Courage under fire
Jim Simpson finished his film about a New York editor and
a grieving fire chief just in time for its Sept. 11 premiere
By JENNIE PUNTER, Special to The Globe and Mail
September 11, 2002
TORONTO -- A few weeks ago, director Jim Simpson and the guys are sitting in a postproduction suite of a company called Toybox on the top floor of a building on John Street in downtown Toronto. In the weeks leading up to the Toronto International Film Festival, similar scenes have been playing out in darkened rooms of postproduction facilities across the city, and some of them are white-knucklers. After all, a director whose film is accepted by the festival wants to arrive in town with an actual print in hand.
If Simpson is anxious, it certainly doesn't show. A camaraderie has clearly already developed between him and the Toybox crew, who are taking his film through a digital process that speeds up the steps called the conform and the colour correct that happen before a 35-mm print can be made. As he works, it is less than three weeks to Sept. 11 and the world premiere of The Guys, a little-engine-that-could of a project that -- other than this handful of days in Toronto -- has been a New York effort all the way.
"It's a 9/11 project that was shot very quickly on a low budget earlier this year, but we ended up having to reshoot almost 90 per cent of the film because of a technical problem with the lens so we just wrapped in July," explains Simpson, sitting down to chat in a boardroom at Toybox's colourful headquarters.
"From the very beginning, this project has been about getting it out in a timely fashion because it's an interesting piece for right now. We knew there was a digital process, usually used for high-end movies, that could help us get a print made on time. We contacted all the labs that could do it to see if they could help us out. I wanted to keep the project in New York, but the one machine that could do it blew up -- I heard there was smoke coming out of it. So we decided to do it here in Toronto, because the film had been honoured by the festival. And these guys at Toybox are at the top of their game."
The "very beginning" of the project Simpson is referring is not the film, but rather a chance meeting that happened at ground zero shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. A masseuse was working on a fire captain, who had to compose and deliver the eulogies for members of his company who had died in the line of duty. The masseuse put the captain in touch with Anne Nelson, a journalist and teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in New York, who used her skills of interviewing and writing to deadline to help the grieving captain with this difficult task.
At the same time, Simpson, an Obie-winning theatre director who has worked off-off-Broadway for 20 years, was facing the potential closing of The Flea, an intimate theatre in Manhattan's TriBeCa district that he co-founded in 1997 and of which he is artistic director.
"The local artistic community was very anxious to hit the sound bite, to figure out how to reduce the event," recalls Simpson, who has also worked as a director in television and film. "My gut was, you have to let this thing bounce around and not be so quick to put a lid on it. It's big, so let it be big."
In mid-October, Simpson and Nelson found themselves seated beside each other at a benefit dinner for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Nelson's husband writes for the committee, and Simpson's wife, the actor Sigourney Weaver, sits on its board. The theatre director and journalist began talking about 9/11 and their work. The chance meeting resulted in Nelson turning her experience of working with the fire captain on the eulogies into a stage play.
Nelson wrote The Guys (now available in paperback) in eight days. It opened at The Flea on Dec. 4, starring Weaver and Bill Murray, and has been playing to sold-out audiences ever since, with various high-profile New York actors taking on the roles of Joan and Nick, including Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who also opened a production of The Guys in Britain last month.
"As soon as the play opened, there was interest in a movie," Simpson says. "I met with a lot of people and they had some interesting ideas about what to do with this project, because it's basically a two-hander. They would say, 'Oh, it would be great for these two characters to have an affair,' or 'We could get some great actors to do cameos of the four men whose eulogies are written in the play, or 'How much do you want to recreate what happened to the towers?'
"I thought, you guys missed the boat. There are other plays you can open up and change dramatically, but this actually really happened. Anne Nelson really did work with a fireman. It's that close to being a documentary already in my mind. It's lyrically and beautifully written. Slowly but surely, the word got out among that fire company, and the survivors have come out to see the play. They wouldn't want it to change. Changing it is not as interesting as doing what's close to the truth."
The film version of The Guys stars Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, who played the role of Nick, the fire captain, opposite Sarandon at The Flea.
The director of photography is Maryse Alberti (Todd Solondz's Happiness), who also shot Tape (a Richard Linklater film that showed at TIFF last year), another film of a play. "I had a hard time finding a [director of photography] for The Guys because it's two people talking, a very formal proposition. When I'd tell some DPs I met with that this [film] is an elegy for New York, they'd say, huh? A lot of people I talked to thought this would be a perfect project to shoot on digital but I said absolutely not. It's classical 35 mm. The weather in New York was so gorgeous following the attacks it was almost surreal. I wanted the quality of light coming through those windows to be beautiful. The film is very much a memorial to these guys."
Simpson grew up in Honolulu, where he began his show-biz career working in front of the camera as a child actor, guest-starring in episodes of the popular TV series Hawaii Five-O. He later studied at the Yale School of Drama. In 1976, Simpson studied in Poland with theatre innovator Jerzy Grotowski, whose legendary and unorthodox methods are discussed in what is perhaps the best-known film about two people talking, My Dinner with André (a film, incidentally, that Simpson and The Guys editor, Sarah Flack, "deconstructed like nobody's business" before the reshoots this summer).
Strolling along John Street after watching a short film test in a nearby theatre, I ask Simpson what the fire captain, on whom the character of Nick is based, thought of the play. "Well, as a matter of fact, he hasn't seen the play," Simpson says with a smile. "He told me he'll wait for the movie to come out."