'Looming Tower': Stars and Creatives Talk 9/11 Depiction and How the Political Climate Has Changed

Back in the summer of 1998, while the rest of the country was obsessing over Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, an FBI agent named John O'Neill was not-so-quietly investigating a growing terrorist threat, arguing to anyone who'd listen that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida was planning an attack on U.S. soil. Not many did. And, proving that history has a sense of irony, three years later — on Sept. 11, 2001 — O'Neill ended up in the World Trade Center during the tragedy.

O'Neill's story was largely unheralded until Lawrence Wright made him the centerpiece of his 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction thriller, The Looming Tower — and even then O'Neill remained a little-known historical footnote. But with Hulu's 10-part miniseries adaptation — from a script by Dan Futterman (Capote, Foxcatcher) and with director Alex Gibney (Going Clear) — that finally may change. Jeff Daniels stars as O'Neill, Algerian actor Tahar Rahim plays his partner Ali Soufan and Wrenn Schmidt (Boardwalk Empire) and Peter Sarsgaard portray CIA agents who don't trust the FBI.

THR sat down with Wright, Futterman and the actors to learn how the series (whose finale begins streaming April 18) came about and what they hope it will accomplish.

It's taken years to get The Looming Tower on TV. Why now? And what were some of the biggest challenges of adapting it for the small screen?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT I was reluctant to trust it to another form, because I didn't see another medium that could accommodate the story and scale with the subtlety and intelligence that I wanted to see. But over those years, television has grown up and become more sophisticated. There are actors and directors and writers that we can work with now that would have been impossible 15 or 10 years ago.

DAN FUTTERMAN Something we talked about a lot was where to start. The first 100 pages are about Sayyid Qutb and the evolution of Islamic radicalism. It's amazing — but it's not great television. The spring and summer of 1998 seemed like the right place; it was where Ali Soufan sort of started at the FBI [and there were] the embassy bombings. You have to conflate events and characters, and we discussed and wrestled over it. Most of it is what to drop and what to mush together.

WRIGHT I also began to realize there were so many young people for whom 9/11 was not a part of their life. They didn't know the America that existed before 9/11 and they didn't know why we failed. I thought it was important to create a narrative in a new form that would reach those people.

John O'Neill is a name not known to most viewers. Why was he the right vessel for this story?

JEFF DANIELS He's a common man. He's of the street. He's the way in. Because everyone knows what happened, In hindsight you get to go back and see somebody who was screaming about bin Laden before bin Laden became bin Laden and before 9/11 happened. In a lot of ways, I'm the perfect audience for this because I was unaware of Larry's book and I didn't know who John O'Neill was. And yet, you think you know 9/11. 

PETER SARSGAARD When the book came around in 2006, it was the first time I had read something where it was getting into the how and the why, and in what ways we were responsible, and thinking it was something we might have been able to prevent. I do think that instead of it just being this time that we associate with grief, it can be a time that we learn something and it would be great for new generations to be a part of that.

WRENN SCHMIDT That's really the question I was asking after 9/11 and then again after I started reading Larry's book. Why and how and who are we? How does America impact the world?

DANIELS It's fascinating to look back at a time when we truly did have the best and the brightest all the way to the top, and yet we were that divided. We had brilliant, knowledgeable, experienced, competent people in government and 9/11 happened. What's different now? Take out brilliant, knowledgeable, competent, experienced. How are we doing? Not too good.

WRIGHT One of the themes of this show is: Divided we fail. Two important intelligence agencies in America — the FBI and the CIA — were at odds and personally antagonistic toward each other. Had they cooperated with each other, 9/11 might have been prevented. That was a consequence of being divided, and we're more divided now than any time in modern American history, and the consequences we have yet to know.

Does it make sense to you why certain mistakes were made after researching and portraying members of the CIA and the FBI?

SARSGAARD In terms of the conflict between the CIA and the FBI, they have different goals.

SCHMIDT And different methods.

DANIELS I think they both thought they were right.

SARSGAARD One-hundred percent. No one is treasonous here. No one is like, "I want to bring down the United States of America." They all are patriots, one way or another.

SCHMIDT [Peter and I] talked to a field officer who had been in the CIA for 25 years. She was just a wealth of information as far as filling in the gaps and feeling like you could grasp what that culture and that agency is like.

How were you able to piece together John O'Neill as a character?

DANIELS I had a lot of help from his partners who had been with him for years and years, here and overseas. They were like an open book — the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses. Ali Soufan himself was helpful, Larry's book was helpful. That's a lot going in.

FUTTERMAN Soufan is a producer on the show. He's involved all the way through. He read every script.

WRIGHT He's the one who persuaded [Tahar Rahim] to do the part.

TAHAR RAHIM He helped me to get involved in the show and [to understand] why a young man like this wants to make the world a better place. When I was 27, I was going out with my friends. I was not thinking about what was happening all over the world. And the fact that he fought for freedom as a Muslim-American FBI agent was brand-new to me. It's important to tell that story.

FUTTERMAN Ali Soufan [says] when he talked to you he sort of challenged you to take the part. This goes to what a good interrogator Ali is — he found everything on Tahar that he could find and said, "I've read you complained about getting offers for all these roles to play terrorists and that bothers you." Tahar said, "Yeah." Then Ali said, "Well, if you don't take this part of someone fighting against terrorism, you can't complain anymore."

RAHIM Yes. (Laughs.) I said, "OK, I'll do it." That was it.

How does it feel to be bringing Soufan's story out of the shadows, especially in the current climate?

FUTTERMAN This is a small answer to your question, but the story of a Muslim-American trying to rescue his religion from these people who are trying to hijack it and becoming, through the course of the season, more devotional and emotionally attached to his religion, was something that I think a lot of folks of Muslim background on both sides felt was important. It felt that it was important to be a part of that storytelling.

RAHIM It was an interesting arc, and at the end, you have the two types of Muslims facing each other, and you have one who understood and one who doesn't.

WRIGHT He's talking about the end of the last episode (watch a preview, here), when Ali is interrogating a jihadi who is one of bin Laden's bodyguards, who has a misunderstanding of his own faith. This is the true story. He said, "I'm not familiar with the Koran." He's familiar with sayings of the Prophet, some of which are totally bogus and unauthenticated. But Ali knows the Koran and he's able to say, "That's not Islam." This guy has been enclosed in a jihadi mindset where rumors about the religion are preached and it's a total distortion of what the religion really is, and I think it's beautifully expressed in that scene.

The title — The Looming Tower — where does it come from?

WRIGHT When I was doing my research, there was a letter from bin Laden to the hijackers and in there he makes reference to a passage in the Koran three times. It says, "Death will find you, even in the looming tower." I thought it must be a signal to the hijackers, it was such a resonant statement because they were aiming at the Towers from the very start.

How big is the responsibility of telling a story about 9/11?

WRIGHT Every great tragedy becomes, in some way, hallowed and difficult to approach because it's surrounded by this sense of it being sacred and untouchable. Time has to pass before you can address it more honestly and candidly. We were all in such pain after 9/11, and the wound still hasn't healed. Ali was talking to me the other day and he said, "9/11 is an unresolved chapter in the American psyche, and you can't resolve it without understanding." And that's what we're hoping this series will do.

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.