Rick Sanchez Interviews James Ronald Whitney, Director of "Telling Nicholas"

Sanchez:

Let's head to our next story for this segment. This is an interesting story, September 11, a range of emotions for all Americans, from hard ache, to sorrow, to anger, to hate. There's a new documentary out, it's called "Telling Nicholas". It premiers at 10pm eastern tonight on HBO. It follows the lives of two families who experienced all of those after a losing a loved one during the attack. Filmmaker James Ronald Whitney lives blocks from ground zero. He actually was able to shoot the footage! At at it was happening and you can imagine what his experiences are. I look forward to watching this tonight. James why is it called "Telling Nicholas"?

Whitney:
Well Nicholas is a seven-year-old boy, whose mother was killed in the attack and it took his father ten days to ultimately tell his son that mommy is dead, and not coming home, and that certainly is the core of the movie.

Sanchez:
How'd you find that family?

Whitney:
It was one of the thousands of missing fliers that had been posted all across Manhattan.

Sanchez:
Oh I remember those when I was covering this story that I would be in that area and I would look at all these faces of all these people put on these walls and people would walk by and suddenly they'd recognize somebody and they would start crying. I mean that was the scene there everyday in lower Manhattan. It was incredible. And you live there.

Whitney:
Yea, and I had no phone service and had been evacuated from my loft, so I was wandering around looking at those flyers to see if there were any people I knew, because I also work on Wall Street. And the first flier I saw that pictured a mother with her child, was that of Nicholas and his mom. It just hit me very hard and I took down the name and number and the real impetus for contacting the family was to provide them with some child crisis information that was being set up like www.childtrauma.org. I work with a lot of child advocacy agencies and I wanted to give them some of the hotline numbers and just try to help--if there was anyway to help.

Sanchez:
I think we have a clip of your documentary so lets go ahead lets go ahead and take that now so viewers at home could some of it.

[Clip #1 shown. ]
Whitney says, "I got down to the street and I ran as fast as I could from the debris cloud that was right behind me. I was suddenly without a home, water, electricity, gas, phone, and I didn't care because I was certain that some of the people in the trade center were people I knew".

Sanchez:
This is a first person thing isn't James? This is this is your story and I understand you were sitting there recording and you recorded some awful things some things that you know its early in the morning its Sunday, people are going to be able to see that tonight on your documentary were not showing now. You experienced it first hand.

Whitney:
Sure, I live on the top floor of a loft and I also have the roof and the first plane flew right over my skylight, very low and very loudly.

Sanchez:
You saw it?

Whitney:
That plane crashed into the first tower, and then I went upstairs to the terrace and watched the second plane hit tower two. Then I watched and filmed both of the towers collapsing, and more than two dozen people jumping from the towers to their deaths. It's the most horrifying thing I ever seen.

Sanchez:
I can only imagine. This is remarkable because it sounds like what you've done James is you not only captured not only what happened that day but you captured the feeling that last long after the event.

Whitney:
Well it's very simple to focus on the collapse of the towers and the removal of the skyline, with which were all familiar.

Sanchez:
Yeah

Whitney:
but the important story to me was the collapse of these families that were in crises and the removal of the infrastructures of their families that once existed. This film chronicles ten days beginning with the day of the attack--that's it--and it's very easy to watch this and think, oh this is the end of the story. Well, this story continues for all of these families. They're still coping. They're still dealing with the aftermath of the destruction. Quite frankly, days eleven through twenty were probably just as interesting in some ways as days one through ten. "Telling Nicholas" is a true tragic story, and the subjects are a real American family, and for the first time people are going to get a glimpse of the pain they've gone through. But it's also a story of survival. In fact, at the end of the movie you hear Nicholas Lanza say the closing words-"I love you mom."

Sanchez:
We've got one more clip we want to see. We want to look at this more toward the end I'm told, let go ahead and take a look at that this is you, this Nicholas pardon me as you had mentioned before saying bye to his mother. Lets take a listen.

[Clip #2 is shown.]
Nicholas says, "I wish you could watch, me grow up. After the memorial dad took me to the dollar store. And grandma and grandpa walked home with my new friend, Thanbir, for cake and ice cream. This is Nicholas Lanza signing off. I love you mom."

Sanchez:
Tough to watch.

Whitney:
It's important to know that Nicholas always wanted to be on TV. He wanted to be a newscaster. The horrible thing here, is that he's actually reporting the story of his mom's memorial. It's bittersweet that this movie will air on Mother's Day, because its so much about how this little boy was able to survive this tragedy and how the father survived telling his son that his mommy is dead. And to answer your initial question that's why the movie is called "Telling Nicholas."

Sanchez:
That's a great story. Look forward to it. Tonight 10pm HBO. And should be quiet a story a lot of people should see it. James thanks for being here. Thanks for sharing that with us.

Whitney:
Thank you

'Telling Nicholas' is heart-wrenching
HBO tells true story of a boy who lost his mother Sept. 11


HOLLYWOOD, May 10 - Documentary filmmaker James Ronald Whitney lived just below the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed on Sept. 11, and he immediately grabbed his camera and began taping. The shots of the buildings themselves, though, are easily the least interesting thing about the superb "Telling Nicholas," which, documenting a 10-day period after the attack, starts out as the story of informing a 7-year-old his mother has died but ends up depicting the near melt-down of a family.

A neighbor is watching the boy in order to keep him away from the television, while Nicholas' father Robert, a soft-spoken Oklahoma native, is struggling with how to tell his son the circumstances.

IT'S A HEART-WRENCHING film, genuinely deep in its examination of trauma, grief, and the fissures that divide a family that's not as conventional as they initially appear.

While looking for pictures of people he knew at one of the big posting sites for the missing, Whitney was immediately drawn to a photograph of Michele Lanza and, sitting on her lap, her son Nicholas. Within 72 hours of the attack, Whitney went out to meet Michele's family in Tottenville, at the outer reach of Staten Island.

The focus is at this point completely on Nicholas, an adorable, blonde-haired kid who knows something has happened but isn't sure what. A neighbor is watching the boy in order to keep him away from the television, while Nicholas' father Robert, a soft-spoken Oklahoma native, is struggling with how to tell his son the circumstances. The rest of the family, Michele's mother, father and two sisters, continue to harbor hope that Michele may still be alive, and they play for Whitney the phone message she left for her younger sister Cindy after the first plane hit but before the second.

Gradually, a clearer picture of the family emerges. Michele and Robert were separated, with Robert living in Virginia. Her family has, to be generous, mixed feelings towards Robert, whose financial situation had lead to Michele's taking the job in Manhattan to begin with, a job she didn't really want. The initial trauma of the event gives way to anger, blame and guilt, with the most blatant victim being Cindy, who falls into a catatonic state and needs to be treated with anti-psychotic drugs. Michele's mother, Ethel, still working hard to deny her daughter's death, is stressed to the limit caring for Nicholas and Cindy's two children.

ANOTHER FAMILY, ANOTHER LOSS
Whitney brings in another family as well, the Ahmed family in Brooklyn, devout Muslims. Shabbir Ahmed was a waiter at Windows on the World and died in the attacks. His 16-year-old son Thanbir becomes an eloquent voice in the film, and even develops a bond with Nicholas when Whitney introduces the two.

Whitney is clearly not trying to be a detached observer here. In addition to bringing Thanbir into the picture in part to blunt the intensity of Michele's family's strong anti-Muslim feelings, particularly from Ethel he also introduces the family to psychologist Gilda Carle, whom the family trusts in part because they've seen her on various television talk shows. Carle counsels the family, with a particular focus on helping Robert deal with the inevitable, informing Nicholas that his mother is dead.

While that event forms the climax of the film, Whitney has also delved along the way into the forms of religious extremism at work within this apparently all-American family. Michele's older sister, who received a correspondence doctorate and lives with a plethora of religious icons in the family basement, claims the attacks were the culmination of prophecy, while also blaming Robert's evangelical apostolic faith, with a focus on female modesty, for oppressing Michele.

From Aaron Davies' casual but polished cinematography to Mocean Worker's sensitively mournful scoring, "Telling Nicholas" is an expert work. Whitney's own first-person narration helps it along, and the whole endeavor comes off as deeply felt and highly personal, never the slightest bit sensational or exploitative, which in lesser hands might have been a possibility.

Whitney does all he can to give it something of an upbeat ending, and accomplishes that to a degree with Thanbir and Nicholas's help. He also shows a statistic, that it is thought over 10,000 children lost a parent on September 11th. The overall impact of the film is devastating, and it clearly demonstrates that the residual effects of that event continue to ripple not just outward, but inward too.

'Telling Nicholas' is heart-wrenching
HBO tells true story of a boy who lost his mother Sept. 11

HOLLYWOOD, May 10
- Documentary filmmaker James Ronald Whitney lived just below the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed on Sept. 11, and he immediately grabbed his camera and began taping. The shots of the buildings themselves, though, are easily the least interesting thing about the superb "Telling Nicholas," which, documenting a 10-day period after the attack, starts out as the story of informing a 7-year-old his mother has died but ends up depicting the near melt-down of a family.

A neighbor is watching the boy in order to keep him away from the television, while Nicholas' father Robert, a soft-spoken Oklahoma native, is struggling with how to tell his son the circumstances.

IT'S A HEART-WRENCHING film, genuinely deep in its examination of trauma, grief, and the fissures that divide a family that's not as conventional as they initially appear.

While looking for pictures of people he knew at one of the big posting sites for the missing, Whitney was immediately drawn to a photograph of Michele Lanza and, sitting on her lap, her son Nicholas. Within 72 hours of the attack, Whitney went out to meet Michele's family in Tottenville, at the outer reach of Staten Island.

The focus is at this point completely on Nicholas, an adorable, blonde-haired kid who knows something has happened but isn't sure what. A neighbor is watching the boy in order to keep him away from the television, while Nicholas' father Robert, a soft-spoken Oklahoma native, is struggling with how to tell his son the circumstances. The rest of the family, Michele's mother, father and two sisters, continue to harbor hope that Michele may still be alive, and they play for Whitney the phone message she left for her younger sister Cindy after the first plane hit but before the second.

Gradually, a clearer picture of the family emerges. Michele and Robert were separated, with Robert living in Virginia. Her family has, to be generous, mixed feelings towards Robert, whose financial situation had lead to Michele's taking the job in Manhattan to begin with, a job she didn't really want. The initial trauma of the event gives way to anger, blame and guilt, with the most blatant victim being Cindy, who falls into a catatonic state and needs to be treated with anti-psychotic drugs. Michele's mother, Ethel, still working hard to deny her daughter's death, is stressed to the limit caring for Nicholas and Cindy's two children.

ANOTHER FAMILY, ANOTHER LOSS
Whitney brings in another family as well, the Ahmed family in Brooklyn, devout Muslims. Shabbir Ahmed was a waiter at Windows on the World and died in the attacks. His 16-year-old son Thanbir becomes an eloquent voice in the film, and even develops a bond with Nicholas when Whitney introduces the two.

Whitney is clearly not trying to be a detached observer here. In addition to bringing Thanbir into the picture in part to blunt the intensity of Michele's family's strong anti-Muslim feelings, particularly from Ethel he also introduces the family to psychologist Gilda Carle, whom the family trusts in part because they've seen her on various television talk shows. Carle counsels the family, with a particular focus on helping Robert deal with the inevitable, informing Nicholas that his mother is dead.

While that event forms the climax of the film, Whitney has also delved along the way into the forms of religious extremism at work within this apparently all-American family. Michele's older sister, who received a correspondence doctorate and lives with a plethora of religious icons in the family basement, claims the attacks were the culmination of prophecy, while also blaming Robert's evangelical apostolic faith, with a focus on female modesty, for oppressing Michele.

From Aaron Davies' casual but polished cinematography to Mocean Worker's sensitively mournful scoring, "Telling Nicholas" is an expert work. Whitney's own first-person narration helps it along, and the whole endeavor comes off as deeply felt and highly personal, never the slightest bit sensational or exploitative, which in lesser hands might have been a possibility.

Whitney does all he can to give it something of an upbeat ending, and accomplishes that to a degree with Thanbir and Nicholas's help. He also shows a statistic, that it is thought over 10,000 children lost a parent on September 11th. The overall impact of the film is devastating, and it clearly demonstrates that the residual effects of that event continue to ripple not just outward, but inward too.


DIRECTOR'S FILMS: GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: New York, GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Hollywood, Telling Nicholas, Just, Melvin, TheWorkingGirl.com
Find out more about James Ronald Whitney's Productions at the Fire Island Films website
: www.FIFproductions.com
Comments or questions about the Web site contact the Web Master at www.SolutionsWebDesign.net

© 2003 James Ronald Whitney