Three years ago, I wrote a piece for New York magazine’s 10th anniversary of 9/11 issue about the Naudet brothers, the two French men who were (initially) the only people to film the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. The piece ended up getting cut — there was just so much good stuff in that issue, which won a National Magazine Award — and I remembered this morning that it never ran, so here it is, on the 13th anniversary. Remember that it was the 10th anniversary when this was supposed to run, so add three years to everything. They were very nice guys.
While filming a documentary about “probie” firefighter Tony Benetatos, Jules Naudet heard that now-infamous rumbling and panned his camera up just in time to catch American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower. It remains one of the only two known videos of the North Tower impact, and definitely the clearest one. That split-second pan – “it was just an instinctive reaction,” he says – turned the tiny documentary on firefighter brotherhood he and his brother Gideon had been working on into one of the most widely seen documentaries of all time.
Ten years later, the project (which they directed with firefighter James Hanlon) has become their own version of Michael Apted’s famous “7 Up” series; they come back to their subjects for an update every five years or so. A new – and the brothers say final – version of the film will air on CBS on the 10th anniversary, with a new 25-minute epilogue that concentrates on the serious health woes firefighters and first-responders have suffered in recent years, and the lack of federal support. “It is extraordinary how much the firefighter today is going to die after saving 20,000 people on that day and every single day,” Jules says. “He is going to die alone, abandoned by his city, by his government, by his country. It is amazing.”
When the brothers, in the weeks after 9/11, went back to their editing studio and realized what they had, they turned down countless offers to simply sell all the footage to a network or movie studio, insisting on having control over their own film. Les Moonves of CBS – with a hand from family friend Graydon Carter and their agent, then-William Morris bigshot Ben Silverman – gave them that freedom, and they keep final cut to this day. For many, the showing of the Naudet brothers’ film on the second-anniversary of the attacks, the first night of the Tribute in Light, was a chance to heal among groups huddled around a television. “We wanted people to live by proxy through the film,” Jules says. “We made it a point not to make it about the political implications.”
For whatever reason, perhaps the brothers’ heavy French accents, there is a general misconception that the Naudets just happened to grab their footage before heading back to Paris or something. But they grew up on the Upper East Side, in the same apartment that Gideon, 38, still lives in (Jules, 41, who has two children, moved to Connecticut). “I think they imagine us as tourists or something,” Gideon says. “Like we spent two weeks filming and we moved back. This is our city.” In the last decade, they’ve made another film for CBS, a documentary about religious faith called “In God’s Eyes,” and they’re currently working on a film in which they speak with all living former White House Chiefs of Staff about their crazy jobs. But they’ll always be known as the 9/11 filmmakers, which would be easily to handle if more people realized they were professional filmmakers, rather than just two dopes who happened to be standing near the towers. “For us, nothing much has changed,” Gideon says. “We still go and have to start from zero. We go and see different networks and get the same answers. Sorry, we are not interested. It is exactly like for ‘9/11.’ Then we end up producing it and financing it ourselves. I guess we got used to it.”
They also have a somewhat more modern headache, what Urban Dictionary might call a “Santorum Problem:” If you search either one of their names on Google, because Jules’ initial pan up was breathtaking and unique, you find countless pages of conspiracy theorists accusing the brothers of being CIA plants, having foreknowledge of 9/11 or even helping orchestrate the attacks themselves. In a cruel irony, much of the “evidence” is based in the fact that the brothers have been so quiet over the last decade, as if they were plants, or even silenced. I can vouch for their existence. “Please tell them I am not a UFO,” Jules says.