HOLLYWOOD—The people who tell the stories don't know what to say, at least not yet.
Screenwriters, directors and producers say they feel it is far too early to understand how movies and television will deal with the events of Sept. 11 and the altered world that rose from the ashes of the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"You wake up in the morning and say, `God, what do I do now?'" said Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter and creator of the Emmy-winning television series "The West Wing."
"It's difficult to come to any conclusions so quickly," said Sydney Pollack, a veteran director whose 18 films have garnered 46 Academy Award nominations. "I don't have any idea how this will play out."
Gathered Monday for a symposium at Occidental College, some of the film industry's most successful creative forces seemed to struggle with their personal reaction to the events that have followed the terrorist attacks and with their artistic vision of the tragedy.
Their reaction was just one example of Hollywood's effort to define its role as the nation wages war on terrorism. So far that effort has ranged from a televised fundraiser featuring some of the country's top stars, a delay and reworking of the Emmy awards show and early efforts to deal with the events on television shows such as NBC's "The West Wing" and "Third Watch."
The Bush administration also has contacted Hollywood studios to explore how the entertainment industry might contribute to the war effort as it did during World War II.
But the most pervasive response has been one of caution and uncertainty and a realization that it will take a long time to come to grips with what has happened.
"We are a culture where we are used to getting answers rather quickly," said writer-director Sean Daniel, who produced "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." "We are now in an era where 'a quick answer' will no longer be there."
In the longer term, most agreed the September events could make filmmakers think about the kind of themes they address and how they tell their stories.
"I'm hoping we can lift our vision, try a little harder, not go for the easy violence," said Kevin Sullivan, an actor and writer who made his film directorial debut with "How Stella Got Her Groove Back."
"If we try to reduce this thing to nice little packages, we're in trouble," he said. "A jingle won't get us through the night."
Sorkin said he felt he had to deal with the terrorist attacks with a script he wrote for an episode of "The West Wing" that aired earlier this month.
"I was on the spot because NBC won't let me put a test pattern up there," he said. The episode involved a group of students asking questions while visiting a "locked down" White House, while the FBI questions an Arab man suspected of being involved with terrorism. The show evoked starkly different reactions, Sorkin said, noting that nerves appeared to be raw.
Asked whether films featuring terrorist attacks could have contributed to the events of Sept. 11, director Edward Zwick made reference to his 1998 film "The Siege," which centers on a terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. He said that when researching the film he talked with police officers, firefighters and emergency workers who predicted that such an attack was going to happen some day.
"All I could think about were all those workers," Zwick said about his reaction when he heard news of the attack. "There was no comfort in having been prescient in that way."
White House calls
The Bush administration was quick to recognize the role Hollywood could play in the crisis.
Last week a group of entertainment industry figures met in Los Angeles with a group from the White House led by Chris Henrick, deputy assistant to the president, and Adam Goldman, associate director of the office of public liaison.
Lionel Chetwynd, a writer and director, said about 35 representatives from the business and creative sides of Hollywood met Oct. 17 with the White House officials.
"The general tenor from our side of the table was, `Look, if a billion people around the world hate us, America is not doing a good job of getting its message out because we are not the Great Satan,'" Chetwynd said.
"Who better to tell the story than popular culture?" he said.
Sullivan said he would cooperate with the government under certain circumstances but would not be comfortable working as a propagandist for U.S. policies. "If the White House came to me and said I need to make a movie about happy soldiers, I'd tell them to go fish," he said.
Attendees also expressed concern that free speech and the right to dissent could come under threat, noting the controversy involving "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher, who suggested on the air last month that the terrorist hijackers exhibited more bravery than the U.S. has shown in recent engagements. Maher has since apologized for the remarks.
Asked about Maher's comments, which led to some sponsors dropping the show, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer cautioned that it was important for all Americans to watch what they say.
The incident was worrying to some.
"We've heard this song before, right?" Sorkin said. "In the '50s there was a blacklist. It ruined lives. If you're anything like me, when you watch ... any of the dozens of films that have been made about the blacklist, and look at that and think, my God, if I could only transport myself back in time to this period and knock a couple of heads together ... and say, `Are you out of your minds?'
"I think it's right now when it's most important that there be dissent. When the patriotism police ought to be kept at bay, and that people understand that Bill Maher is every bit as much an American as you or I. Let's remember what values we're protecting in the first place."