A Method In the Madness
Long before the clear blue skies of 9/11 turned black, events were unfolding that would lead to the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. Hulu’s new The Looming Tower deconstructs the hows and whys, mostly through the eyes of Jeff Daniels, who plays a key FBI investigator.
One steamy day last summer, Jeff Daniels showed up at the River Café, an iconic restaurant on the Brooklyn waterfront that offers spectacular views of the lower Manhattan skyline. but he wasn't there to enjoy the scenery or the food.
Daniels had multiple scenes to perform for The Looming Tower, a new Hulu series that traces Al-Qaeda's early terrorist activities and the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to stop them. Playing FBI agent John O'Neill, Daniels had to stand at the cafe's yawning windows and gaze upon the vacant spot on the horizon where the World Trade Center stood until Al-Qaeda toppled it on September 11, 2001.
Watching that scene, viewers will probably think about that day, when hijackers flew two airplanes into the twin towers, killing almost 3,000 innocent people and causing the towers to collapse. But, because this scene takes place before 9/11, Daniels had to act as though his character truly was looking at the towers.
Thanks to computer-generated effects, those mighty structures will once again command the skyline, on screen at least. "I really tried to think like he'd think. He has no idea what's going to happen," Daniels says. "Moment to moment. That's what you play."
Based on Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, the series premieres February 28 and is told largely through O'Neill's eyes.
"It's a detective story, really," executive producer–director Alex Gibney says. Known for documentaries such as the Emmy-winning Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney has long wanted to do this project with Wright, who's both a friend and an executive producer on the project.
"Obviously, we know what happened," Gibney continues. "We know that there was a 9/11 attack. What we don't know is the story of the detectives who were on the trail of Al-Qaeda."
Other key actors include Alec Baldwin as CIA director George Tenet, Peter Sarsgaard as a CIA agent who hoards information intended for the FBI because he thinks he knows what's best and Tahar Rahim as Ali Soufan, a Muslim FBI agent of Lebanese descent who speaks Arabic, which makes him one of the few intelligence officers with an understanding of Middle Eastern language and culture.
But the man truly leading the charge is O'Neill, an FBI counterterrorism chief and bigger-than-life individual who is also a flawed bundle of contradictions. Sometimes abrasive and a bully, he engages in extramarital affairs and dresses like a mobster. Yet he can also be charming and charismatic and "would go to the mat for his agents," says Daniels, who was courted for the role because he clearly had the chops to hit those variant notes.
"Jeff brought to us so many things that he didn't have to put on," says Dan Futterman, who served as screenwriter, executive producer and showrunner.
O'Neill was also one of the few within the FBI who believed early on that Osama bin Laden was a genuine threat and that something big was going to happen on American soil. But even as he shouted from the rooftops, he had trouble getting heard, partly due to his off-putting ways.
"He was like a one-man army, and one-man armies don't win," Daniels says. "And that was what was interesting, to play this hero who was flaming out before our very eyes — personally and professionally. And yet he's hanging on to this thing that we all know, years later, to be true — and no one was listening to him."
The plot would seem straight out of an espionage novel, were it not firmly rooted in Wright's authoritative research. Besides the slew of compelling real-life characters the book brings to life, the story "had the bare bones of a very classic structured movie or TV show," Futterman says.
"There are two major entities in the U.S. government who are supposed to be working hand-in-hand and seem not to be," he says, referring to the rivalry that hampered the terrorism investigations of the CIA and FBI. "And then there is a sort of evil entity outside, lurking and popping up and doing terrible things."
Wright dug deep into the roots of the Islamic fundamentalist movement, launching his narrative in 1948 with the Egyptian martyr Sayyid Qutb, whose writings later inspired Al-Qaeda. The Hulu series, however, begins 50 years later, in August 1998, as Al-Qaeda bombs two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
"This starts at a very dramatic moment," Futterman says; neither the CIA nor the FBI knows for sure who is behind the attacks. They have only a tentative understanding of Al-Qaeda. Yet they don't share critical pieces of the puzzle that might prevent future terrorist acts.
The FBI investigation relies on the young, Arabic-speaking agent Soufan. For that role, the producers were eager to sign Rahim, a French actor who's not well known in the U.S. Yet his starring performance in Jacques Audiard's 2010 film A Prophet had blown Futterman away.
He recalls turning to his wife after screening it and saying, "I bet that we just experienced what people experienced when they watched Robert De Niro in Mean Streets. Who the fuck is that guy, and how soon can I work with him?"
When approached to do the project, however, Rahim, who is of Algerian descent, assumed that he was being asked to play a terrorist. "I was about to say no," Rahim recalls. But then he agreed to meet Soufan, and he learned how the agent had helped fight terrorism.
"It was interesting to play a real hero," Rahim says. "He doesn't fly or drive a big car or jump from one building to another. He's in the shadows all the time. But a real American hero."
Five directors worked on the 10 episodes, and they often cross-boarded, shooting scenes from multiple episodes on the same day. That took some getting used to. For the first few days, Rahim says, "I was totally dizzy." Acting alongside Daniels, though, helped him stay on track.
"He was totally embodying John O'Neill. When the man in front of you is so totally in it, it helps. You just have to follow him and trust your instincts."
Daniels says O'Neill was as complicated and tricky a character as it gets. "The challenge of pulling off O'Neill required me to use everything I had," the actor explains; he prepared by reading Wright's book and then sitting down with FBI agents who had known O'Neill, who died in the 9/11 attack.
"They were great," Daniels says, noting that they gave him a fully fleshed-out depiction. "Then you go off the script and you make up the rest, which is part of the fun of what I get to do."
When he accepted the role, Daniels asked, as he'd done on HBO's The Newsroom, that the directors not over-direct him and that they stick to only a few words when giving him notes. "My whole thing is, pick the right words, and I'll do the rest."
That strategy seemed to be working one day last summer. Michael Slovis was directing Daniels at the Minetta Tavern, a former speakeasy in the West Village that was standing in for Elaine's, a celebrity- packed restaurant that had been a favorite haunt of O'Neill's (it closed in 2011).
The smoke machine, running between takes, had left a haze over the red banquettes and classic wooden bar, and the small room was pulsing with chatter from actors playing FBI employees knocking back after-work martinis.
At this stage of his career, O'Neill believes some people in the FBI are intent on pushing him out. Huddling with a colleague, he doesn't hold back on his frustration, punctuating his fury by slapping his empty glass down on the bar and motioning to the bartender to pour him another.
After that take ends, Slovis briefly confers with Daniels. For the next shot, and without so much as a moment's ponder, Daniels recalibrates his performance, this time delaying his character's rage until the end. Slovis prefers the protracted emotional buildup: "It made the whole scene come together for me," he says.
Rahim's character, Soufan, is introduced in the series as O'Neill's protégé, and that role gathers steam over time. Because Rahim's native language is French and he speaks Arabic with an Algerian accent, he worked with two language coaches for hours each day. One assisted him with English, and the other helped him craft a Lebanese-Arabic accent similar to Soufan's own.
That detail will be lost on most American viewers, but the producers wanted precision, since the series is being made for an international audience.
"To embrace an understanding of the Middle East, you have to hear the language," says Gibney, who pressed for authenticity in all aspects of the production. "It has an attention to detail that comes off emotionally, even if people can't precisely identify why it feels as real as it does."
Rahim was especially concerned about a scene in which his character interrogates bin Laden's former bodyguard, Abu Jandal, for a daunting 12 pages of Arabic. "I feared it so much," he says, worrying he'd mess it up. "But I think they are happy," he says of the director and producers.
His knowledge of Islam proved helpful. One day, he spotted a painting of the prophet Muhammad in the set of Soufan's home. "I said you should take it out," he says, recalling how he explained to the set designers that displaying depictions of Muhammad is a contentious issue among Muslims. "If you were Muslim, you would not buy the painting."
Even the hijackers' motivations are handled in such a way that "there is an understanding in the insanity," Slovis says. "These people are very impassioned. They don't think what they are doing is wrong in any way. They feel empowered through their faith."
Gibney shot the pilot, setting the style and tone for the series. To reinforce the chasm between America and Al-Qaeda, he formulated two moods: scenes in the U.S. before 9/11 were shot formally with dollies to reinforce the sense of calm and security that existed then.
For international scenes, such as the USS Cole bombing in Yemen, and at Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the crews switched to hand-held cameras to reinforce the sense of fervor and disquietude, and the chaos that arose after attacks.
In another nod to authenticity, executive producer–director Craig Zisk, who shot the most episodes (three) and, as supervising producer, was responsible for creative continuity among the directors, says the series often used archival material as a device. One such source was a notable 1998 interview with bin Laden that ABC reporter John Miller conducted after traveling, sometimes blindfolded, to a mountaintop encampment.
The producers and directors placed a high premium on locations. The first half of the series takes place in seven countries. Early on, Zisk and Gibney conducted several international scouts, including a trip to Johannesburg, where they found a Brutalist-style building that closely resembled the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, where 244 people died in the 1998 bombing.
Aided by the creative vision of production designer Lester Cohen, they staged the aftermath of the attack — which leveled the secretarial school next door — by building a 30x90x50-foot pile of rubble out of sections of steel grid trucked in to the location. "So we had this gigantic rubble mound that was quite moving," Zisk says. "In its severity, quite moving."
The event that The Looming Tower did not attempt to reenact was 9/11. "We reached beyond the news footage," Zisk says. The series incorporates tourists' videos of the planes ramming into the buildings and of people outside screaming and scattering. They also included some actual home movie footage of the victims. "It's heartbreaking," Zisk says. "We're dealing with heavy subject matter, which is still very raw and hard to watch."
How viewers will react to the poignancy and pathos in The Looming Tower remains to be seen. This includes the scene at the River Café, when O'Neill gazes innocently upon the still-standing World Trade Center. Today's viewers will likely experience that panorama with trepidation and sorrow.
"Look, what happened was horrendous," Futterman says. "And I wish we weren't writing the show. Because that would mean the towers would still be standing and the people would still be alive. But it did happen. And if you're trying to tell the story in an historically accurate way that involves people emotionally, you use everything at your disposal."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018