Dressed in a red FDNY shirt and matching cap, Spike Lee recalls over Zoom his earliest memory of the World Trade Center: “My first thing was the bombing in 1993.” After a beat, he goes back further. “They were shooting ‘King Kong,’ and there was an ad in the Daily News. They needed extras for the final scene and I was there.” Lee appears in the Dino de Laurentiis-produced 1976 film as one of the 5,000 extras who see Kong fall to the ground from the towers.
Decades later, the director would shoot a documentary with his own vivid memories of the fateful day in 2001 when a terrorist attack brought down the twin towers, killing thousands.
The finale of Lee’s new four-part documentary series for HBO, “NYC Epicenters: 9/11 – 2021 1⁄2,” will air on Sept. 11, the 20-year remembrance of the World Trade Center attacks. (He doesn’t like to use the word “anniversary.”) The work is a tribute to the city’s resilience and its ability to bounce back in the aftermath of tragedy, whether by terrorism or the coronavirus pandemic. The docu-series is Lee’s testimonial to the greatest city in the world. “I’m a New York storyteller,” he says with pride, pointing out that his art shows the truth as he knows it. “There’s no secret sauce. Everything I do is seen through my eyes, for good, bad or indifferent.”
But in late August, some things were seen through his eyes but ultimately didn’t make the cut in the final episode: interviews he had with members of the conspiracy group Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, who notoriously perpetuate the idea that jet fuel doesn’t melt steel. (Experts say the steel didn’t need to melt — only bend enough for the structural integrity of the massive building to fail.)
After the episode was released to the media in advance of its airing, and Lee made controversial comments to The New York Times about how he doesn’t buy official explanations of what happened on 9/11, he received serious backlash. That prompted him to go back to the editing room and cut the 30-minute segment of the conspiracy-theory material from the film. “All the exchange and theories about how the towers collapsed” have been removed, an HBO spokesperson confirmed.
In the series, Lee recounts where he was on the morning of the attack. At the time, the New York native was in Los Angeles for business and had set up a meeting with Arnold Schwarzenegger to try to convince him to play the lead in a script he had co-written with Budd Schulberg, “Save Us, Joe Louis.” Lee’s wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, called to tell him to turn on the TV.
As it became apparent that America was under siege and New York had shut down, Lee was stranded. He hurried down to Union Station, pleading with the train manager for a seat, but everything was taken. Lee ended up sharing quarters with the Pullman porters on a train from L.A. to Chicago, eventually flying from there to New York to reunite with his family.
Lee appears in the four-part series, sharing his story. He also serves as interviewer, gathering more than 200 witnesses, including first responders, journalists, air stewards and politicians to provide an oral history of the city’s strength. The director looks at the good and the bad — in the latter instance, Donald Trump.
The second episode detours to Trump reminding viewers of how the former New Yorker and president once called for the death penalty to be reinstated and the execution of the Central Park Five. Lee will call Trump only “Agent Orange.” “This was a bad guy from the get-go; it didn’t just happen when he got to the White House,” Lee says. “When the brothers got acquitted, he still said they were guilty.”
The editing process for the series was complicated. “This was a living documentary, and we were doing this in real time, and stuff was happening. When shit jumped off, we were on it,” says Lee. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation makes it into the mix. “We were almost done when that happened,” Lee says. “There came a point when the documentary had to be locked, but if something happened, we put it in.”
It was Lee’s frequent collaborator and editor, Barry Alexander Brown, who cracked the editorial structure on “NYC Epicenters,” which starts with the present day and weaves back to 9/11. “That made sense to me,” Lee says. “The last episode airs on Sept. 11. Why end with COVID? It’s as simple as that.”
Brown, who has worked with Lee on “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “Crooklyn,” “He Got Game,” “25th Hour” and “Inside Man,” among others, admits the story was initially going to be two hours, but it ballooned to four and eventually eight. Brown’s biggest challenge was figuring out how to weave it all together.
“Spike is always going to want to do unusual things and take you to unusual places,” Brown says. “Those unusual places were showing women coming into the ranks of the fire department 20 years before 9/11. That’s something nobody talks about. He also wanted to talk about the Black firefighters association in New York, and he wanted to talk about United [Airlines] having people of color in their crew,” he adds. “That’s how Spike’s mind works.”
Lee identified people from all walks of life to tell such stories, because he is aware these accounts are the ones that get overlooked and written out of history. “I know we found the balance between personalities and the stories we don’t know. They’re not famous, but they’re heroic and they have the best stories to tell,” says Lee, who discovered information he had never heard before during the process of creating the series. One such item was the exodus of 500,000 New Yorkers fleeing Manhattan by boat immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the biggest maritime evacuation in U.S history — similar to Dunkirk’s Operation Dynamo in World War II. And concerning stories of the twin towers in general, while many may know of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk thanks to the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,”
Lee relates the tale of Bronx native Owen Quinn, who parachuted off one of the towers on July 22, 1975.
There are plenty more untold stories from other witnesses. Another two hours of footage, maybe more, didn’t make it into “NYC Epicenters.” As for those who want more of the series, Lee promises those voices will be included in the Blu-ray version. “It will be another jam-packed two hours. That’s 10 hours in all if you know arithmetic,” he says with his trademark laugh.