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Toronto 2011: Top TIFF Execs Recall Festival Chaos on Sept. 11

World Trade Center after being hit by two planes September 11-200
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Toronto International Film Festival topper Piers Handling on 9/11 carnage: “We watched, and it got more and more serious, with the towers coming down."

TORONTO – As the first hijacked passenger jet crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Toronto International Film Festival director Piers Handling was trying to reach Italian director Nanni Moretti on the phone.

“Nanni doesn’t like to fly, and said he wasn’t going to come to Toronto. I knew him, so I wanted to phone him that morning,” Handling told the Hollywood Reporter as he marked the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Handling only got Moretti’s answering machine and, while next pondering how to speak to the Italian director, his phone rang.

It was Nuria Bronfman, TIFF’s communications director, excitedly telling him to switch on CNN.

Bronfman had been in a cab at 8:45 a.m., on her way to the festival headquarters, as American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston flew into the World Trade Center and set it ablaze.

“I heard the news on the cab radio that a plane struck the World Trade Center. It was a bit weird, but no one could have imagined then that it would become what it was,” she recalled.

TIFF managing director Michelle Maheux was in her suite at the Four Seasons Hotel with The Today Show airing live on the TV set when the first hijacked plane slammed into the World Trade Center.

She recalled a grim Matt Lauer offering breaking news that someone had flown a commuter plane into the World Trade Center.

It didn’t seem real at first, Maheux insisted, it didn’t make sense.

But she was floored at 9:03 a.m. when a second hijacked airliner, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, leaving both towers on fire.

"Watching the second plane hit, I thought Holy God!,” Maheux remembers.

Piers Handling wasn’t over his shock on news of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center when he barely took in the second attack, with Bronfman now by his side.

“We watched, and it got more and more serious, with the towers coming down,” Handling said.

Bronfman recalled how they glared at the TV screen in utter disbelief as smoke billowed from the collapsed towers.

“Both of us went ‘Oh My God!’ We were just glued to the screen and I remember we looked at each other and thought what the heck was going on,” she said.

Finally Bronfman and Handling turned the TV off.

The U.S. terror attacks had nothing to do with Toronto.

But coming mid-way through the 2001 edition, they suddenly had everything to do with TIFF.

In Yorkville, the festival’s hub, people cried openly in the lobbies of the Four Seasons Hotel, and across the street at the Park Hyatt and Intercontinental.

Many were American fest-goers, including New York City and Los Angeles execs looking to get back home to comfort distraught families.

Handling and Bronfman passed by the festival press room, where more tears flowed as staff watched the heart-wrenching disaster unfold on TV.

Soon Maheux joined Handling and Bronfman in the executive suite, and saw for the first time an irretrievably changed New York skyline.

“I remember saying ‘Where’s the tower? Where’s the tower?” she said.

Despite their shock, the festival’s top executives kicked into gear and formed a crisis team to plan strategy ahead of a press conference, not least because phones had been ringing off the hook.

How was the festival going to react to events in the U.S., the media asked?

“We started to ring round to the filmmakers who had films that day, and the distributors that had events that night. Mira Nair had her movie Monsoon Wedding. Jeanne Moreau was in town. What did they think,” Handling recalled.

The crisis team’s first decision was an easy one: to cancel screenings and events for Tuesday, September 11, out of respect for the dramatic events unfolding by the hour.

But what about the rest of the festival?

“We went back and spoke to people and the sense we got was, no, don’t cancel the festival, just do it in a different way,” Handling remembers.

That meant screen films for the duration of the festival, but without the glitz and glamor, the receptions, parties and celebratory events.

Easier said than done.

TIFF’s product – the red carpet launch of movies with A-list directors and actors in full view of the world media and for possible Oscar glory – was being pulled off the shelf.

Major film producers and distributors, who had been planning film premieres and post-screening parties for months, had to cancel their events, or needed to reschedule.

Worse, international filmmakers were attempting to reach Toronto to screen their films during the tail-end of the festival, and finding their way barred by grounded air travel and even the U.S. error terror attacks themselves.

One was Lopa Kothari, who was in Manhattan on 11th September conducting U.S. press interviews for the Bollywood film Ashoka the Great by Santosh Divan, which starred Shah Rukh Kahn.

Kothari needed to get a film print to Toronto for a TIFF screening on September 13.

Like so many others, Kothari’s first memory of September 11 is of a phone call from her British film distributor, Martin Myers, urging her to turn on the TV.

“He (Myers) said that there was something on the news in the UK about the World Trade Center and to turn on the TV. I had a stunning view out of my bedroom window and as I looked I saw a section of the second tower of the World Trade Centre go up in flames,” she recalled.

In the ensuing mayhem, Kothari discovered the film print was stranded at the airport, and the director and cast could not fly out of New York City to get to Toronto.

So two chauffeur-driven limos were hired to drive the film’s director and cast to Toronto.

But first Kothari made a stop at the airport to secure the film print.

“We just walk in and are directed to the arrival luggage belt and the film reels are just sitting there, almost abandoned,” she recalled.

“An exhausted looking official makes a cursory glance our way as we haul the reels and bags onto trolleys back to the waiting cars,” Kothari added.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, festival staff were pulling up red carpets as TIFF concentrated on the films themselves.

Air traffic in Toronto was similarly grounded, forcing American fest-goers to arrange their own ground transport, including rental cars and limos, to get back across the U.S. border.

Air Canada sent a representative to the Park Hyatt to help answer questions for concerned fest-goers in person, rather than force them to spend time on the phone or make fruitless trips to Pearson Airport.

Also in Yorkville, Handling and his staff busily rescheduled films that got cancelled on September 11, without many cinema slots with which to do so.

Then Handling, Bronfman and Maheux went over to the nearby Host Restaurant on St. Thomas Street to join a family dinner led by Mira Nair that  included the cast and crew of Monsoon Wedding.

Handling recalls later that night returning to his hotel suite and, by now physically and mentally drained, switching back on the TV to witness the enormity of the loss and tragedy that had unfolded during the entire day.

“It was an earth-shattering event, that just happened to happen in the middle of the festivals, so you struggled to find the correct response,” he said, summing up the day.

Maheux recalls striking the right tone for a second-half of a festival led by film screenings, and little else.

"People bonded in the dark. At that point, it was all about the art, it was all about the collective experience,” she said.