Exclusive: Conversation with Nat Geo’s docuseries 9/11: One Day In America producer Caroline Marsden

Wreckage from World Trade Center at ground zero on September 11, 2001. Pic credit: Nat Geo handout / FEMA

The milestones of tragedies are bittersweet, incredibly hard for those who endured them and sobering for those who observed. Our most recent major attack on U.S. soil happened twenty years ago, and after watching Nat Geo’s docuseries 9/11: One Day In America, an immersive, intimate account of the entire day told by those who went through it, you likely will churn with deep emotion.

Twenty years ago, the Sept. 11 attacks happened in New York City, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. There are six parts aired over four consecutive nights that tell a thorough narrative of that day on National Geographic.

Producer Caroline Marsden spoke to Monsters & Critics during the Television Critics Association summer tour. She revealed that she hoped the takeaway from Nat Geo’s groundbreaking four-night limited docuseries would be a positive one.

That Americans, currently at each other’s throats over COVID, race, gender, politics, and Afghanistan, will remember who we are at our core and heal, remembering when we were at our best, the days after the horrific leveling of the Twin Towers.

Those who flew the planes and the groups that funded them are regaining strength in numbers once again, and it is in our best interest as a nation to foster respect, patience, and focus as we all share a common enemy, just as we did back in 2001.

Produced in official partnership with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, 9/11: One Day In America from Academy Award-winning executive producers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin (“Undefeated” and “LA 92”), director Daniel Bogado and producer Caroline Marsden, is a first-person narrative told by those who were there. The rescuers, survivors, and observers.

Marsden noted to Monsters & Critics that the incredible miracle of that day was the outpouring of selfless actions and kindness in the face of terror in a city not known for its welcoming and warm vibe. The shock of the attack and the human suffering and acts of bravery galvanized the nation like no other event in recent decades.

Marsden and her team sifted through 951 hours of archival footage — some never before seen — with Bogado shaping the chapters of the series. It offers a comprehensive, linear, and intimate look at how that blue sky morning soon turned into the worst day of all, yet as the events unfolded, a strange and heartwarming effect took hold as strangers banded together to save one another at all costs.

Exclusive interview with Caroline Marsden

Monsters & Critics: How were you brought into this specific project?

Caroline Marsden: I’ve been on the project almost since the beginning, about three years. So at the very beginning, it was development work on it where they sort of figure out the approach. And once it was sort of properly a production, I was the first person brought on it.

The executive producer on it, David Glover, who runs 72 films, explained that he wanted to do something that looks at the day of 9/11 itself. And so he had made other documentaries about 9/11, and their focus had been the hotel, referring to the Marriott, between the Two Towers or a hospital or the police.

So it hadn’t been quite specific, but he knew while making those incredibly moving projects and the testimonies they were getting. So he thought it would be amazing to do that, to look at, to look at the entire day itself and do it almost minute by minute of what was happening and what people experienced on that day.

And the approach was to pull focus on the individuals who live through that day, and that felt as immersive as possible. So that you could get a sense of what it was like to be there on that day through the eyes of people who experienced it firsthand.

M&C: Caroline, where were you on Sept. 11?

Caroline Marsden: You know, very early on with making this. I started talking to survivors. You have to understand that for almost three years, virtually every day, I’ve been talking to people whose stories of 9/11 are so extraordinary that I have been almost resolutely not telling the story about what happened to me on 9/ 11 because it pales in comparison in importance. So I usually sort of pass on that question. But I was in Canada, at University in Montreal.

M&C: What were the Canadians reaction when this was happening in real-time?

Caroline Marsden: I had just started university as a relatively young student at the time, but I remember because there were many New Yorkers in my university class. They’d come up to go to university, and they didn’t know what had happened. So I remember sitting in a class when the teacher said, look, I know there are people here from New York. People who might have relatives involved in this and the World Trade Center. Right?

It had people from all over the world working there. So, she made this announcement. I remember someone hadn’t seen the news. They just rushed into class. And, she was from New York, and we all sat there describing to her what had happened, just with words, telling her what had happened. She just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t see her for the rest of the term.

M&C: I have screened this, and quite frankly, it’s hard. It’s an intimate recollection, but the horror of hearing the bodies hit is jarring, disturbing on a level I wasn’t expecting. When you were putting this together, did you have days that you felt that it was too much to continue? Or were you ever worried about how traumatic this retelling would be?

Caroline Marsden: Yes. I mean, when I first started working on this, day-to-day reading stories about it. I remember just crying for the first two weeks. It’s unbelievably upsetting material. And then, in terms of our approach and watching it, as you mentioned the sound of the bodies falling, we had a lot of discussion about how to handle that in particular and many other things.

We wanted it to be respectfully unflinching, but we wanted it to be an unflinching look and [serve] as a tribute to the people telling their story. So a lot of people are still suffering now, right? They’re still suffering from PTSD, health problems.

They are struggling. And when people are struggling mentally, survivors said that they felt that people were thinking, ‘why don’t you just move on? It was 20 years ago. It was one day. Why don’t you just move on?’

And I think if we didn’t show an unflinching view, you wouldn’t get a sense of why they were still struggling with things like PTSD and various mental health problems. You wouldn’t get a sense of the horror of what they saw on that day.

We set out to look at what human beings do in a moment like this. As people just go to work every day, as we all do, this horrific event happens. And, and how do people behave? And overwhelmingly, people helped one another.

And that wasn’t something we didn’t set out to show, that we’re only going to show stories where people help each other. But that was just overwhelmingly what was happening.

And so when we were putting this together, I hope that what carries it along, people helping one another. And these heartwarming stories make sure that you don’t lose faith in human nature.

M&C: The Taliban is taking over Afghanistan, and we know history repeats itself, and they are in it for the long game. We could fall victim again to a significant terrorist attack. I’m wondering if that was in the back of your mind as a filmmaker that you hope that people will take away from this, a lesson that Americans need to focus on the bigger picture, all politics aside.

Caroline Marsden: Or human beings. Yes. We’re human beings. It was interesting. Also, many of the people we interviewed said the same thing you did that, that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a feeling of coming together. And that’s what they would have liked to hold on to that feeling.

But, people said that they didn’t feel that things had become more divided and, in terms of Afghanistan, I hope people take away from this, you have this one, one day, right? You have this one day of shocking violence, and you can see the destruction that it causes.

You can see the lasting wounds that it can inflict. You can see that, you know, I think everybody we interviewed will speak to that. And so I do hope it helps us rethink reconsider conflict because if that’s just one day, what’s a week what’s, the effect of a month of that? What’s the impact of a year of that?

So I think it would be wonderful if a documentary were made in Afghanistan made by some of the wonderful journalists there about their experiences of this and incidents of violence everywhere.

Because I think if everybody owns their narratives and tells the personal experience of that, hopefully again, it will make us rethink these awful levels of violence going on.

M&C: My favorite story thus far is the Brian and Stanley blood brothers story. What is your favorite story?

Caroline Marsden: Oh, I love that one too. I’ve become so close with many of our contributors and don’t know that I can choose my favorite. But, I do think, in episode four, there’s a beautiful story there that ends in a wedding.

M&C: What was the biggest takeaway other than you hope that people drop the pretense of polemic politics in political discourse and just realize that we’re finite beings. What was your hope with this documentary that people will walk away and maybe rethink rhetoric?

Caroline Marsden: It is tough. We all bring our baggage to it. We all bring our political thoughts and what we read about it. And there was something nice about the exercise of stripping all of that away and just looking at the sort of the experience of that.

I hope you’re stripping all that stuff away and just looking at the peer experience of that [moment] and that it breeds empathy and allows us to understand humanity. And I suppose it would just be [to understand] even ourselves better.

9/11: One Day in America will air over four consecutive nights on National Geographic beginning Aug. 29 at 9/8c with limited commercial interruption. Episodes will be made available the next day on Hulu. The docuseries will also re-air on Nat Geo Sept. 10 and 11.

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