Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Cellar) in ‘WTC View,’ His Breakout Film Debut: A Review
A long time ago in a world far away there lived a thirty-something named Eric who, on a Sunday evening, placed an online ad for a roommate to share his two-bedroom Soho apartment in Manhattan. The following day, the world shifted off its axis and Eric never would be the same again. Nor would his former roommate, nor his former lover Will, nor any New Yorker, for that matter. From September 11, 2001, onward, there would be no turning back for any of us. In the days following, though Eric received calls on his answering machine from young men who wanted to come down immediately and see his apartment, they would have to wait.
Unlike a number of films about September 11, 2001, chronicling the tragedy, sorrow and heroism of that day’s events, WTC View written, directed and produced by Brian Sloan and starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer and Cellar, What’s Your Emergency-director ), is about the days that follow September 11, revealing an exclusive portrait of how one individual tries to get through his personal difficulties while living in a devastated and traumatized Manhattan as the full impact of the towers’ collapse echoed and still echoes to this day. In the film’s opening, Brian Sloan cleverly slides shots with a voice over of news about the event in a crawl with the date of days passing until Eric (Michael Urie in an exceptionally acted and beautifully nuanced portrayal), is allowed back into the area; he was staying with a friend in Brooklyn.
The still shots, voice over, and crawl which Sloan uses as a bridge for time passing and transition to the various segments of the film is an effective summation of what has occurred without emphasizing any horrific external images of the death planes, the conflagration and smoke, the buildings collapsing, or dramatic rescue and cleanup. Sloan is more concerned about how the emotional stress and trauma continues to play out in the minds and imaginations of those who either witnessed it live, saw the event on TV, or lost family or friends in the collapse. He represents this by predominately focusing his camera on Eric’s and the other characters’ faces and facial expressions.
In an astutely understated way, by spotlighting the reactions of individuals within the interior rooms of Eric’s apartment, symbolizing the interior emotional landscape of their being, Sloan reveals the power of such an incident on everyone. Through his camera direction we understand that we cannot help but anchor the event and aftermath as defining moments in our lives, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. It is a reckoning for us and especially for New Yorkers, but Sloan’s intention brings about a shared experience of expiation and healing. It is a one-of-a-kind film about the aftermath of September 11, 2001, on an intimate level. The result is powerful, poignant, and empathetic.
The arc of the film follows Eric from the moment that he arrives in his apartment to interview the first prospective roommate nine days later on September 20th. The film concludes on October 1, 2001, after he rents the entire apartment. He comes to this decision during the film as we watch him emotionally disintegrate as he experiences the jarring revelations of personal trauma over the stress of 9/11, exacerbated by living in the apartment and interviewing prospective roommates who invariably discuss the event. At the conclusion of Eric’s interior trials, Sloan shows him finally stepping outside the building; he is ready to face a grieving Manhattan and his own inner pain and loss. The decision to give up the apartment indicates he recognizes his emotional crisis (the stress of 9/11 is a part of it), and realizes he must begin to deal with his problems in a constructive way. Sloan has written a complex work that was initially based on his stage play of the same title. The film is an intricacy of captured moments of humor, drama, intimacy, intensity, sadness, and hope, made alive with a rendering that he beautifully instills with cinematic elements that enhance the tropes of the play.
Along the journey of the “search” we note that Eric and those who visit him are incredibly impacted by “the WTC view” outside his Soho apartment window. The window is in the bedroom where the roommate will be resting each night. It is the “dreams that may come” that give the various characters pause from immediately agreeing to rent, though they politely refrain from saying that it might be “the view” of the horror of the WTC site that is giving them pause. Sloan adroitly whispers this and doesn’t make a huge point of it; it is intimated by Eric who states that beforehand getting a roommate happened quickly and easily, since living space was impossible to find in Manhattan (it’s much harder and more expensive a decade later). The reality with all of its meaning is just under the surface of Eric’s consciousness. He knows that the sight outside his window is a truly gruesome and devastating view, but he is in denial. He has suppressed this reality and others which are gradually revealed to us by the conclusion of the film.
Though the characters never say they will not rent because of what they see out of window, all do discuss the events of 9/11 and their experiences; one was in the building and miraculously escaped. Each story, each character is representative of how individuals have confronted the events or avoided thinking about them. The subtlety of how the subject is avoided and then eventually brought by the potential roommates is threaded throughout the interviews and astutely written with authenticity as are Sloan’s characterizations who are quintessential, real and recognizable New Yorkers: the friend, the landlord, the bond trader, the manager, the political assistant, the student, etc. Their interactions with Eric are vibrant and engaging. Nevertheless, they invariably end up in the abyss of the burning debris and smoke of the fires which are acutely visible outside of Eric’s apartment window, but which the director brilliantly never shows. Sloan leaves this up to our imagination as we watch the reaction of the characters as they look at (what we imagine is) the smoking rubble of human dreams pluming upward. We are caught in their reactions which are ours, and somehow together there is revelation and shared understanding and empathy that uplifts.
The film is a much needed rendering of that day and all the days that happened after 9/11. Sloan, with the masterful Urie at the helm and the fine ensemble of actors (Elizabeth Kapplow as Josie (Eric’s friend) and Nick Potenzieri as the bond trader are excellent), has found a way to bring us together to expiate that time for all time and remind us that we must be there for each other despite the current return to “normalcy” and “apparent” New Yorker insouciance. In the film’s humanity and emotional intimacy, we can remember, connect with our own feelings and be recharged to clarity as Eric is. For those who have little knowledge of how people felt in the immediacy of the aftermath because they witnessed from afar, the film is a poignant, powerful, and sometimes humorous record of that time in the personal emotions of New Yorkers. Certainly, it is an important “view,” even if you didn’t have an apartment in Soho.
The WTC View will be available for the first time in its original HD format and is on sale on iTunes for purchase and rental. It originally premiered in NYC at the New Festival in 2005 and was broadcast after screening on the festival circuit. The national broadcast premiere was on MTV’s Logo Channel and aired on the 5th anniversary of 9/11 in 2006. It was also released on DVD by TLA Video.
The 10th Anniversary Edition of WTC View in its first-time HD Format is available on iTunes.
Click here for the HD version of WTC View on iTunes.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics.
‘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.
Click Here for the HD Format 10th Anniversary Edition of WTC View on iTunes.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.
Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) Talks About 911 and His Breakout Film Debut in ‘WTC View’
After screening the fine indie film WTC View directed by Brian Sloan which is being re-released on iTunes March 3rd, I spoke via phone with Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Drama Desk winner for Buyer and Cellar). Urie enjoyed his breakout film debut in WTC View which was released in 2005. Michael Urie originated the role of Eric in the play WTC View at the Fringe. Like the play, the film WTC View is about Eric who places an online ad in the Village Voice for a roommate to share his spacious two bedroom apartment in Soho. It is Sunday evening, September 10, 2001. The next day the earth shifted on its axis and none of us were the same again. When Eric is able to return to his apartment which is below 14th street in what was the “frozen zone,” he comes back physically ready to interview and show the apartment to prospective roommates. Emotionally and psychically he is suffering and barely able to cope or deal with the situation. He is in denial and struggles as the days pass and no one rents the apartment which has a view of the World Trade Center’s smoking debris cavern. How Eric eventually is helped and who helps him is a tour de force sprinkled with humor, poignancy and powerful performances by the ensemble cast with Urie as the brilliant, masterful actor at the helm.
Pat Addiss adores your work as your producer on Buyer and Cellar. I am friendly with her and will send this interview over to her when it is up. She will appreciate it. I really loved you in Buyer and Cellar and I love you in this film.
Thank you so much.
You’re hearing it all the time, I’m sure, Michael. (I laugh)
It never gets old.
You remind me of what Emily Blundt said to me when I said she was superb in The Young Victoria, then apologized for being tiresome. She said, “Well, it’s much better than saying ‘I hate you.’
You auditioned for the play WTC View and you originated the character of Eric. Were there any challenges when you did the play and then when you switched over to filming WTC View?
Well, it was a big part and he was in every scene. In the play there was a lot to carry. It wasn’t anything compared to Buyer and Cellar (It was long before Buyer and Cellar). It was a hard play. It was a really hard play to do. Emotionally, physically there was a lot…a lot going on. But it was a great experience, extremely rewarding. The play really meant a lot to people. It hadn’t even been two years since 911 when we did the play. So it was still very fresh in people’s minds, especially in New York. And 9 months later we made the film, which is crazy. It is so rare that things like that happen that you do a play and then it is turned into a film and you’re in both.
But doing it on stage even in the little theater we were in, it was called The Bottle Factory Theater which has 15 seats or something, even in a theater like that sometimes people are 20 feet away from you and you have to turn what’s happening to you, especially in my character who does so much listening to other people’s stories, I had to turn what I was feeling into behavior for the stage so that people could get it. Then when we made the film, such behavior could be read just by looking at me in the eye. That is the idea of the film. You don’t have to turn what you’re feeling into behavior because it could be read on your face because the camera picks it up. So I had to learn that. It was challenging. I trusted Brian Sloan the director and the DP. And of course, you have to trust the editor to pick up the right emotions and looks and make you seem truthful.
Well you were truthful in the film and there is a complex range of emotions. There’s everything from humor and comedy and whimsicality and then of course the emotional scenes when you break down. I thought this arc of emotions you did really, really well.
It’s amazing because when I saw you in Buyer and Cellar, of course, the arc was different as the character was different. But you are an actor of nuance and I was seeing that in WTC View. What did you learn from the experiences of the play and the film to carry that over to something like Buyer and Cellar.
When I did Buyer and Cellar, I had to relearn how to maintain that energy and sustain it, you know to keep the ball in the air, because that was so much of my job in the play in WTC View, to keep the ball in the air, and to keep the momentum going forward. It was really Eric’s story and he also facilitated the story of all the other great characters. And so when I did Buyer and Cellar, more so than any other previous experience, I was back to my WTC View memories and those muscles, that muscle that keeps you up and keeps you inflated, for want of a better word. You have stay in it, stay a part of, you have to stay in the moment, stay emotionally connected and keep the audience with you following you, excited and thrilled. There weren’t that many similarities between the two projects but I would say that would be the big one.
In what way do you think that Eric might be an Everyman?
He is kind of an Everyman. That is an interesting way to put it. I think he represents… we get to know a lot of characters in WTC View, but Eric is the only one we spend time with privately. I think that is a wonderful way to bring someone into a character; that is to spend time with them privately…certainly in the film. We spend a lot of time with him alone and we get into what it is that he is going through. I think because of that, he feels like all of us and also because he is going through what all of us really went through after 911. We all felt frightened and alone and in need of comfort after 911 whether we had loved ones nearby or not. I think we all went through that. I did certainly.
I thought it was an amazing point of character that he was so reactive to various things that are commonplace, like loud street sounds, like the sirens which would set him off.
Yeah. And that paranoia that we were all feeling, maybe not to the same extent that Eric was feeling in the play or the movie but he kind of represented that for us and I feel that people can really relate to that. And for people who are not old enough to remember 911, I think that the film is a great way to see what it was like. Of course anybody who was not around for 911 still knows all about it. You know what happened. You can watch the videos, but you don’t know what it was like being a citizen of the world following it. How things changed, especially in New York. The play/film is really a microcosm of what it was like to be in New York after 911 and what it was like to deal with and relate to strangers.
Is that one of the most vital points of the film, do you think?
I think so. It’s that we took care of each other. Everyone felt isolated and paranoid, but we came together and took care of each other, even strangers. And in the end, he does have one of his closest friends try to help him. But other than that, everyone in the film that he meets is a stranger, except for his closest friend played by Liz Kapplow who is wonderful…Josie. But I think what the film says about strangers is that sometimes a stranger can be more beneficial than a close friend or loved one. In the film, it isn’t Josie, ultimately, who helps him…not really. It’s others. He really grows and changes and learns and recoups thanks to the kindness of strangers, not so much from the people that are closest to him. I guess because what we knew wasn’t really helping us. What we knew wasn’t helping us to avoid 911. The known wasn’t helpful. It was the unknowns that we had to rely on. I think that’s part of why strangers became so important to us.
Where were you Michael when the 911 attacks happened. Were you at Julliard?
Yeah. It was my second day of my third year and I was actually living in Queens. I was on my way to school when I noticed on TV that one plane had hit. I went ahead to the subway, knowing that when I got to the platform it would be above ground and I would be able to see the World Trade Center. And when I got there and looked both were on fire. So between leaving my house and getting to the train the second plane had hit. Somebody turned to me on the platform and said they got the other one. That was the first time I realized that it was intentional.
Where in Queens? Astoria?
(I receive a signal that the interview time is up.) Michael, it was great talking to you.
Give Pat Addiss a squeeze for me. (Pat Addiss is producer on Buyer and Cellar which Michael is starring in at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London from March 12-May 2nd)
I will! Well, thanks so much and good luck in all of your projects and with the re-release of the film WTC View on iTunes (March 3rd). By the way, I love your web series (What’s Your Emergency).
Thank you. We’re going to do another season, hopefully.
Well, all Right! Director, producer, actor, what more can you want? (Michael laughs.)
10th Anniversary First-Time Digital Release
WTC View is available now on iTunes. Click here for purchase or rental.
This interview first appeared on Blogcritics.