Editor’s note: One in a series of remembrances on the 20 years since 9/11.
The 2001 Toronto Film Festival was at its midpoint on a clear and sunny Tuesday morning, when American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., followed by United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. Suddenly, the film festival became inconsequential in the wake of an imaginable terrorist attack on the United States; American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon military headquarters at 9:45 a.m. United 93 was headed for DC when courageous passengers confronted the terrorists and the plane crashed in Pennsylvania. All of the passengers on all of the planes were killed, along with many others, including 3,000 when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
With all planes grounded for days, filmmakers, execs and dealmakers in Toronto scrambled to find their way back home to their families; some filmmakers flying in for premieres of their films saw their planes grounded in places like Newfoundland. And TIFF organizers were faced with a decision of whether to cancel or finish the festival.
I come to TIFF every year, and am usually so busy that September 11 comes and goes, and I feel guilty for not having spent the day thinking about what for many was the worst day of our lives. On the 20th anniversary of that horrible day, I asked some who were here or on their way, to share their memories of a chaotic week that followed an unimaginable terrorist attack.
Gill, president and CEO Solstice Studios, was president of Miramax Films in 2001, and was preparing to meet his acquisitions team in Toronto after finishing up a test screening of the Phil Noyce film The Quiet American the night before.
“We were in a conference room at 8 or 8:30 a.m. at 375 Greenwich Street which is six blocks from the Trade Center. I remember when the first plane hit, all of a sudden, we were told we needed to evacuate the building immediately, that this was not a test, and to use the stairs, not the elevator. I’d been working there for like seven years, and never had that one before. I thought there was a fire in building, at first. And then we get down to the street and you look left and you see a huge plane sticking out of one of the towers. And you’re like, oh, my God. We were six short blocks away, maybe 600 yards. We were really close. And then, not long after, here comes the second plane that hits the tower. That I remember most vividly. All the buildings had been evacuated at that point, so the streets were pretty populated. I saw the second plane hit, and the gasps and the shrieks…I still remember that like it was five seconds ago.
And what I also remember is there were taxi drivers had just stopped in the street, rolled down their windows and turned up the radio really loud so we can try to hear what was going on. There was mass confusion. The media didn’t necessarily know either, and they were just recoding this. And then, unfortunately, we started to see the people jumping [from the buildings]. There were a lot of them. I mean, easily 50, maybe more. That was gut wrenching. And then the towers came down and you knew, that a lot of people didn’t make it. We didn’t know it was going to be 3000, but you knew it was going to be a lot. At that moment, you’re not moving. We were far enough away, but people who were much closer to the site, who were running, stopped when they came up to us, feeling that they were safe.
The other thing I remember, really vividly is, think about when you hear a police or fire or ambulance siren and it just kind of gets louder, and then it gets quieter again? Imagine a situation where there’s so many police and fire trucks and ambulances coming from the whole Tristate area, and the sound never goes down. It’s just a constant blare, as loud as you can get. That’s what it was.
Never heard anything like it. That was really shocking. And then the strangest thing is, I was supposed to go to Toronto that afternoon, and it became pretty obvious, the airports closed, you’re not going to Toronto. Bridges were closed, tunnels were closed. You weren’t going to get out of Manhattan. I was staying in a hotel downtown, the Mercer Hotel, and so I was pretty close by. Eventually, after the towers had come down and you realize there’s nothing you can do, and there are various NYPD folks who trying to help people along, encouraging them to go home and be safe…I walked back to my hotel. I opened the door to the hotel, I walk in, and three staff people come rushing up to me and say, are you okay? Are you okay? And I’m like, yeah, I’m okay. And they said, but look at you! I had on a black suit, black coat and black pants. I looked down and they were entirely white. Covered in…I didn’t even realize it. I was in shock. I was covered in ash. Face and hair, and everything else.
I couldn’t get hold of our staffers in Toronto, because the cell towers were on the top of the World Trade Center. All communications were shot. Blackberries, because at the time we had Blackberries, those didn’t work wither. There was nothing you could do. I went back to the hotel room and called people from a hard line. You know, I mean, the only good news about that is, the people who are already in the building, of course knew and had to leave, and others who were headed downtown…they put blockades at Canal Street, and it eventually became Houston Street, so they kind of, obviously word spread really fast, so, people knew what it was, and it was just, go home, be safe, and take care of your families. You know, keep a close watch on the news, because who knows if there’s going to be more attacks. That was the scary part of this, right. Because okay, those two buildings just got hit. How many more are coming? There were other planes in the air, and one that went down in Pennsylvania and one that hit the Pentagon. What if there was also going to be attacks that weren’t with airplanes? What if there is going to be a bomb on one of the bridges or something. It was really scary. I was going back and forth to New York all the time, but my wife and son were in LA, so I definitely wanted to get back to them, and that of course, took a few days, right. Finally, they opened up the airport in Philadelphia, and I got a rental and drove down there, but I think it was several days later.
The thing that haunts me most till this day was seeing the people jumping. Because they either was going to get burned to death or they’re going to jump and it’s just horrific. The courage in that, making the most awful of choices and determining how your life was going to end.”
The British director was scheduled to be in Toronto for what became his breakthrough film, but never got to make the trip.
“Serendipity was kind of my love letter to New York, and 9/11 happened a few days before the originally planned premiere. Of course that was postponed, but it was the first film to hold a premiere in the city of New York, after 9/11. We were all extremely worried about the insensitivity of it, but Harvey [Weinstein] was determined to go ahead. I remember his speech, quoting Churchill and saying, the best defense is to live well, and that was a very, very different context. But it just was a really beautiful evening, this welcome balm…I think people just wanted to take a breath and live again. It’s a very light film, and lightness just worked in that moment.
“The thing I was concerned about was Harvey wanted to remove the Twin Towers in one of the skyline shots. I wanted to keep them. We digitally pushed them into the nest, in the skyline shot, and I always regretted that. I think he was right in terms of the timing of the premiere, because the evening was a lovely communal sigh of relief. The thing that I wish I hadn’t done was given in. I wish we’d left the buildings in. People criticized it for playing safe and it being the wrong kind of action, and I regret it. I never actually made it to Toronto.”
Handling, longtime president/CEO of the Toronto Film Festival, found himself facing an unimaginable decision on September 11, to cancel the rest of what had been a vibrant festival, or to pause and continue, the latter of which was the choice he and his team made. They had to reorganize it, and bring in law enforcement to be sure there would not be copycat attacks at the festival.
“In those days, we had offices in the hotel, I think the Four Seasons, and believe it or not, I was in my office with a friend, a colleague that actually spoke Italian, and we were trying to reach Nanni Moretti to persuade him to come to the festival with The Son’s Room. I knew Nanni because we’d done a big retrospective on his work in the ‘90s in Toronto. It looked as if he wasn’t going to come, and I really wanted him to. So, we phoned. We got his answering machine. We left a message. We hung up, and then as soon as I hung up, I had a phone call from my Director of Communications, Nuria Bronfman, who now heads NATO here in Toronto. Who said, turn on the TV, a plane has gone into the World Trade Center. This was just after nine o clock. At that point, it was all becoming a little bit clearer. At the beginning, it was a small plane, and then the second plane hit, and then, of course, we were aware that there was something much more serious going on.
We watched, hypnotized by the screen, until the Towers started to come down. We switched the TV set off. We we were completely…what should I say…paralyzed, hypnotized, shocked. I mean, we were in a state of shock, and then Nuria came in as soon as the Towers came down and said the press is asking for a press conference, and we need to make a statement. My first thought was, well, we’re running a film festival, why do we need to make a statement about what’s happened in New York? Because we were in such a state of shock, and then I suddenly realized, and she said, ‘No no, it’s about what is going to happen to the film festival.’ Of course. I mean, we were completely focused on everything in New York and not focused at all on our own festival, and then it was oh right, okay, we’ve got to deal with the after effects here. What do we do in terms of continuing the festival? Not continuing the festival?
We rapidly formed ourselves into an ad hoc crisis team, so it wasn’t chaotic. We had about 5 or 6 members of that team. The Board Chair came into the room, more as an observer. We said we would hold a press conference around 10:30 in the morning, so we had a short time to make decisions. It didn’t take a long time, and it wasn’t like there was a lot of haggling and arguing. We were going to cancel all the screenings for the rest of the day. We were going to cancel all the parties. We were going to take up all the red carpets. We were basically shutting down the festival for the rest of the day. That was a fairly easy decision to make. None of us really knew what was going to happen in the future, or even in the coming hours. There was initial talk about shutting down the entire festival for the rest of its run. We thought that was premature, so we just made a quick decision. No, we’ll shut it for the rest of the day.
Before the press conference, I had to phone the…there were two gala films that night. Mira Nair had Monsoon Wedding, and the French had a film with Jeanne Moreau, Samsara. I phoned the distributor of Mira’s film, and they had huge plans, they were going to make a great big procession outside Roy Thomson Hall for the gala, with an elephant and everything, so they had to call all that stuff off. That was a big deal. Of course, they freaked out as soon as I phoned them and said we are cancelling everything today, but they fully understood. They had to get a hold of Mira, and same with the French.
So, then we had the press conference and of course, the question came up immediately as we knew it would…what are you going to do for the rest of the festival? At that point in time, we just said to them, we don’t know right now, but we will be making an announcement shortly. As soon as the press conference was over, we regrouped. We were in our own bubble but we were hearing things, of course. Many of my friends were New Yorkers. They were stranded here. Their families were in New York. We set up television sets, we had a company that came on board which provided counseling because they were a sponsor of the festival.
“We started to plan for the second press conference, which we held early afternoon like about three o clock. That was the far trickier press conference, because we didn’t the know the mood and felt we had to read the correct mood. Was the right thing to cancel the rest of the festival to honor the people that were killed in the tower? Or should we continue the festival, with the argument being that the terrorists didn’t have the power to shut down our daily lives. And what form would the festival take? So, those are the two big decisions we had to confront. We decided not to cancel the festival, but we cancelled every party, all the red carpets. We canceled all of the sponsor introductions because we had visual material on screen. We took all of the sponsorship stuff, all of the thank yous. We took the celebratory aspect out of the festival entirely. We did film introductions, but we just introduced the film maker, and I don’t think there was any other politicians or anything like that on stage. It was just festival programmers introducing film makers. Showing the film. Over and out. After the second press conference, the press was really supportive of the decisions we made. They wanted the festival to continue, but not in the same form. It couldn’t be a party anymore. It was…a sign of resistance in a way. It was, terrorists cannot stop what we’re doing, both in terms of daily life but also artistically, because otherwise they would have won. I think we caught that mood really well.”
Planning the rest of the festival involved bringing in the RCMP and the Toronto police, to work behind the scenes to bolster security. Then there were all the filmmakers whose films played right before the attack, and who were stranded.
There were guests at the airport who’d checked out of their hotels and couldn’t get on the flights, and they had to come back into the city. There were no hotel rooms for them plus there were guests from all around the world flying in. You know, after a while, they were landing in Newfoundland. They were landing in Labrador. I mean, unbelievable stories and there were Americans trying to get back to the States, some to New York. David Lynch was here, and I remember having dinner with David probably a day or two after, and there was talk of him and a whole group of Angelinos renting a bus and going across the border. I think Glenn Close hired a limo and just drove across the border. I can’t remember if people did private planes because those were grounded pretty quickly, but some people with resources just grabbed a limo and said, to hell with this. Obviously, we’re not going to get a flight. We’re just going to get a limo, and we’re going to drive to New York. And they did. I remember running into Glenn Close when she was just about to pile into the limousine that she had rented, and I said where are you going, and she said I’m going to New York. A lot of Americans were trying to get back to the States and a lot of Europeans, a lot of my French friends. The hotels were amazing. I mean, obviously, there were a lot of people who were supposed to be arriving who didn’t, but their crisis management for that day was absolutely awesome.
Everyone just pulled together. The collective unity of solving this problem was where humanity looks its best; there were a few incidents that I won’t mention where you get the opposite, but very few of those. Everyone was just so incredibly supportive, and supportive of the festival, supportive of me, supportive of our top team, and everything we were trying to solve and deal with. I remember Peter Fonda was coming from Venice where he had a film, and I can’t remember where Peter landed, but he ended up in Toronto eventually. He drove from somewhere, maybe Gander, or Halifax, where a lot of planes got grounded. That was who Peter was; rented a car and suddenly Peter Fonda shows up at his screening, for Christ’s sake, and we didn’t know. You always know when guests arrive, we had an efficient system, but in this case there were understandable breakdowns. And Peter just showed up.
I think there were other great stories which I heard later about directors who didn’t speak English, but I’m sorry I can’t remember their names, like who landed in Gander, and they didn’t speak English. Gander was an incredibly small community, couple thousand people. It’s an airport in the middle of nowhere in Labrador, and one of so many planes where the locals had to take care of everyone. It was phenomenal. I mean, people put up in high school gyms and all that kind of stuff…public spaces. There’s a musical done on this, Come from Away.“
It didn’t take long for Handling and his team to feel that continuing was the right thing to do.
“I think the next day there was a repeat screening scheduled of Mira’s film. That’s the way we had organized the festival is the gala of the evening before repeated at like 9:30 in the morning at the big Uptown, which is a big 900-seat cinema. I remember walking over to introduce that. From the hotel it was about a half-mile walk. The streets were empty, and the people I saw in the streets, none of us were looking at each other, gazes averted, and I remember saying to myself, is anyone going to be in the cinema? Is this going to be like completely empty, when Mira’s going to be there with her actors? This was their premiere, and when I walked in, the place was packed. Jammed to the rafters. There wasn’t one empty seat. It was an incredibly emotional moment. I get shivers as I talk about it now because I haven’t remembered it for so many years, and it was just one of those…it was somber. It was respectful. Of course, everyone was devastated, but they were there to see a film and celebrate culture, and celebrate what culture and film could do as a sign of resistance. A place of resistance. A place where the community would gather. There was a real need for people to get together, not to be alone in their houses and apartments, but to actually congregate and share this shock, this moment, because none of us could fully…even the following day we hadn’t fully absorbed it, the sheer magnitude and the numbers…the number of dead, I don’t think we knew at that point in time.
We held a minute of silence for everyone, and then the show resumed. The whole tone of the festival was unlike any other I’d ever seen, extremely somber. The public continued to go. We were concerned about all kinds of things, behind the scenes, as the managers of the festival. We started to think about what was this going to mean financially to us, like our corporate sponsors? Were they going to support us? My mind started to move that way fairly rapidly after the first day or two. When you’re in that zone like that, an automatic pilot takes over, and while you’ve never been trained for it, we had an amazing team. The festival team was just phenomenal.
One hundred percent, we made the right decisions. In hindsight, incredibly challenging but gratifying experience in the sense that we felt we did the right thing, and then managed our way successfully through the crisis without making any false steps, which was our biggest fear, to make a step that we then had to go back on because people were upset and angry with the decisions we had made. Not once did we make a step that was met with resistance or anger or pushback. Every decision we made was, in hindsight, supported by everyone. It was at the time supported by everyone, and in hindsight, I felt it was absolutely the right decision.”
The India-born director of Kama Sutra was poised for a big breakout with Monsoon Wedding, premiering on 9/11.
“Two nights before, September 9, I was in Venice, winning the Golden Lion, and then, September 10, flew back to America, to New York, and it was a real celebration at home and then I was leaving within hours, to Toronto on a flight that left early in the morning on September 11. All the film critics were in the theater watching the first press screening of Monsoon Wedding at 8 a.m., and I was speaking to a reporter from the Toronto Star when into the room walks Juliette Lewis, who is a friend from Hysterical Blindness. She said, ‘Mira, what is happening?’ I didn’t know, and I couldn’t understand why she needed to be comforted while I was in this room talking to a critic.
And then all the actors and directors, who were in this press, big sort of thing, came up, and at that moment, watched the second plane hit. This motley crew…Richard Harris, being the lovely Richard Harris, staggered out from one of the rooms and said, is London safe? Have they bombed London? He was in a nearly delirious state. What I was told was at 9:45, they had loved the film, and came out of the theater dancing, only to find that the world had changed forever. Everything came to a sort of numb standstill, and we all, all these wonderful great talents of the world, in Intercontinental, kind of dazed and sitting together and thinking, how do we get home? We were in our hotel rooms, and I remember no one closed their doors. It was like…and I had really odd and wonderful, like, moment like Aamir Khan, the big superstar in India, just like walking into my room and not knowing what to do. Michael Ondaatje, whom I did not know, but loved his work, had just seen the movie and came to find me because he was just exalted about this film, and he said, ‘Oh, my God, I just want to introduce myself. I’m Michael Ondaatje. I love you.’ Because they were all literally all coming out of my film, at that moment. I don’t think he knew, because he was very excited, really overcome in a joyous way. My family was going to fly for the big gala premiere that night, and then everything got canceled. That’s what the elephant was arranged for, and I used to joke and say, you know, bring out the dancing boys! The distributor was really into making it a big event because of the Golden Lion. We had booked a great restaurant, an Indian restaurant, the whole restaurant was taken for the party after the premiere. Then the movies got canceled, but they chose to, I don’t know who chose, but we chose to leave the dinner, because people were all there, and had to get…and the feeling was, just to be together. I remember that we had this very…people were very grateful to be together at this dinner. Without the film, and without the elephant. I never actually saw the elephant. I never saw the elephant, and I never saw even one dancing boy.
The WME agent had several films in the festival.
“I was supposed to fly back that night to take my daughter to see Madonna at the Staples Center, and the planes were grounded and I stayed a week. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, I went to NYU, worked for years at Miramax and lived in the Village for years, a mile and a half from the World Trade Center, this was not an abstraction for me. But I was and am still grateful to the festival. Outside of being with my family, my wife Cindy had given birth to our third daughter Jenna just a few months earlier, there’s no place I would rather have been than the Toronto Film Festival. While we’d seen the unspeakable cruelty that some people are capable of, I got to spend the rest of that week seeing the majesty and artistry that great filmmakers bring to this world. For me, seeing great cinema in that collective experience with others is our equivalent of going to a church, a temple or a mosque. I spent the week seeing extraordinary films. I went with Atom Egoyan to see Michael Haneke’s Piano Teacher, Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mama Tambien, Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, Danny Boyle’s Strumpet and Vacuuming Completely Naked In Paradise, Mike Figgis’ Hotel, Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. Surrounded by people who love and support film. A lot gets written about the economics of the theatrical experience, but as a devoted film lover, the act of seeing a movie in a crowded theater with other people, never felt so important and life affirming as it did that week.”
Braun is co-president of Submarine.
“I was in Toronto, and had a flight back to New York 9 a.m. on September 11. I still have the ticket somewhere. I woke up and an inner voice said, don’t get on that plane and I canceled my flight. Which I’d never done before in my life. I figured, worst case scenario, I’ll watch a few more movies and go back tomorrow. I was supposed to go to the airport with a friend, who ended up on that flight and got diverted to Nova Scotia. I went into an 8:45 screening, came out 90 minutes later, and the world had completely changed. I found out when I walked into our office and one my colleagues was crying. The World Trade Center has been destroyed, and World War III is happening, with planes still in the air, and crashing into other places.
“I am completely freaked out. I couldn’t reach anybody. But the first thing I did which was, in the midst of that craziness, I called a local rent-a-car company. I made a reservation, to try to get a rental car from Toronto back to New York, and they said they only have, you know, cars that are not allowed to cross the border. I just made the reservation anyway. So, the borders shut and then six days later when they said some of the borders along the northern part of the United States were opening, I went to the rental car company, and I was with Micah Green and a few other people. They said, we will rent you this car, but if you take it over the border, there’ll be a $10,000 charge on your credit card. And I said look, I live in downtown New York, 20 blocks from Ground Zero. You have to give me a car. She said, see that line over there, they’re 60 people who all want cars, and I said, I can guarantee you, I’m the only one that lives near Ground Zero, and she said give me five minutes. She said, there’s literally one car that can go over the border, and I’m going to give it to you, and so, we drove back and that’s how we got back. But we were stuck in Toronto for seven days. Everyone has their story of how they got back. I know some people ended up taking the train, to Detroit or to Chicago. Other people, you know, I don’t know how they all escaped, the various people, but that was my story.”
Now an independent producer, Elwes headed indie film for WMA at the time.
“Rena Ronson and I were in Toronto with our slate of films, and I was having breakfast that morning with Joe Drake when we both started getting these messages, and looking at each other going, oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Then we left to call our families, and all of us there in Toronto began a five-day odyssey of insanity.
We were all staying at the Four Seasons. They cleared the foyer, entranceway, and they set up tables with seven televisions with live feeds. Literally, you would just hang out in the lobby because everyone was in such a stunned state, watching this endless loop of the towers coming down. It was just unbelievable. The first thing I did was start calling, trying to find out what clients were in town, who was where at that moment, what help with whatever they needed to keep them in their hotels, and what’s happening with the movies. The next morning, the Toronto Film Festival called all the filmmakers that were there because some were showing their films already and some had not arrived yet. They asked all the filmmakers there, with a raise your hand vote, whether or not they should continue with the film festival, and the filmmakers all said, yes.
And so, the slots where the filmmakers hadn’t arrived yet and hadn’t come with their friends, were filled up re-running the films that were already shown. And so the film festival continued, which was amazing, actually, because it gave everybody something to do to try to take their minds off figuring out how to get home and to their families, and the terror that was going on. The airspace was shut down in America for five days, so, we were all stranded there. I felt like the bar at the Four Seasons was like something from the Titanic. We were all sitting in there in the evenings going, what do we do? Everyone was swapping stories of escape methods. How do we get out, and also, we were trying to still do some business with the films that we had there, trying to get distribution for them.
The one in particular I recalled, the Matthew McConaughey film, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. We were in negotiations with Sony Classics, I was talking to Michael Barker the whole time, while he was trying to figure out how to get his team home, and I’m trying to get the deal closed. It was horrifying. There were some funny moments, by the way. One of the rumors that was floating around was that Pauly Shore was getting a tour bus and could take people if they wanted to go with him. But it was mostly very scary. I hosted a dinner three nights later for all the clients that were in town, so that at least we could all get together, and be together, have some human interaction with each other, and again, try to comfort each other through this ghastly situation.
I got back to Los Angeles and a colleague of mine, Ben Silverman, you know, who went on to be a big television guy, called me up and said, there’s these two young filmmakers called Jules and Geodeon Naudet, and they’d been calling the agency in London because they didn’t know anybody in California. They knew a friend of a friend, and they’d been calling saying they needed to talk to you. I call them and they said we were out making a documentary in Manhattan that day, and said, we’ve got the only footage of the second tower coming down. A chill went through my body, and they said, we don’t know what to do with it, but we have this footage. I went over to their apartment in Marina del Rey, and literally sat there as they played it on their big-screen television, and I just started crying hysterically. I wasn’t sure what to do, and then I went back to the agency and talked to Jim Wiatt, and he ended up working out something with all the networks to show it simultaneously, with the proceeds to benefit the victims, and the firefighters, and all of that.
Sony Pictures Classics co-founder.
I was in my room. I had been out late and I kept calling the office from my hotel room and nobody was answering the phone. I was like, what is going on? I called up [SPC co-founder Michael] Barker and he said, turn the TV on, and I went, holy sh*t, what the hell? Both planes had hit by then.
We had a ton of movies, but most of them had played, so that wasn’t a problem. You are hearing all these stories, then and later. You know, Elvis Mitchell had been arrested, as a suspected terrorist, in the lobby of one of the hotels. Chaos is ruling. My first reaction is, I got to get out of here. I got to get home. I got a wife and kids there, in Jersey. And then, you find out the border is closed. You can’t get out. There’s talk of, you know, studio people are renting a plane to go back to L.A.
I called up my hockey buddies and I said, I need to get out of here. I found a car mill place that had American plates, U.S. plates, and so I went outside. One of my hockey buddies told me this is where to rent a car. Then I went to my favorite hockey store called Just Hockey, and I got a Crown Maple Leafs jersey, and a hockey stick, and put the hockey stick in the backseat of my car. My buddy told me that on the other side of Lake Ontario is an Indian reservation that a lot of truckers go through, and you probably could have a good shot to get out there.
I drove around Lake Ontario and there were a million trucks lined up, but the car lane was just me, and I drove to the border and the guy looked at me and he saw the stick, and I just said, go Leafs, and the guy just waved me through, and I start driving home. It got really late and I crashed in Syracuse, and I got into the Avis rent-a-car place in Newark airport, and people were pulling in from all over the country in rent-a-cars. I’d left my car there when I flew there, and went home. So many people were stuck there, who like me just wanted to get home to family. There was somebody on our staff who had their father, he made a phone call from the stairwell, and you know, and then she didn’t hear from him but they knew, sort of where he was, and her and her brothers, who were all firemen, went down there and found him. He was home at six o’ clock, they didn’t tell anybody, and she left her job and moved to San Francisco. She came back and her arms were all, you know, cut up from digging around and finding her dad. She just kind of left town after that happened. But her father was alive. I mean, a miraculous story that, you know, they just weren’t talking about it.
To show up after it happened was a whole other point of view. The impact didn’t really hit you until you saw it in person. Where I lived, a ton of people died, you know. There were funerals that went on, for six months, for Wall Street guys in Monmouth County. At Cantor Fitzgerald, my buddy I play golf with, and works with my son Chris, he stayed home and played golf that day. If he had gone, he would have been on the roof, where the leaders of Cantor Fitzgerald told them, let’s go up to the roof, a helicopter will save us.”
Mitchell was film critic for the New York Times, and corrects the rumor that Tom Bernard heard in Toronto that day.
“I didn’t have any issue with border crossing. What happened was that five days after 9/11, the Sunday of TIFF closing ceremonies, I was standing outside the Hyatt where the awards had taken place. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the police giving an unhoused man a hard time. I was talking to friends, including the late Dusty Cohl, the co-founder of TIFF, and Barry Avrich, when we were suddenly surrounded by those very same police, who pushed past my friends — all of whom were white — said ‘there have been reports of a large black man robbing people at ATM machines.’ I did what just about any Black person would do, which was to slowly drop my hands by my side, in plain sight of the police. make eye contact with the police. And I asked, ‘Yes, officers, how may I help you?’ At which point, all of my white friends went crazy: ‘How dare you stop him?!’ ‘He’s been here with us for the past few hours!’ ‘He’s the film critic for the New York Times!’ I turned to my well meaning friends to explain it didn’t matter who I worked for, realizing as I did so, I made the cardinal mistake of breaking eye contact with the cops. Who then got angry and started screaming. And I heard the awful sound of guns clearing holsters. I put my hands on top of my head and very, very slowly, in the calmest voice, brought the temperature down. Satisfied, the cops trundled off and as they did, one of them, who was the size of a linebacker, patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you’re not even large.’
I worked myself into a froth and Dusty took me up to the Hyatt Rooftop bar to help me settle. Next thing I knew, I woke up in my hotel room with a bloody, swollen left hand and a dent in the drywall. Seems I tried to put my fist through a wall and crushed a couple of knuckles in the process. Dusty told me I downed the better part of a bottle of Macallan 25 year [single malt scotch], which I think I’m still paying for. And he was gentleman enough to make sure I got back to my hotel lobby. Surely, tempers were shorter than they might have normally been but that’s no excuse. When I wrote about it, the Times offered to find me a lawyer and pay for them so I could sue the Toronto Police Dept, which I declined to do.”
Allen and Albert Hughes
Operating as a directing team at the time, the Hughes Brothers were poised to launch their Jack the Ripper film From Hell with Johnny Depp on 9/11.
Allen Hughes: Our movie was getting buzz out of Venice, and we were headed into Toronto feeling it was make or break as far as the perception of the film. It played for a lot of critics and Roger Ebert was there and we got early word he really loved the film. The studio was really excited, because there were massive projections on what this film was going to do, and we were all excited. We had been off the radar a bit except our small documentary film American Pimp. We were like, this our moment, and I remember when the studio gave us this projection of what the movie was going to open at and what it was going to do. Someone said something, and I said, well, barring a national catastrophe, it sounds like we’ll be doing good. We went to bed saying, tomorrow is From Hell day, because we would be doing all that press.
Albert Hughes: I was in bed in the Four Seasons hotel and I got a call from our agent Jeff Gorin, who said, ‘turn on CNN, its World War III.’ The first tower was already smoking, and when the second plane hit, it seemed like it was running in slow motion through the sky and you just have that pain in your stomach. We were to premiere the film that day and of course, everything got canceled. So, 20th Century Fox decided to get a penthouse suite just because everybody was kind of stuck and not knowing what to do. And you know I think Mulholland Drive was in that year because Naomi Watts the actress was there, David Lynch was around the festival. So, anyhow I was sitting on the couch in the penthouse and we’re all just watching TV. And Naomi Watts is sitting on the floor right next to me and I was on the couch and you know we’re introducing each other and she goes, oh, yeah, you’re the one that f*cking hates my movie. And I’m like, oh, sh*t how the f*ck does she know that, right?
Because I had seen a screening of Mulholland and I’m a Lynch fan and I was just disturbed because I didn’t understand what was going on. I just did not. Even though I loved Lost Highway and I didn’t understand what’s going on either, but I loved it anyway. So, you know, I was staying at the penthouse and then me and my brother were a little freaked out about, like, how do we get back? We started complaining to 20th Century Fox, like, hey, we have kids. We used the kid card. We have kids, you know, we need to get back.
Allen Hughes: It became like a macabre summer camp, this room they designated for all the actors and directors to get together and just hang out. But it was just, as you remember, such a weird, f*cked up, surreal thing, so it was a strange vibe. A lot of the discussion was, when are we going to be able to get the f*ck out of here? And then, my brother, who’s a pretty unvarnished guy, started telling people what he thought of their films. And some of it wasn’t pretty. I’m going, oh sh*t. And it’s just changing the tenor of worry, but mostly we were all just shook. And we knew whatever we were there for, it was a wrap now. We knew that life as we knew it was over. This was much more important than what little film or big film, or trivial entertainment piece we were out there for. I don’t remember much detail except I think, the second or third day, monotony did start setting in, as it does, and little bickering.
Albert Hughes: We just kind of put our foot down and said, we need to get out of here. And so, they said okay, give us a day, we’ll get you out. Next day they said, there’s a plane in Buffalo, you just have to take a car there. I believe it was a short ride. It didn’t feel that long at all. So, we get on the plane and there’s all the other 20th Century Fox people who used the kid excuse, and asked us if they could get on the plane too. So the plane was full. And we were one of the few planes in the sky at the time as they had to shut down commercial air. Only the military was flying and then private only, in special circumstances. I don’t know how 20th Century Fox pulled that off. So much is like a blur. I do remember Heather Graham was in Toronto promoting From Hell and she had to fly to New York the same day. And she was landing with her friend, looking out the window and she goes, oh, look, the World Trade Center’s on fire. She could see that from her window in the plane.
Allen Hughes: Before that day, the studio projections had the movie 100 million in North America. It didn’t open to a big number, but I remember we were so depressed and friends of our teasing us, because the movie still opened number one, but it didn’t matter. The whole market had changed, and was the last thing we were all thinking about. But just the fact that we were up there with a film called From Hell, and that’s all I remember was it said on our itinerary, From Hell Day, Tuesday, September 11.”
David Linde & Glen Basner
Participant CEO Linde was in Toronto as co-founder of Good Machine; FilmNation CEO Basner was there with Linde for the Gregor Jordan-directed Buffalo Soldiers, until the effort became finding a way to drive back into the U.S. to get to their families after 9/11.
Basner: We had just sold Buffalo Soldiers to Miramax the night before, and we woke up the next morning, and we had like a press and industry screening at one of the theaters at 8:30 am. I’m walking there, and people I saw said, hey, did you hear that a plane flew into one of the twin towers? They used to allow those little planes to fly up and down the Hudson, and my brain just went to, oh, it must have been one of those, maybe the pilot passed out. We’re at the theater, and people are coming in. We’re making our list to see who’s at the screening, and now everyone is saying it, and then at some point, someone says, it wasn’t a little plane. It was a jetliner, and I was like, whoa. So, the movie is about to start. People are in there, and I called over to David, who says, come over to my hotel room. You can’t believe what’s going on here, and then we sat in his hotel room and we watched the second plane, and then we watched the towers come down. It was mind blowing; your stomach was like leaving your body in a roller coaster when the towers came down because you wouldn’t even have imagined that could happen.
Linde: I was in my hotel room and my wife called me. We had two small children and they went to school about two blocks away from our apartment. She said, turn on the television. At that point, everybody began to gather and to try to get a sense of what was going on. There was this massive sense of, how do you process what you are seeing? What should I be doing? I’m the father of two small children and my wife is in New York City, and this is a catastrophe that we know very little about but it’s happening to my family and I’m not there. And first it was New York City. Then it was the Pentagon. And there was this huge sort of vacuum of knowing where you stood, right.
Linde: This was the first time in many people’s lives, of really being in a situation where there was no toolkit. Phones began to go out, though we were lucky being able to communicate because BlackBerrys had that direct messaging system and I could reach my wife that way. You try to contextualize what it was that you were going to do, and I knew in my case I was going to get back to my family. At first, nobody knew what kind of plane had hit the tower, whether or not it was a commercial airliner. Then you saw the second one hit and it was clear this was some version of an attack. So there were two reactions from me. Good Machine was on was it the corner of Varick and Canal with gigantic picture windows, on the north side that’s facing the Trade Center. So, we actually had people at work who were you know watching the whole thing, about 16 blocks away. As owners, James [Schamus], Ted [Hope] and I had to think about these people we struggled to communicate with, and the message was basically some version of, everybody get the hell out of there and go home. And then you have to think about your family.
Basner: Once we figured out what happened and we saw the images on TV, everything was about, how do we get home, because everyone had families. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and nobody knew it at that point. We live over the Brooklyn Bridge, so, my wife was a schoolteacher, was a speech pathologist, at an elementary school on the Upper East Side, so I knew that she was safe. But you couldn’t reach anyone because the cell service was packed, and she started to walk home and when I finally connected with her around noon, she’s like, I’m getting close to the Lower East Side and I’m going to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. I said, have you looked at a television at all? She was like, no, I’ve been walking. I said, you can’t walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s completely dark smoke. You wouldn’t be able to see anything. And then she figured out how to get on the subway and get home from there.
Linde: The planes are grounded. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to drive from Toronto to New York, and I would imagine renting a vehicle would’ve been pretty tough to do at that. But we ended up in a caravan, me, Glen Basner, Anne Carey, Ted, Amy Kaufman, Anthony Bregman, a couple others. We found two passenger vans, and we went there and they said to us, you’re not driving these to the United States, are you? And we were like, oh, no, not at all. And the next morning, we started driving. And my recollection is that when we got to the border at Niagara Falls. There weren’t a lot of cars, and they just waved us through. The roads were pretty empty. We made it to the city, dropped people off and were able to drop off the vans to Hertz or Avis, I can’t remember which. We came in over the George Washington Bridge, and the roads were empty.
Basner: It was a 10-hour drive from Toronto back to New York City. No traffic. We flew through the border, and the thing I remember most was, you’re getting closer to New York City, and the nervousness increases. This is your home and this traumatic thing had happened. And then you saw the smoke coming from the city…
Linde: It was like a version of a movie, you drive into a city at night that’s under a curfew and covered in dust with fighter jets literally screaming around, everywhere, helicopters, you know, a completely alien kind of experience. I remember the dust, in the air and on the ground, and the feeling it’s not New York, not the one you knew. I lived at 15th and 7th. I remember St. Vincent’s used to have a hospital at 11th and 7th, and we were beginning to see people gather around the hospital. And of course, nobody was coming, because there were no survivors.
The co-president of Roadside Attractions was a UTA agent at TIFF 2001.
“I was in a screening of The Safety of Objects. I came out at 10:15, there was a monitor in the lobby and three or four people gathered around it, everyone riveted and not sure what it all meant. Was it an accident? I was there through Friday, and the tension ratcheted up each day. The airports were shut. I mean it was very strange, everyone wandering the streets, lost, or drinking in bars. It was pre hardcore cell phone era, so everybody wasn’t glued to their phones as they would be now. [Roadside co-president] Eric d’Arbeloff and I were together then, and he was producer of this movie Lovely and Amazing that was in the festival. The director, Nicole Holofcener, had two very small children back in LA who were twins. Eric was concerned about trying to help her to get home to her kids. It was before we had our son, so it was less an issue for us. So, we were part of this group. I don’t recall who organized it, but we drove back to Los Angeles in a rented rock and roll tour bus. It had beds for overnight travel. I remember it took 48 hours. We drove straight, everybody obsessed about getting home. Nobody knew if this was the start of a war. The one thing I recall about the ride was, someone had DVDs of Sex and the City, I think because Nicole had directed episodes and we watched them all.”
Guillermo del Toro
The Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water brought The Devil’s Backbone to TIFF in 2001.
“The movie showed September 9 or 10. I got out the day before, literally landed in L.A. and was on the way to the editing room for Blade 2, which was in postproduction. I arrived to the editing room and everyone was destroyed. The world took a 180-degree turn. I said, we’re shutting the room, we’re not working. Go home. I think we didn’t return for a week. The movie showed, and the next morning, I had a moment with Elvis Mitchell, who said, that is a great movie. It’s going to be a game changer for you. And two days later, careers didn’t matter. It put it all in perspective. To this day, I don’t complain about The Devil’s Backbone coming out at the time it did. The audience was not there for a movie about war, and orphans and all that, but I was very thankful that it was a reminder for me, coming back from Toronto, it could have been a very different story. A movie not doing well as the world was healing, it was not the end of the world. When a world-changing event comes along, like the one we’ve all just been through, going to a movie theater to me is a very healing experience. You’re out again, throwing yourself into the current of the river again, with other people. It’s like going to a cinema concert and some people heal through a comedy, and others through an action film. But it’s all part of a healing process.