"I wanted the movie to be a catharsis," says Andrea Berloff, the screenwriter of "World Trade Center," the Oliver Stone-directed docudrama that opens Aug. 9. "I've felt that way from the beginning."
The film is a surprising coup for the young writer, a soft-spoken graduate of Cornell's Drama School, who has never before had a script produced. The famously headstrong director of "Platoon," "JFK" and, most recently, "Alexander," told Berloff he would shoot the film faithfully to her script - an almost unheard-of tribute in an industry where multiple rewrites are customary.
If having her script produced is a coup for Berloff, the completed film is likely to be greeted with hailstorms of discourse, not least because it seems the current spate of 9/11 movies is a reminder that films have become a primary way for Americans to digest difficult and painful events.
For many, particularly New Yorkers, the wounds of Sept. 11 have scarcely closed. Will the film be received as an homage to the dead, the survivors and their rescuers, as Berloff says she intended or as a flag-waving disaster flick? Even more problematic are the politics of interpretation surrounding the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center's Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Sept. 11 has been appropriated, in part, by the Bush administration as rationale for pre-emptive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Meanwhile, some left-leaning observers like Noam Chomsky have named the attacks as the inevitable comeuppance for what they describe as America's bad behavior in foreign places.
Given the politically polarizing nature of her material, "the fact that the studio made this movie at all is remarkable," Berloff says, adding, "It is rare that you can do something with this kind of meaning" in the world of commercial film.
For her part, Berloff does not look like a person braced for controversy and criticism. An attractive woman with pale eyes and auburn hair falling nearly to her shoulders, she is quiet, focused and poised. But is she prepared for flak from both the left and right?
She seems to shrug off the question.
"Actually, most of the responses I have gotten so far have been overwhelmingly positive," she says, neither defensive nor arrogant.
I suggest that the character of Dave Karnes, a real-life former marine who assisted in the rescue of several trapped policemen, seems to personify the militaristic mood that followed the attacks.
Karnes (played by Michael Shannon) says at various points, "You may not realize it yet, but we're at war," later mentioning that the attacks need to be "avenged."
Berloff replies calmly that Karnes, ideological or not, is a real person who played a pivotal role in the real-life rescue of Port Authority Policemen John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). At the same time, "people find that character very polarizing," she acknowledges, without saying more.
If Berloff seems reluctant to jump into the politics of 9/11, it may be because she views the film as essentially nonpolitical.
"If there is any political issue that all Americans can get behind, it is idea that Sept. 11 brought out the goodness in people," she says. "That's what impressed me most at the time."
The story Berloff wants to tell, she says, is of ordinary people and their families caught in extraordinary circumstances, both as victims and rescuers. The response to crisis is human goodness, generosity and, in some cases, heroism, she continues. Berloff undertook thorough research, interviewing many survivors.
At the same time, Berloff allowed herself certain poetic insertions. She gives Karnes one of the most striking lines in the movie, delivered as he arrives at the smoldering site of ground zero: "Maybe the smoke is hiding something we're not ready to see."
Although the film has its share of crowd scenes and mayhem, Berloff's approach to the script was not to write about mass emotions but to focus on two characters trapped in the rubble of the collapsed towers.
"Once I decided just to focus on those two characters and their families, that's when I knew I had found the way to tell the story," she explains.
Berloff's respect for research led her to make contact with several World Trade Center survivors and their families. Striving for the greatest possible accuracy in the portrayal of events, she transcribed more than 1,000 pages of notes from her interviews with former officers Jimeno and McLoughlin.
"I met the guys and their wives, who were so kind and who had had such a tough run in their lives," she says. "I felt this enormous responsibility to do right by them."
The responsibility she felt was so great, in fact, that she found it "paralyzing" for several months in the course of writing.
One part of the script she found personally challenging deals with religion and prayer. At one point, believing himself at the point of death, McLoughlin says the "Lord's Prayer," very much the way a pious Jew would say "Shema." In another scene, Jimeno sees an image of Jesus beckoning him to heaven.
The characters' beliefs are "so uncynical, and their love for their fellow man is really genuine," she says, "it made me feel open-minded and open-hearted." At the same time, she says, "To think of this Jewish girl writing this 'Christian' movie is really funny."
Berloff's biography is the trajectory of a young actress into a writer. Raised in Framingham, Mass., a suburb of Boston, she majored in drama in college, subsequently moving to New York to pursue an acting career.
After getting some roles in New York, she and her husband later moved to Hollywood. Berloff says she grew disenchanted with acting, however.
"If it's all about who's the most skinny and who's the most cute, I don't want to do it, because I'm never going to be that," she says in a tone of disgust.
She responds warmly to a suggestion that "World Trade Center" is ultimately about family. Married, with a 7-month-old child, perhaps she has been thinking about family recently. Or perhaps, family is her chosen theme, as it has been for many writers.
"The family is central to everyone," she says. "There is no more complicated relationship in life than that with your family," she adds. "It's your primary experience in life."
She is currently working on a different kind of family drama concerning the mutual backstabbing of the Gucci fashion family of Italy for director Ridley Scott.
"It's the high drama of a family whose members destroy one another," she says. Despite working on a script about mutual betrayal, Berloff herself retains the idealistic tone of "World Trade Center."
"As horrible as it was, it was a day of love when we took care of each other," she says. "To include that goodness as part of the oral history of Sept. 11 is important," she adds.
"It might be idealistic," she reflects, "but I would like to live in that world."