As the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches, a slew of tributes, movies and documentaries will give audiences a chance to reflect on tragic events of that day. In Discovery's "Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero," a six-part documentary series from the team of executive producer Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Television, viewers will find not only reflection but also the efforts to rebuild and restore the sacred site in Manhattan with the new 104-story One World Trade Center building.
Each hour of the series, launching tonight, looks at a different component from this massive undertaking to revitalize not just an area of a city but an entire nation and, as executive producer Danny Forster told our Jim Halterman, there were other challenges in filming such as gaining access to the site, the choice behind not showing the tragic events in the documentary and how music was used not to overwhelm but to underscore the emotional events unfolding as we speak.
Jim Halterman: Since the actual anniversary of 9/11 is a few weeks off but this airs before that date, will you still be shooting up until September 11th?
Danny Forster: We are taking it down to the wire and that's one of the tricky challenges of this show in particular. Every day that we get closer to the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, more things are happening. We need to be shooting as we're editing because things are unfolding literally until the last minute. Of course, with the exception of the pools, the other projects are far from complete so it's more a story of the meaning of the design, the people behind the buildings and the challenge of building them and really explaining the personal stories and also the architectural aspirations.
JH: How did you ever get started with this? It's such a massive undertaking!
DF: The story goes back a bunch of years. I've been doing 'Build It Bigger' on the Science Channel for five seasons and I've been going around the world making TV about architecture. I've been to 55 countries in four and a half years and coming home after last season I went downtown where I live in New York. I've known what's been going on, obviously, and when the Towers came down I was in New York and was at Graduate School becoming an architect. I came home to what is probably the most important construction project in American history and nobody is talking about it. I mean, to the point if you ask someone what they're building down there, nobody knows but the truth is if you just Google the phrase 'Ground Zero World Trade Center' the image of what the design is has been there for about seven and a half years.
I think for a lot of different reasons people just, in a sense, didn't want to look back at that very difficult time. There was a big hole in downtown Manhattan that represented that open wound. A lot of great stuff was happening but it was happening behind the fence. There's a 12-foot high fence that wraps around the area and you cannot see in. We just had to get behind that fence. We finally got the Port Authority on board, which took a lot of months of talking because, in their defense, they've had a lot of years of tough press and they were very nervous about letting in a camera crew with access. So, once the Port Authority was on board and Discovery was on board and then I spoke to [Steven] Spielberg and he was on board and then the question was how do we sort of plot our course because it is so overwhelming? It's such a vast site and such a complicated story.
JH: Once you were granted access, were the doors wide open or was there still some trepidation by the people you were filming?
DF: I would never say there was resistance because there was a lot of faith and a lot of trust. I think part of it was the fact that we wanted to come at it from an architectural and engineering lense. There was a fact that from the beginning - and this wasn't a PR thing - this is about 9/12. It was not about 9/11. 9/11 created the tragedy when we saw the worst of humanity but 9/12 is when we saw the best of it and there's something inherently optimistic about what's happening there.
It's about crafting America's response laced through the ideas embedded in these buildings and projects and the people doing the work so I think the Port Authority was really happy to hear that we were interested in looking at this as going forward. For example, you will not see in this documentary an airplane going into a building. You will not see a Tower on fire. You will not see a Tower collapse. The only time we look back, we look at the Towers in their amazing glory and when we look at the pile of wreckage, we do it in a very restrained way and we only do it when someone who was on the pile was talking about it.
JH: I was going to ask about that because in watching it I thought we would see the very familiar footage at least once.
DF: You're going to see that footage in every other documentary on Ground Zero but it's unnecessary in my belief. 9/11 was the single most viewed event collectively in the history of human perception. Those 102 minutes were seen by more people simultaneously on planet Earth than any other event in history. That alone, to me, helped lay the foundation for me to think about this a different way.
JH: How challenging was it to balance the sadness of people telling their tragic stories with the feeling of hope and the future?
DF: The single most complicated aspect of this project was the balance. In the same vein you could see planes going into buildings and horrifying people, you could also hear never-ending tales of incredible sorrow and loss and each one is as powerful as the next one. All of us who worked on this project are significantly altered from this experience. There are so many stories but what we didn't want to do was simply abuse you and exploit those stories and punish you with those stories. But we wanted to think of these as indicative stories of looking back but also looking forward.
JH: One thing that stood out to me was how the music was used in the documentary. It was very effective but it was also very subtle and not overpowering. How did you decide where to add music and when it wasn't needed?
DF: When you have material like this, the fear of melodrama is always there and you don't want to transform it into something that it isn't. Composing for this was really tricky. I think what we were hoping to achieve was something that had a kind of Americana vibe, like an old school, twangy guitar where you have that sense of an American spirit. At moments, we wanted some of that very powerful, orchestral string music to come in and support the emotional stuff but I would say the biggest challenge for us was to also keep it quiet, too. Let those moments be and I think the 'Museum' episode is a pretty beautifully scored hour. For example, when they raise that trident, it's a hugely important moment and it's triumphant that they are bringing these beautiful tridents that have been exiled back home but, at the same time, you can never not look at those and not know what's happened to them.
JH: What are the episodes that we're going to see?
DF: Here's the rundown. Our premiere is a two-hour back-to-back on Tower One, which will be the tallest and safest skyscraper built in American history. You'll literally see in the building go from its base up to its height and getting to one thousand feet by 9/11/11. They're not going to finish the Tower [by then] but their goal has been to build the tallest building in downtown Manhattan and for it to be visible from everywhere and to really become that public visible icon. The third hour that night will be 'The Museum.' The following week we're going to do one hour on the Transportation hub and that's a really exciting project because that's really what downtown Manhattan has never had. We've never really had a true urban gateway.
Then, we have one episode called 'A New City' and that's an hour that talks about the tragedy that happened outside the 16 acres. People don't realize that once the Towers came down an entire community was destroyed. 50 percent of the residents fled and never came back so businesses shut down so this is the story about a bunch of survivors who rebuilt their own community. Finally, the conclusion of the documentary series is 'A Place To Mourn' and that's the most powerful one. It's incredible because you're going to see the pools get built. The Port Authority two years ago made a very, very bold statement. They said 'We will open the memorial pools for the families on 9/11/11 and on 9/12, the plaza will be open to the public.' So this is the story of their commitment to fulfill this extraordinary promise and it's the story of the family members and their relationship to these pools.
Parts one through three of "Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero" premiere tonight at 8:00/7:00c on Discovery with parts four through six due on Thursday, September 1 at 8:00/7:00c on Discovery. All six hours will also rebroadcast on Sunday, September 11 starting at 5:00/4:00c on Discovery.