Moving days

Emotion and heart characterize three women's experiences on 'World Trade Center'

The dramatic center of Oliver Stone's August drama "World Trade Center" might hinge on the real-life stories of Will Jimeno and Sgt. John McLoughlin, two Sept. 11 heroes who were trapped at the scene and are played by Michael Pena and Nicolas Cage, respectively, but the real heart of the movie lies with the women who both inspired it and the ones who made it happen. Three of those women -- producer Stacey Sher and actresses Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal -- will speak at The Hollywood Reporter's 15th annual Women in Entertainment Power 100 Breakfast about their collaboration on the Paramount film.

"I was pregnant with my second child when I ran into my mentor, Debra Hill, on the street in New York three years ago," Sher remembers, "And she said, 'I've met the most incredible men, and we have to make a movie about them.' No one was jumping up and down at that point to make a story about 9/11. My partner, Michael Shamberg, was willing to meet the men, but he said, 'You understand we can't meet them and then not commit.' We knew right then that we would go forward."

The team hired Andrea Berloff to write the script based on several unproduced scripts and a passionate plea.

"At that point, Debra had become ill, and she was in the hospital on a conference call with all of us," Sher remembers. "What Andrea had to say was so unbelievably moving that Debra said, 'I'm breaking protocol, let's hire her.'

"We never thought the movie was about two men," Sher continues. "We thought it was just as much about the women, about what is was to be a wife and to have a family. It was about the humanity of the experience."

Although Stone's films have been criticized for underdeveloped female characters, Bello refutes the notion for "WTC." "In the past, it's been said that (Stone's) female characters aren't terribly developed, but from the beginning of this, they were," Bello explains. "He even allowed us to add scenes after we had talked to the women and heard their stories."

Once Cage and Pena signed on, offers went out to Gyllenhaal to play Allison Jimeno and to Bello for the part of Donna McLoughlin. "Their stories were always as important as Michael and Nic's," Sher says. "There's a certain deal when someone is a cop's wife or a fireman's wife that you're not going to think about what could happen, but you see what these women's lives are like. You see the sacrifices you make to move a marriage forward when you have kids and a job and you're in a mature marriage, and you see what's going on in a newer marriage when kids are on the way. What is it that you do in those moments?"

Bello and Sher would go on to spend hours with Donna McLoughlin and her family, hanging out with kids in tow. Gyllenhaal, who was playing a pregnant character and would soon become pregnant herself, took a more-refrained approach. "I responded immediately to the character," she says, "but there was a little bit of controversy because of some political things I had said about 9/11" -- in which she suggested America had a hand in responsibility for the attacks -- "(that were) picked up by the media and misunderstood. When the families heard about it much later, they were concerned. Stacey and I both agreed we should all meet, and if they still felt I shouldn't do the movie, I wouldn't. But as soon as I talked to them, it was fine. But I didn't want to do an imitation of Allison, and the way I could most fully honor her was to allow the possibility for anything to happen, not only what she remembers. Playing those scenes was more painful for me than I could have imagined."

Says Sher of her two leading women: "They both have tremendous honesty and personal integrity, and they're both fearless. And that fearlessness leads them to give fierce performances, even when they're fierce in their vulnerability."

Hill died before filming began, and "WTC" is her last producing credit. "She always envisioned a movie that at the end," Sher says, quoting a friend, "would make you want to hold those you loved more closely and to tell them that you loved them a little more often." Now that the film is finished, Sher is finding peace with that sentiment.

"It's like a line (from) the movie: For devastation and despair to be the only take away, when people behaved so heroically, would be a triumph for the terrorists," she says. "To see that in the face of unspeakable horror that people are capable of extraordinary good -- and that most of the time that's what they choose-- that's what this movie is about."

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