2012 Emmys: Jim Whitaker on Dealing With Grief Through 9/11 Doc 'Rebirth' (Video)
The longtime Imagine exec-turned-Disney producer spent a decade documenting changes at Ground Zero and within people who were directly affected by 9/11.
For as long as there has been a Hollywood, there have been unflattering depictions of Hollywood producers -- often in Hollywood films, oddly enough -- as fat and/or foul-mouthed and/or cigar-chomping and/or backstabbing and/or womanizing and/or egomaniacal and/or impediments to the creative process.
By these standards, the present-day Hollywood producer Jim Whitaker -- a young, soft-spoken family man with great humility, deep intellect and the kind of sensitivity that inspired him to spend a decade of his discretionary time chronicling the lives of people who were impacted by the attacks of September 11, 2001, and to ultimately leave his job in order to finish the project -- is a great disappointment.
By any reasonable measure, however, Whitaker is quite an inspiration. Last week, I spent an hour with him in his office in the Old Animation Building on the Disney lot in Burbank discussing his life, his career and his previously-referenced documentary, Rebirth, which aired on Showtime on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and is now a serious contender to score an Emmy nomination next month for outstanding nonfiction special.
Whitaker, a Baltimore native, got his start in the business during one sweltering-hot summer break from his studies at Georgetown, when he worked without pay in craft services on his cousin John Waters's film Hairspray (1988). Despite his lowly position on the production -- which involved, among other things, bringing cups of water to future star/friend Josh Charles -- Whitaker fell in love the creative vibe that permeates a film set. "I thought, 'This is it. This is what I'll be doing for the rest of my life.'
Before Whitaker graduated from college, though, he spent another summer working for WRC, an NBC owned-and-operated station that covered Washington, D.C. and then sent out its coverage to NBC affiliates around the country. He covered many events of great national import, including the 1988 presidential conventions (during which he worked as a stringer for a then little-known reporter named Katie Couric), but it was human interest stories that truly captured his imagination -- and also frustrated him, since they were rarely covered in great depth or subsequently followed up upon. This led him to the realization that the documentary medium would best suit his interests.
During college, Whitaker's roommate and close friend was killed in a drinking-and-driving accident, which inspired him to step behind the camera himself for the first time. He decided that he wanted to create a public service announcement about the subject, with the hope that local TV stations would air it around the time of New Year's Eve (when a high number of drinking-and-driving accidents occur), and created storyboards for the project. A local Fox station told him that if he financed and shot the spot, they would air it, so he raised the funds from friends, shot it in a Baltimore studio that he was permitted to use for one night, and then offered it to all of the local TV affiliates to run. To his great surprise and pleasure, it started showing up everywhere in Baltimore, and then around the country, and would eventually become a calling card for him as he tried to break into the business.
Whitaker finally made the move out west to California when he was accepted into the producers program at the prestigious USC Film School. Around the same time, in 1994, he secured an internship at Imagine Entertainment, the production company run by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Grazer took a particular interest in him early on, having been impressed by the drinking-and-driving commercial, and began delegating more and more responsibilities to him. After Whitaker graduated from USC, he was given a full-time job at the company, and began a 15-year climb up the corporate ladder from production assistant, to front desk greeter, to assistant to an executive, to a creative executive, to head of production. While at Imagine, he was intimately involved with many of its highest-profile releases, including 8 Mile (2002), Friday Night Lights (2004), American Gangster (2007), Changeling (2008), and Cinderella Man (2005). Interestingly, many of these films were inspired by real people and events, the same things that had interested him when he worked at WRC, and that would also be at the center of the most ambitious project of his career, which he undertook while still at Imagine.
In 2001, Whitaker's mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, causing him deep grief and to ponder his own mortality and purpose. Just six months later, 9/11 happened, and had a similar effect on him and most other Americans. Then, in late October 2001, he and his wife flew to New York for a friend's wedding, and Whitaker asked his wife to join him on a trip to Ground Zero. He felt that it was important that they would one day be able to provide their children a first-person testimonial about it, just as his own father had recounted to him memories of historical events that he had been a part of, including Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous 1963 March on Washington.
When Whitaker and his wife arrived at the site, it was still filled with debris, smoky and smelling of oil, and resembled a war zone. He recalls, "I was very open because of the nature of my recent loss, and I remember just thinking, 'Wow. One day this will go... this will all be gone... and when it's gone, something else will be here, but I don't know what it'll be. Maybe it'll be lawns, maybe it'll be a tower -- who knows what it'll be.' And I had this feeling of going from dread and anxiety about everything I was seeing to this feeling of, like, hope. Just a little bit of an upswell." He continues, "It was something I couldn't tell people in the early days, 'cause they would just say, 'How can you even feel that?' But I thought, 'What if you could show the transformation of this place from being a place of destruction to a place of something very different?' Whatever that would be, it would have to bring a kind of feeling of, 'Something happened here. Somebody moved on. There was some progression towards an end-point that was positive.'" And so was born the idea for Project Rebirth, a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
Whitaker's first initiative as part of Project Rebirth was to encircle Ground Zero with cameras to capture, in a time-lapse fashion, "the minute-by-minute evolution of the site." He hoped that it might be shown at the museum that would inevitably be constructed on the site years later, and literally illustrate for visitors how something good had grown from the ashes and despair of those early days. To that end, he procured three -- and later more -- used motion picture movie cameras; a donation from Kodak of 35mm film for 10 years; a donation from Deluxe of processing services for 10 years; and financial support from many other organizations, foundations, and individuals to cover other associated costs. Those cameras have been capturing a frame of film every five minutes, for 24 hours a day, from the time they were installed to this very day.
At some point, Whitaker decided that it would be important to provide not only time-lapse footage showing the site rebounding from the trauma that it had endured, but also "human time-lapse" footage showing how people who had been directly impacted by the attacks had done so, too. He sought out individuals who might be representative, to some extent, of larger groups of people -- among them a fireman, a police officer, a survivor, a widow, and someone who was young and lost someone -- and who would be willing to speak with him on camera once a year, around the time of the 9/11 anniversary, for as many years as it took for real change to happen at Ground Zero. He instinctually felt that the site and the people might evolve at similar paces, and believes that was, in fact, been the case. Consequently, for the next nine years, he spent many weekends not relaxing with his family after a long week at the office, but rather criss-crossing the country speaking with the nine people who had agreed to work with him. (The number was originally 10, but one person dropped out early in the project; four of the remaining nine are not featured in Rebirth, but will be featured elsewhere -- more on that in a moment.)
Whitaker says that his motivation for this second component of Project Rebirth was personal. "I was curious about both the day and the grief," he says, noting that he hoped that he and others might learn from the subjects how one emerges, over time, from the shock and sadness of a sudden and unexpected loss. In order to do so in the most respectful and effective way, he resolved early on that the film would features only their own words and images, rather than narration or images from 9/11. Indeed, the only thing with which he supplemented their footage is a beautiful musical score by Philip Glass, which helps to guide a viewer through their -- to borrow Whitaker's title -- rebirth.
For a documentary, Rebirth has had an unusually long and colorful life. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011, was given a limited theatrical release by Oscilloscope Laboratories (the late Adam Yauch's studio) starting on August 31, 2011, and, as was previously mentioned, aired on Showtime on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the attacks that forever changed the lives of the film's subjects. Then, on April 4, 2012, Showtime was honored with a Peabody Award -- one of the oldest and rarest prizes awarded to electronic media -- for broadcasting it. But the film's afterlife is only just beginning.
Whitaker's dream of incorporating his time-lapse footage of Ground Zero and interviews with 9/11 survivors into a 9/11 museum is about to become a reality. It has been confirmed that visitors to the 9/11 museum will pass through a 36x28 foot room surrounded by walls that will project the time-lapse footage of the past 10-plus years over the course of 10 minutes. Moreover, while they watch that footage, they will also hear the disembodied voices of the people who he interviewed -- accompanied by Glass' musical score -- describing their outlook at various stages during the process. (The four interview subjects whose stories did not make it into Rebirth will be included at the museum.) Whitaker says that it will all make for "a different experience" than the film did, "a unique, one-of-a-kind experience." He hopes that it will encourage people to not "take for granted the time we have" and to "pick up the phone and call somebody" with whom they have grown apart, since life is, in some cases, truly too short.
For Whitaker, the work will never be complete -- Project Rebirth continues to operate, he says, with the objective of "helping veterans, helping widows, helping first-responders, helping people who are going through grief, or preparing them for potential events... that might effect them in their line of work." But, with the film Rebirth now complete, he is able to turn much of his attention back to his family (who he says made great sacrifices so that he could chronicle, for as long as he did, the lives of total strangers -- who, over time, became valued friends) and to his day job (he left Imagine in 2008 in order to focus on finishing the film, and now has a producing deal at Disney, where he has helped to groom Peter Hedges' The Odd Life of Timothy Green, which will star Jennifer Garner, from its infancy for its release on August 15).
Quite clearly, Jim Whitaker is not your stereotypical -- or typical -- Hollywood producer... and Hollywood is far from alone in being better off for it.