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Behind Hulu’s Next Big Bet: 9/11 Espionage Drama ‘The Looming Tower’

Spoiler alert: This story doesn’t have a happy ending.

Hulu’s adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, “The Looming Tower,” centers on FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill, who had been advocating for a deeper investigation into al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

But O’Neill was pushed out of the FBI, and on 9/11, he was working at the World Trade Center as the head of security. He died in the collapse of the towers, along with nearly 3,000 other people.

The Looming Tower Illustration
CREDIT: Daniel Zender for Variety

“This guy truly believes he was right,” says Jeff Daniels, who embodies the charismatic, bombastic yet deeply flawed O’Neill. “And in hindsight he was. But no one would listen to him.”

Perhaps they’ll listen now. It’s been 16 years since the towers fell, 12 years since Wright published his book. Yet questions linger about the events that led up to the tragedy. And while “The Looming Tower” — which debuts Feb. 28 — may not provide full resolution (or even absolution), it takes a hard look at what was going on behind the scenes in our intelligence community — and how that bureaucratic conflict ultimately proved fatal.

“What motivated me to [approve the adaptation] after many years of people approaching me was I realized that young people now in college didn’t experience 9/11,” says Wright. “It’s not a part of their history and they don’t understand why we’re living in the world we are. What I wanted to do is provide a narrative for them to understand it. ‘The Looming Tower’ could in a dramatic fashion make it clear to people what happened and why, and why we failed.”

Wright had long been reluctant to see his book (which he calls “probably the most important thing I’d ever do as a writer”) translated to the screen. “I was very jealous of letting go of it,” he admits. “So the first obstacle was finding someone I trusted to do this story.” That person was noted documentarian Alex Gibney (“Going Clear”).

Gibney’s imprint on the material is evident: The drama deftly intercuts narrative moments with pointed, documentary-style footage. Whether it’s a chilling ABC News interview with bin Laden from 1998, news clips shown on a TV in a bar or O’Neill’s office, or photos of the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, the blend of styles gives the series a jolt of authenticity. Witness that bin Laden interview, where he ominously warns of attacks against Americans: “We do not have to differentiate between military and civilian,” he tells reporter John Miller. “As far as we are concerned, they are all targets.”

That interview “set the tone we carry through the rest of the show,” says Dan Futterman (“Capote”), who came on board as showrunner.

Gibney, who directed the first episode, says working with actors for the first time was a bit of an adjustment for him, but the material warranted a narrative approach. “I think that part of the reason that we decided to do it as a drama, rather than as a documentary, was that we were getting into the psychology of it and getting into scenes that couldn’t possibly be re-created,” he says. (His “bullshit detector as a documentarian” helped him adjust.) “We wanted to feel like we were inside the ongoing drama, that it was present tense.”

The creative team made the rounds of studios to pitch the project, and though Hulu “didn’t have a whole lot of heft in the TV world at the time,” says Wright, the streaming service won its trust.

This may well be Hulu’s most ambitious endeavor yet — a multimillion-dollar production staged across multiple continents, boasting an A-list ensemble that includes, along with Daniels: Peter Sarsgaard as his CIA counterpart; Michael Stuhlbarg; Bill Camp; and Alec Baldwin as CIA director George Tenet.

Hulu content chief Craig Erwich had read “The Looming Tower” when it was first published, back when he was an executive at Fox Broadcasting. “But at that point television wasn’t doing things like that,” he says.

Ten years later, the rules of TV have changed drastically — and Erwich leapt at the chance to tackle the book. Just as “The Handmaid’s Tale” captured the political zeitgeist, the hope is that “The Looming Tower” will resonate with today’s headlines. “We strive to be relevant,” says Erwich. “We want to add to the conversation, and we’re looking to create television events that are going to drive our business forward. This could be the next great Hulu original.”

***

The biggest challenge was perhaps simply where to begin: The nearly 500-page book features dozens of characters, overlapping storylines and a narrative that sprawls from New York to London, from Kenya and Yemen to the far reaches of Afghanistan.

Culling it all down fell to Futterman, who describes it as a “strange endeavor.” “The changes you make, you have to feel like they are there in service to the whole and that they’re not betraying what your major mission is,” he says.

That mission was twofold: convey that members of the CIA deliberately withheld information from the FBI, and offer a Muslim-American hero in FBI agent Ali Soufan (“The Prophet” star Tahar Rahim). An immigrant from Lebanon, now an American citizen and working for the FBI, Soufan was caught between two worlds. “He’s trying to save his religion from this hijacking by a group of fanatics and from being maligned by the American public,” says Futterman. “In many ways, he becomes the heart of the show.”

Soufan’s mentee-mentor relationship with his temperamental boss O’Neill offers audiences a way not just into their work process but their personal lives: As O’Neill indoctrinates him into the FBI, Soufan educates him and viewers about Arabic culture. One poignant scene shows each man praying in his own way — the two religions, Catholicism and Islam, are more similar than they are different, as both sets of penitents kneel and clasp beads.

But the production doesn’t gloss over O’Neill’s flaws: “A man of many appetites,” as Futterman says, he had multiple extramarital affairs — and his temper earned him few friends in the intelligence community, not least Martin Schmidt (Sarsgaard).

Daniels says he didn’t know how to play O’Neill at first, but credits abundant research — particularly a night spent at a bar in Lower Manhattan with 10 of O’Neill’s colleagues, who’d worked with him for years — with helping him. “I had a great meeting with those guys, walked out to the corner, turned to get a cab and there’s the World Trade Center,” says Daniels. “To feel him, you need the spirit of what John is fighting for.”

Just as Wright spent five years researching the book, producers spent months doing exhaustive homework, interviewing the real versions of the characters they were bringing to life, including Soufan and his wife; former National Security Council chief counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke (Stuhlbarg); former and current members of the FBI’s I-49 squad; and former members of the CIA. (The current CIA, however, refused to cooperate.)

Clockwise from Top; Peter Sarsgaard stars as a CIA analyst; Tahir Rahim and Jeff Daniels play FBI agents battling the CIA.
Courtesy of Hulu

Among the writers Futterman enlisted was Bash Doran (“Boardwalk Empire”), who sought out Barbara Bodine, former ambassador to Yemen (“a compelling figure in a predominantly masculine world,” Doran says). “The thing that spoke to me so much was how institutions are made of human beings and how human beings are so frail and faulty,” says Doran. “That seemed to me to be the tragedy at the heart of the story. The world can only work as well as we as individuals can work. Institutions can only be as strong as we make them.”

If there’s one word that characterizes the ambitious production, it’s verisimilitude.

But it wouldn’t come cheaply: Legendary, driven by then-head Bruce Rosenblum, came on board early to help share costs. While Erwich declines to name an exact figure, “we think we put the money in the right things for the sense of authenticity,” he says. “Obviously we spared no money when it comes to the cast.”

The six-month-long production sprawled across three continents and six countries, with five directors cross-boarding the 10 episodes. Pulling it off was a “giant puzzle,” says supervising producer Craig Zisk (who also directed three episodes).

“We never wanted to ever go back to [the executive producers] and say, ‘We can’t really find an embassy that will work’ or ‘Could this scene not take place in this particular location?’” says Zisk.

The reality of production economics came into play — but the team insists it was always given the latitude it needed. While there was an initial push to shoot the production all in South Africa (Johannesburg stands in for Albania, Pakistan and London), Zisk argued for filming the back half in Morocco, which serves as Yemen, among other places. “I never heard a no from anybody, as long as it was about scale and making the show big and feel real,” he says.

Production designer Lester Cohen credits Wright’s and Gibney’s deep contacts for opening doors thought impregnable, as well as the resourcefulness of the research team. A set dresser shared photos of his tour in Afghanistan; an art coordinator’s daughter dove into the newspaper archives in Nairobi to help re-create the bombing site of the 1998 embassy attacks. Those telling details drove the design of a massive rubble pile that shut down the central business district in Cape Town for weeks.

“I’m sure there are things we missed, and that was the hardest part,” says Cohen. “The potential to hurt someone is so great that I think everyone involved took a lot of care to try to be truthful and at the same time respectful of the material. It’s rare to get an opportunity, doing what we do, to do that.”

Most of the domestic action occurs in offices, so practical sets were built, including Alec Station (Schmidt’s base of operations) and the FBI office in New York. “You’re learning about the FBI and CIA through the dialogue and through the great performances,” says Zisk, “but your eye is picking up things as you’re watching Jeff Daniels walk down the hallway or Peter Sarsgaard in the bullpen.”

“The potential to hurt someone is so great that I think everyone involved took a lot of care to try to be truthful and at the same time respectful of the material.”
Lester Cohen, production designer

The creative team knew, though, that it would have to rely on visual effects for certain elements — most notably, the Twin Towers. Shots of the buildings are used judiciously — at the end of the first episode, for example, as O’Neill rides a train back into Manhattan — to remind viewers subtly of the loss.

That restraint also took precedence when it came to the denouement on 9/11, though the conversation continued until the producers locked picture in January. The writers had spent a day watching raw footage, including the frantic phone calls.

Ultimately the producers decided to err on the side of caution. “If we’re making this show for anybody, it’s for the families of the victims of 9/11 who have been asking questions for many, many years: What happened? Why did it happen?” says Futterman. “And the last thing any of us wanted was for one of the members of those families to watch the show and then be offended in some way by what they saw.”

***

If successful, the limited series will see a second season; in fact, discussions have already begun, centering perhaps on the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s really the first chapter of not just the book but the larger story about the war on terror,” says Erwich. “Unfortunately the war on terror continues to be a story that keeps changing all the time. And unfortunately there are still issues and questions around how intelligence gets shared in our government.”

For the filmmakers, the project may be set in the past, but it offers lessons still relevant today. It’s not just about the rivalry between John O’Neill and Martin Schmidt. “The entire political process we’re involved in right now reflects that same kind of division of partisanship,” says Gibney. “And it’s very dangerous for our country.”

If those petty disagreements feel like high school, Daniels says we’re now “living in junior high.” The actor makes his home in Michigan, where he says people are too busy to follow the ins and outs of the Trump administration. He hopes the show will be a wake-up call to the electorate, who mostly sat out the 2016 election, to get involved in this year’s vote.

“Maybe we really need to get more informed. Maybe we need to show up in 2018,” he says. “We need smart leadership, thoughtful leadership, reasonable leadership. We need someone who is smarter than us there.”

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