As the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks approach, Lucie Ridout, executive producer at UK-based Arrow Pictures, reveals the behind-the-scenes challenges of bringing a fresh and representative exploration of the tragedy to screen.
The terror attacks on 9/11, the most shocking event in many people’s lifetimes, have led to many high-quality documentaries and, as the 20th anniversary approached, the creative bar was set high.
Arrow Pictures chose not to return to that dramatic day. We decided to look forward, focusing on a small group of young people with a unique connection to the events – those who lost their fathers on 11 September, 2001. Through their stories we wanted to unveil the hidden cost of the tragedy and its impact on an entire generation.
Not everyone always agreed and there were creative debates, this isn’t a fake story of global harmony – it’s a case study in making great films with global collaboration
From a simple seed of an idea, an extraordinary project was born – a truly international collaboration that sought to be equal throughout development and production and push the creative ambition of a forward-looking story on 9/11.
Generation 9/11 is the result of the coming together of ourselves, PBS in America, Channel 4 in the UK and Arte in France and Germany. They ‘got’ our idea right from the moment we took it to them and our discussions resulted not in a traditional co-production, but a true three-way commission from three broadcasters who played an active part in the process.
Having the backing of these significant and equal partners through both the development and commissioning process fuelled our creative ambition for this film.
Widening the net
An estimated 105 expectant mothers lost their partners in the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th 2001. During the development phase, Arrow Pictures set out to find and contact as many of the children born in the wake of the attacks as possible.
The initial research lasted four months. We wanted to not only know about their family’s story of what happened that day, but more importantly, their lives since. The casting of the film was so important; the tragedy of 9/11 impacted so many lives globally, we wanted the young adult’s stories to reflect that. This isn’t a scripted show and most importantly we wanted the narrative to be led strongly by the contributors.
We were looking for an equal representation of American society to be reflected in the film. This was a deal breaker for all parties. There was also the challenge that the events of 9/11 reached far beyond the shore of the US and our contributors lives needed to represent that as well. The lens was narrowing and the challenges mounting.
We focused down the field to around 20 families and we knew instinctively that we were missing a very important voice; a Muslim family. We decided to open our net a little and search for families where the child may be a little older but never met their father. We discovered the story of an American-Yemen family where the father worked in New York while the family awaited visas in Yemen.
To make everything even more demanding, we were all facing the global pandemic. Where many projects could be put on hold, this had a hard deadline of the 20th anniversary, so we had to deliver.
The development officially stretched over six months but the casting was more realistically nine months. When our final seven were onboard we had stories that touched six states of America, Poland, Germany, Brazil and Yemen. Our contributors’ fathers had been decorators, military personnel, bankers and media managers.
At a time when international relations are being pushed to their limits, it was so positive to be part of a project really pulling together across the borders
The filming was fraught with the usual challenges of juggling seven young adults’ lives as they head off to college. Throw in Covid restrictions and we needed every trick in the book to pull it off. Most importantly we needed to maintain the close collaboration of all the commissioning parties. There was no time, on this deadline, to deliver three different films with a different angle. If we diluted our time in that way, the creative ambition could be at risk. Once again, it was truly admirable how all parties drew together to make it possible.
Now, not everyone always agreed and there were creative debates, this isn’t a fake story of global harmony. It is a case study in making great films with global collaboration. In the fast and ever-changing landscape of our industry there is a future in honest and true equal co-productions. And, at a time when the world is in turmoil and international relations are being pushed to their limits, it was so positive to be part of a project really pulling together across the borders.
Generation 9/11 will debut on 16 August on the UK’s Channel 4 (where it will be broadcast as Children Of 9/11: Our Story), before its US premiere on PBS on 31 August. Arte will premiere the film in France and Germany (where it will be broadcast as Children Of 9/11) on the same day.