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Producer of 9/11 Movie Had Her Own Tragic Story

Debra Hill provided the impetus to `World Trade Center' but didn't live to see the finished film.

July 27, 2006|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Perhaps it is only fitting that the process of getting Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" to the big screen was itself touched by tragedy.

It was producer Debra Hill who first approached two Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police officers -- Will Jimeno and Sgt. John McLoughlin -- about optioning their rights after reading about their rescue in the Philadelphia Daily News. Seven months after meeting them in the summer of 2003, she was diagnosed with cancer. She died last year at 54.

Jimeno, 38, said he and McLoughlin, 53, originally wanted to write a book about their experiences. But when they first met Hill, they were struck by her sincerity and gave their blessing to her project.

"As cops, we're very protective and cautious about telling everything," said Jimeno, who along with McLoughlin was among only 20 survivors who were pulled from the rubble at Ground Zero. "What made Debra unique was that she respected the fact that I wanted to do this story strictly for my teammates who died that day."

Jimeno said Hill told him that he and McLoughlin were her heroes because of their strong will to live. But she became "one of my heroes," Jimeno said, as she struggled through the project despite becoming gravely ill and having both legs amputated.

Right after meeting the men, Hill ran into producer Stacey Sher on a street corner in New York. "She said, 'We have to make this movie together,' " recalled Sher, who had worked for Hill early in her career.

Hill introduced the two survivors to Sher and her producing partner, Michael Shamberg, who together made the real-life-inspired dramas "Erin Brockovich" and "Man on the Moon."

Shamberg and Sher used their discretionary fund at Universal Pictures to option Jimeno's and McLoughlin's rights for $20,000 apiece. (Each would eventually collect a total of $220,000.) The producers also paid an unproven screenwriter, Andrea Berloff, about $120,000 to write the script.

Stacey Snider, then chairwoman of Universal Pictures, cried when she read the script but said she would spend no more than $45 million to make the film. She gave the producers her blessing to scout locations for the movie before delivering a budget, with the understanding that if they couldn't meet her price, she'd give them back the project to shop elsewhere.

When Shamberg and Sher said their movie would cost $60 million, Snider put it up for grabs. "The budget exceeded our appetite despite the project's obvious quality and impact," she said in an interview.

With Universal out, the filmmakers, under severe time pressure to shoot in the fall, scrambled to get another studio backer. Revolution Studios founder Joe Roth was interested. So was Paramount.

Paramount's co-production President Brad Weston was given the script by one of his colleagues, Pam Abdy, who used to work for Shamberg and Sher.

Weston recalls that when he read it, "I was wrecked. I went into Gail [Berman, the studio's president] and said, 'We have to make this movie.' She read it that night and loved it."

Weston and Abdy went to Shamberg's house in Santa Monica that Saturday to meet Stone and hear his vision of the movie. They also wanted his assurance that this wasn't going to be the kind of political movie he had made his name on, such as "JFK" and "Nixon."

Everybody at the meeting was nervous. Weston and Abdy were anxious because Stone was a "filmmaking idol of ours," Weston said. Stone was also uneasy, added Weston, because the director's last moviemaking experience with "Alexander" had been troubled.

"This was an audition for him to get a movie made after a difficult period," said Weston, who felt so sure that Stone was right for the job that he stopped his car on the way home from the meeting to e-mail his bosses, Berman and studio Chairman Brad Grey, to tell them, "it was a great film for us to do."

That evening, Weston ran into Grey at Nobu, a Japanese restaurant in Malibu. Grey said he was on board.

Paramount and Revolution made their offers. Paramount's was better, said Shamberg, who nonetheless praised Revolution's Roth for allowing Nicolas Cage to delay a prior commitment to star in "World Trade Center."

All the parties -- including Shamberg, Sher, Stone, his producing partner Moritz Borman and Cage -- agreed to cut their upfront fees and their back-end profit participation deals even before Paramount greenlighted the project. But what made Paramount's bid more attractive than Revolution's, said Shamberg, was its commitment to sweeten the profit participation of the filmmakers and Cage if the movie succeeded.

For Grey, anxious to put his own stamp on Paramount and to deliver on his promise to quickly redefine the once-cautious studio as a bold, filmmaker-driven place, "World Trade Center" was the perfect fast-track project. It came prepackaged with a script, director, star and budget, and gave Paramount a prestige movie for the summer of 2006.

Perhaps most gratifying to Grey and his team is that Jimeno and McLoughlin, the real-life stars of "World Trade Center," responded positively to a private screening of the film last month in New York.

"It was a tough movie to see, but I walked out and gave Oliver a big hug and kiss," said Jimeno, who lives with his family in New Jersey.

"I thought it was very well done, very emotional," agreed McLoughlin, who lives in upstate New York. The most painful part to watch, he said, was not his own 22-hour struggle to stay alive underneath tons of debris. Instead it was "seeing what was happening with my family at the time."

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