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BRUCE WILLIS in “The Siege”: This is a time of war. The fact that it’s inside our borders only means it’s a new kind of war,
TERENCE SMITH: That’s not President Bush or Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, that’s Bruce Willis in the 1998 film “The Siege,” which eerily foreshadows the deadly workings of a terrorist cell in New York City. In the aftermath of the actual carnage of September 11, witnesses have repeatedly compared fact and fiction.
WITNESS: We couldn’t believe what we saw. It just looked so much like special effects in a movie.
TERENCE SMITH: Now the people who make the movies and television shows are rethinking the means and ends of filmmaking after this all-too-real horror. In the short term, Warner Brothers has delayed indefinitely its planned October 5 release of a new Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Collateral Damage,” about a firefighter’s quest to avenge the deaths of his wife and child at the hands of terrorists.
TIM ALLEN in “Big Trouble”: This old Cuban guy is training pelicans.
ACTOR: To drop bombs.
TIM ALLEN: The most as nine things I’ve ever heard.
TERENCE SMITH: Disney has postponed the scheduled opening of a new comedy called “Big Trouble,” starring Tim Allen, about a bomb hidden on an airliner. And a planned Jackie Chan film entitled “Nosebleed,” about a plot to blow up the World Trade Center, reportedly has been scrapped altogether by MGM. Still other movies and TV shows set in New York, like HBO’s “Sex and the City,” are being combed for references to, and pictures of, the twin towers. One recent release, the Ben Stiller film “Zoolander,” had the towers digitally erased from the New York skyline. But one television show decided to take terrorism issues head on.
ACTOR: Station 1, code black, crash.
BRADLEY WHITFORD in “The West Wing”: Listen. Something is about to happen. Don’t let it frighten you.
TERENCE SMITH: NBC’s “The West Wing,” which is produced by Warner Brothers, postponed its season premiere and rushed through production a special episode, entitled “Isaac and Ishmael,” which aired last night, dealing with the repercussions of a terror attack. One curious statistic emerged after the attacks. Video rentals of action pictures with terrorism themes were up for several days — movies like “Air Force One” and “True Lies.”
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER in “True Lies”: Federal officer in pursuit of suspect.
TERENCE SMITH: But over the long term, it remains an open question as to how and whether Hollywood will change the tone and content of its productions in the wake of September 11.
TERENCE SMITH: To help answer that question, we are joined by John Ridley, an award-winning director and screenwriter– he is also the author of several books, including most recently “Everybody Smokes in Hell”– and Bernard Weinraub of The New York Times, who covers the entertainment industry from Hollywood. Welcome to you both.
Bernie Weinraub, has there been a change in attitude in your opinion as to what films are suitable and what are not suitable?
BERNARD WEINRAUB: I think for the moment there has been a change. I certainly don’t think you’ll see any movies being made from here on in for a while at least involving terrorists, involving hijackings, involving threats to the president. In that way, I think there’s been a major change.
TERENCE SMITH: John Ridley, when you’re talking to friends and colleagues in the creative community, what do you hear? What do you sense?
JOHN RIDLEY: Well, I think people are being very cautious. In Hollywood, there’s always people who are keeping one ear to the ground about what’s popular and what’s not popular even in the best of times. So I think there’s a bit of nervousness certainly about portraying these kinds of events now because I think people realize how insensitive it is just to show violence and not show the consequences of it.
Previously violence was so out of context. You’d see stunt persons or day players being blown up or shot. That was fine in a sense because that was part of the story. But in these last few weeks we’ve seen the consequences of violence. And I think that’s what Hollywood is really going to have to start dealing with, that people don’t see it out of context anymore.
TERENCE SMITH: Bernie Weinraub, the notion of terrorism as a plot, which is certainly frequent in film, is that out altogether?
BERNARD WEINRAUB: Well, I don’t know if it’s out altogether. I don’t think anything is out altogether but I think certainly terrorism and Middle East terrorism — I don’t know about home-grown terrorism but any kind of foreign, quote unquote, terrorism, I think for the moment is out — even domestic terrorism. I don’t think right now anybody would want to make a movie or TV film about Timothy McVeigh. That may change. It probably will change. But right now anything involving a mass loss of life is out of the question.
TERENCE SMITH: John Ridley, are there limits as well on comedy? Is there a new definition of what’s funny and perhaps what’s not funny?
JOHN RIDLEY: Well that’s going to be hard. I think that there are some films or some TV shows that are going to be fine. They won’t change. A TV show like “Friends” or a movie like “Meet the Parents,” those are pretty safe. Those aren’t dealing with things that for the most part people would find sensitive in these times but I do think that the topical humor shows, shows like “The Tonight Show” or David Letterman show, “Politically Incorrect” or “The Daily [Show] with Jon Stewart,” those are shows that are just now trying to find their way.
It’s hard to be funny about topical things, about the president, about the Congress or Senate or what they’re going through when most of what they’re going through right now is dealing with the terrorist attacks or even dealing with the economy because it’s suffering because of these terrorist attacks. Almost everything in the news has some kind of flavor of what’s happened in these last few weeks so I think the immediate comedy shows, those are the ones that they’re certainly dealing with it and getting through but those are the ones that have to tread very lightly for the near future.
TERENCE SMITH: Bernie Weinraub, beyond those films that we’ve mentioned that have either been postponed or actually canceled, are there other topics that are touchy right now or films that are perhaps dark and gritty in their nature? Difficult?
BERNARD WEINRAUB: Yeah, I think there is for the moment. As I say again everything can change but for the moment there’s a sense of let’s not get too dark. Let’s not get too somber, and let’s not have bleak stories, bleak family stories even. I think there’s a kind of sense of not… Let’s not have just comedies but let’s have something that’s a little bit more uplifting than something darker. I mean, I would be very surprised if a really dark film would be green lit right now.
TERENCE SMITH: I mean you’ve been covering Hollywood for a number of years now. There have been periods before where topics have become sensitive. Compare this to any before.
BERNARD WEINRAUB: Well, I think it’s interesting. Certainly after… When the Berlin Wall fell and Communism collapsed, I think there was a sea change in the way Hollywood looked at villains. Certainly before then the Bond films and plenty of other films the villains were Russians or Eastern Europeans. After that there was a real hunt for villains. The villains became this vague, amorphous people, generally Middle Eastern. And that happened for years, you know, for a long time. What’s going to happen now, I don’t know. I think for a while at least villains will not be Middle Eastern. Maybe they’ll all be blonde. I don’t know.
TERENCE SMITH: John Ridley, if there is a new sensitivity here, will it last?
JOHN RIDLEY: I think it will not last. I think that because we’re talking about a global marketplace here and the kinds of movies that are being made, look, big budget action movies have been a staple of Hollywood for a long time to come. They translate very easily to other countries. It’s very easy to understand an explosion or somebody being punched in the face or things like that. And I don’t think the level of story telling, the very sensitive levels of story telling or the subtle levels of story telling that Hollywood got out of the business of doing a long time ago, I don’t think you’re going to see a long-term change.
So I do think there’s going to be some sensitivity for a while. I think as people, as a nation, we have to get beyond this. You know, I couldn’t imagine after this happened watching a sporting event again but now I find myself doing this. It’s certainly different when you’re talking about blowing up buildings or seeing people injured but I do think in the long term you will see action movies again. You will see, you know, heroes dealing with bad guys and that means people are going to be getting hurt.
BERNARD WEINRAUB: I think there will be… Let me just interrupt. I think there will be action movies certainly which, as John said, it’s a staple of Hollywood. I think even before the terrorist attack a lot of the action movies that we know, all those “Lethal Weapons,” and “Die Hards,” were really fading — or that genre was really fading, the white cop and the black cop and all that stuff.
And I think what was really interesting was, you know, a big success like “The Matrix.” I mean we’ll have action movies and event movies but they’ll all be much more high tech and they’ll be more innovative than, say, all those movies of the ’90s that became retreads of each other. You had people like Stallone and Schwarzenegger and those guys really, their careers were declining… Have been declining. I think those action movies are sort of over.
TERENCE SMITH: John Ridley, has… Violence has been something of a crutch for the film industry, at least many critics have written that. If this is a temporary phase, what do you see in the future?
JOHN RIDLEY: Well, I think that you will probably see– and I agree actually with what Bernie is saying, that the old style of action movies are sort of done. I think what you will see more of in the future, as Bernie was saying again, films like “The Matrix” or films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or more science fiction, more period pieces like “Gladiator” where you’re taking the violence out of our era and taking it out of… It’s not about planes crashing; it’s not about buildings blowing up. You can still have that action but because it’s so far removed from the times that we live in, I think that people can… I don’t think “enjoy” is the correct word, but they can sit through it. They can sustain a story because it’s not about what we’re dealing with now. It’s what’s happened in ancient Rome; it’s what’s happening in outer space. It’s what’s happening in China during a particular dynasty.
So I think you will always see action, whether it’s violence or whether it’s car crashes, but I think the context is going to change for the near future so that you can sit through it and not be reminded of what happened in New York.
TERENCE SMITH: Bernie Weinraub, very briefly, can you imagine a point down the road when the incident itself of September 11 becomes suitable subject for dramatization?
BERNARD WEINRAUB: Yeah, I have no doubt that in a couple of years certainly television, there will be a television mini-series about it, and I think it could be… It will certainly be a point of reference. It already is. I mean we already have… Yesterday we had “West Wing”. It’s already a point on television and it will be a point on television and in drama shows for, you know, in the immediate future. I have no doubt that in the next couple of years there will be something about the bombings.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you both.
JOHN RIDLEY: Thank you very much.