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TV Starts Scripting Sept. 11

Television* A CBS drama on the Pennsylvania plane crash is in the works. It's among the first projects to tackle events related to that day.

January 09, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first steps to dramatize the events of Sept. 11 as TV movies have begun, with CBS planning a project that would document in real time behind-the-scenes developments on the ground that paralleled the flight of United Airlines Flight 93--the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

The movie is being developed by author-filmmaker Lawrence Schiller, who transformed his books "American Tragedy," about the O.J. Simpson defense team; and "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," exploring the JonBenet Ramsey case, into fact-based CBS miniseries last year.

Schiller, at work on a CBS production of the tale of confessed spy Robert Hanssen, said he will base his account on "very, very confidential sources that we were introduced to and got to know while [developing] the Hanssen miniseries."

Schiller stressed that his movie, tentatively titled "The Real Story of Flight 93," would focus on "how America banded together, and came together, to protect itself." It will be told from the perspective of government agencies and personnel who were "drawn into the event in split-second timing."

Although a script has yet to be written, the project will follow a 90-minute timeline that Schiller is developing through independent reporting and interviews with intelligence sources. He added that the movie would not deal with events on the plane and risk "invading the privacy" of those who died.

At least two other TV movie projects based on the Sept. 11 attacks are in development, including a production said to be under discussion that would use the stories of those on Flight 93 as material. In addition, Alliance Atlantis--the Canadian company responsible for the hit CBS series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and last year's Judy Garland biography, "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows"--is researching a movie on the Hamburg, Germany, terrorist cell believed to have been involved in carrying out the hijackings.

Alliance Atlantis President Peter Sussman said that the company has yet to take its project to a network, but that it would explore the background of youths recruited into the cell, many of whom were highly Westernized.

"We see it as being incredibly relevant," Sussman said.

Beyond possible issues of taste and sensitivity, part of the problem such ripped-from-the-headlines movies have faced in recent years stems from the ability of prime-time newsmagazines to thoroughly and compellingly document such material long before a movie can be produced. "Dateline NBC," for example, devoted one show entirely to the Flight 93 passengers. In addition, some dramatic series--such as "NYPD Blue" and "Third Watch"--have incorporated references to Sept. 11 into episodes.

By contrast, the expectation is that the earliest Schiller's project could air would be roughly a year from now. Moreover, TV movies in general have been suffering in recent years, with the networks cutting back on orders in part due to competition from movies on HBO and other cable channels.

Still, Schiller maintains that by employing original journalism, it's possible to bring fresh perspective and material to these TV productions, and even "educate while entertaining."

"If it's not educational, if we don't learn something by it, then it has no purpose.... It would be exploitive," Schiller said.

CBS confirmed the project but referred inquiries to the producers. No formal cooperation from the White House or government is being sought at this juncture, Schiller noted, saying that such considerations may arise once production begins in terms of where filming takes place. At press time, a White House spokeswoman had not returned a call seeking comment.

*

Times staff writer Dana Calvo contributed to this story.

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