'The Story Took Amazing Turns'
The team behind America Rebuilds spent more time at Ground Zero than any other filmmakers. We spoke with two of the producers, Seth Kramer and Daniel A. Miller, about their experiences.
What were the hardest aspects of making the documentary?
Seth: For one thing, shooting on the site was physically demanding. We were in constant motion, climbing up mountains of debris, uneasily walking down hills of loose rubble and forever running out of the way of trucks and huge excavators.
We had to wear hardhats, reflective vests, boots and gas masks, all of which made us hot and uncomfortable. We were constantly wiping dust and ash from the camera lens. By the end of each day we were filthy and smelled like smoke.
Of course, it was also very difficult emotionally. Recovery crews walked about with cadaver dogs in search of the dead. They exhumed human remains from layers of concrete and steel, a labor-intensive task that sometimes took hours. Very often they knew the person they were pulling from the pile.
Daniel: I have never dealt with people so fresh from a tragedy I was trying to document. It was incredibly tough to interact with and interview people who were so consumed with grief.
Logistically, there was a range of challenges. We had to stay on top of the hundreds of events that were transpiring in relation to redevelopment: community board meetings, city council meetings, victims' family meetings, Lower Manhattan Development Corporation board meetings, etc. Once we discovered one, we had to gain access and then put a crew together to shoot it.
Seth: At first we were only allowed to have one person shooting on the site. I spent the first two weeks alone, trying to establish connections with people and to figure out what was going on. Ground Zero was enormous -- 16 acres, with hundreds of things going on at once, and thousands of workers running about in all directions (firemen, construction workers, engineers, policemen). I was beyond busy, confused and exhausted.
One of our biggest challenges was finding quiet, out-of-the-way places to interview people. We ended up shooting our subjects in the empty offices of one of the abandoned buildings on the site. Calendars were still flipped to September 11. In some cases, coffee from the morning of the attack still sat on desktops. It was awful.
How did Great Projects decide to make this film?
Seth: On September 18th I read an article in The New York Times about the physical challenges faced by recovery workers at Ground Zero. Engineers were helping the workers operate safely, alerting them to unstable basement levels and subway tubes beneath their feet that could cave in at any moment. The article featured an interview with George Tamaro, one of the leading engineers on the site. I showed it to Ken Mandel, my boss, who knew Tamaro well. At the time, New Yorkers were already wrestling over what should replace the towers. I suggested we try to document the recovery effort and the inevitable process of rebuilding.
Daniel: So that we didn't overshoot and have to sort through too many hours of tape, from the very start we had to determine the general nature of the stories we would tell. We came up with three, all parables for how we thought redevelopment would eventually play out: the initial response, in which we introduced the stakeholders, and how the listening process became formalized by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; the interim memorial as a rehearsal for the permanent memorial; and the development of World Trade Center Seven as a rehearsal for the development of the rest of the site.
How did you get your access to Ground Zero?
Seth: Ground Zero was a federal crime scene, a hazardous disaster zone, and the site of America's longest burning structural fire all rolled into one. FBI agents were everywhere, as were officials of U.S. Customs, which had owned property on the site and were trying to recover evidence for ongoing trials. Many construction workers, firefighters and policemen who labored to find victims knew the dead personally. Body parts were constantly being recovered from the rubble. No wonder, aside from tightly controlled media tours, cameras were off limits.
George Tamaro, brought in to evaluate the stability of the site's foundation, liked our idea to document Ground Zero and asked Mayor Giuliani on our behalf. Tamaro and Giuliani were old college acquaintances, and George was briefing him on the condition of the site. Within a couple weeks the Mayor gave us the go ahead. We were granted full access to the site -- we could come and go as we pleased, climb through the rubble and sit in on high level engineering meetings. For eight months we were the only television crew allowed at Ground Zero on a twenty-four hour basis.
We were not required to have an escort on the site, but escorts were enormously valuable. Without an engineer, a construction worker or a uniformed serviceman accompanying us we'd be capturing a lot of footage without really knowing what we were looking at. On the other hand, the best way to get a feel for the site and to remind yourself of the awful loss that occurred there was to wander the ruins alone.
To what extent did you feel welcome at the site?
Seth: Some workers saw us as wartime cameramen and were thankful we were documenting the site. I made a promise to them very early on that we would not film any body parts. I did feel obligated to document the search for bodies and the sad procession of uniformed servicemen as they carried their own out of the pit. It took a while for Justin, our cameraman, and me to feel comfortable doing this -- and when we finally worked up the nerve to film the processions, we endured quite a few angry stares.
I am forever indebted to Lieutenant John Ryan, the highest-ranking Port Authority Police Officer on the site, who sympathized with our mission and offered to protect us should we feel threatened by workers upset by our presence.
What were some of the biggest surprises for you during the making of the film?
Daniel: The biggest surprise to me during the making of this film was that the victims' families were open, willing, and even encouraging of our project. I couldn't imagine being able to overcome such grief to appear on camera, but many of the victims' families who you do not usually see on television were willing to share their ideas on redevelopment with us. It demonstrated to me that they recognized the tragedy as larger than their personal loss.
Seth: The film's story took amazing turns I could never have predicted. In the beginning I spent a lot of time documenting the technical challenges faced by the construction team. In a relatively short period of time they solved their biggest problems, and I asked myself, "Where is the story now?" As the site became less dangerous the workers had more time on their hands to reflect on their experiences. They had formed incredibly strong friendships and grew emotionally attached to the site. A new conflict emerged. How would they simply pack up and leave when the job is done, and will they have the strength to return once the site is rebuilt?
How has the experience changed you?
Seth: Spending time at Ground Zero with the engineers and construction managers and watching the firefighters and policemen at work enriched my life immeasurably. I came to know the most wonderful, most intelligent, sensitive and dedicated people in the world.
But I wish I could snap my fingers and make it all a bad dream. I'm a much sadder person than I used to be.