George W. Bush sits still and reflective, in close up against a black background, as he pauses to reflect on the events of 9/11 and the actions shortly after in a new film premiering this month on the National Geographic Channel including the former President’s only words on those events as well as his first – and only – public comments on the death of Osama bin Laden.
“That was, of course, a coincidence,” said filmmaker Peter Schnall, who had been planning the two days of two hour interviews for months.
“We arrived in Dallas, Texas, the day President Obama announced the assassination of Bin Laden, and as you well imagine, we first thought that maybe the interview would be cancelled as the former President might go off and talk about it, but it turns out that’s exactly what he did not do. He did not want to speak publicly about it.
“But we were afforded the opportunity to speak to him, and those were actually some of the first few questions that we asked during the two days of interview. And he was open about what happened during that conversation.”
That Shanall was the one to score the coveted interview with Bush, who has been reticent since he stepped down from the Presidency to speak about anything, is a result of having built trust with his administration during the special “On Board Air Force One.”
Through those films, in 2001 and 2009, he says, he had built “that kind of trust and relationship that I had with him as a filmmaker and journalist where I was able to get inside some of the more, shall we say, secure areas that others had not been allowed in, and that trust and understanding both with my work and the work of National Geographic allowed us then to approach him for this unique film.”
National Geographic had previously produced “Giuliani’s 9/11” in which the former mayor got to tell his perception of those events. Like the Bush special, the subject is the only voice heard in the film.
“Right off the bat we did say the idea behind the film would be that the President would be the only on camera person, that it would be his recollections, it would be his voice, and that was the design of the film itself,” Schnall says. “At the time we thought, of course, we would have narration. It turns out that in the film there is no narration at all. It is only the President’s voice. It is only his words.”
And some of them are powerful.
“My first reaction was anger: WHO THE Hell would do that to America?” he says, his voice rising. “Then my thoughts went to the children.”
Bush famously continued to sit in that Florida classroom he was visiting that morning without immediately moving into action. “I didn’t want to rattle the kids.,” Bush says in the interview “I wanted to project a sense of calm.”
“I asked him what it felt to be the President sitting basically in front of the world’s stage by himself, alone, up in front of the kids, and being told something that perhaps most other presidents would learn about, say, in the Oval Office or in a bunker, being told that the United States is under attack. And this was his response,” Schnall says. “What I tried to do was get a sense of what he was really thinking at that moment.”
The President’s words are interspersed with footage from the time, but not as often as one would think.
“I think you will find when you watch the entire film how very little stock footage there is of the horrors that did unfold in front of us on the TV screens during those days, partially because the stories that the President was telling were so interesting and so fascinating that we decided to keep him on camera more than we usually do in this kind of film,” Schnall says. “It’s very unusual to have an on camera person as you will see on camera as much and without a narrator.”
“The idea behind the film was to make it as personable and as revealing and as insightful as we possibly could, and if anything, we feel that we created a rather sort of significant historical film in that the President, in perhaps more detail than he’s ever done before in a film, spoke about hour by hour, day by day the events that he went through, both as the President, both as the Commander in Chief, as a father, as a husband.”
“George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview” premieres Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. on the National Geographic Channel, part of a weeklong schedule of films marking the 10th anniversary starting Aug. 21.