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When a trailer and one-sheet for the new movie 9/11 first appeared in July, it triggered an internet uproar.
The low-budget feature — which will open in limited theaters on Sept. 8, just before the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attack — stars Charlie Sheen, Whoopi Goldberg and Gina Gershon, and its poster showed the three actors superimposed above an image of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The trailer intercut images of people watching actual news footage from Sept. 11, 2001, with scenes of Sheen, Gershon and fellow star Luis Guzman stuck in a North Tower elevator while Goldberg, in the building’s control room, informed them of what was happening outside.
The project, which seemed to come out of nowhere, raised a lot of eyebrows — especially since Sheen had gone on record more than a decade ago voicing conspiracy theories about what really brought the towers down.
Martin Guigui, who directed the film, says he anticipated that it would face some backlash. “I think that there is always going to be somebody who looks at 9/11 with Charlie Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg and judges,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
9/11 is based on a stage play, Elevator, by Patrick Carson, that ran in Tuscon, Arizona, in 2011 and was billed as a character study of five people stuck in an elevator during the Sept. 11 attacks. Elevator was first brought to Guigui’s attention by his friend, Children of the Corn actor Courtney Gains. Guigui’s feature work includes National Lampoon’s Cattle Call, Dennis Quaid thriller Beneath the Darkness, and Jake LaMotta biopic The Bronx Bull.
“I want to say that was six or seven years ago. Then, from what I understand, the script made its way around town,” Guigui explains. “I got a phone call from [producer] Warren Ostergard, who is based in North Carolina, and he said let’s make this movie and I would love for you to direct it.”
Guigui says he conducted research for the film in New York, where he met with survivors. While he experienced a moment where he felt it might be too soon for such a film, he says that he decided to move forward with the project because he believed the film’s message would resonate in the current divided social and political climate, explaining, “Different cultures, different denominations, different political ties all coming together as one for a common cause and it seems that we have forgotten that we have the ability to do that.”
Guigui says he always had Sheen in mind for the lead role of Jeffery, a high-powered Wall Street-type. “He was looking for the right vehicle to come back to serious filmmaking,” the director says of why Sheen signed on to the project, adding that he was searching for dramatic roles in the vein of his earlier films like Wall Street and Platoon.
The director says he wasn’t concerned that Sheen had previously expressed skepticism that the collapse of the Twin Towers was the result of a terrorist attack. In a 2006 radio interview with conservative commentator Alex Jones, Sheen suggested that the towers’ collapse was due to a “controlled demolition.” He went on to say: “We’re not the conspiracy theorists on this issue. It seems to me like 19 amateurs with box cutters taking over four commercial airlines and hitting 75 percent of their target — that feels like a conspiracy theory.”
“He made it clear to me that there’s a time for everything and that presently his thoughts and feelings about 9/11 are that it was a horrible tragedy,” says Guigui. “More than anything he wanted to make the movie because he thought this was a legacy piece, something that he would love to be remembered by.”
Speaking with THR, Sheen said that just because he agreed to star in the film, he hasn’t abandoned all his earlier doubts about what caused the towers to come down. “I was not just coming up with stuff about 9/11,” he says. “I was parroting those a lot smarter and a lot more experienced than myself, who had very similar questions. Not to put this behind us because, as brilliantly written, we must ‘never forget,’ but there are still a couple of things just rooted in simple physics that beg some measure of inquiry. But [9/11] is not about condemning or criticizing anyone involved. If anything, it is about honoring the fallen as well as the survivors.”
After Sheen came onboard, Guigui says that “it was sort of a friends and family approach to the casting.” Sheen reached out to Goldberg and Gershon, while Guigui brought in Guzman, whom he describes as a decades-old friend. Sheen’s brother, Emilio Estevez, even offered some “creative consultation” on the story.
The movie’s tight film shoot was set to take place at Thunder Studios in Long Beach, where production designer Jack Taylor planned to re-create the interior of the World Trade Center. A second unit was to be sent to New York to capture exteriors.
But three weeks before principal photography was set to begin, Guigui says that the production lost its financing because of the film’s controversial subject matter. Additionally, he says, he lost a tax credit from the California Film Commission because the production did not meet the job requirements. But at the eleventh hour, a savior stepped forward — fledgling producer Martin Sprock, who made his fortune in as a restaurant franchisor and funded the film with his own equity.
“I had invested in a few films, but mostly have been investing in developing my own projects. When I read 9/11 I knew it was unique. And I believed in Charlie Sheen, Guigui and the cast to deliver the story,” Sprock said in an email.
9/11 is being released by Atlas Distribution — the company that was founded in 2010 specifically to market and distribute the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and the two follow-up films in 2012 and 2014 that would make up an Atlas trilogy.
“It’s a very unique film,” Guigui says of 9/11. “Not one that I feel was made to be criticized and not one that I feel was made to be praised, either. I think it was a film that was made to be experienced.”
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