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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Danielle Gardner--'Out of the Clear Blue Sky'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Danielle Gardner, director/producer/writer of Out of the Clear Blue Sky.

Synopsis: On September 11, 2001, the Wall Street bond trader firm Cantor Fitzgerald became famous for the worst of all possible reasons: 658 of the company's employees were missing and presumed dead in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Though Cantor suffered almost twice the casualties of the New York Fire Department, their story was soon pushed aside as the media ambushed Cantor CEO Howard Lutnick, who went from face-of-the-tragedy to pariah within weeks. A true stranger-than-fiction account, unfolding over months and years, Out of the Clear Blue Sky captures being caught in the crosshairs of history.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Danielle Gardner: I was interested in documentary film but, at that time in the US, I couldn't find the type of documentary that I would want to make. That changed when I moved to London. On British television, I saw a completely different world of documentary filmmaking. The films were made with a distinct point of view; they were irreverent, current, curious and humorous, as opposed to historical, narrated and staid. They were more filmic. These were the types of films I wanted to make, and set out to make. So I started working in news and documentaries in London.


IDA: What inspired you to make Out of the Clear Blue Sky?

DG: This question is different for me on this particular film. I am a September 11th family member; I lost my only brother in the attacks, and am therefore intimately involved with the subject matter, so the inspiration is different.

What initially drove me was the fact that everything I was reading, and all I was hearing on the radio and seeing in the media, did not reflect at all what I was seeing, living through or experiencing as a family member. This was clearly an "in" or "out" situation; you were either a family member or not. You saw from our perspective or (luckily) did not. As a family member, and living on 15th Street (one block from the barricades to downtown Manhattan), I found myself on the frontline of history. I felt compelled to start documenting what was going on.

Filming allowed me to go places and look at things that non-family members were barred from and that I couldn't experience as a "family member." As a family member, I found it too excruciating to go to Fresh Kills [Landfill, in Staten Island] to see the remains being sorted or to consult with the medical examiner about how they were going to match 40,000 pieces of people to thousands of DNA samples. As a filmmaker, I not only went to those places, I met and befriended the people who created and were running them. This strange new world was not only the one I felt most comfortable in, it was in itself a fascinating world. What was happening on all fronts was groundbreaking, and I was in a unique position to bring cameras into those worlds.

As far as what happened to and inside of Cantor, Cantor had long been a part of my life. I knew the people and the offices. I could see my brother's 105th floor office every day on my way back and forth from work. When September 11th happened, it was as if a bomb had exploded in my own living room.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

DG: The major obstacle is also the reason it was important to make the film. It was hard to find people to interview at Cantor because almost everyone had died. Those who hadn't were traumatized, shell-shocked and grief-stricken.

This was a complicated film to make. Nothing could be done on this film like I had done before. The simplest things were made much more complex. In what setting do you interview people? These were very emotional interviews, with people suffering from PTSD and every level of grief. I specifically did not want the types of answers from family members that I was seeing in other media outlets; those answers didn't ring true to me. So, we created a special interview room enveloped in black duvatene, with no sunlight or outside noise; it became a safe cocoon where it felt like me and the interviewee were talking privately. Which worked well.

Interestingly, another challenge came about because people did speak so candidly. The family members spoke in this new language. It was a language long on short-hands, gallows humor and the macabre—about things other people would have no idea about: scheduling memorials, burying pieces of remains, standing in lines for charities, struggles within families, trauma envy, the VCF [Victim Compensation Fund], the LMDC [Lower Manhattan Development Corporation], hysterical therapists, hierarchies of grief, bizarre coping mechanisms, the slurry wall, the bathtub, the paycheck controversy, etc. We ended up having to edit around this language to make it understandable to our audience. So, comprehension and "translation" became another element to deal with.

On a larger scale, there was the challenge of finding a way for the audience to re-experience September 11th from a different point of view. September 11th is such a huge public event, and everyone believes they've seen and heard everything about it. So our challenge was for the film to flip the audience's perspective from their own, a public view, to ours, a private one. To go from observer to participant, from outside the buildings to inside the buildings.

We tried to accomplish this by relentlessly staying within our storyline. Everything is experienced from the perspective of our private world. Only the media provides touchstones to the outside world, since the media intersected both worlds (public and private). This made for a huge filmmaking challenge. You had to be extremely disciplined.

An interesting sidepoint was what occurred during a lot of the interviews. No one had ever compared their stories of what had happened during the grueling beginning weeks and months, especially the Cantor people. The surviving employees had all dug in and worked non-stop on their little piece of the chaos. So I would get a lot of questions from them: How did the IT guys get the Bond Market up? Who taught them how to trade in London? They really had no idea what had gone on outside their little world. As filmmakers, we had to piece these worlds together.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

DG: I had originally planned on a film—or a series of films—that showed the "brave new world" that family members were living in. I filmed a lot of what the family members were experiencing—from the medical examiner's office to Fresh Kills to the VCF to the frustrating rebuilding effort to the struggle over how to list the loved ones' names at the Memorial. Even being a family member who had lost a sibling emerged as a major storyline. For some reason, a sibling loss was not considered as significant as losing a husband, and was treated accordingly. (Some siblings made up t-shirts citing their hurt.) In short, we had a lot of plot and a lot of storylines. 

So the first challenge was to decide how much we could fit into one film effectively. Cantor's story was so complicated in itself and so unbelievable (taking out a $70 billion loan one day after the attacks; having to open for business the next day before knowing who was alive) that the story of the company and the families needed the full focus of the film. The Cantor story had a strong narrative through line and a strict chronological element that didn't allow for digressions into any other stories, even though there were so many compelling ones. Perhaps one day those other films will get made.

The other huge question was whether to use the footage of the buildings in the film. For a very long period after September 11th, the footage of the planes, the explosions and the burning buildings was played and replayed. It was extremely painful for family members to constantly re-experience those moments. The media re-played them so much it began to seem gratuitous. As a family member, I needed those images to retain their emotional impact. Years later, I realized that, even after countless replays, the burning towers had not lost their power; the horror of the attacks remained potent. Ultimately, we decided to use carefully chosen images of the buildings. For the film to work, we needed the audience to re-experience the event from the vantage point of someone who had a loved one in those buildings.

Then the problem became that I had decided, after being an eye-witness to the attacks, to not watch TV footage or photos of the events (just too painful). In the end, I watched endless video of the attacks in order to find the right footage, because I had to make the film.


IDA: As you've screened Out of the Clear Blue Sky—whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms—how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

DG: We've been surprised at how personal the responses have been. Every screening has led to a long talk session afterwards. Everyone has had a very strong, very personal response to the film. The film puts you into the shoes of a family member; that switch of perspective seems to make audience members re-experience their September 11th, which is what we hoped would occur. Our audiences have all wanted to talk about it. In depth.


Out of the Clear Blue Sky will be screening August 10 through 16 at the IFC Center in New York City and August 17 through 23 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2012 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Out of the Clear Blue Sky in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for Out of the Clear Blue Sky in Los Angeles, click here.