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'Worth' Director On Her Emotional 9/11 Drama

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

What is a human life worth? That's a question of faith, of values and philosophy, one that speaks to the most profound meditations about the meaning of life. But in America, it is also a question of money. And that was the question attorney Kenneth Feinberg was asked to answer when he was selected to be the special master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. The fund was created by Congress to bring financial relief to those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and also to protect the airlines and by extension the economy from almost certain devastating lawsuits. What followed was a complex, emotional and sometimes painful process that is now dramatized in a new movie called "Worth." Here's a clip from the film where Feinberg, played by Michael Keaton, and his law partner, Camille Biros, played by Amy Ryan, describe to their staff what the law creating the fund actually says.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WORTH")

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Ken Feinberg) What it says is the victims and their families will be compensated based on economic value lost.

AMY RYAN: (As Camille Biros) What that means, they left up to the special master - us.

MARTIN: It's a legal drama, to be sure, but it is also an investigation of the complex terrain of grief and loss, empathy and healing and money. "Worth" was directed by Sara Colangelo, and she is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SARA COLANGELO: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, you know, complex tort litigation is not the usual subject for a legal thriller. I mean, you usually think of things like conspiracies or cover-ups or murder mysteries. What made you want to do it, though? What finally got your attention for however many months it took you to do?

COLANGELO: Yeah. You know, I think I was really interested in the moral conundrum of it all - you know, how math and calculation of dollars and cents and the kind of rational, cold approach to actuarial models, how that world would collide with the raw emotion of 9/11 and the heartbreak of thousands of families. There was something really interesting in that scenario and in the tension inherent in that scenario, I suppose.

MARTIN: Well, you know, I have a clip that speaks to that. Let me just play that. This is where - this is the scene in the film where Feinberg is first meeting the families. He's trying to explain a formula by which compensation would be calculated based on things like how much did the loved one make in his or her life and how much would that person have made over the long run. And the families, as you might imagine, they don't love that. Let me just play this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WORTH")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) My boy was a firefighter. Was he worth less than the guy pushing pencils and trading stocks?

KEATON: (As Ken Feinberg) No. Certainly not as a human being, no.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Their lives ended the same way.

KEATON: (As Ken Feinberg) But their mortgages did differ.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) How dare you.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: So, you know, obviously this is not a documentary, right? I mean, it's a feature film, and there are a lot of things that were sort of dramatized and stuff. But how true to life was that moment? I mean, did that meeting actually happen?

COLANGELO: It did. And, you know, from what Ken and Camille have told me personally and what I've read in articles, these, you know, first few meetings in New Jersey and Staten Island, in parts of New York City, they were really fraught with tension and anger and frustration. And I think I was really interested in that, both in documenting sort of the pain of the claimants, but also in trying to understand what the toll was on Ken and Camille in sort of absorbing all of that anger and just grief and frustration at the process.

MARTIN: You know, and some of the other storylines - I mean, part of that - I do want to give it all away, but part of the storyline is how he comes to understand that more is needed than just crunching numbers. But some of the other storylines are kind of messy. And as I said, it's not a documentary, but the fact is it is based on fact. There were some messy sort of family relationships that were not always what they seemed or it just - that had to be navigated, as well as some, you know, like, issues around same-sex partners not being accepted by their families, some - in some cases, not even being fully out. And I was just interested in how you decided which of those stories you wanted to tell and why.

COLANGELO: Mmm hmm. Well, when I read Ken's memoir, I was really touched by, first of all, the story of many of the undocumented families. And I was, you know, really moved by the sort of no-questions-asked policy that Ken and Camille had created. And so I really wanted to put that in the film. And then as I kind of did a bit more research, you know, I did realize that there was a huge amount of discretion that Ken and Camille used in, you know, dealing with same-sex families and partners. And, yeah, there - you know, there were a lot of messy situations in which parents refused to acknowledge the partners of their children. You know, and a lot of these loved ones were there trying to prove that they were indeed part of their loved one's life and that they should receive something. So it was pretty heartbreaking.

MARTIN: Well, the other thing that was - there's also this question of - that goes back to the beginning of the film - is what is a life worth? And there are characters in the film, let's say, who make a very strong case that their clients are worth more than other people because they made a lot of money and they expected more. I just found that really fascinating, how you navigated that. What are your thoughts about that?

COLANGELO: Well, it's - I mean, I think this is what I love about the film, I guess, and the subject matter, is that, you know, we live in a capitalist system. And these actuarial models are a reality, and they're happening every day in the insurance industry. You know, so, of course, there were these multimillionaires who are, you know, heading some of the most powerful investment firms on Wall Street demanding money because they had to take care of their families and keep up their lifestyle. And yet you had waiters, waitresses at Windows on the World and some undocumented folks who were making $25- to $30,000 a year. And it's such a sort of strange and vulgar exercise to monetize human loss like that and to assign dollars and cents to people's lives. So it's so uncomfortable. And I think I was so attracted to that philosophical question, you know? How can you even do this? It seems impossible. And then to make matters worse, money in general is a terrible substitute for a lost loved one.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that the film is coming out now, and it's coming out literally days after the last Americans left Afghanistan, which was set in motion by the 9/11 attacks. And I - you know, I'm wondering what you - how would you know, but I'm just wondering what you think people will receive from it and what you think it will bring up for them? I have to tell you, you don't dwell a lot on the actual imagery of the attacks. You mainly experience it through the eyes of people watching it. And I have to tell you, for me, anyway, that was a great relief. But I'm just wondering, how do you think people will receive that as it's coming in in such a fraught time when we're already experiencing a lot related to the anniversary of 9/11?

COLANGELO: Yeah. I mean, I hope that it will gain a certain, you know, added relevance and poignancy at this moment, you know, as we're, you know, leaving Afghanistan, you know, after a year and a half of COVID in which, you know, I think a lot of these discussions were in the public sphere - you know, what is a life worth? You know, who gets the ventilator? You know, I hope that in a way, this latest crisis in our country will maybe allow us to look at 9/11 in a slightly different way.

MARTIN: Wow. That was director Sara Colangelo. Her new movie, "Worth," is now streaming on Netflix. Sara Colangelo, thank you so much for talking with us.

COLANGELO: Thank you, Michel - a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.