‘WTC View’ Director Brian Sloan Talks About His Film and Star Michael Urie’s Breakout Debut
In a phone interview I spoke with director Brian Sloan about his film WTC View, which is having its 10th anniversary first-time digital release in HD format on iTunes. (Click here for the film on iTunes) Starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Celler). WTC View is an intimate look into the life of one New Yorker in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The film is constructed in a subtle way. The character Eric posts an online ad for a roommate on September 10th. On September 20th he is able to return to his apartment and interview prospective candidates. Inevitably, when they investigate the apartment, they go to the window of the bedroom they will be sleeping in only to see the smoking rubble of the WTC site, a horrible view. Then each opens up about where they were when they heard about the events and how their lives have changed as a result of 9/11. Eric listens, and as the film progresses, situations and conversations gradually unfold; we understand what he has been through and how he is in an emotional crisis that he struggles with and denies he has. Only after Eric has a meltdown, does he finally begin to face his crashing emotional devastation. We are there with him every step of the way.
I really liked the film. I’ve lived in NY for most of my life so I can’t see how any New Yorker wouldn’t enjoy this film. Congratulations on its release on iTunes tomorrow, March 3rd in HD format.
I’d like to start by discussing that it was a play first. Could you just talk about how what motivated you to evolve this into a play.
It was a few months after 9/11 and people asked me about this as a film because I was a filmmaker. They asked me questions like, “Oh do you think 9/11 is something that you would write about?” I hadn’t really considered it because it just seemed like too big of a topic and seemed too large for a film. I couldn’t see any way into it. I guess it was about 6 months after 911 that CBS aired the documentary by the Naudet brothers I think it’s just called 9/11. The Naudet brothers were following a rookie fire fighter that day and they ended up having all this footage of them actually in the WTC when this was all happening. I watched that documentary and it struck me that these guys had such a personal perspective on this event. They were unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time, but they ended up being able to capture this incredible story and it got me thinking about my story on 911.
My story was that I had taken out this roommate ad which is the last thing I did before I went to bed that night. And then I left my apartment on September 11th. I was in that frozen zone below 14th street. When I got back to the apartment almost a week later, there were all these messages of people calling me about coming to see my apartment. Some even called me on September 12th, which I just thought was crazy and strange. When I started thinking about this whole thing, I thought that this could be an interesting way, a very small look at what was happening, through a small lens, though not even a lens. But it was a situation happening in one room where people are having conversations and monologues about what life was like in the city at that time after 9/11. And I like to say everyone knows what happened on 9/11. The piece really is about what happens after 9/11 on September 12th and the days after that, and what is happening in the city at that time. So I was thinking about these things as a play. I didn’t think about it as a film. I thought the only way this could work was a play in one room and people having these conversations.
I started writing the play. A friend of mine had directed a couple of one act plays recently which were more comic one acts, like comedy sketches. With his encouragement I started writing this up as a play. We submitted it to the Fringe Festival and that’s where it first had its debut onstage.
When you cast this play… did you know the actors you wanted before hand? How did you cast the play?
We were doing it at the Fringe Festival. So it was sort of a no budget operation when you’re doing a show like that. You get actors wherever you can. Basically we kind of pooled our resources. I, the director, and the producer Helena Webb, we all thought of people that we knew who would be right for some of these roles. Andrew Volkoff had a lot more ideas because he had worked in theater and Helena too. Since I worked in film I brought in some people I knew from film. And we started auditioning people. In the end, I had actually seen Michael Urie in a play that Andrew directed the year before. And we were having trouble finding this lead role. I remembered that Michael was at Julliard. And I remember thinking well, this is great because we need someone with serious training because the actor’s onstage for the entire show for like two hours straight. No break. And I considered that it’s hard for a film actor to make that transition and to do that role. Some people who came in were great, but I didn’t know if they could do that role for two hours on stage. It’s a different operation.
Michael Urie came in and he read for us. I suspected that he was a bit younger than the part that we were casting. I asked Andrew not to tell me what his actual age was and he didn’t. And it turned out that Michael was about 9 years younger than the role called for in the script. But we figured that he’s a really great actor and that he could act a little bit older, and we can do some hair and makeup stuff that will make him look slightly older as well. When people saw it, people didn’t think that he was too young for the part. And then we really kind of cast around him. You can set a cast up to make them look younger or older. When you tell the audience the age, you create a world in which it is true and it is believable to them.
Wish I had seen the play. He was wonderful in the film. Looks like he turned out to be a find since he hit with Ugly Betty and other things, like Buyer and Cellar.
Yeah. Ugly Betty came out I think a month after our broadcast premiere of the film which was on MTV’s Logo channel. With Ugly Betty coming out a month afterward, it was show he’s become much more widely known for. After that he’s been doing better and better.
That could only be positive for WTC View which stands on its own. But his performance and the other actors were really wonderful. So it started at the Fringe and people really liked it. I read somewhere that you were wary about whether or not it was too soon for something like this, but turns out it was well received. How did it evolve from there?
From the Fringe, we got some really great responses and very good reviews and the show did very well. We initially hoped that we could move it to some Off Broadway house or somewhere Off Off Broadway, but we really had trouble finding commercial interest. At that time, 2003, the commercial feeling was that this kind of a play is not something that New Yorkers are going to see. It was still too close to the 9/11 attacks. There was a feeling that since there were two other high profile plays that were also 911 related and they had failed that year, it was a risk. We couldn’t get anybody interested in making that transfer.
When that happened, I just started thinking about making this for a broader audience. Initially, we were thinking of something like a PBS style live playhouse and actually filming the play. That didn’t really go anywhere. Then I started thinking about making an actual film because this is what I do and what I know how to do. I know how to make a very low budget film and make it good. I started thinking that if I look at this carefully, I can turn it into a film. Then it didn’t seem possible after all. But I started talking to some people and other producers and people encouraged me. They felt that the topic was what makes this really interesting, as well as the way that the topic is approached. You know it might not be the most cinematic movie because it still has its roots in the play and you can’t get away from that.
But the thing that made it unique was dealing with this topic in such a different way. We are dealing with the events after the attacks from this one person’s perspective. We’re showing this very realistic look at life in NY at that time. A lot of films about 9/11 tend to treat the subject very melodramatically or super tragically. It definitely was a major tragedy that happened in the city. But I think life in the city was not that way afterwards. People were trying to deal with events in different ways. Some people were dealing with it with humor. Some people didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to show that range of experience in the film.
You were encouraged to transfer it to a screenplay. I love the fact that the entire film takes place within Eric’s apartment until the very end. What were some of the issues and concerns that you had making the play into a film.
Well the biggest concern was probably not trying to make it something it wasn’t. I thought of ways to make the action break out of the apartment. You know have Eric walk through the city.
I’m glad you didn’t.
But I didn’t because the more I thought about it, it doesn’t really make sense for what this is. The guy is almost trapped in his apartment.
In his mind…
In his mind, truly. I thought I could continue that in the film. Also there’s a history of films that take place in one location. It’s not something that hasn’t been done before. The most famous is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, which also was adapted from a play. So there are a lot of other films. I actually started watching a lot those movies. Rope was definitely a big one for me. I watched Rosemary’s Baby; most of it takes place in their apartment. And there was also an indie film from the 90s, called What Happened Was. It is about a date in an apartment that sort of goes crazy over the course of an evening.
My Dinner With Andre is another one in just one location.
Yeah, My Dinner With Andre
That was a great decision on your part.
Thanks. I’m definitely glad that we stuck with what we did. I think it would have lost its focus and lost its feeling. And that’s what I think this movie is about. The film gives you a sense of this character and what he’s going through.
Then you took the original play and staged it at 59E59 Theatres. How did that happen?
That came about because we wanted to do a full production of the show that would be different from the Fringe where we had no money. We wanted to do a full, traditional production. And also we wanted to do something around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. We felt that NY is a constantly changing city and maybe there is an audience living here now who is interested in seeing this. It turns out that there was. A lot of people came to see the production. We had a great run at 59E59. I feel that because there were a few more years removed from 9/11, people were able to see the play as a play. That for me was really heartening. People were able to see that it is more than just a strict documentary. They can see that the play is really getting at this character, getting at what he’s going through and telling this person’s story in a theatrical way.
One thing I think every New Yorker will identify with in perpetuity is getting living space in the city and having to have a roommate or partner to afford living here.
It’s a New York thing for sure.
As cities nationwide become more expensive to live in, that is a topic that will continue to resonate. I like how you dealt with the window subtly, the view of the WTC site. I also liked how we don’t know what really happened to the character until the end of the film. I thought you unfolded it in a very human and realistic way.
You mention the window. That’s one of the things I really love about the film which we couldn’t do onstage, which was sort of to see what people are seeing, I mean to see their reactions as they are looking out that window. It’s a very intimate moment. In the play the characters are generally faced away from the audience who don’t see their reactions as well. In the film we could get in there and closely focus on their reactions. That’s one of the more interesting adaptations that happened in the film version.
I loved the many meanings of WTC View, a play almost on Room With a View…
It’s a powerful and beautiful film. Good luck and looking forward to its release on iTunes March 3rd.
Yeah. It’s great to talk to a fellow New Yorker about apartments. It’s very true. I was looking at the original ad for this apartment and now it’s about double the cost, so the real estate situation gets crazier and crazier.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.