Every day of the week for the past five years, in the dim hours before dawn, Tom Hickey left his house in the far reaches of Brooklyn and made his way across the East River to the tip of Manhattan. He is a fourth-generation ironworker; his grandfather worked on the World Trade Center’s original transportation hub, and his father helped build the north tower. Hickey was just a few blocks away when planes slammed into the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and he is one of the nearly 26,000 workers who have labored to build a new tower in their place. With Rise, the second production from the documentary unit of TIME’s Red Border Films, director Shaul Schwarz chronicles how Hickey and his fellow ironworkers helped turn the nation’s most hallowed pile of rubble into a 1,776-ft.-tall icon.
The film is one part of TIME’s multiplatform project on the construction of 1 World Trade Center, which also includes an unprecedented 360-degree interactive image taken from the top of the tower’s spire and a deeply reported story on the struggle to build 1 WTC. Schwarz worked closely with TIME’s Jonathan Woods and Josh Sanburn, who spent more than a year negotiating access to the site and documenting the rebuilding.
Schwarz spoke with TIME’s Nate Rawlings about Rise and his approach to the story.
We were able to tell the story of the building through the lens of the guys who built it. It’s a very personal look at those people, giving them a voice to explain their experience over the past several years.
A lot of people on the outside ask, “Why did this take so long?” When you hang out with these people, wake up with them at 4 in the morning and go to work with them, you see that it’s a behemoth of a project, being built by real people one day at a time.
If you do something every day for years, it’s hard for it not to feel like a typical job. In a healthy way, when they get to the construction site, they think, “O.K., now we pick it up to the 60th floor and the 70th floor.” Eventually, you just have to go to work, get dirty, go back home, take a shower, sleep and do it all over again tomorrow. But now that they’re getting close to that last day, the emotional weight of what they’ve just done is sinking back in, and they’re coming to grips with the fact that it’s not an ordinary job.
This building is a little bit personal for everybody, but it’s deeply personal for those who were there on 9/11. Many of the ironworkers were right there and participated in what was called the bucket brigade after the attacks. It makes sense, on one level, because these guys work with heavy metal and would know how to lift it, but I think it’s in their DNA. They are this clan that thought they could help, and I don’t think any of them thought at the time, “We’re going to rebuild this building.”
There’s a bond between these guys that’s unique, and we wanted to capture it. They’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The next building they build will be extraordinary too, but it didn’t start as a pile of rubble from hell.
When you get up to a certain height in the tower, it’s quiet. There’s the sound of work, of course, but there’s a separation from life down below. In most skyscrapers, you can have a great view, but you’re in an office that’s buzzing with people. Most of the floors we walked through at 1 World Trade Center were clean and done, but there’s no life yet in the building.
There were some milestones along the way—passing the height of the Empire State Building was a big one—but setting the spire into place may have been the biggest. And you can see why through the incredible access we were able to secure. You get to see exactly what it feels like to be up there, more than 1,500 ft. in the sky, with the spire one foot away as the guys lay it into place. It’s an “Oh, my God” feeling in the film, and you can see that in the eyes of the workers. That’s as high as it’s going to go, the start of the end.
Shaul Schwarz is an Israeli documentary film director, cinematographer and award winning photographer. His debut feature length documentary "Narco Cultura" premiered at Sundance in 2013. It screened at film festivals worldwide, including The Berlin International Film Festival and Hot Docs Film Festival. He has shot and directed content for TNT, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, and CNN. He is also a regular photographic contributor to TIME Magazine and National Geographic Magazine. Schwarz is based in Brooklyn, and is currently producing short film content for online publications and developing a second feature length documentary.