Film helps give a voice to 'The Guys' of 9-11

Friday, April 4, 2003

— In "The Guys," the Sept. 11 terrorist attack is evoked by the image of office papers from the World Trade Center rubble blowing in the wind past a firehouse.

Buried in that rubble were hundreds of firefighters, later eulogized at services that stretched on for weeks and gave voice to the city's grief. In all, 343 firefighters died that day.

The first feature-length film to focus on 9-11's aftermath, "The Guys" recounts the true story of a New York journalist, played by Sigourney Weaver, who helps a fire captain write eulogies for some of his firefighters who were killed, including his best friend. The journalist becomes the fire captain's voice.

"This movie is about the power of one person to reach out to another," Weaver said. "Here's this man who is in hell, and she slowly begins to pull him out, while pulling herself in."

The film, first shown at September's Toronto film festival, opens today in New York, then throughout the country.

For native New Yorker Weaver and her family, the film was deeply personal. Her husband, Jim Simpson, directed the 85-minute film, which was shot in the city on a $500,000 budget. "The Guys" was born when Simpson, who runs the Flea Theater just blocks from the World Trade Center, sat next to journalist Anne Nelson at a dinner party in the weeks after Sept. 11.

Dust and debris from the attack had forced Simpson to close the theater. As the two discussed how the Flea might reopen with a drama relevant to its location, Nelson mentioned she had helped write eulogies for several firefighters at their captain's request.

The idea inspired Nelson to create her first theatrical work, writing long past midnight each night and completing it in a week. On Dec. 4, 2001, the Flea premiered "The Guys."

"The Guys" was staged in New York for more than a year -- featuring such stars as Marlo Thomas, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Swoosie Kurtz and Amy Irving -- before going on the road.

The movie opens with a scene of the wind-blown papers -- the only physical sign of the attack that killed almost 2,800 people.

"When you live with these real images of ashes and rubble and the heartache we all felt, you have to look through it to see what you can salvage," Nelson said.

Nelson and Simpson, a longtime theater director and now first-time film director, co-wrote the screenplay for "The Guys," a Focus Features release.

Nick, the fire captain played by Anthony LaPaglia, first meets the journalist, Joan, through her sister. Ten days after the terrorist attack, he arrives at the journalist's home, still in shock and hard-pressed to find words for his men's memorials.

"What am I going to tell the families?" he asks in despair. Eight in his unit died.

Nick warms up as Joan teases from him the details of the men's lives, sprinkling grief with humor. One firefighter had a special talent, the captain tells her: critiquing the awful food cooked by the men in the firehouse kitchen.

"The Guys," Nelson said, attempts "to remind people that the captain's qualities of generosity and courage are very much among us, even in our darkest moments."