try and find very distinct looks for people," says Gibney, either by casting distinguishable actors or giving them conspicuous characteristics. "One had an artificial leg," he says.

"Something that was very near and dear to my heart," he adds, "was to find a way to integrate characters directly into archival footage." One example was the actor who plays John Miller, the ABC journalist who forayed in 1998 to one of bin Laden's mountain encampments. Gibney inserted the actor into Miller's interview with bin Laden so that it looks like he's the one conducting it.

Zisk, meanwhile, incorporated a lot of highly dramatic 9/11 video clips taken by tourists and others who happened to be at the World Trade Center when it was attacked by airplanes.

Slovis directed episodes 6 and 7, which were shot in New York City and Morocco. "I started the way I start every production," says Slovis, by attending various tone, concept and department meetings and then sitting down with his computer to envision novel ways to block scenes. "I don't ever do things the same although the process is the same," says Slovis, who spent more than 20 years as a DP on shows, including Breaking Bad and 30 Rock.

Being prepared with a reasonable number of shots is key, he says, "so that I don't have to rush to tell my story." He also thinks very hard about transitions. "I'm always trying to find the most efficient way of shooting groups of people," he says, which involves sketching overhead drawings on his computer to view scenes from above. He fills in the characters. "Then I move them around."

Craig Zisk, far right, directed three episodes late in the series that culminate in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people on 9/11. (Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

In early August, Slovis took his ideas to shoot a crowded bar scene set in a bohemian Greenwich Village cafe standing in for the legendary and defunct Elaine's. FBI workers are engaged in after-work cocktails. He wanted it lively, with dozens of actors squeezed into the cramped bar area. He'd also mapped out a sweeping one-shot that alternately and playfully eavesdropped on two chatting couples.

The shot started with the camera concentrated on two principal actors performing a flirtatious exchange at the bar. Just as they concluded their lines, he arranged for an actor playing a waiter to walk past, stealing the camera's point of view with him, which landed on two other principals seated in a booth, zooming in on their private tête-à-tête in one silky motion. "The camera needs to be somewhat invisible," says Slovis.

Once he was satisfied with that scene, Slovis blocked the next, more consequential one. It features O'Neill, whose abrasive manner often alienates others, as he confides to his colleague, Vince, played by Louis Cancelmi, that he believes some people in the FBI want to push him out. Vince, meanwhile, is eager to share his happy news of a promotion. That is, until O'Neill informs him that he's being played.

Slovis watches the first take on a portable screen, taking notes on his iPad with a pen that writes on-screen. "There's so much info I need that carrying papers around doesn't do it anymore," he explains. After it ends, Slovis privately confers with the two actors. The next take begins on a noticeably different tenor.

"They respond very, very well to just gentle nudging," says Slovis, explaining later that he suggested Daniels might play it less intense at the top and delay showing the depth of his anger until the end. To Cancelmi, he suggested the opposite: That he might begin the scene with a greater degree of excitement so that his character appears more visibly deflated when O'Neill bursts his bubble.

"That gave both of them somewhere to go," explained Slovis. "My whole thing is to be honest about the storytelling. Not be too precious or pretentious."

On the day that he shot at the River Café, Zisk was basically directing a work event for O'Neill, who at this point is leaving the FBI to become the chief of security at the World Trade Center.

The sky was crystal clear, and Zisk had planned a sequence of shots set for specific hours of the day. This included a toast to O'Neill at magic hour as everyone gathered by the restaurant's bountiful windows to watch the sun descend behind the spectacular skyline. The forecast for tomorrow was rain, so Zisk and his team were hustling to get all necessary coverage. 1st AD Joseph Reidy kept the troops moving, while 2nd AD Justin Bischoff set the background.

Several times Daniels had to turn and gaze upon the site where the World Trade Center once stood as though it was still there. "It's very emotional," says Zisk. At times, he and others have choked back tears.

"That's something we are constantly thinking of, constantly aware of, constantly checking in with our crew," he says. "Even though it's been 16 years, it's still very raw for a lot of people. And we're recreating some aspects that are hard to watch even on this day."

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