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August 18, 2016

When Hollywood Made History

As the world struggles to combat terrorism, an editor looks back on the television milestone that chronicled a can’t-be-forgotten crime, The Path to 9/11.

Mitchell Danton, ACE
  • Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

In the scripted world of film and television, awards generally go to the shows that have the best writing, directing and acting.

I had an opportunity to work on just such a project in fall 2004, when I was editing on the night shift of CBS’s Survivor. In those days, I got off work at 3 a.m.,  arrived home by 3:30, crashed at 4 and typically slept until noon.

One morning, the phone jarred me awake. It was my old friend Geoffrey Rowland, who was working on a project that had a lot of film — too much for one editor to handle. He asked if I could pitch in for a few days to help him make a screening. Of course, I said yes.

The director was David L. Cunningham, who had shot the 2001 film To End All War, starring Robert Carlyle and Kiefer Sutherland. He is an amazing director, and to cut a few of his scenes would be an incredible opportunity. So, over a couple of weeks — after working nights and catching a few hours of sleep — I would edit scenes in the afternoon. Geoffrey made his deadline, and I later learned that David liked what I had done.

Months later, I had moved on from Survivor to the TNT cop show Wanted. Near the end of its run, in spring 2005, I got a call from Paula Warner, an executive at ABC. She told me that David had recommended me to the studio to be one of the editors on his upcoming miniseries, known at the time as “Untitled History Project.” Geoffrey would be the lead editor and, if I got the job, I would be his second.

It was almost inconceivable that I was being offered this opportunity. I had no experience in long-form television, but thanks to David and Geoffrey’s recommendations, as well as studio support from Paula, I landed the job.

In July, Geoffrey and I started working in an editing room inside a bungalow across from CBS Radford Studios in Studio City. Bruce Dunn was the associate producer on the project, Luis Patino was the post supervisor, and Steve Sahagun was our first assistant editor.

Soon, three more assistants would be hired: Brad Schreiber, Jackie Bisbano and Damien Simon. Due to the incredible amount of footage, we had as many as eight editors working on the show at the same time. Besides me, there was Geoffrey, David Handman, ACE; Eric Sears, ACE; Bryan Horne; Edward A. Warshika; Eric Strand; and Daniel T. Cahn, ACE.

Why so many? Because the mini was scheduled to air in February 2006, and given the scope of the subject matter and the amount of dailies, it would have been impossible to make the airdate without them.

The project eventually became known as The Path to 9/11, and though it turned out to be a perfect synthesis of content and style, it didn’t start out that way. David had a master plan for the show he was directing, but it was not then apparent to many of us — the editors whose job it was to realize his vision. He was the glue holding everything together.

We were averaging about 10 hours of dailies a day, and it was difficult to keep up. A small scene that encompassed less than a page in the script could have four or five hours of dailies. There were four cameras shooting 12 hours a day for more than 80 days, and some scenes were covered with even more cameras.

David liked each camera team to function as its own unit, which gave the operators the freedom to follow the story as they saw fit. This style gave us shots that often had completely different coverage from take to take. If edited well, the scenes felt completely natural, with camera angles in unexpected places. This made viewers feel as though  they were participants in the story.

However, this  style of cinematography is more challenging to edit because if it’s not put together well, it can  be confusing to an audience due to the variety of shots and camera angles.

Unlike traditional storytelling in television and movies — where the coverage generally moves  from wide to tight — in The Path to 9/11, all of these  angles were shot simultaneously. Consequently, the actors couldn’t save their best performance for their closeup — they had to be “on” all the time.

Performers had no idea what angle they were being filmed from, and sometimes they’d bump into a camera operator in the middle of a scene. However, the approach resulted in their performances having a very natural feel.

While David was filming in Toronto, he asked us to send him a scene so he could screen it for Thomas Kean, who was an advisor on the project. The former governor of New Jersey, Kean was the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the panel of experts who had created the 9/11 Commission Report, one of the primary sources for The Path to 9/11.

The 9/11 Commission Report detailed all of the major events that led up to 9/11. It concluded that the terrorist attacks were preventable, and it provided recommendations to prevent future attacks.

One of the reasons our miniseries was being produced was that Governor Kean doubted that many U.S. citizens would ever read the lengthy report — he felt the best way to convey its lessons would be through a compelling docudrama. It was critical that Kean stayed committed to our miniseries, and everyone involved wanted to assure him that we were dedicated to telling a story true to the report.

With this in mind, Geoffrey and I carefully edited a scene in which two U.S. Customs agents interrogate the Saudi-born terrorist Mohammed al-Qahtani. The scene was based on an actual event that occurred on August 3, 2001, at Orlando International Airport. On that day, al-Qahtani arrived with a one-way ticket and $2,800 in cash, which raised a red flag with the agents.

Their subsequent interrogation made them suspicious of his motives, and he was denied entry into the U.S. There’s a good cop–bad cop element to the scene, during which one agent whispers to the other: “He’s a Saudi… we’re supposed to be nice to them.” But the other agent holds firm and prevents al-Qahtani from entering the country.

Like most scenes in the mini, it was covered from numerous angles, and the dailies provided few clues as to what it would look like once it was edited. After tinkering with it and going through a round of notes with David, we sent it to Toronto. Governor Kean subsequently called the scene “powerful and realistic.” His words emboldened us to believe that we were doing something meaningful and important.

From that point, we continued to push the envelope, using our editing skills to maximize the footage and expand the boundaries of traditional network television.

The scope of the story was massive. Cyrus Nowrasteh, a brilliant storyteller who had previously written The Day Reagan Was Shot, researched and wrote three screenplays for The Path to 9/11, which was originally intended to air over three nights.

The goal of the mini was to find a direct through-line from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — perpetrated by Ramzi Yousef and two other conspirators — to Osama bin Laden’s masterminding of 9/11.

One of the best parts of being an editor on this project was having such a vast array of images to choose from. We combined production footage, stock and newsreel clips. We had five hours to tell the story, and we wanted to make the most of every second.

The wealth of footage provided almost limitless ways to present the drama. Some of the subject matter was too intense for network television. So, we blended a variety of less graphic images to suggest what it was like at Ground Zero.

Viewers never saw people leaping from the towers to their deaths, but they heard them landing and saw others reacting to the horror. Sound effects, music and imagery were all carefully woven together to immerse the audience in the story, without ever going for the shock value of blood and guts.

We had a stroke of good luck when the airdate was pushed from February to May. It would later be moved to September 10 and 11, 2006, the five-year anniversary of 9/11. After the airdates changed, our editing team was pared down to Geoffrey Rowland, David Handman, Eric Sears, Bryan Horne and me. These were the five names included in the opening credits when the mini-series aired.

The extended schedule — with five editors finishing the work — gave us the opportunity to create something special. We all strived to edit a project that, as David L. Cunningham put it, could “make a difference.”

Each editor contributed something unique. And because everything flowed together so well, when the project was completed, it appeared as though one person had edited the entire program.

Further adding to the cohesion was our masterful supervising sound editor, Mike Graham, who along with his team, gave each of the approximately 5,000 cuts its own distinct sound. John Cameron’s score was powerful and poignant, and the cinematography by Joel Ransom and his camera team always gave us an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

The miniseries was originally broken into three nights. The first night was about the World Trade Center bombing and the hunt for Yousef. The second focused on a failed attempt to snatch bin Laden from an Afghan compound and extradite him to the U.S. to face charges for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. The third chronicled the events from the attack of the USS Cole in 2000 through 9/11.

Ultimately, the first two parts were combined so that the program could air over two nights, September 10 and 11, around the world.

Combining the first two parts proved prophetic, because the new supersized Part 1 set off a controversy that almost kept The Path to 9/11 off the air. Shortly after I wrapped on the mini-series in July 2006, a couple of the editors were called back to re-edit some scenes in Part 1. Apparently an aide to former President Bill Clinton had gotten a copy of a press screener and didn’t like what he saw.

Curious, I stopped by the editing room in Studio City. One of our producers informed me that, in addition to the Clintons being upset about the content, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh had endorsed the mini as proof that Bill Clinton was responsible for 9/11. It was beginning to look as though The Path to 9/11 might not air at all!

However, neither Limbaugh nor Clinton’s aides had watched Part 2, which detailed the failings of the George W. Bush administration to stop the 9/11 attacks, which occurred, of course, after Clinton had left office. Bush probably figured that if Clinton hated the show and Limbaugh loved it, it must be a good propaganda piece for him and the Republicans. He was wrong.

The miniseries was unbiased, accurately portraying his mistakes and oversights regarding the events leading up to 9/11, just as it had Clinton’s.

Part 2 was a scathing narrative of how Bush and his administration missed numerous clues that could have prevented 9/11. The cumulative effect of the story was that of a huge government bureaucracy that never took the country’s enemies seriously enough to stop them.

The program also celebrated everyday heroes who did attempt to prevent 9/11. Some were U.S. Customs agents who won small battles; others were FBI agents who tried to wake up Washington bureaucrats to the dangers that Islamic extremists posed to national security.

At the center of our story was 49-year-old John O’Neill (Harvey Keitel), a counter- terrorism expert who worked for the FBI before being pushed out in the late 1990s because of his maverick approach.

His next position was as head of security at the World Trade Center, with his first day on the job being September 11, 2001. That morning, he evacuated as many people as possible from the North Tower before moving to the South Tower. He died when that tower collapsed at 9:59 a.m.

O’Neill embodied the spirit of The Path to 9/11. Despite government incompetence — and outright opposition from his superiors — he fought to protect the American people from the attacks. Although he failed that day, he became a martyr in the crusade against terrorism.

I’m most proud that The Path to 9/11 is never preachy. We told the story the way David had envisioned it when he gave us our marching orders: “I want to tell this story as if we don’t know how it ends. Like we are looking at the events through a muddy windshield.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the miniseries, Governor Kean maintained that it was true to the findings of the 9/11 Commission. I hope that the millions who have seen it came to the same conclusion.

Postscript: In 2007, at the American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Awards, our team won for The Path to 9/11; Part 2 was named best-edited miniseries or motion picture for commercial television. Later that year, at the Emmy Awards, we won for outstanding picture editing for miniseries or a movie, also for Part 2, tying with HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

It was an honor to be in a tie with editors Michael Ornstein, ACE, and Michael Brown, ACE, who edited Wounded Knee. I had long admired Michael Ornstein’s work, and Michael Brown was the first editor I had ever met — 30 years earlier I had walked into his editing room while he was cutting Psychic Killer for my father, director Ray Danton.

Unfortunately, The Path to 9/11 did not receive nominations for writing, directing or for outstanding miniseries. But I was thrilled that John Cameron’s score garnered an Emmy nomination, as did Joel Ransom for cinematography. Mike Graham and his team were also nominated for sound editing.


Excerpted and edited with permission from Cutting It in Hollywood: Top Film Editors Share their Journeys © 2015 Mitchell Danton, ACE. Available at www.CuttingItInHollywood.com.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2016

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