Horror of 9/11 Turned Actor Fine Into Pilot, Tribeca Director

Travis Fine was flying from St. Louis to Newark, New Jersey, in 2003 when he started talking to his co-pilot about the grounding of civilian aircraft over U.S. airspace on 9/11.

“The more he told me about his experience on that chaotic morning, the more I thought it would make an interesting story,” Fine said in an interview at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters. “The next day, as we were flying back to St. Louis on autopilot, I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling some notes and ideas.”

That conversation turned into “The Space Between,” a moving 9/11 story starring Oscar nominee Melissa Leo. Fine’s film about a burned-out flight attendant and a precocious Muslim boy thrown together on that tragic day premiered last Friday at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, not far from the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood.

“9/11 was the inspiration for the story, so Tribeca always seemed like the right place for it to premiere,” said the writer/director, who also co-produced the movie with his wife Kristine.

The terrorist attacks had a profound effect on Fine. An actor whose movies had included “The Thin Red Line” and “Girl, Interrupted,” he left show business to become a pilot for a regional airline.

“The last picture I did before 9/11 was something I wasn’t proud of,” said the 41-year-old father of three. “It cost too much money and it wasn’t very good. Then, right before the premiere, I read that 2 million people were going to starve in sub-Saharan Africa. I realized that the $25-30 million they spent to make the movie could have saved a lot of lives.”

Airline Pilot

After 9/11, “I reassessed my life and decided to become a commercial pilot,” Fine said. “I thought that if I could get people safely from one place to another that somehow I’d be helping the cause.”

He went to flight school, worked as a flight instructor and then was hired by Chautauqua Airlines. He was offered a promotion from first officer to captain after three years, but turned it down because it would have meant moving his family from California to Chicago.

Instead, Fine joined his wife in the real-estate business. In addition to selling homes for clients, the Fines buy properties, fix them up and sell them for a profit.

“We flipped six homes last year and we were doing two rehabs while I was shooting the film,” he said. “I was getting calls from contractors on the set.”

Small Budget

Leo plays a stewardess who ends up taking care of an unaccompanied 10-year-old passenger after their flight from New York to Los Angeles is grounded in Texas on 9/11. Though they clash at first, the hard-drinking woman and the devout Pakistani-American boy (Anthony Keyvan) gradually bond as they ride back to New York to find the child’s father, who was working in one of the towers when the planes struck.

Fine, whose only other feature directing credit was “The Others” 13 years ago, said “The Space Between” was shot in 27 days on a budget of less than $2 million. To create a dream sequence involving the Oklahoma City bombing, he used the corner of a soundstage parking lot in Los Angeles.

“You have to be creative when you’re working with a small budget,” Fine said.

Oscar Nominee

The same principle applied to getting Leo, who had just received an Oscar nomination for “Frozen River.” Fine had worked with her on the TV series “The Young Riders,” but they hadn’t spoken in years.

They got in touch through a woman who ran Leo’s Web site. The actress loved the script and agreed to do the movie if Fine got financing.

Using their business connections, Fine and his wife raised the money from five private investors. He said his real-estate background came in handy as a filmmaker.

“They’re similar,” he said. “In both, you have to pull together money and logistics and get the project done quickly. Some homes we’ve bought and renovated have had bigger budgets than this picture.”

(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Rick Warner in New York at rwarner1@bloomberg.net.

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