How 'Looming Tower' Creators Struck a Sensitive Tone While Dramatizing 9/11

Hulu's series re-creates one of recent history's most unforgettable days.
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu
Bill Camp, as FBI agent Robert Chesney, wanders the New York City streets on 9/11 in 'The Looming Tower.'

Something is conspicuously missing from The Looming Tower — the towers themselves.

Except for a glancing view in the first episode and what will likely be a much more expansive appearance in the April 18 finale, the World Trade Center is virtually nowhere to be seen in Hulu's miniseries about the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to anticipate the 9/11 attacks.

"We didn't want to hit people over the head with it," explains showrunner Dan Futterman, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter, along with rest of the cast. "People generally know what this show is about."

The 10-part series' finale — taking place on the day the towers came down — obviously had to be handled delicately, and there were intense discussions among the creators, even through postproduction, about how to do that. Futterman, who co-wrote the episode titled "9/11," explained that the series' handling of the loss of nearly 3,000 people including the show's titular character, FBI legend John O'Neill (played by Jeff Daniels), was an ongoing conversation behind the scenes.

"You have to go with your gut and not everyone had the same gut feeling." he says. "More importantly, we were aware that these families and friends of the victims of 9/11 have been asking questions and not getting satisfactory answers for 16 years. We tried to answer those questions, and when we couldn't answer the questions, we asked them again so that people could see it — and maybe more people would ask those questions."

Futterman and the rest of the team don't want to reveal too much about the finale, but admit they were wary of putting anything on the screen that might upset survivors and family members of victims — like too-graphic documentary footage that could make viewing the show all too real. Co-producer Alex Gibney says only that they found an "interesting way [to present the attack] that was both respectful and emotionally devastating."

Of walking that line, Lawrence Wright says they wanted to make sure there was still enough time to bring the lives that they were following to a proper conclusion — namely O'Neill's. The series is based on Wright's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction thriller of the same name, and he also serves as an exec producer.

Not even Daniels knows exactly what that final episode is going to look like or how much of the towers collapsing will be shown. He's only aware of the parts he filmed leading up to the attack, in which his character enters the World Trade Center as the newly appointed chief of security on Sept. 11.

"We shot him walking to work, going into the building, going up the elevators — what we shot is the going in," says Daniels. "He went to the mat for the men and women in the field that he represented. So, does it make sense that he went back in? No one knows the buildings are going to come down. You go in and get the people out to get them away from the fire."

On 9/11, FBI agent Ali Soufan (played by Tahar Rahim) was working in the field in Yemen and was one of the many people who quickly realized that no one had heard from O'Neill. "Once it happens," says Daniels, "It's everyone else: 'Where's John? Where's John? Here's a message on a voicemail at [his girlfriend] Liz's apartment, where's John? Where's John?' No John."

The Looming Tower is streaming now on Hulu. The finale bows April 18; watch an exclusive preview below.

A version of this story also appears in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.