NY1 Television Interviews James Ronald Whitney, Director
of "Telling Nicholas"
Guest: James Ronald Whitney
One of the of the documentaries screening at the Tribeca Film Festival
is Titled Telling Nicholas it can also be see on Sunday, May 12
at 10:00 pm on HBO's America Undercover Sundays. With a preview
for us tonight we welcome filmmaker James Ronald Whitney to the
show. Nice to have you here.
Thank you for having me.
Umm this is not necessarily uh...an easy subject to address. Tell
us about the filmand let's start withumI know there are two stories.
Let's start with the story on Staten Island--the Lanza family.
Well Nicholas is 7 years old and his mother was killed in the attack
and the movie chronicles the 10 days following the attack. 10 days
because it took that number of days for Nicholas' father to finally
tell his son that his mommy is dead. And so the film deals with
the struggles that happen not only with Nicholas' dad but with his
grandparents with his aunts--the whole family was in a crisis situation.
Also they were expecting Michelle to walk in the door at any moment,
and they held out hope till the bitter end. Until Nicholas was finally
told and then they realized they couldn't hold out for some miracle
and say Mommy may make it after all, and that she may actually be
in some pocket of the World Trade Center that had collapsed. They
knew that they couldn't have a conflicting story with him. At that
moment Nicholas' grandmother faints and finally there is resolve.
Where did the idea come to you to shoot this movie?
Well I live a few blocks North of where the World Trade Center once
stood. And I have a loft on the top floor with three skylights and
the first plane flew very low and very loudly right over the skylight,
and then crashed into one of the towers. Then I went up to the roof
and watched the second plane hit Tower Two and had the camera set
up and began filming. At that point people started jumping out of
the towers. I screamed sounds that had never come out of my mouth
before, and stopped counting bodies after about two dozen. The I
watched and filmed the first tower collapse then the second tower,
and then I ran down the fire escape stairway because there was no
electricity or anything and when I got about 20 feet from the building
that debris cloud that you've seen so many times pushed me down
the street it was about 50 feet behind me, so I literally ran for
my life at that point. And all during that time I was just chronicling
on camera everything that seemed shocking to me or confusing or
horrifying and finally that led me to these missing posters and
ultimately to one specific missing flyer--this mother and her child.
I'd seen a lot of fathers with their children but this one stood
out because it was a mom and there was just something about the
face on this little boy. Also, I had worked with a number of children's
advocacy centers and decided to start calling some people just to
give them hotlines that had been set up in the past for things like
child abuse-organizations like Child Help USA, www.childtrauma.org--and
after speaking with Nicholas' aunt they invited me out to Tottenville.
I'd never even been to Staten Island.
Now it's a wonderful place Tottenville.
I live not too far from there So so uhh uhh Ron you go
out there and do you approach them?How does this idea I mean this
is not something that's very natural. I'm sure viewers at home are
wondering why would a family let a stranger film them during a sensitive
time? Who approached who exactly and whose idea was it? It doesn't
seem very natural but obviously they were willing to do it.
Some of them had seen a film I had done on HBO called "Just,
Melvin" which dealt with the child molestation in my family,
where my grandfather molested pretty much all of my aunts and cousins
even my mom. And because of that they knew that I was sensitive
to issues surrounding children and when I told them that I was interested
in learning how Nicholas' dad was going to deliver this news--because
I didn't think there was a model for that--they seemed somewhat
receptive to the idea of having something like that chronicled.
But it was very confusing . Nicholas' dad brought in a pastor to
try to help him deal with the news so initially I was going to be
there just filming this pastor's conversation with the family and
kind of see what was going to evolve. By the way, the cameras at
that point were academic. The family was still expecting their daughter
to walk in. So ultimately that night which was day three, Nicholas
wasn't told, and then the family decided to wait until the timing
just felt right, which was dictated by the father who again waited
until the tenth day because of his own struggles. He had this horrible
burden of having to say the words " Mommy is dead." to
his little boy who was actually at that time convinced that his
mom was simply missing in New Jersey--that she had taken a cab,
and was lost. And that she was just sort of wandering around out
We have a clip tell our viewers. What can we expect to see.
I believe this clip is when Nicholas' dad is actually trying to
obtain a DNA sample. Nobody knew how to deal with this crisis at
all. We didn't know if more bombs were coming, we didn't know if
anthrax was going to infect all of us-we didn't even know how to
deal with this DNA samplingwhether identification was effective
through hair follicles left in hair brushes, or if saliva samples
were more necessary So in this clip, you see Nicholas' dad taking
out the swab and swabbing his little boys mouth in order to help
identify Michelle should they find her.
OK lets take a look at a scene from the movie, "Telling
[CLIP FROM THE MOVIE, "TELLING NICHOLAS"]
That from the film "Telling Nicholas." Was there anything
you didn't put in the film that was a bit too painful or will we
see everything that transpired?
I did not sugar coat this in any way, shape or form, and my hat
really goes off to HBO for that. Shelia Nevins, who is the programmer
for this kind of reality movie, allows her filmmakers to tell their
stories in an uncensored, unedited way. Had this gone to network
it would have been an entirely different movie. Because I saw people
jumping out of the World Trade Center, in this film you will actually
see a person jumping out--and it's at very close range because I
was just a stones throw from the towers. And one thing I'm happy
about is that unlike the CBS World Trade Center Movie that Jules
Naudet did, I didn't censor any of my footage--I didn't edit anything
out. And one of the most painful things to watch in this movie is
the moment when Nicholas' father actually utters those three most
horrifying words to his son, "Mommy is dead." And again,
unlike HBO, I think that would have been too much for the networks
to handle. Also, it helped that this story is uninterrupted because
with home box office, there are no commercials. I applaud Sheila
Nevins incredibly for the liberty she allows her filmmakers to have
when it comes to dealing with reality in the most hard-hitting way.
There is another screening tomorrow at the festival is that correct?
Tomorrow at 11:30 at the Tribeca Grand Screening Room. And then
the film actually has its broadcast premier on Mother's Day--this
Sunday, following Six Feet Under at 10 PM eastern standard time
on HBO, which is appropriate, because the final words in the film
are actually delivered by Nicholas when he says, "I love you
mom." And as tragic as this story is in many ways after you
hear this little boy say those words, and everything goes to black,
you realize that Michelle was a very alive person when she was with
us, and it's apparent that even in her absence--in her death--she
is going to affect so many people. I think Nicholas will be proud
when he is older and actually sees this film. Proud of the impact
his mom had on so many who have already seen this let alone when
the actual broadcast occurs this Mother's Day.
Newscaster:James Ronald Whitney
Writer, director, producer of "Telling Nicholas." Thank
you for your time tonight.
Thank you for having me, John.