Max Borenstein has been wearing a lot of different hats over the last decade: architect for the blockbuster MonsterVerse franchise, TV creator (Minority report), and cable doubles (AMCs) Terror: infamy, HBO’s upcoming lively Los Angeles Lakers series). His latest film, Netflix’s 9/11 drama Value with Michael Keaton in the lead role, is the first where he acts as both writer and producer.
Perhaps it is fitting that the title comes on a project he has been working on since the mid-2000s. Persistence, timing, and a global streaming service hungry for lively content made a long shot a reality. The observer spoke with Borenstein about distilling the close and tragic process of valuing a human life into a narrative film, and how the resulting film, based on Kenneth Feinberg’s 2005 novel What is life worth?, is not really about 9/11 at all.
Observer: Value is your first feature film as both a writer and producer. How does it affect mental mathematics when you think about the balance between art and commerce?
Borenstein: That’s a good question. I think the truth is that the script began its pregnancy, I think 15 years ago. I still would not at that time have known how to think about trading this business because I was simply attracted to the idea of the story and at least wrote it more for myself as an exercise in trying to find something that I was emotionally interested in. It was during the writers’ strike in 2007 and ’08. I found this story and realized that it was the kind of thing I was interested in, but it was not something anyone at the time was interested in paying me for. And then it’s the kind of thing that has to be a love job. I did not think about trade at all. That kind of saved the day in that regard.
So the years went by and had many, many almost moments where it only became a question of how we can find a way to make this financially viable? As time went on, a certain amount of the raw immediacy from 9/11 began to heal and the perspective allowed us to look at this film in a more universal way, rather than being something that was really connected to the raw nerve. I think the time became more real.
You have previously said that you started writing the script in 2007-’08. How did the story change, if at all, from the original iteration to what it is now, and how have you changed as a storyteller in that time?
I think as for the film itself and the story, the lens of it or the skeleton of it remained very much the same through these years. It was more of a situation for a film that is challenging to mount because it is an adult subject and without any underlying intellectual property or comic book connections. These are harder and harder to get made. It was a script that had really good reactions from people. And then it had a kind of life in the community as something that people still remembered, and walked around and cared about.
So during those years, I grew up from being an infant in the industry to having a little more success. With everything that came, I always thought of this project and tried to use any new connection.
You mentioned the ‘adult’ topic material. The legal and economic consequences of 9/11 seem at first glance to be a very close and heavy topic. How did you go about synthesizing it as a compelling tale?
On the surface, I suppose it sounds dry, but just below the surface what it really is is the story of humanity for all these people who have gone through this and tried to get on with their lives somehow. And then it’s extraordinarily dramatic. But the challenge of finding a dramatic, active story and certainly something that can fit two hours synthesizes the extreme pragmatism of history bureaucracy and the engine of bureaucracy and the emotional heft of this extraordinary, intense moment in people’s lives. The stories in what is shocking and encompasses a lot of messy, interesting, fascinating dilemmas were the challenge.
Ken Feinberg [played by Michael Keaton], as a protagonist, acts as our eyes and ears in it. He is every person who experienced this story as he tries to carry out his pragmatic work, which carries out the law that was passed and, to the extent he can, helps families move forward. But then he finds himself thrown into a much more complicated and difficult situation than he had ever anticipated. And one where it really becomes an emotional journey for him as a person, and of course I think a redemptive, hopeful story about the possibility of how our government and good people working in a government can help people, even citizens, when they operating from a place of empathy, rather than arrogance or biased divide.
It’s a side of 9/11 that we may not always consider, and the film helps put a single face on a widespread tragedy. You seem to want to justify emotions before you find a common ground that is related to Feinberg’s character arc. Now I’m sure you want the audience to come to their own conclusions, but I have to assume there are some intentional messages you hope hold more to the audience than others, right?
Yes definitely. I mean, I think you’ve been talking about it really well and beautifully right now, which is that I think there are no villains in the movie because the events and tragedy that began, this happened off-screen. They happened before the movie, essentially in the beginning, but it’s not about 9/11. It is about how to move forward, both from the point of view of a large-scale government on the needs of the country as a whole, the economy as a whole, which affects individual lives, but then individually for each of the affected family members.
And so for Ken, trapped in the middle, as one whose job is to ensure that the big broad economic gears keep tearing, which is important and has human influence in an abstract way. And then these people who have just suffered and endured the deepest loss imaginable. How do you tread that needle as a human being? How do you maintain empathy? I think empathy is the answer. For Ken, he was not able to change the law, but he was able to realize that being effective must come first than being empathetic to the people he was dealing with. And then through empathy he could actually succeed in the pragmatic task he was assigned, but he first had to realize that he had to be willing to fail in the ethics and rationality department in order to ultimately succeed in the human department.
This interview has been easily edited and condensed.
Value arrives on Netflix on Friday, September 3rd.
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