Architecture Critic Paul Goldberger on Ground Zero
We discuss the plans for rebuilding at ground zero in Lower Manhattan, and the debates surrounding those plans. Goldberger says idealism met cynicism at ground zero, and so far they have battled to a draw. His new book is Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the Rebuilding of New York.
Other segments from the episode on September 7, 2004
DATE September 7, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Goldberger discusses the rebuilding of the World
Trade Center site
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Three years after the attack on the World Trade Center, my guest, Paul
Goldberger, has published a new book called "Up from Zero," about the
architectural, political and emotional debate surrounding the rebuilding of
this site, which is now considered sacred ground. Goldberger is the
architecture critic for The New Yorker. In his book, he writes, `There is no
instruction manual to tell a city what to do when its tallest buildings are
suddenly gone and there is a void in its heart.'
About two months after September 11th, Governor Pataki established the Lower
Manhattan Development Corporation and charged it with overseeing the
rebuilding process. In the summer of 2002, the LMDC unveiled six plans for
ground zero. But at a public meeting that July, attended by about 4,000
people, each of the six plans was voted poor or unacceptable. The LMDC got
the message and responded by opening a competition for a new site plan. I
asked Paul Goldberger to describe the plans that evoked such a negative
response at the town meeting.
Mr. PAUL GOLDBERGER (Author, "Up from Zero: Politics, Architecture, and the
Rebuilding of New York"): The original design was never really even
architecture. It was much more of just a series of studies to try to figure
out whether you could put back 10 million square feet of office space, which
is what the World Trade Center towers contained, but do it now with two
hundred and ten story buildings, whether you could combine that with a
memorial, with public open space, with putting back some of the streets that
had been there before the original World Trade Center was built, because the
original World Trade Center was on a 16 acre site that had once been a whole
bunch of Lower Manhattan blocks. They were all cleared away for a huge
concrete plaza on which the original World Trade Center towers were placed.
Well, we've learned a lot about cities in the years since the Trade Center was
built, and by now, nobody really likes doing it that way anymore. We realize
that there's, in fact, a great deal of joy in life and energy to a real city
street. They said to an architectural firm named Bleyer, Blinder, Belle, who
they had hired to do their initial study, `Just do a few schemes for us that
show us how to put back all these square feet of office space and some stores
and commercial space and a memorial and the streets, and let's just see if
And they came up with six versions. And it looked very clunky and
conventional, and what people were most offended by was the fact that the
whole thing seemed to be driven by a bunch of commercial concerns, and it
seemed to be a lot of office buildings with a little memorial plunked down in
the middle, and it seemed, particularly to family members, who many of whom
had objected initially to building anything at all on the site, felt a little
patronizing to them, felt as if they had been tossed a kind of memorial bone
to quiet them down, and that the real goal of that initial study was simply to
get a lot of profit-making office space back so Larry Silverstein and the Port
Authority would have their office buildings once again and could start, you
know, churning out the cash.
GROSS: So when, at this public meeting, the public that was in attendance
decided they hated this plan...
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Yes.
GROSS: ...and objected to it, in part, because it was too commercial, and so
that plan was scratched, when that plan was scratched, was there also a
commitment to making ground zero not as about commercial office space as the
original plan was?
Mr. GOLDBERGER: What happened was a very clever attempt to change the system
and not change the system at the same time. The governor who was really the
most powerful person in this entire process, Governor Pataki, did not want to
go back on his commitment to the Port Authority and to Larry Silverstein, that
they would be entitled to rebuild all of the office space that had been
destroyed on 9/11. However, he very much wanted to give the public the
impression that the priorities were elsewhere. So the architects who were
brought in to participate in the next round when Bleyer, Blinder, Belle was
sort of shown the door, and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation
decided that the way to improve the whole situation was to bring in architects
of international renown so that they could not be accused of being not
sufficiently interested in architecture, and they said that, you know, the
memorial must be the sort of real center and the driving force of the project
and there must be public space and there must be a lot of other important
things that were not in the earlier plans or not very effectively in the
But, in fact, the fundamental commercial reality never really changed.
Architecture was being used, in effect, as a kind of window dressing so that
the thought was if we had better buildings done by famous architects, maybe
people wouldn't notice that there was still a commercial driving force behind
this project, and we were still trying to cram in more office space than there
really was going to be room for.
GROSS: And in a way, wasn't the goal at this point to make the design of the
office building a monument itself, so that the...
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Yes.
GROSS: ...container of these offices would have the emotional impact of a
giant skyscraperlike monument.
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Right. There was a request in the sort of assignment given
to these architects to create some kind of powerful skyline element,
because--and that, I think, was a very wise and important component of this
whole thing. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation people understood a
critical thing, which is that so many people desperately missed the skyline.
Those who were lucky enough not to have actually lost family members or loved
ones on 9/11 also felt they had lost something very close to themselves, and
that was the skyline itself.
And I found that very moving and the goal of restoring that, in some way, by
building something very tall was a very convincing and important one. The
problem, of course, is that who wants at this moment in history to have an
office or an apartment or anything else on the hundred and tenth floor on
exactly that site? And so the idea of just a great tower kind of began to be
out in the air. I suggested it at some talk I gave in one of the many sort of
symposiums and panels and stuff that happened in those months that we think in
terms of a great symbolic power, sort of the Eiffel Tower of the 21st century,
that could use the latest technology to do something new in the sky that would
be a very beautiful form and symbol, but would not be office space because
there was really no market for that right now.
As it turned out, the plan that Daniel Libeskind evolved with the so-called
Freedom Tower kind of combined that idea with a smaller office building that
would have a huge symbolic spire that would come up out of it. So that the
office building itself would be maybe 60 stories tall, not much more than half
the height of the old World Trade Center, but then an unusual symbolic spire
would keep going and, in fact, would be quite a bit taller than the old World
Trade Center and would sort of restore a sense of something, a punctuation
mark on the skyline that way.
GROSS: And Daniel Libeskind, in fact, won the competition for the plan.
Would you describe his design a little bit more and how he wanted it to
resonate with the Statue of Liberty?
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Sure, sure. Daniel Libeskind's design, which he originally
called Gardens of the World, because he imagined that that spire would have a
whole bunch of gardens in the sky, representing international flora of
different kinds, and then later it was changed to the 1776 Tower, because it
was to be 1,776 feet tall, and then Governor Pataki began to call it the
Freedom Tower, and that stuck, and so it's actually known as the Freedom Tower
His notion was that he would do this office building that would be largely of
glass, somewhat asymmetrical and angular, which is how Libeskind's
architecture tends to be, and then it would have this great spire rising off
one side of it, and he likened it to the Statue of Liberty with the raised
arm. And he, in fact, even showed images from out in New York Harbor, where
you saw the Statue of Liberty in the foreground and then beyond the--with
computerized technologies sort of imposed his building into the existing
skyline, and you saw that same form, the spire, kind of like the upraised arm.
Libeskind has a tendency--he's a very good architect, but he has a tendency
often to describe his work with metaphors that are very traditional, even a
little bit sappy and conventional sometimes, and it's sort of an unusual
combination of avant-garde work that is presented in very traditional sort of
apple pie terms.
I think I said in the book that it's sort of as if, you know, you had John
Cage trying to sell his music as if it were Irving Berlin. That's kind of
what Libeskind does. So, in fact, that whole Statue of Liberty thing--it got
a lot of people interested, it made it seem very appealing, but, in fact, I
don't know that you would really ever perceive that building in conjunction
with the Statue of Liberty in quite that way anyhow.
GROSS: So although Daniel Libeskind won the competition for the plan to
rebuild ground zero, he's not exactly rebuilding with that design. He was
basically forced to collaborate with another architect, David Childs, who
didn't share the same vision. How did that end up happening?
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Libeskind had never really won the right to design any
building. What the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation did when it asked
numerous architects from around the world to submit master plans was ask them
to design a layout for ground zero, to decide what should go here, what should
go there, where the memorial should go, to create the basic outlines for the
site. All of those architects responded with more than they were actually
asked to do. And they understood that the public, of course, doesn't want to
look at little maps with streets here and there, and the public wants to look
at images and pictures of real things, and so Libeskind and all the other
architects responded with what were really ideas for real buildings, and
including Libeskind's Freedom Tower idea. Well, the Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation's position was that all of that was very nice and
perfectly fine. And in accepting and choosing Libeskind's design, they were
accepting and choosing the notion of a very tall tower, the Freedom Tower, in
that location but not the specifics of his actual design.
And Larry Silverstein, real estate developer who had leased the original World
Trade Center towers and who was going to control the insurance proceeds from
this--so he was a pretty powerful fellow in this process, still, because he
had the money to rebuild--Silverstein said, `Well, you know, I accept the
master plan, and I think Daniel Libeskind has done a beautiful site plan for
ground zero. And that's where we'll put the tower and all that, but the
actual design of the tower--I mean, this is just a sketch. And I want my
architect, who is David Childs of the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill--I
want him to design the tower, not this guy who is inexperienced in skyscrapers
anyway and just did a sketch.' And Libeskind said, `Absolutely not.'
The governor stood in front of a six-foot-tall banner of Libeskind's sketch
and said, `I pledge to start this building in the summer of 2004. We will
break ground, and we are moving ahead,' and so forth. And Libeskind's
position was, `Well, the governor committed to building my building, and so I
have the right to turn these sketches into a real, finished, buildable
And it was a pretty rough time. In the summer of 2003, it all came to a head.
Libeskind thought he was doing the skyscraper. David Childs thought he was
doing the skyscraper. The governor said that he just wanted the situation
worked out and ordered the two architects to work together. Now they were not
too happy working together because--I mean, imagine if you'd asked--I don't
know--you know, Salvador Dali and Picasso to paint a picture together. You
know, they don't necessarily have the same ideas. So I don't think you would
have gotten the highest of either man's art.
GROSS: My guest is Paul Goldberger, author of the new book "Up from Zero."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker
magazine and author of the new book "Up from Zero" about the debates
surrounding the rebuilding of ground zero. Two voices in that debate are
Daniel Libeskind, the architect who won a competition to design the master
plan for the site, and David Childs, the architect selected by the Trade
Center's landlord, Larry Silverstein, to design a skyscraper where the twin
towers had stood.
The clashes between them is the focus of a "Frontline" documentary called
"Sacred Ground," which airs tonight on PBS. Goldberger's featured in the
film. Before we get back to my interview with him, here's a clip from "Sacred
Ground" in which Daniel Libeskind and David Childs are describing the
problems with their collaboration.
(Soundbite of "Sacred Ground")
Mr. DANIEL LIBESKIND (Architect): And he said, `Well, my tower is already
perfect. It doesn't need any help from you, Mr. Libeskind. It doesn't--you
have some great ideas, but my tower is perfect.' So I said, `Well, what is
the collaboration?' He said, `You can comment on it.'
Mr. DAVID CHILDS (Architect): Collaborators, you think of a man and a wife or
two people that are equal, two hands working together. You know, there
were two equals. There wasn't. There would be a design architect. That's
very different, and that must be me. `But there could be 10 outstanding
items, and I may vote that my 51 percent opposite to your 49 on all 10 of
them. You understand that, Dan?' And that's everything--and he said,
`Absolutely. I understood.' And we, again, shook each other's hand, looked
each other in the eye.
GROSS: David Childs had his own vision for what the architecture at ground
zero should be, and he wanted to build his design, not the design from Daniel
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Right.
GROSS: So what was David Childs' vision for what the architecture should be?
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Well, David Childs had actually been playing with ideas for
very tall skyscrapers at ground zero since right after 9/11. You know, he had
had a close tie to Larry Silverstein for a while. He had actually been hired
by Silverstein to look into ways to fix up the World Trade Center and improve
it in the summer of 2001. And then 9/11 happened, and soon thereafter Childs
began to do some studies for new towers there, at Silverstein's request, in
some cases; some of them he just did on his own. And he'd been playing with
that for a very long time. He had an idea for a sort of single-torqued or
slightly twisted tower that, in fact, would be offices at the bottom and then
would culminate in a purely symbolic spire coming off the top but felt very
strongly that the spire should rise out of the center of it. Libeskind
wanted a more angular building, not something with a sort of slightly curving
twist to it and also felt adamant that the spire be on the side. So they had
some pretty fundamental differences.
They also did not get along terribly well personally. Childs is a very, very
experienced designer of skyscrapers and former chairman and one of the chief
partners in Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which is one of the largest and
most-powerful and most-experienced skyscraper-design firms in the world.
Daniel Libeskind ran a small atelier kind of office that had mainly done
museums up to now and had very little experience with very large, commercial
buildings. Childs thought Libeskind was kind of a little pushy and
ambitious. Libeskind thought Childs was arrogant and condescending. And it
was not a happy combination.
GROSS: So what kind of hybrid do we have now? What is actually moving
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Well, at the Freedom Tower, which is still going ahead in
Libeskind's preferred site at the northwest corner of ground zero, Libeskind
and David Childs ended up with a kind of hybrid of their two ideas. It's not
the best of either architect. The base is sort of a little more like Childs'
in a slightly twisted and torqued form. The spire is asymmetrical, as
Libeskind wanted it, but it's a short, stubby, asymmetrical spire that comes
out of a whole interesting cable structure at the top that fills the whole top
of the building. It's kind of almost like an empty mesh of cables that were
done, in significant part, by the engineers Guy Battle and Guy Nordenson, who
had worked at different times with David Childs on it and which it was hoped
would sort of represent the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge and evoke that and
which are supposed to have windmills and create a kind of wind farm of energy
there, bringing new sources of energy and allowing the building to be a symbol
of alternative environmental responsibility, we might say.
While they did have a symbolic groundbreaking on the Fourth of July, which was
what the governor had pledged to do and set in place a, really, very beautiful
stone commemorating those who died on September 11, which is to be the
cornerstone of the building, the reality is they're still struggling over
elements of that building. They're not ready to really go whole hog into
building it. And I'm not sure what the final version is actually going to
look like. For all that we have seen this hybrid, for all it's been publicly
announced and hailed by the governor as the, you know, greatest thing since
the Empire State Building or whatever, it's still evolving and changing. And
I don't know whether it's going to go more in the Libeskind direction or more
in the David Childs direction. I sort of hope it goes in one or the other
because what we've got now is a kind of awkward hybrid that doesn't have the
greatest strengths of either one.
GROSS: Paul Goldberger is the author of the new book "Up from Zero." He'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, "Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut"--Richard Kelly tells us
about his new version of his 2001 film that flopped at the box office but
became a cult hit. Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers brand names that cross
over into our daily speech. And we continue our conversation with Paul
Goldberger about the plans for rebuilding ground zero.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Pulitzer Prize-winning
architecture critic Paul Goldberger. He's written for The New Yorker since
1997 and formerly wrote for The New York Times. He's now dean of Parsons
School of Design. His new book, "Up from Zero," is about the controversies
surrounding the rebuilding of ground zero.
Now we've discussed the architecture plans for the office space, for the major
building that will be at ground zero. There's also a monument that will be
part of it, and there's yet another designer involved with that, or a couple
of other designers involved with that. What is the latest plan for the actual
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Well, the memorial itself there was a separate process for,
and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation held a competition and they
said, `This is going to be a real, true competition, and we're going to have
some judges; they're going to pick the best design. They're all going to be
anonymous so that we can do it purely on the basis of quality.' And they
ended up with a design by a young architect name Michael Arad who didn't
particularly like the Libeskind plan and kind of struggled with
another--one aspect of the Liebeskind plan we haven't talked about is the fact
that in his master plan, he called for depressing the entire site of the
original footprints of the World Trade Center and having the memorial a little
bit below grade. Arad changed that completely, raised it to ground level and
wanted only the actual footprints of the towers, the two squares where the
towers had been, to be sunken. And that was chosen, so that made for a big
change in Liebeskind's master plan.
GROSS: And another thing that Liebeskind wanted was to have the slurry wall,
the wall that survived the attack at the World Trade Center, and this is the
wall that kept the river out of the building--he wanted that to survive as
part of a monument so that we'd have a ruin from the building...
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Yes. Yes, he did.
GROSS: ...that we could visit and use to reflect upon. But that, I think, is
no longer part of the plan.
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Well, actually, it is sort of part of the plan, but it's
kind of been shunted off to the side and made very marginal because it doesn't
really fit with raising everything to street level. However, they will keep
that ruined wall that survived from the foundation of the old World Trade
Center sort of exposed. You'll sort of--you won't see it from outside from
the street, but you can kind of go down underground and then you'll see it.
So it's a sort of weak compromise of Liebeskind's plan. It's kind of another
case in which Liebeskind's ideas, just as in the Freedom Tower, are sort of
there but have now been so compromised by having to combine them with a
different architect's vision that they're not quite there in the original way.
On the other hand, Michael Arad's plan for the memorial was the best of the
competitors, I think, and it did deserve to win. The problem is it won by
changing a key part of the master plan, and that's kind of tough. On that
one, by the way, Liebeskind has been very generous and cooperative, unlike
with the Freedom Tower, where they've had a very public struggle. I guess he
decided he didn't want any more public fights, so he and Arad have been
working hard to try to make things work OK.
GROSS: Is it too soon to project a completion date for ground zero?
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Well, it's at least 10 to 15 years away, 'cause there's
another factor we haven't even talked about yet, which is that there's not
really much of a demand for office space there. What people want now in Lower
Manhattan is housing. Before September 11th, it was becoming more and more of
a mixed-use, residential neighborhood, less the total Financial District that
it used to be, much more a place where people lived, had restaurants, stores,
cultural facilities, things like that. A lot has been going on in that
neighborhood before September 11th. What will save that neighborhood
ultimately will be a continuation of all those same forces, a continuation of
all the forces that were play in Lower Manhattan on September the 10th.
And the determination of the authorities to keep the actual ground zero site
for office buildings primarily with a little bit of cultural facilities and
memorial, means that it doesn't respond quite enough to all these forces. Not
having housing when the demand for housing is high and the demand for offices
is low means that it's going to take even longer to finish the place up,
because a lot of those buildings are only going to be built when there's
actually a market demand for them, and there really isn't much now. There
isn't even much of a demand for the Freedom Tower. The governor said he'll
move in, but there's still--OK, he'll take a floor, but you've got about
another 60 more to fill.
GROSS: At the beginning of our conversation, you talked a little bit about
the role of the public in deciding what the future of ground zero would be.
What are some of the conclusions you've reached about, as you put it, the
difficulty of architecture as a form of participatory democracy?
Mr. GOLDBERGER: It's interesting because I totally believe that the
involvement of the public has been critical here, and it could not have been
any other way anyway, because how could you take a site like this that
everybody feels such a deep emotional connection to and cut the public out of
it? And yet, on the other hand, architecture doesn't always make for very
good participatory democracy. People will not necessarily pick the best
thing. It's important to remember that all the way through this process, at
various times with various polls, none of them showed less than, if I recall
correctly, 30 or 40 percent of people wanted to rebuild the old World Trade
Now, you know, to spend billions of dollars to re-create one of the great
architectural mistakes of the 20th century would not have been particularly
wise, in my view. It would have denied everything we have learned about
architecture and buildings since then. It would have also been a huge act of
public denial in that it would have pretended that nothing had happened. And
so it's a tough thing. How do you bring in the public, listen to their views,
but not put the thing up to a referendum? I don't think putting art up to a
referendum particularly gets you very far most of the time. And also people
tend to be a little bit afraid of the new and not to support it until it's a
little bit more familiar.
But here is a case in which, in fact, the new is what will serve us the best,
I think, is to look forward as much as we possibly can here and show the world
on this piece of land in which America was attacked, show the world that
America not only rebuilds but remains at the cutting edge of creativity.
GROSS: Well, Paul Goldberger, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. GOLDBERGER: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Paul Goldberger is the author of the new book "Up from Zero." He's
also featured in the "Frontline" documentary "Sacred Ground," which airs
tonight on many PBS stations.
Coming up, the new director's cut of the film "Donnie Darko." This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Richard Kelly discusses his new director's cut of the
film "Donnie Darko"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The film "Donnie Darko" was released shortly after September 11th, 2001, and
flopped at the box office, but it developed a cult following with the help of
its DVD release and midnight screenings around the country. Now there's a new
director's cut that is being shown in select theaters featuring 20 minutes of
footage that wasn't in the original version. My guest is Richard Kelly, the
screenwriter and director.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the film as Donnie Darko, a young man who is
alienated in his suburban home and high school. He has visions which may be a
symptom of the emotional disorder for which he is supposed to be taking
medication, but it may also be a sign that the world is coming to an end. The
movie is a coming-of-age story that includes elements of science fiction.
Drew Barrymore is one of the film's producers and plays one of Donnie's
teachers. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Donnie's older sister Elizabeth. The film
is set in 1988. Here's Donnie, his sisters and their parents sitting at the
(Soundbite of "Donnie Darko")
Ms. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) I'm voting for Dukakis.
Unidentified Actor: (As Donnie's father) Hmm. Well, maybe when you have
children of your own who need braces, you can't afford them because half of
your husband's paycheck goes to the federal government, you'll regret that
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) My husband's paycheck? Oh. Anyway, I'm not
going to squeeze one out till I'm, like, 30.
Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) Will you still be working at the Yarn
Barn, because I hear that's a really great place to raise children.
Unidentified Actress #1: (As Donnie's younger sister) That's really funny.
Unidentified Actress #2: (As Donnie's mother) No, I think a year of
partying's enough. She'll be going to Harvard next fall.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) Mom, I haven't even gotten in yet.
Unidentified Actress #2: (As Donnie's mother) Do you honestly think Michael
Dukakis will provide for this country till you're ready to squeeze one out?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) Yeah, I do.
Unidentified Actress #2: (As Donnie's mother) Hmm.
Unidentified Actress #1: (As Donnie's younger sister) When can I squeeze one
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) Not until eighth grade.
Unidentified Actress #2: (As Donnie's mother) Excuse me.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) Donnie, you're such a (censored).
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) Whoa, Elizabeth. A little hostile there.
Maybe you should be the one in therapy. Then Mom and Dad can pay someone $200
an hour to listen to all your thoughts so we don't have to.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) OK. You want to tell Mom and Dad why you
stopped taking your medication?
Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Donnie Darko) You're such a (censored).
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) What?
Unidentified Actress #2: (As Donnie's mother) Please.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Elizabeth) Did you just call me a (censored)?
Unidentified Actress #2: (As Donnie's mother) Elizabeth, that's enough.
GROSS: When "Donnie Darko" was first released just a few weeks after
September 11th, it earned $515,000. Boy, is that ever nothing in terms of
profits for a film.
Mr. RICHARD KELLY (Screenwriter and Director, "Donnie Darko"): Yeah, it's
GROSS: That must have hurt.
Mr. KELLY: Yeah, it--listen, it's always--it makes me cringe anytime this
film is written about in print media. In the first sentence it's always `box
office bomb,' you know, or they mention that dreaded gross of $515,000. And
it's frustrating that it's always--the box-office grosses are ultimately what
your sort of film is judged upon. And so it really didn't catch on and people
really didn't notice the film until it was released on DVD in March of 2002.
GROSS: Would you describe the basic story of "Donnie Darko"? There's
something for you.
Mr. KELLY: Yeah, boy, do you have an hour? How long is this show? No, I
think the basic story is it's a science-fiction comic-book fable that takes
place in autumn of the year 1988 in the American suburbs. It's a story of a
troubled teen-ager who embarks on a journey into what is potentially a
parallel universe. And he is guided through this journey by an enigmatic
rabbit named Frank.
Mr. KELLY: How's that?
GROSS: That's pretty good, actually. That was pretty good. You know, one of
the characters, the character played by Jena Malone, says to Donnie Darko that
his name sounds like the name of a superhero comic. Did you choose that name?
Did you come up with that name for that reason?
Mr. KELLY: Absolutely. I mean, the name was the first thing that popped into
my head. That name, to me, was specifically chosen to be kind of an
archetype, I guess, for any dysfunctional teen-ager or any teen-ager who feels
alienated or disenfranchised, and I wanted to sort of create a comic-book
character that emulated a lot of the types of teen-agers that go through the
emotions of isolation and feeling separation anxiety, or they're experiencing
what they think might be mental illness.
GROSS: Now the story of Donnie Darko is the story of, you know, a boy in high
school who's really alienated from the school, doesn't have much in the way of
friends, is even the loner in his own family. But he also seems to have some
kind of mental illness. His psychiatrist says he has daytime hallucinations.
He takes medicine for whatever the problem is, though he doesn't seem to want
to take the medicine. And at the same time, he seems to have entered a time
warp. We don't really know whether the time warp is something that is really
a kind of symptom of his mental illness, you know, another hallucination, or
whether this is like just the science-fiction part of the movie and there
really is a time warp because it's a science-fiction movie. So I think a lot
of people who see the movie end the movie by saying, `Well, did this really
happen? Is it his imagination? Is it a schizophrenic hallucination? Is it
science fiction?' Do you want us to know what you really think of that, or do
you want us to just think about it and talk it through ourselves without any
help from you?
Mr. KELLY: Well, the very nature of this story is that ultimately that there
is ambiguity that will always exist, and to take on this kind of subject
matter and to claim to have all the answers would be kind of presumptuous of
me. But at the same time...
GROSS: No, it wouldn't. You're the author.
Mr. KELLY: Yeah. Well, you know, that's a bit more of a...
GROSS: It's not life's mysteries. It's your screenplay.
Mr. KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's a little bit of both, and I think that
the very design of it is such that there will always be ambiguity. But with a
director's cut, I think what you're seeing is this is really more of a
science-fiction film, and I think part of the theatrical cut was the
information that I had to withhold from the audience perhaps validated the
theory of mental illness, that there may be the misconception that this film
is about mental illness when, for me, it is about a kid who is gifted or
exposed to supernatural phenomena, who is transported into a new dimension and
is given superpowers and is not mentally ill at all and is really being given
placebos by his therapist because she is somehow aware that he is perhaps
someone gifted with a supernatural ability. And she almost feels as though if
she were to give him medication, she might be damaging--you don't want to put
Superman on Ritalin; he might lose his powers or he might fly into a wall, you
know. So it's a bit of that when you see in the directors cut that this is
hopefully putting the theory out there that maybe--that the mentally ill are
perhaps exposed to a phenomenon that we aren't aware of and that there really
is no answer and no true definition of schizophrenia and what that is, and
it's trying to create an alternate theory for what it all could mean, I guess.
GROSS: Getting back to your new director's cut of "Donnie Darko," how
different is the new ending from the original ending, without giving away what
the ending is?
Mr. KELLY: Well, ultimately the ending is the same; it's just--there's a new
twist, I think, to the ending in the sense that perhaps not all of "Donnie
Darko" takes place in the year 1988. Perhaps what you're seeing is a glimpse
of 1988 from another time. And I don't want to give away what that time might
GROSS: Was time travel something that always appealed to you?
Mr. KELLY: Well, I mean, I think you grow up reading a lot of science
fiction, it's--time travel movies are always fascinating. They were always
fascinating to me. I remember when I saw "Back to the Future," it was a
pretty life-changing moment. And when I saw Chris Marker's "La Jetee" and
then Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys," it had a big impact on me. And I think I
was always fascinated with, I guess, the concept of time travel. I think any
great science-fiction author has always tried to tackle that subject matter.
I think you see it as being a really re-occurring theme.
GROSS: Your movie, "Donnie Darko," has a pretty amazing cast. Donnie is
played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and you've got his sister Maggie Gyllenhaal playing
his sister. And then you've got Jena Malone, and she plays his good friend, a
Mr. KELLY: Yeah.
GROSS: Plus, Patrick Swayze has a small part as the self-help guru who
teaches the kids in high school, and Katharine Ross from "The Graduate" plays
the psychiatrist. It's a really interesting cast. And I'm wondering, how did
you get these people with such a small budget? And--'cause it's a combination
of things you've done here. You've cast well-known people on a teeny budget,
and then you have people who were unknown or barely known in starring roles
who, you know, are now much bigger stars.
Mr. KELLY: Well, I think it all comes down to hopefully the quality of the
screenplay that attracts talent. I think with a first-time director, there's
always the risk that this person will be a complete idiot and that he will
lead the cast astray and the film will be a disaster. And it's a very big
risk for a known, well-established actor to take a chance to appear in a film
directed by a first-time director. And you know, luckily Drew Barrymore
signed on to the film; she was the first one. And as executive producer, she,
you know, put her name on the film and committed to it, and I think that made
a lot of the other actors comfortable in making the decision to work with me.
You know, then, I was 25 years old, so there was a very high probability that
I was completely full of it and, you know, maybe I still am, but it's a risk,
and ultimately it all comes back to the screenplay which, you know, thankfully
we had a screenplay and it ended up being the blueprint, and it's why we're
all here, really.
GROSS: When you were making "Donnie Darko" and you were directing Patrick
Swayze and Jake Gyllenhaal and, you know, Katharine Ross, Jena Malone, did you
feel like a fraud, you know, because...
Mr. KELLY: Yes.
GROSS: ...you were so young and so...
Mr. KELLY: Yes. I still am.
GROSS: ...inexperienced, and here you were, you know, having everybody under
your direction. It must be a kind of frightening first-time experience.
Mr. KELLY: Yeah. I think you just--there's no time to really sit there and
have a nervous breakdown. You just kind of--you just sort of just...
GROSS: A lucky break for that, right?
Mr. KELLY: You just keep moving, you know? And you just huddle yourself to
sleep at night and curl up in a ball and just cry. No. You don't have time.
You're directing a film; you can either rise to the occasion and delegate
authority through a bunch of Teamsters and a bunch of people there looking at
you like you're a little bastard who's 25 years old and got opportunity of a
lifetime, or you can self-destruct, and the whole thing can become a disaster.
It's--you have to rise to the occasion. It's literally like being up on stage
and having to perform.
GROSS: Richard Kelly wrote and directed "Donnie Darko." The director's cut
is showing at select theaters and will be opening in more theaters over the
next couple of months.
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on brand names that cross over into our
common speech. This is FRESH AIR.
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Commentary: Brand names as part of language
TERRY GROSS, host:
Most people think of brand names as living outside the English language, not
as real words. But as our linguist Geoff Nunberg observes, nowadays those
names make up a big proportion of the average person's vocabulary. As he puts
it, the English language is being privatized.
Not long ago, a French branding consultant announced that he'd done a study
that showed that brand names account for two out of five words that the
average person knows. I'm a little dubious about that result; it puts me in
mind of a well-known fact that 57 percent of all quoted statistics are made up
on the spot. But the estimate's probably in the right range. I figure I know
20 or 30 common nouns for kinds of automobiles: convertible, sedan, SUV,
hardtop and so forth. But I know several hundred names of car makes and
models, and the proportions are similar for breakfast cereals, soft drinks and
Of course, the vast majority of those trademarks live in the noun region of my
mental dictionary. The neighborhoods inhabited by verbs, adjectives and
prepositions are relatively uncluttered by commercial messages. But the
Patent & Trademark Office lists over four million terms that somebody's tried
to trademark at one time or another, and the list is growing by about 100,000
a year. Even if only a fraction of those wind up settling in your brain, they
make for a big constituency.
Think of the English language as a vast territory of words and syllables, what
the linguist Geoffrey Pullum calls the phonetosphere(ph). Most of that
space has been staked out by private interests now, some of them small
homesteaders and some of them great brand barons with thousands of names under
their control. It's a territory torn by border wars, particularly as
companies extend their brand names into new areas of business, where they may
brush up against the similar-sounding brands of competitors. Nowadays, more
than 80 percent of new product names are the extensions of established brands.
All of a sudden, a computer company and a music publisher can be at odds over
who has the right to use Apple for a music download service. And at the
center of it all is this patch of free range that we think of as the common
language, where words aren't accountable to anybody at all.
The branding people have a complicated relationship to that common language.
They're always abducting its inhabitants to serve a single master as a brand
or slogan. But they also have an interest in maintaining its neutrality, like
a linguistic Switzerland. That isn't just because they need the verbs and
prepositions that flourish there, but because they need all those generic
phrases like `bathroom tissue' and `plastic wrap' to keep their trademarks
from becoming common nouns that anybody could use. Whatever you or I may
think, in the minds of trademark attorneys, all brand names are really secret
adjectives, not Oreos, but Oreo brand sandwich cookies; not Skippy, but Skippy
brand peanut butter spread.
But trademark holders live in fear of seeing their own brands cross the border
and cast off their capital letters. Over the years, that's been the fate of a
lot of trademark names: pogo stick, heroin, cellophane, dry ice, leatherette,
jungle gym and zipper. And there are dozens of other trademarks that are
clinging to legal life by a thread: Mary Janes and Loafers, Ouija board and
Peg-Board, Tabasco sauce and minibar, Skivvies and Sheetrock, Windbreakers and
Seeing Eye dogs, Dumpsters and Dobros. Not a lot of people write those words
with capital letters, but every one of them's still legally entitled to the
Dictionaries are supposed to be the guardians of the common language, but
they're reluctant to naturalize any of those asylum seekers from brand-space.
They can ignore the objections of pressure groups when it comes to listing
obscenities or ethnic slurs, and they have no compunction about including
slang terms or malapropisms that set the teeth of the language police on edge.
But crossing your own legal department takes a different kind of
moxie--another former brand name, by the way. When it comes to defining words
that are still trademarked, lexicographers suddenly discover the virtues of
discretion. Look up the verb `xerox' in Merriam-Webster's, for example, and
you'll see an entry that says `to make a copy on a Xerox copier,' as in: `Did
you Xerox the documents?' `No, but I Konica'd some and Toshiba'd the rest.'
It's a definition that clearly had its origin on legal stationery, not in
anybody's actual use of the verb.
Some people find that profusion of brand names alarming. You could have the
impression that we're privatizing the language in the same way we're
privatizing the national forests. But as the Frenchman who did that study
points out, it has a useful side effect. The great brands don't belong to any
single language; they're part of a new global tongue, the Esperanto of the
checkout stand. You may not know how to say `soft drink' or `athletic shoe'
in Italian, but nowadays you can always get by in Rome by asking for Coca-Cola
or Nikes. From the international point of view, those are the real common
nouns. We're drawn together under the international `lingua branda' with only
our separate verbs to keep us apart.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and the author of "Going Nucular:
Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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