How September 11 impacted and changed media and pop culture

Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire, was originally meant to heavily feature the Twin Towers and had to be rewritten. Picture: Sony Pictures

Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire, was originally meant to heavily feature the Twin Towers and had to be rewritten. Picture: Sony Pictures

When Martin Scorsese's 19th-century gang war film, Gangs of New York City, first screened, it did not end with a historical reimagining of 1862 streets, but with a pre-September 11 city skyline - including the World Trade Center.

Filmed before the terrorist attacks, the final shot was part of a time lapse showing how New York City had grown since the period in which the film was set. With the original release date scheduled at the end of 2001, Scorsese - a New Yorker himself - had to decide whether to retain the World Trade Center in the shot.

He decided to keep it in and when the film eventually reached cinemas - in December 2002, a year after its initial scheduling - the decision sparked controversy, being regarded as insensitive. From Scorsese's point of view, however, the film was sending a message of hope.

"It's not my job to revise the New York skyline. The people in the film were part of the creation of that skyline, not the destruction of it. And if the skyline collapses, ultimately, they will build another one," he said.

There has not been an event that changed the media and pop culture landscape as immediately, if not as drastically, as September 11, 2001. Even coronavirus, while it has brought inspiration to storylines, art and trends, hasn't stopped the release of movies that show people leaving the house without a mask.

September 11 seemed to touch a different nerve. And the knock-on effect meant that the generation that has grown up post-9/11 learnt about this world-changing event through the effect it had on society and culture - whether they realised it or not.

The beginning of the event's impact began with a rush to redact any reference to the World Trade Center or terrorism in general.

The immediate response

The rom-com Serendipity and the goofy Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander were among the films to digitally delete the Twin Towers almost immediately after September 11. In the case of Serendipity - which premiered with the original footage at the Toronto Film Festival two days after the attacks - this was done before its US cinema release a month later. Zoolander deleted the image before its US cinema release on September 28.

Other films needed more work. The teaser trailer for Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire, had already screened in cinemas, showing the superhero trapping a helicopter in a web strung between the Twin Towers. Not only was this trailer removed immediately and the scene deleted from the final film, Hollywood lore also has it that Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin was originally going to meet his end at the World Trade Center, so the film's ending had to be rewritten.

Even children's films were not untouched. After the attacks, Disney was forced to redo the final chase scene in Lilo and Stitch. The original version had Stitch joyriding in a 747, weaving through buildings in Hawaii. The aeroplane eventually became an alien craft flying through mountains.

Television creators also rewrote their scripts. The makers of the sitcom Friends- a show that revolved around New York City - had to reshoot the episode, The One Where Rachel Tells Ross. It originally saw Chandler and Monica detained in an airport after making bomb jokes.

Rewriting the script

Following September 11, war films became non-existent, while films such as Independence Day and Armageddon, which had presented destruction in almost a gleeful manner in the 1990s, all but disappeared.

The films of this ilk that clung to a pre-September 11 era, such as Collateral Damage - in which Arnold Schwarzenegger goes after terrorists - fell flat. It made $US78 million at the box office worldwide against its $US85 million budget. A CNN review read: "Without September 11, Collateral Damage would have been just another bad movie. Now it's a bad, embarrassing movie."

War of the Worlds - starring Tim Robbins, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning - was a parable of the September 11 attacks. Picture: Supplied

War of the Worlds - starring Tim Robbins, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning - was a parable of the September 11 attacks. Picture: Supplied

One of the first films to try to break the trend was Steven Spielberg's 2005 version of War of the Worlds, which turned out to be a parable of the September 11 attacks. Spielberg admitted scenes that were filled with black ash and images of people who had jumped to their deaths were influenced by what happened at the World Trade Center.

Its box office success may have paved the way for films such as United 93 and World Trade Center - both released in 2006 - that directly addressed 9/11.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, United 93 was a well-received, financially successful docudrama. It dealt with the hijacking of a plane by terrorists who intended to fly it into the Capitol Building in Washington, DC and the passengers who fought back. Although it crashed in a field, killing all on board, it was the only one of the four hijacked planes that did not reach its intended target.

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World Trade Center was a docudrama directed by Oliver Stone about police officers trapped in the rubble of the collapsed towers. Although reactions from people depicted and their families were mixed, it did pretty well both critically and at the box office.

French aerialist Philippe Petit's unauthorised high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Picture: Supplied

French aerialist Philippe Petit's unauthorised high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Picture: Supplied

Two films dealt with a happier memory of the World Trade Center. The multi-award winning documentary Man on Wire (2008) and the Robert Zemeckis-directed docudrama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk (2015), both focused on French aerialist Philippe Petit's unauthorised high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. He was more than 400 metres above the ground and made eight passes over 45 minutes. The long-planned stunt became a media sensation.

Man on Wire director, James Marsh, said the film deliberately made no mention of the 2001 attacks. "What Philippe did was incredibly beautiful," he said to the BBC. "It may have been illegal, but it was not in any way destructive.

"It would be unfair and wrong to infect his story with any mention, discussion or imagery of the Towers being destroyed."

When was it OK to laugh again?

Talk show hosts David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart have all talked about what it was like to go back on air and present a monologue after the attacks. They felt they had to relearn how to be funny again.

In her biography, Yes, Please comedian Amy Poehler recalled what it was like working on New York-based comedy show Saturday Night Live after September 11. She had only become part of the cast the previous month.

"It was a tough time to join the show. It felt like that America wouldn't smile, let alone laugh again," she wrote.

The first episode after the attacks saw the show's producer Lorne Michaels solemnly ask New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?"

Giuliani paused and then answered, "Why start now?"

Of course, there were some failures when finding the way back to funny again. Bill Maher, on his show Politically Incorrect, said on his September 17, 2001 edition, "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, [it's] not cowardly."

A few advertisers withdrew and the show was suspended in some US markets. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer criticised Maher, who apologised, saying he intended to criticise US politicians, not soldiers. The show was cancelled in June, 2002.

Joan Rivers came under fire for jokes she made about September 11 widows. Picture: Shutterstock

Joan Rivers came under fire for jokes she made about September 11 widows. Picture: Shutterstock

Acerbic stand-up Joan Rivers told a joke at her 2002 show Broke and Alone In London regarding the widows of the many firefighters who died on 9/11. She said that they were paid $5 million and would be disappointed if they were told their husbands had been found alive. She was criticised by the International Association of Fire Fighters but did not apologise.

After 9/11 one 1997 episode of The Simpsons, The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, was removed from syndication for several years. The episode has the Simpsons travelling to New York to reclaim the family car that been abandoned in front of the World Trade Center Plaza. At one point Homer, desperate to urinate, runs to the toilet in the South Tower's observation deck and, finding it out of order, has to make his way to the one at the top of the North Tower.

Tributes in music

In the days following the attacks, Bruce Springsteen, whose songs often reflect and comment upon the state of the US, had a stranger in a car stop next to him, roll down his window and say, "We need you now".

It led to the Born in the USA singer recording the 2002, Grammy-winning album The Rising, which was largely inspired by the 9/11 attacks. The title song is told from the perspective of a New York City Fire Department firefighter in one of the Twin Towers after the attacks.

Neil Young wrote Let's Roll - released in November 2001 - after reading about Todd Beamer, one of the passengers on Flight 93 who fought the hijackers and crashed the plane before it could reach its intended target. Beamer called an Airfone operator to explain that they were going to rush the terrorists. Before Beamer hung up, the operator heard him tell the other passengers, "Let's roll". Other musicians inspired by the phrase include Melissa Etheridge and Ray Stevens.

The Australian cast of Come From Away will be in Canberra next year. Picture: Jeff Busby

The Australian cast of Come From Away will be in Canberra next year. Picture: Jeff Busby

A wholesome response to a tragic event is represented in the musical Come From Away.

Written by husband and wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein and first produced in 2013, it is based on a true story. Thirty-eight planes landed unexpectedly in Gander, a small Canadian town, as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon (which Canada initiated to divert aeroplanes from American airspace after the attacks). The characters are based on (and often share the names of) real Gander residents as well as some of the 7000 stranded people they housed and fed, who were all interviewed for the project on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

Canberrans will be able to see Come From Away - a positive September 11 story amid all the destruction - when it comes to the Canberra Theatre Centre in February next year.

This story After 9/11: the imprint left on pop culture first appeared on The Canberra Times.