In one of three new deals for films based around the heroism surrounding Sept. 11, ABC has inked to use the Dennis Smith book “Report from Ground Zero” as the prime resource to tell the story from the vantage point of the first response rescuers. Also, MGM closed a deal for Lawrence Wright to adapt his New Yorker article “The Counter-Terrorist” and ICM is shopping rights to a James Stewart New Yorker article “The Real Heroes Are Dead” with a commitment from Susan Sarandon to star and Tim Robbins to write and direct the film.
ABC is fast mobilizing on its project, a documentary that will be written and directed by Lloyd Kramer, who most recently wrote and directed “Oprah Winfrey Presents: Amy and Isabel.” Using Smith’s exhaustive chronicle of the firemen, cops and emergency teams and managers who presided over the rescue and recovery mission, network prexy Susan Lyne and movies and minis exec Quinn Taylor are planning a film that will combine scripted drama with actual footage to create a documentary feel.
The deal for the book by Smith (a retired firefighter best known for writing “Report From Engine Company 82”) puts ABC in line with HBO, which on Memorial Day weekend will air a documentary about the disaster as seen and handled by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his city hall team. Meanwhile, CBS has set a March 10 date for a two-hour special centered around stark new footage of the attack and collapse of the WTC towers.
“Dennis will be our principal storyteller, who guides us on this journey of this brotherhood that he has been part of since he started fighting fires at the age of 20,” Kramer said. “You’ll get a sense of the tapestry of the rescuers, the small world connections between them. Right now we’re leaning toward a documentary format, but it is evolving.”
Smith’s book will be published March 18 by Viking, and grew out of more than 50 days he spent working as part of the recovery team at Ground Zero. The deal now being finalized by his CAA agents calls for his entire fee to be donated to the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Fund, of which he’s a board member.
“Like every firefighter who ever carried a badge, I went to Ground Zero right away, but I never imagined writing a book about it,” said Smith, who retired in 1981 after 18 years on the job.
Just as MGM and Sarandon and Robbins sparked to unbelievable stories of heroism, Smith was moved to write the book after witnessing bravery and hearing stories that he felt deserved to be remembered. The book recounts his days involved in the futile search for survivors, and the myriad people who joined from all over the country. The second part of the book will be the firsthand accounts of those various people, along with survivors who recounted their nightmares and the heroism of those who died helped save lives.
Smith is aware of the numerous other projects coming together, and feels that the network will provide a worthwhile historical document without having to sentimentalize the heroism.
“This will be historically accurate and very sensitive to the needs and memories of everyone involved,” Smith said. “Just within my book are many stories that could be told, but I don’t feel they belong to me, but to those who lived and died during that extraordinary and tragic time.”
That kind of straight-ahead filmmaking wouldn’t work on a feature level. But studios are forever searching for compelling stories of heroism, and they have two strong candidates in the recent New Yorker profiles. MGM president Michael Nathanson said he bought Wright’s article about John O’Neill because he couldn’t resist the hard-edged FBI point man on domestic terrorism who, after chasing Osama bin Laden and Al Quaeda his whole career, became his victim after leaving the bureau to become head of security at the World Trade Center in September.
“It is just so hard to find real stories that are truly compelling, and if you started from scratch you’d be hard pressed to create a guy as dramatic and compelling as this one,” Nathanson said. “This is an epic story with incredibly intimate and flawed characters.… It’s a great story of law enforcement and we’ll show his vulnerabilities and his amazing courage and prowess. It’s not a story about the World Trade Center or the horror of Sept. 11 as much as it is about a guy who lived his dream, and was a combination of John Wayne and James Bond. Sept. 11 is just a small facet of this.”
The WTC disaster also provides a cruel finale to the film which Sarandon and Robbins want to make, the one based on the love affair between Rick Rescorla and Susan Greer. Though Rescorla was a highly decorated warrior whose exploits will be seen in the upcoming Randall Wallace-directed Mel Gibson-starrer “We Were Soldiers,” Sarandon and Robbins are more interested in Stewart’s telling of two fractured people who found each other late in life and enjoyed a storybook romance until Rescorla, the head of security of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, died while evacuating employees in a stairwell when the building collapsed.
Sarandon will play Greer, and she and Robbins hope to have a studio deal in place shortly.