WTC View, my feature film about life in New York after 9/11, started out as a play back in 2003. Since I’ve been a filmmaker much longer than I’ve been a playwright, the question I often get was whether it was my intention all along to make a film. Was the play merely a stepping stone towards that end game?
The opposite was true. When I got the initial idea (inspired by my true story of placing a roommate ad on 9/10), my immediate thought was it could never be a movie. I envisioned the piece as conversations and monologues set in one location—one room, actually. I saw no way it would make for a viable film given the premise and concept. But I knew it would make a great play and, even though that was pretty new territory for me, that’s what I set out to make.
In August 2003, the play WTC View premiered in the New York International Fringe Festival, directed by my friend Andrew Volkoff, who had previously directed a couple one-acts I’d written. Why I didn’t direct it myself? The answer is: Andrew was an excellent and experienced stage director who knew what he was doing—and I was still writing the play. The text was changing constantly throughout rehearsal and every night of our seven-performance run. (You can ask the actors—it drove them crazy!)
What I found amazing in live theater (versus film) was being able to test material and scenes with a live audience, something that doesn’t happen in production until it’s too late and the film is before a preview or festival audience. With a play, I was able to reorder scenes, alter pacing, take out lines that didn’t work and add new ones that did. It was initially terrifying, especially the first few performances. I had to refrain myself from yelling out “Cut!” when things didn’t go as planned. But it was also exhilarating to have that kick of the audience’s real-time reactions, which served to encourage and gently guide my play to its completed form.
A Wider Audience Through Film
The original production sold out most of its shows, got some great reviews and was even sold for publication. Based on this amazing response, we tried to move it to an off-Broadway theater for a longer run that fall. But earlier that same year, there had been two high profile 9/11-related plays which had been commercial and critical flops in New York (one by another, more well-known, filmmaker—Neil LaBute). So the prevailing wisdom was that, barely three years after 9/11, no one in New York wanted to relive or even be reminded of the fall of 2001.
It was out my frustration with this stagnant situation regarding the play that I first considered the notion of WTC View as a film. I thought that it might be a different route to get the show out to a wider and possibly more receptive audience. I knew from our Fringe shows, where the audience was made up of adventurous theater tourists from out of state or out of the country, that folks who were not from NYC were intrigued by this subject, interested in its more intimate look at history. The real audience for WTC View was outside of New York: on the indie film circuit, or maybe even on television.
Initially, there were some conversations about just taping the play as a play. I loved our cast and our production too—the austere simplicity of it, with just one room, minimal props and multiple emotions. But a taping seemed like it would be flat and somewhat disconnected from the true intimacy the live play had created. If this show was going to transition to a different medium, it would really have to become something different itself. And that’s when I decided to turn it into a feature-length film.
Researching Single-Location Films
I started the seemingly impossible adaptation process of WTC View by watching movies that were set in one location, ideally an urban apartment. Alfred Hitchcock had made two—Rear Window and Rope—both of which I now started studying intently. Another film on my list was Rosemary’s Baby, mainly set in a larger, Upper West Side-style flat. That film keyed me in to the notion that, in a way, there was a horror element to my own tale, at least in the lead character’s mind. He is increasingly trapped in his apartment, scared to go outside and confront the realities of post-9/11 New York.
Another indie title I re-watched was What Happened Was, a tightly scripted, almost real-time date night that goes awry. All of these films helped inspire me to visualize the play as a movie and find ways to use the camera creatively in a small space.
One big change to the script was moving the action out of the one room Eric was trying to rent, opening up the film to more activity without losing the compression and claustrophobia of being stuck in his apartment. My producer, Robert Ahrens, encouraged me to think bigger about the end of the film, reaching for a more hopeful note than the melancholy of the play. With his persistence and my imagination, I expanded things a little and (spoiler alert!) took Eric out of his apartment and down to the street for the film’s final moments. It was a lovely way of visualizing that hope, ending the film on that clear blue, 9/11-colored sky.
The play was realistic but not grim, with a pretty strong dose of humor to it, reflecting the sort of gallows humor prevalent in New York post-9/11. It was how people kept their sanity when nothing seemed settled or sane. The audiences got it and laughed. For the film, however, set in an actual apartment, the realism of the piece made it more serious and some of the humor started to seem a little off-key. The movie of WTC View had to be more of a psychological look at Eric’s dilemma, told from his perspective—a close-up, cinematic look his ultimate unraveling. I didn’t want it to become a funeral, but as I adapted the script, the lighter stuff in the play became the easiest material to cut.
Moving That Camera
Once the script was set, funding (under $100,000) came quickly. We were shooting in May 2004. Production was typically fast and furious, barely two weeks on location in the Bronx to cover 110 pages, shooting in a 2BR apartment that was large by New York standards but small when it came to shooting a feature. We used the new Sony HD camera which was a little bulky and tough to move around, though it did give us a beautiful image. To liven things up in this space, I worked with our DP Sean Morrison to create a lot of camera movement to match the mood and pace of different scenes, especially during the script’s monologues. The longest and most elaborate camera moves accompanied the longest and most elaborate monologue—the tale of one character’s remarkable escape from the World Trade Center.
In the play, the actor Nick Potenzieri’s incredible performance had made the audience stop breathing. In the film, though, we needed to do more to give his six-minute marathon the same visceral power. We cleared the room, doing a 180-degree handheld move to get around to the POV of another character, Eric. We placed the camera gently on an improvised tripod (stacked, taped apple boxes) for stability, and then we slowly starting zooming in. By the end of the scene, Nick’s eyes fill the screen and the audience has taken Eric’s place for this intense, direct address. It took us about four hours and nine takes to get it right, but it was completely worth the effort: the scene that most matched of the power of the play with the visual power of the camera.
How to Cut?
I expected the editing, with editor Chris Houghton, would be fairly rote, given the play had worked well. I thought we’d be stitching scenes together and then creating digitally composited scene transitions. But the pace, both of the opening and the visitors’ scenes, was lagging. Characters often said they were leaving and then hung around for a while, telling a story or getting caught in a conversation. So our new editing rule was, once someone said they were leaving, they had to go! This tightened the pacing and the length. The play had run almost two hours; the film got down to about 140 minutes.
In the end, the play’s development was a wonderfully useful, if unintentional, workshop for the film. With indies, rehearsal time with actors is either limited or non-existent, whereas with this project we had a couple months for the actors to grow comfortable and inhabit their roles. That extended preparation makes the extraordinary performances stand out. The talented actors knew their parts (and all of their lines!) back and forth by the time the camera even started rolling. And that would never have happened if not for my crazy idea for a play. MM
WTC View was first released on June 5, 2005. It receives a digital release for the first time on iTunes, beginning March 3, 2015. Images courtesy of Brian Sloan.