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Scott Rettberg: New York Says Thank You

After 9/11, people across the country reached out to New Yorkers in their time of need. Some of those affected have learned to heal through paying it forward.

New York Says Thank You


Tribeca: Please tell us about New York Says Thank You.

Scott Rettberg: New York Says Thank You is a feature-length documentary film that portrays the story of four New Yorkers who were in some way affected by 9/11. But to me, it’s not necessarily about 9/11; it’s more about 9/12, and it’s about all the people who came to New York City to help New York in their moment in need. The four people in the film wanted to say thank you to the rest of the country for helping them get through their healing process—whether they recovered a loved one or helped out on the pile—ultimately they had a need to give back.


This organization called New York Says Thank You was created out of an idea from a 5-year-old kid who wanted to give some toys to a girl who lost all her things in the 2004 San Diego wildfires. His father, Jeff Parness, who was looking for a way to honor his friend who died in the towers that day, challenged his son to think bigger. The son ended up following through and collecting a bunch of toys from his friends, and that effort turned into this foundation. Every year, on the anniversary of 9/11, New York Says Thank You takes 9/11 survivors, firemen, and people from New York to a community somewhere else in the country that’s been devastated.


Tribeca: How did you get involved?


Scott Rettberg: This whole thing has been born out of tragedy. I had been in the film and television industry, and I’d always wanted to do a big American film. I’ve always liked the Forrest Gumps and the big Americana type movies, and I had been looking to do one for maybe 3 or 4 years. My mom was in a car accident, and I went to take care of her, and she was telling me about Jeff, whose wife was a colleague of hers. My mom was telling me about this foundation, and it just blew me away. So I looked it up on the Internet and I called Jeff and I said, “Hey, I don’t know much about you guys, but I think what you guys are doing is a pretty cool story. If you don’t mind, I’d love to grab a small crew together…” This was probably a month outside of 2006’s project, so just on a whim I pulled a crew…


Tribeca: Was that the first project?


Scott Rettberg: That’s the first one I had been to, but the first one they had done was 2004 in San Diego, after during the wildfires, and then they had done a couple right after Katrina. So the 2006 project was in a small town in Indiana, which had been hit by a tornado. The crew was rebuilding a Methodist church. The Parness family is a Jewish family from New York, and they were rebuilding this Methodist church in the middle of a cornfield, alongside New York firefighters and Amish people and Mennonites… I thought, “Now that’s what America’s about.”


I just really wanted to capture that feeling of what it was like year after 9/11—there was a year where the entire world was a community, and I think that for me in my lifetime that’s a memory; I like that about humanity. So many documentaries I’ve been involved with have been darker stories, and sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that at the core as human beings we do have a good side to us. That’s kind of what I set out to do in making this film.


Scott Rettberg


Tribeca: So the film was your idea?


Scott Rettberg: Yes, I reached out to Jeff Parness and he kind of caught me up on what they’d done. I pulled together a DP and a couple of other people within a couple of days, and we just jumped on a plane to Indiana. On the way, I still didn’t understand what the story was fully, but my gut told me that there was something very special about this story. I mean, who doesn’t want to give New York the opportunity to say thank you?


I’d love to see Brian Fitzpatrick [the FDNY firefighter in the film] go up on stage and say thank you—to really give these guys a voice.


Tribeca: So this is your first feature. What’s the biggest thing you learned while making the film? Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?


Scott Rettberg: I think the biggest thing is if your gut tells you it’s the right thing to do, just believe in it. I started this thing in 2006 out of my own pocket, and I financed it probably all the way up to about a year and a half ago, until we connected with Jeffrey Stewart and Jonathan Tisch of Walnut Hill Media. But there were so many doors [that didn’t open]. I just kept plugging away and plugging away, just knowing in my heart that it was a good story.


Obviously with technology being what it is, there are so many films being made now that it can get discouraging. But I’d say just plug away; if you get turned down by a festival, keep your passion for it, don’t be discouraged.


Tribeca: It seems like a great match that New York Says Thank You is going to be at the Tribeca Film Festival, since TFF was founded in response to 9/11. So what are your hopes, what do you imagine is going to happen at Tribeca?


Scott Rettberg: When I first started this project, I never knew that 9/11 would be declared the National Day of Service, and this year’s going to be, hopefully the biggest volunteer effort in humanity, which is great. When I started the film, I didn’t know it was going to be about volunteering, but we are actually an example for what come from a 5-year-old kid—it can then snowball into thousands of people traveling all over the country to help each other.


Tribeca has always been my dream, because to me filmmaking is about bringing communities together around stories—whether it’s a horror film, or whatever—it’s a community of people who love stories and character. I think Tribeca brought that back to New York after 9/11, when the city needed stories, inspiration, help and business. Tribeca is an inspiring organization born out of 9/11 to bring hope back to New York City, and this film is New York bringing hope back to communities around the country so I think it’s a perfect marriage, especially with the city approaching the 10-year anniversary of 9/11.


New York Says Thank You


Tribeca: Do you go on the trips now yourself? I could see how it would be addicting.


Scott Rettberg: Yeah, this last year I did go.  I hope that people will be encouraged to volunteer, in whatever makes sense to them. I mean, if your issue is breast cancer, or multiple sclerosis, or whatever it is, take that extra moment—even if it’s once or twice a year—to consciously reach out and make a difference.


Tribeca: I love when Brian [the firefighter] talks about how he just can’t wait for next year…


Scott Rettberg: For Brian, this has been a progression. For example, Brian would never talk to me, he wouldn’t even do an interview in Indiana. And then the following year in Texas, he opened up a little bit. Firefighters are very closed. You don’t talk as a firefighter, you deal with your emotions, and you keep it in your house, which is very respectful, and that’s why the culture of firefighting is the culture of firefighting. In the film, he gets that thousand-yard stare, where you know he’s literally in the moment looking back at 9/11. But I’ve literally watched Brian heal through helping others. How do you not well up a little bit when you see something like that?


Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker dead or alive, who would it be?


Scott Rettberg: Alfred Hitchcock, because of his stylistic choices, his use of light, and just the way he captured a story through his camera.  


Robert De Niro, he’s obviously an icon, so if I get the chance at the Festival to even shake his hand…


And I think the stuff that I aspire to do is maybe a little more commercial, so Jerry Bruckheimer. I’d like to make a story for a wide audience, something you can bring your entire family to—where from beginning to end you get action. I think Jerry Bruckheimer has delivered that in my eyes, so I would love to pick his brain about how he goes about choosing a story and then following it through to make sure it’s so crisp, so clean.


So those three would probably be my dinner party—it’d be interesting to get all three of them talking.  I think that’s what I’d like to do, just get them talking to me and be a fly on the wall, that’d be great.


Tribeca: What piece of art (book, film, music, tv) are you recommending most right now to your friends?


Scott Rettberg: The Fighter—hands down, the performances, the characters—that film just blew me away. From beginning to end, everybody in that film drew me in. It was an amazing cast, an amazing story…


And I think as far as art, I’m always a fan of the Getty [Museum], so if you’re in LA, go to the Getty.


Tribeca: What makes New York Says Thank You a must see?


Scott Rettberg: New York Says Thank You is perfectly in harmony with the community of Tribeca. If you love TFF because it brings hope to New York, then our film’s a perfect thing, because it brings hope to America. It’s the most American film you’ll see and it will inspire children to change the world.


Find out where and when New York Says Thank You is playing at the Festival. Learn more about New York Says Thank You, the foundation.


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