“The Looming Tower,” an unflinching look at the missteps leading to the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, seems an unlikely vehicle for a love letter. But Twin Cities native Ali Selim, a key writer and director for the 10-part Hulu series that begins streaming Wednesday, dedicated his work to the memory of his Egyptian-born father.
“When I would get picked up to go to the shoot, the Teamsters would say the ghost of my dad was hanging over the set,” Selim, 57, said by phone last month from his new home in Portland, Ore.
The writer/director of “Sweet Land,” one of the most critically acclaimed movies ever filmed in Minnesota, was familiar with the material long before he was recruited for the project. Selim had come across an excerpt of Lawrence Wright’s book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” in the New York Times and read it to his dad, former University of St. Thomas economics Prof. Mohamed Selim, who had lost his eyesight after retiring.
“It excited him to the point of breathlessness,” Selim said. “I bought the book on tape, but he couldn’t stand it because the New York actor on the audio book couldn’t pronounce the Arabic names. By the time he passed away in 2015, I had read him the entire book cover to cover eight times.”
Father and son appreciated Wright’s insights into the frayed relationship between the West and the Middle East, presenting legitimate grievances from both camps.
That evenhanded perspective was important to Selim’s longtime friend Dan Futterman, who asked him to work on the series. Futterman, a two-time Oscar nominee as screenwriter of “Capote” and “Foxcatcher,” teamed with acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) to run the show. Selim ended up directing Episodes 4 and 5, with writing credits on the seventh and final installments.
“I wanted him on board, not only because he’s a great writer, but because of his heritage,” said Futterman, who appeared in a Selim-directed commercial for A1 Steak Sauce before establishing himself as a force behind the scenes. “His insight into Islam and being Arab-American in the United States was great for the actors.”
Tahar Rahim plays the Lebanese-American FBI agent who almost prevented the World Trade Center attacks. He lauded Selim’s work with the cast, which includes veterans Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard.
“He doesn’t come on set with the scene firmly in his head,” Rahim said. “He comes to you as an actor and asks, ‘How are you feeling? What do you want to do?’ I like that. He finds the right language for each actor.”
Like Rahim’s character, Selim identifies himself as a proud American. But he admits sometimes feeling out of place in the United States, despite having spent nearly his entire childhood in St. Paul.
“It’s not that I felt ostracized. But I never had an anchored sense of ‘This is where I belong,’ ” said Selim, who traveled to Egypt frequently while growing up. “Maybe that’s not the right way to say it. Maybe it’s better to say I felt just as much at home in Minnesota as I did in Cairo.”
Selim’s tendency to identify himself as an outsider may also explain why he’s a not a full-time member of the independent film world. Despite the success of “Sweet Land” — it won an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature — Selim has not made a theatrical release in more than a decade, focusing on teaching and directing TV series including “Criminal Minds” and “In Treatment.”
“Maybe television is a better outlet for him,” Futterman said. “Independent film is a tough arena these days. You can do really cheap movies or big-budget movies. But the kind of stories Ali tells, which cost several millions of dollars, Hollywood people find it hard to think they’ll make their money back.”
Selim, who moved to Oregon recently to be closer to his wife’s family, is also stretching himself as a memoirist. As soon as shooting on “Tower” wrapped in September, he moved to Egypt for a few months to work on a book about his relationship with his dad, gathering inspiration by sleeping in his former bed.
Don’t expect to see it become a movie or TV show.
“Anything I would want to say on the subject, I put in my scripts for ‘Looming Tower,’ ” Selim said. “I am fulfilled by that.”