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‘The Looming Tower’ Boss on the Importance of the Muslim-American Hero of the Story

Dan Futterman began his career as an actor, working on sitcoms like “Caroline in the City” and “Will & Grace.”  It was a dramatic turn in a guest-starring role on “Homicide: Life on the Street” where he met writer Anya Epstein, who later became his wife, that caused him to turn his attention to writing.

“She was pretty strict,” Futterman, who was already interested in Truman Capote at the time, says. “She said, ‘You need to write an outline. You need to throw away anything you think is interesting on its own but doesn’t further the narrative.'”

He did, and eventually 2005’s “Capote” came together. His latest effort is “The Looming Tower,” Hulu’s adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s book.

What made you first start to prefer writing over acting?

There was a point, at least as an actor like I was, where you realize that the actors you know of your generation are simply a lot better than you. Here are the actors of my generation who I was auditioning against and losing parts to: Phil Hoffman, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Stuhlbarg. There were certain kinds of roles I would get, but the opportunities would narrow. The beautiful thing was then I could write parts for those guys, and they were far better than I ever would have been, and then everybody’s happy.

What do you consider the turning point in moving to write professionally?

Something happened to me personally, which is that I had been thinking about the story of Truman Capote and “In Cold Blood” at sort of a fortuitous time. In the beginning I would write a scene or two or maybe a play that didn’t have any real coherence, and then I got cast in an episode of “Homicide” that Anya Epstein wrote, and I loved that script, and I went to Baltimore to act in it and then I saw Anya and thought, “Wow, I would love to actually meet her and talk to her in a real way.” We’re married now, but when we started dating I would talk to her — and I’m sure I annoyed the hell out of her — about this Capote project that I was interested in. I never would have been able to write it without her.

Are there moments you toy with writing yourself something?

No, there’s not. I don’t really miss it that much. Honestly, I really feel like any role in [“The Looming Tower”], I would be far worse than any of the people playing it. It’s everybody — every single role that I would be somewhat up for, these guys are incredible and far better for the part than I would be. I know a lot of people do that — write parts for themselves, which is fine — but that doesn’t interest me.

Do you think there’s something about New York that lends itself to your writing? 

I love being here. I love the opportunities to see great plays and to see actors who may not get a lot of screen time in Hollywood but make a life on stage and are pretty thrilling. You don’t get that in LA — there’s a theater scene, but it’s not as alive and as prevalent. I also feel more alive here. I like to be a pedestrian. I don’t like being in my car a lot. The feeling of walking around, being on the subway, seeing different people — I like that for myself and for my kids, who are in public school. I think it makes an interesting life.

What makes now the perfect time for a story like “The Looming Tower?”

Larry was talking in his book about his personal rivalry that had enormous political and catastrophic social implications, but also I felt really moved by, and interested in, telling a story about something I hadn’t seen before on television: a Muslim-American hero. Ali Soufan is a guy who’s trying to take back his religion from guys who hijacked it. He’s a character straddling two worlds, trying to understand and be protective of his culture and his religion, that’s interesting to me — in any climate. But I think it’s been true since 9/11 that there’s a misunderstanding of Islam and what that religion means to millions and millions of people around the world.

In addition to Wright’s book, from what other source material did you pull?

Ali Soufan’s book “The Black Banners,” which overlaps this time period. Also the 9/11 Commission Report. There’s a lot of government material that’s available publicly. And we spoke a lot to people — Richard Clarke was very forthcoming — and they were extremely helpful. There’s also just a ton of books and documentaries, and I was given a lot of them. I had a lot of homework to do!

Even though Jeff Daniels as John O’Neill is a big name draw to the show, it seems like Ali (Tahar Rahim) is really the emotional heart for you.

He was born in Lebanon, came to this country as a teenager, and there’s nobody I know who’s more patriotic than he is. I talk to him all of the time; he became a very valuable consultant on the show, and I got to know him very well, and when he talks about “my country,” he’s not talking about Lebanon, he’s talking about the United States. He served the country faithfully and at risk to his own well-being, his own life. He loved it. And I think in this particular political climate, I felt drawn to that story. It’s important for people to see and to understand.

Some writers might have opened the show with 9/11 itself as a visually and emotionally-grabbing way to bring the audience in and then flash back throughout the season. What were the discussions you had about when to start the story and whether or not to tell the story linearly?

There were a lot of ins [such as] it could have been the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, but we decided to concentrate on just after Ali Soufan came into the FBI, came into the I-49 squad under the tutelage of John O’Neill, who came to be somewhat of a father figure to him. That’s at the heart of the story, so that’s where we decided to start. We do tell it pretty much in chronological order. We start in 1998 just prior to the Embassy bombings in East Africa, but we do cut to — and use as a narrative device — hearings in 2004. It’s something that’s a conflation/mash-up of hearings and testimony given by various characters. That’s done for global important character moments but also as a device to reflect back on what happened.

What’s the responsibility you feel in towing the line between telling what actually happened but still getting to put your stamp on the story?

I was working with an extremely well-respected journalist, an extremely well-respected documentarian, a person who lived through this, and a very strict lawyer that Legendary — our studio — hired who vetted every script and took notes about everything. There was a push and pull to all of it. We were conflating certain characters and certain events but not veering too far off from what happened. Everybody goes through this. I am sure Tony Kushner went through it when he was writing “Lincoln”; I went through it when I was writing “Capote”; I am sure they went through it when they were writing “Zero Dark Thirty.” You have to make those decisions in order to tell a coherent, understandable narrative.

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