“I Was There” is not the first movie to be made about the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. But it may be the first to center on a first responder who, in hindsight, is not as heroic as the world first thought.
Directed and co-written by Jorge Valdes-Iga, the film will be screened Sunday, Jan. 29, at The Firehouse Space in Brooklyn. The screening is free for members of the FDNY and is open to the public for a donation that will benefit the FealGood Foundation, which provides care to 9/11 first responders.
“I Was There” tells the tale of New York firefighter Gus (James Lee), who survives 9/11 because he secretly fled the South Tower of the World Trade Center before it collapsed. He doesn’t know that a photographer, who was also escaping, captured him fleeing on film.
“He lived the lie of being a hero, but in living this lie, it consumed his soul and he became an alcoholic,” Valdes-Iga told Metro. “The photographer comes forward years later and confronts him, saying he’ll tell the world the truth and blackmails him into this world of self-discovery.”
Lee developed an early draft of the script as a one-act play, but when he showed it to Valdes-Iga after the two met at a New York acting class, they hammered out the film’s entire script over the course of a weekend.
“By Monday we had an outline of the whole film,” the director said. “We went back and forth improvising every role and writing scenes as we went.”
Valdes-Iga, a Mexican native who became an American citizen during filming, did have some trepidation tackling a 9/11 story that showed the flaws of a first responder.
“How dare I do a film like this?” he recalled thinking. “I was stepping into a territory that was very scary to me, and that’s when it hit me that that’s exactly why I should do this film. I was just like the firefighter in the film — I was running away.”
Even still, Valdes-Iga was nervous to show a pitch video for "I Was There" to FDNY firefighters when he and Lee visited firehouses before production began.
“It was very scary to show this to firefighters in the beginning for me, showing that they can be cowards just as they can be heroes,” he said. “Some of them were really into it and thanked us for finally saying the truth about how they’re sometimes afraid going into fires, but others were like, ‘No, that’s not cool. That's disrespectful.' We had a 50/50 response, and that was very interesting to me.
“That’s when I knew we had a good film on our hands.”