NEW YORK – Truth is stranger than fiction, as the saying goes. But perhaps even stranger is when fiction is branded as truth.
In marketing the just-released Oliver Stone movie "World Trade Center," the second major feature film about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Paramount Pictures and Stone himself have repeatedly sounded the same theme: What you are about to see onscreen really happened.
"You have to make sure what you're doing is accurate," said producer Michael Shamberg. "We had an obligation to tell [the story] accurately based on the testimony of the people who were there."
But movies, by their very definition, are Hollywood creations and artistic impressions. And just as Paul Greengrass' "United 93" did when it opened in April, "World Trade Center" begs the question: How much artistic liberty is appropriate when making a movie about one of the most momentous, most emotional and most televised-in-real-time events in modern American history? Especially one so recent that people can still remember it vividly?
Shamberg believes the best approach for filmmakers is to rely on closeups rather than wide shots, figuratively speaking.
"You pick a personal story that people don't know," he said. "Through that, you're able to revisit [what happened] and add something new to the record."
But one Port Authority officer's widow, who hasn't seen either Sept. 11 feature film and doesn't intend to, wishes Hollywood would stay away from the tragedy and history in general because creative license is inevitably a factor.
"For a historical event, it's that person's viewpoint. That's not what happened," said Theresa Riccardelli, 44, whose husband Francis worked for the Port Authority and died in the attacks while he was directing people out of the towers.
"I didn't go see that 'Pearl Harbor' movie either. I intensely dislike Hollywood doing that," she added.
Click here to read how the terror plot affected the movie's marketing
Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff tried to avoid inserting themselves into the story and instead aimed to stay true to the accounts of two Port Authority Police survivors, whom the film is about.
Producers Shamberg and Stacey Sher said extensive interviews were conducted with Sgt. John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage), Officer Will Jimeno (played by Michael Pena), their wives and the other people the movie focuses on.
"We had real policemen and firemen playing [some of] the roles and often writing their own dialogue," Sher said. They also had a team of police and fire consultants.
Much of the poetic freedom taken in "World Trade Center"'s handling of Sept. 11 shines through in the cinematography, the actors' interpretations of their roles and the movie set itself.
Most of the picture was shot at a studio in Los Angeles, not on location in New York, because of tight restrictions placed on filming by New York City officials and Sept. 11 family groups.
Stone and his crew were only allowed to take a few establishing shots in Manhattan and weren't permitted to go onto the southern tip of the island, where the most horrific devastation actually happened.
The filmmakers, according to Sher, did a "tremendous amount" of research to build the one-acre replica of the 16-acre World Trade Center destruction site, known since that day as Ground Zero.
Other images in "World Trade Center" — including those of the silver Twin Towers glinting in the sun before the attacks; the island of Manhattan shrouded in thick, black smoke; the rainstorm of papers and dust that fell after the planes hit; and the inside of the Trade Center complex — had to be created or inserted using computer generated images (CGI) and the green-screen technique, according to Sher.
Creative license also had to be taken in deciding to tell the story of the 9/11 attacks through the eyes of McLoughlin, Jimeno and those close to them.
"It's a very subjective movie, told through what Will and John saw and what their families saw," Sher said.
Because the movie was based on a true story and highlighted the positives born of the tragedy — hope, survival, courage, unity and the strength of the human spirit — audiences and critics alike have generally responded well to Stone's take on the disaster.
In "United 93," by contrast, the scope of artistic liberty was wider when it came to the storyline, since all those on United Airlines Flight 93 — which crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers apparently tried to overpower the terrorist hijackers — perished, and no one really knows for sure what happened.
Filmmakers had to recreate the nightmare using families' accounts of their last conversations with loved ones onboard and other threads of information.
Some have taken issue with how much creative license Greengrass used in "United 93," especially since it was made before the flight data recorder transcripts were released and the 9/11 Commission Report concluded there was only a small chance passengers entered the cockpit at all.
But throughout film history, films have tackled history itself — and have done so with varying levels of artistic freedom.
Scores of movies — including "JFK," "Titanic," "The Passion of the Christ," "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Apollo 13," "Amistad," "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down," "The Pianist" and "Schindler's List" — have incorporated or focused on events that actually happened, weaving news reels and other "factual" elements with their own characters, plotlines and perspectives.
Of course, history is always subjective. But Hollywood sometimes takes the concept to an extreme.
"People screw with history all the time for the sake of filmmaking," said movie critic Anderson Jones. "They're trying to present a version of events that will be entertaining, heartrending, emotional. There's no such thing as reality once you enter a camera into that dynamic."
One advocacy group for 9/11 victims' relatives declined to take a stance on how much creative license is too much to recreate a pivotal moment in time like Sept. 11.
"We don't really have a take," said Caitlin Zampella, interim executive director of Families of September 11. "We acknowledge that people will continue to tell this story. We ask that screenwriters stay as true to the facts as they can and be aware that the use of these imageries can have emotional fallout."
The organization wants filmmakers to be sensitive, particularly about "things people cannot control," like TV ads and theater trailers.
Marketers for both Sept. 11 movies limited what they showed in clips and made family groups aware of which films their trailers will precede, but it's still an imperfect system.
"My first reaction [to these films] is, I'm going to hate it when they have the commercials on TV and the radio," said Riccardelli, the 9/11 widow, who has five children ages 6 to 14. "I hesitate to let my kids go to the movies because I'm terrified for them to see a trailer.
"When you're not ready for it, it cuts you off at the knees and takes a long time to recuperate. For my kids, it's harder. They've already been hurt so much," she added.
Still, Riccardelli knows that Hollywood will continue to make movies about the 2001 terrorist attacks, and about history, and she tries not to worry about it excessively. She just believes that a disaster like Sept. 11 doesn't warrant a filmmaker's imprint.
"They tend to sensationalize," she said. "Sept. 11 needs no sensationalism."
Ironically, "World Trade Center" producers seem to agree on that point.
"Real life has always been more fantastical than anything you make up," said Sher.