- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

Actress Rebecca Schull is in the cast of “United 93.” During the shooting of the film, she kept a journal, from which the excerpts below are taken. United Flight 93 was traveling from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco and crashed in Pennsylvania.

MONDAY, OCT. 31: Waiting for takeoff to London Heathrow to start rehearsals for “United 93,” the story of the plane that was taken down and crashed in a Pennsylvania farm field on September 11. I’m realizing that I agreed to take part in a project about which I know practically nothing. Here’s what I do know: The film is to be directed by Paul Greengrass, the director of a sort of docudrama about Northern Ireland called “Bloody Sunday.”

What I found intriguing was that the film is to be developed through improvisation. The auditions, in fact, were improvisations: Four or five actors were seated as if in a plane, responding to the events that unfolded. There was no script and no indication of who you were meant to be portraying.

TUESDAY, NOV. 1, PINEWOOD HOTEL, NEAR PINEWOOD STUDIOS: Today was a free day, sorely needed for recuperation.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 2: (After the director’s first meeting with the actors.) The talk by Paul Greengrass was inspiring. To paraphrase Paul: “Our world changed on 9/11 — this was the day when things changed irrevocably and led to the understandable militarization of our world.

“The story has become mythologized and the characters sanctified in the aftermath of the event. The attempt here will be to find the truth of what happened. There is a lot of information known about what happened on the ground. The further truth — of which we know nothing beyond phone calls from the flight and the cockpit voice recording — is the truth of how human beings would react to this event.

“The actors are to know who their characters are. [Each actor was assigned a character, given a bio for that character and presented with the option of trying to contact surviving family members as research for their parts.] Then they are to dispose of that information and allow for the truth of their own genuine human reaction in the event — the probability of, for example — that the decision to try to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers was not unanimous.”

WEDNESDAY, 3 P.M.: The first rule of moviemaking has already kicked in: “Hurry up and wait.” After our inspiring talk from Paul and lunch about two hours ago, we have been waiting in the greenroom for our assignments to “hair,” “makeup” and “props” and, subsequently, to our dressing rooms. I’ve now seen a photograph of Pat Cushing, the woman I’m playing. She had short blond hair. Am I going to be asked to cut and color?

I’ve been reading the treatment and script (in the sense of an outline of the scenes) of the movie. It’s absolutely chilling, as you go through the unbelievable events of that morning from the perspective of the air traffic controllers, the federal agencies involved, etc. to realize the stunned disbelief of all concerned.

The American actors are shocked that there’s no “craft service” which means non-stop food available — laid on. Personally, I’m relieved. I gained at least 10 pounds during the course of shooting “Wings” [an NBC television sitcom on which Rebecca Schull appeared for eight seasons].

—THURSDAY, NOV. 3: Today Paul talke about the psychology of the passengers: “The perception before 9/11 was that hijacking could have a more or less benign outcome. After all, we all knew that the hijackers themselves wanted to survive.

“The two bits of knowledge that changed that perception on this flight were, one, the discovery that the pilot and co-pilot had been killed, and two, the information, received via phone calls to family, that the World Trade Towers had just been attacked. This made all previous assumptions null and void, and certainly changed the customary attitude of respect for authority in the confines of an airplane. The authority figures were gone — one flight attendant also had had her throat slit — and the resulting fear and panic were only the beginning of the unprecedented events that followed.

“The 35 minutes between the hijackers’ takeover at 9:28 a.m. and the crash at 10:03 will occur in real time. As the crucial information — including the attack on the Pentagon — becomes known, the shifts in perception will unfold: the discussion of an attempt to take over the plane from the hijackers, the planning for the action, the realization that there was a pilot capable of landing the plane among the passengers, the taking of a vote, the action itself and, ultimately, the crash.”

Only so much of all this is known — the rest will come out of what we do in rehearsal and shooting. The story is so heartbreaking, and the prospect of reliving it truly terrible. I know I feel it, and so has every actor I’ve spoken to. And yet, what Paul said at the end of today’s session I believe to be profoundly true. If the question becomes what would I, as that person, do in those circumstances, the process will lead to truthfulness.

For myself, I think: “I’m not that much like Pat Cushing. Our life experiences are very different. But — and it’s a huge but — we’re both wives, mothers, grandmothers. And surely that makes us more alike than different.”

Paul said, “It’s all about harvesting it when it’s ripe.” That’s what will come out of improvised behavior without constraints.

Very important to him is the responsibility to the families of the victims. They have all given their consent to the film, but there is an incipient tension between the families and the actors. The question arose: Were there any cowards there? It is going to be our view of the event, but it’s important we carry the families with us, and Paul believes that if you can give them the totality of the experience in the plane (because many of them felt that the public version of the flight that emerged all had to do with the four guys who said “Let’s roll”), they will see that it was a collective experience.

What I found terrific was Paul’s statement that he’s not interested in saying “F— you” to national symbols.

This is a bloody story. At one point he said, “There were 24 pints of blood on the floor,” and I think everyone felt a chill at that image. But, at the same time, he made a point of saying there have to be boundaries. He wants to bring this to a younger audience, and that means it will need a rating that allows them to watch it.

The actors playing the hijackers are not part of our discussions or rehearsals. We will probably not see them until the final moments of the film. I feel really sorry for those men.

FRIDAY, NOV. 4: The purpose of today’s rehearsal in the rehearsal room was to go through the physical movements and get a sense of how one event leads to the next. We started on the curb at Newark Airport; we moved to check in and waited in the Flight 93 waiting area, then moved into the mockup of the plane.

Now we are waiting for the plane to take off. Paul gave us some direction: “Think about how we surrender ourselves, through various rituals, to this engine of modernity. … You don’t have to strain to give this period meaning — it will be there given the outcome.”

He tells us there will be long, continuous takes (as opposed to the two- to three-minute takes more typical in shooting a film.)

MONDAY, NOV. 7, MORNING: We had our first rehearsal aboard the 747 itself; it’s really a plane on a platform about 12 feet off the ground with a ramp leading up to it. It’s a big, big plane, and there’s a gimbal —a machine that will rock half of the plane at a time. We went through the whole scenario — which had been handed to us on paper — in rough form. Afterward, Paul’s main comment was that it looked as if we knew the outcome in advance — obviously a bad thing. It’s critical that we experience this.

Paul explained: “We will capture what you’re doing; you don’t have to strain to catch our attention” (meaning the cameramen who, I gather, are going to be wandering with their hand-held cameras).

He went on: “Sound is an absolutely vital part of this film — there will be an awful lot of ambient noise, and it will affect what you’re doing and whom you speak to and how.” There followed a talk from the photographer to explain how it will be shot and a talk from the guy who designed the mechanism that controls the movement in the plane. He explained that the camera is suspended on a bungee on a rail.

TUESDAY, NOV. 8, MORNING: In the plane again. We’re going to block out the movement and general shape of the play: 8:42 — takeoff; 9:02 — breakfast will begin; 9:28 — hijack begins, and everyone is forced to the back. Then we did it, telescoping the time between takeoff and the hijacking, but then from there going all the way to the end in real time.

It’s very hard not to react as if it is real. There was a long period of calm sitting there after the hijacking not knowing what has happened, what is happening; it felt endless.

TUESDAY AFTERNOON, REHEARSAL ROOM: Paul’s notes on the day’s run-through: “It was powerful when it was all quiet. Your intuition is more important than anything else: If it felt good to you, that’s what matters.”

There was a discussion of the plane’s food service trolley. Paul said it didn’t make sense to him that that was the weapon used by the passengers in retaking the plane. But the actors who did it said it felt real to them, and Paul deferred.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 9, MORNING: A run-through from the moment of the hijacking.

Paul addressed the question of the young males taking over the action: “Would they have achieved universal consent? I doubt it. It’s got to stay unstructured. And not to know is a strong choice in this film (for the actor). There’s got to be a dynamic going among the alpha males as the action develops. But they would still have to interact with the group.”

One actress made the point that it was white males (the symbol of corporate America) that initiated the action and overwhelmed the possibility of negotiation.

A second actress retorted: “I don’t want to hear about corporate America taking over the plane.”

FRIDAY, NOV. 11: Today was our first day in costume, hair and makeup. It was fun to see everyone in their character’s clothes, but I must say there was nothing startling in the transformations.

Paul reiterated how wonderful yesterday’s work was and wanted us to do it again being mindful to keep it real, not to try to learn too much too soon, look to the flight attendants for information, etc. So we did it again, and this time I was filled with emotion. But, thinking about it, I’m not so sure that’s the most important thing. It could cut you off from being more alive to what there is actually to see and hear and question as it unfolds, which may well be more productive than wallowing in one’s own tears.

MONDAY, NOV. 14: We had a 5:30 a.m. call in order to travel to Stansted Airport, where we’re to spend two days shooting the interior airport shots the passengers (and hijackers) boarding the plane and then everyone sitting waiting for the flight to be called. But it’s now after 3 in the afternoon, and all we’ve accomplished is getting into our costumes, etc., and a lot of waiting.

TUESDAY, NOV. 15, MORNING: Yesterday we finally got to the set at 4 p.m. The shot was of several passengers going through security at the departure gate. We were in a crowded space at the top of an escalator, and every few minutes filming would stop to allow real passengers to go through the gate. They seemed confused by the scene; I hope they didn’t know what was being filmed.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 16, 4 A.M.: Yesterday I joined a conversation among two of the actors and two of the hijackers, who, obviously, are also actors. But we’ve been so segregated that they have come to seem quite other. But here they were, two very bright and articulate young men who seemed to jump at the chance to talk about how this experience was affecting them. They were conflicted at every level. Clearly, they felt cut off from the rest of us. But what seemed hardest for them was the responsibility they felt for portraying these men as human beings without in any way mitigating the atrocity they had committed. Their preparation has included a lot of physical training to make them strong — and conversations with a Muslim woman who is on the set and who, it seems, instructs them on the religious commitment of their characters. In addition, they are under pressure from some family members who can’t understand why they would agree to portray these people, to perhaps become identified as these people by some, and to expose themselves to the real danger of some kind of retribution by sympathizers of the terrorists. All of this is preying on their minds.

I also had a brief conversation with one of the producers, Kate Solomon, who has arranged for several phone conversations between actors and the spouses or siblings of their characters. In at least one case, this turned out to be a shattering experience.

I’m of two minds: I would like to know as much as possible about Pat Cushing, but there are two things that hold me back: I think I’m afraid of overstepping some line if I talk to her daughter, and somehow I feel that I don’t want to approach her from the perspective of “after her death.” I would rather try, given what I know about her personality, to imagine and find some common ground with the living Pat Cushing.

FRIDAY, NOV. 18, PINEWOOD STUDIOS: Today we’re going to board the plane again and then go through the entire scenario telescoping the first sections, and then on to the 35 minutes from the hijacking to the final moments, including some rocking of the plane. This will be the first time on film that we go though it beginning to end.

MONDAY, NOV. 21: In the greenroom, Paul explained that we’re going to do two or three run-throughs a day for the next two days — from the time of the takeover to the final moment. “So this is the time to give me all your riches,” he said.

After lunch we did, as planned, the 35 minutes between takeover and crash. Paul had said, “Think primal,” and it was primal — truly shattering to go there. The saddest thing was — on the way out of the plane — to see two of the terrorists seated in the front of the plane, weeping. It must be doubly terrible for them. And we’ve got to do it twice more today.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 23: It’s the day before Thanksgiving. After our third round last night there were a few women still weeping after we came off the plane. It is wrenching for some people; the depths one plumbs to dredge up the kind of pain that will inform this piece isn’t turned off when the director says, “Cut.”

MONDAY, DEC. 5: We’re back on the plane after 11 days off and the front half of the plane is gone. We’re in the back half now on the gimbal, and we’re waiting to start shooting the first part of the flight before takeoff. I think that the next three days are going to be pretty much going through all that we’ve done before, but with the actual movement of the plane creating something more real than our previous miming.

TUESDAY, DEC. 6, MORNING: They tested our section of the plane on the gimbal, and the shaking and tumbling nearly did me in. The nurse on set gave me a motion sickness drug later, and I was OK for the rest of the day. But the combination of the usual terror augmented by extreme physical discomfort was disorienting at the very least. And now, since we know that these are our last few days, the desire to be finished and to return home to a normal life grows stronger with each day.

Paul spoke to us before the first take. He said again that there had to be more incomprehension, no knowledge of a pilot among the passengers until the last possible moment; that all the air would go out of the piece once that news was revealed and the scenario made clear. He said there had to be a struggle between two imperfect plans doing nothing and dying, or attempting to do something that might result in death anyway but that it’s not a struggle between good and bad. But he said that a voice calling for no action should not be put in such a way as to make it sound like a current “dovish” slogan, about not getting into something we don’t know how to get out of (i.e. the war in Iraq).

Before the second take, Paul spoke to us about how important it is to be able to see the gradual development of the plan to storm the plane it can’t just spring full-blown out of someone’s head. And when we did it there was, in fact, a real progression from the first tentative idea, then little by little, taking in all the objections and, finally, the culmination.

TUESDAY AFTERNOON: We watched, on the monitor, the scene of the passenger being killed. It was terrible. I can’t help wondering if this take was deliberately planned for the very last moments this actor was working in the film. But later there was a sweet farewell party for him. One of the actors was asked if he was jealous and wished he were going, too. He said no, this was an experience like [novelist Thomas Mann’s] “The Magic Mountain,” where after a number of months at the sanatorium, the patients no longer believe in the existence of a world outside.

THURSDAY, DEC. 8: Last night at dinner I was reminded of Paul’s reason for doing the film here rather than in the U.S. He wanted us to be away from home and together for the length of time it takes and I think now it was a brilliant plan. Because there has been this sometimes exceedingly uncomfortable thing of feeling both isolated and thrown in with (comparative) strangers at the same time. And what comes out of it is a community for better or worse of people stuck in the same situation. It has created a kind of pressure cooker, with the steam being let out during the improvisation, and I can’t imagine that it would have been the same if we were spending evenings and weekends in our own beds.

TUESDAY, DEC. 20: I’ve been back for 10 days, and naturally, everybody I’ve spoken to wants to know about the movie. I’ve become more and more focused on the event itself, rather than on our work in dramatizing it. Somehow the event, and what it meant for those on board the plane, has seeped into my subconscious; there are fragments of dreams almost every night that have to do with being trapped. And it isn’t just the story of Flight 93, but of everything that happened that day.

Most of all, I find myself thinking of our friends, David and Lynn Angell (he was one of the creators of “Wings”), who were passengers on the first plane, the one from Boston to Los Angeles, that crashed into the World Trade Center. It’s not as if their fate had ever been far from my consciousness, but now I see myself in that plane and wonder if they had any moments of awareness before their lives were taken.

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