At The Turtle Club In The Shadow Of 9/11
1:56 PM EDT on September 9, 2021
This year marks the 20th anniversary of—as you are no doubt fully aware, especially this week—the making of The Master of Disguise.
On the off-chance you don’t remember, The Master of Disguise is a comedy released in 2002 starring impressionist and sketch comedian Dana Carvey. It’s less of a movie than it is a collection of random opportunities for Carvey to be buried under layers of makeup and prosthetics and then do funny voices. This was the highest form of comedy in American society at the turn of the millennium. Carvey plays Pistachio Disguisey, a bumbling Italian manchild whose family trade is being masters of disguise. The defining characteristic of the film's antagonist, played by Brent Spiner, is that he lets out a short toot of a fart multiple times throughout the film. The movie ends with Carvey, as George W. Bush, roundhouse kicking Spiner into a pool. It has a one percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
One of the more extensive and interesting Wikipedia articles related to the September 11 terrorist attacks is an entry titled "List of entertainment affected by the September 11 attacks.” Tidbits about the pulled Spider-Man trailer that featured the Twin Towers, the replacement of “New York City Cops” on The Strokes’ Is This It, the temporary removal from syndication of the Simpsons episode where Homer visits the World Trade Center, and so on. One piece of media is conspicuously missing from the entry.
Thanks to a pair of sentences on the film’s IMDb page, The Master of Disguise and its connection to 9/11 have become the stuff of internet legend. The top-ranked anecdote in the Trivia section states:
The scene at the Turtle Club happened to be filming on September 11, 2001. When word of the terrorist attacks reached the set, the cast and crew observed a moment of silence.
As of this piece’s publication, 286 IMDb users found this piece of trivia “interesting,” while eight users did not.
The Turtle Club scene is the most or more accurately the only famous part of The Master of Disguise. Here's the setup: Pistachio and his assistant, played by Jennifer Esposito, infiltrate a ritzy upper-crust venue called The Turtle Club to meet with a cigar maker, played by Erick Avari, and gain some information. Pistachio, an idiot, thinks that he is required to dress as some sort of turtle, and so he wears a bulbous, green, shell-like suit, as well as Coke-bottle glasses and facial prosthetics to give himself a pointy, turtle-like upper lip. To complete the disguise, Pistachio must act like a turtle, which he does by saying the word "turtle" a bunch. He asks the skeptical bouncer, "Am I not turtle-y enough for the Turtle Club?"
At the end of the scene, when a trio of men catcall Esposito, Pistachio bites off one of the men's noses and retracts his head into the suit-shell. He then pops back out and spits the nose back onto the man's face. The scene does not end with him leaving the club—it ends with Pistachio spinning on his shell-back, giggling and then fades out. The barely coherent scene is only two and a half minutes long.
It’s not perfect art but you can understand how a man in an oversized suit saying "turtle" in a funny voice might appeal to children, the film's target audience. Anyway, it’s now internet canon that the scene was filmed on 9/11, as countless online comments have asserted and repeated over the years. There are shirts commemorating the occasion and critical reappraisals that account for this additional context. The Master of Disguise is a 9/11 movie much the same way Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
It's easy to understand why this bit of trivia has lodged itself in the minds of so many people. There's a specificity to it: not just that the scene was filmed on 9/11, but the interruption of production. It’s impossible not to imagine someone bursting onto the set with frantic news from Manhattan. Cut! the director calls. Two planes have just hit the World Trade Center. The towers have collapsed with many still inside. He immediately holds an impromptu vigil with the cast and crew. Dana Carvey is still in full turtle-man makeup and costume, solemnly pondering the deaths of thousands.
It makes for a dark, hysterical moment in film history. There's just one problem: It didn’t happen that way.
For one, the timeline clearly doesn’t add up. The first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m local time. The second plane, which confirmed that this was a deliberate attack and not an accident, hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. The South Tower fell at 9:59 a.m. and the North at 10:28 a.m. Even if we're being generous and assuming that the news made its way to the set of The Master of Disguise instantaneously, that's a pretty early time to be filming a scene set at night, even on a studio soundstage.
And since it was filmed in Los Angeles, the planes hit the towers at roughly 6 a.m. local time and had both collapsed by 7:30 in the morning.
Maybe they were filming later in the day but just hadn't heard about it, you counter. That's a possibility, but matching the scenario that's captured the imaginations of countless IMDb users, in which production is halted by word of the attacks, requires an implausible level of collective ignorance. Please give the cast and crew of The Master of Disguise more credit than that.
So I'll put you out of your misery: Yes, the cast and crew of The Master of Disguise did hold a moment of silence on set to reflect on 9/11. And yes, Carvey was in full turtle get-up. The impromptu ceremony just didn't actually happen on 9/11.
IMDb's trivia is crowdsourced and reviewed by editors, but does not offer source citations. According to snapshots in the Internet Archive, the 9/11 trivia was added to The Master of Disguise's IMDb page sometime between October 2009 and April 2011. The only other piece of IMDb trivia predating that one is that the role of Pistachio was originally offered to Jim Carrey, an assertion that itself seems unlikely given that Dana Carvey co-wrote the film and that it was produced through his friend and fellow Saturday Night Live cast member Adam Sandler's Happy Madison production company. (An IMDb spokesperson stopped responding to my requests for information about how trivia makes its way onto the site after I explained that this piece was about the 9/11 thing.)
I couldn't find the source of the 9/11 trivia. It's not mentioned in either profile of Carvey tied to the film that I managed to dig up, nor did he mention it in a 12-minute Letterman segment from the press tour. The closest I came was an archived promotional interview from Hollywood.com in which Carvey mentioned 9/11 while doing an impression of John Lennon for some reason: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. You know, that’s the thing you’ve got to remember. You know, people say they’re nervous about the movie. I say, ‘It’s just a freakin’ movie.’ You know, it’s post-9/11, we’ve got a world with a lot of problems, we’ve got war things and all sorts of things.”
My only remaining option was to go straight to the source. Through representatives, Carvey and Esposito, the scene’s principal cast members, declined to comment. But—to my surprise —director Perry Andelin Blake knew exactly what I was talking about. "I've heard that a number of times," he said. "Various people have just emailed me out of the blue."
Blake recalled that on the day of the attacks, he was set to do a pre-production tech scout with other members of the film crew. This was a couple of weeks before production began, and the scout started early in the morning. (I believe him, because people generally remember what they were doing on 9/11, except for that one guy from The League.)
"We were going to start at 7:00 [a.m.], which is about 10:00 New York time. So at 6:00 we were all in our cars, basically. I'm driving along, listening to some NPR or some news channel in the morning and all of a sudden I start to hear about this," he said. "As I'm driving, I can see other people in their cars crying. People are just looking at each other and nodding like, 'Whaaaat's going on?'" Blake and his staff headed to his office at Sony Pictures to watch the news. He remembers having to jam a wire hanger into his TV to get better reception. That day’s scouting trip was postponed, and everyone went home for the day.
Discussions about whether and how to proceed with filming The Master of Disguise took place over the next few days. One of those pre-production discussions involved Erick Avari, who was brought in to portray the cigar maker targeted by Esposito and Carvey. Avari had just finished working with Happy Madison on the film Mr. Deeds, and he recalled that the cigar maker character in the script had certain ethnic qualities—he said the details escape him decades later—and that those qualities were toned down following the attacks.
"I asked that we lose that, because it was so close to 9/11, there was such a strong sense of the Middle Eastern terrorist, and that is something that I have avoided my entire career," said Avari, who was born in India. "I felt like, here's this funny scene and I don't want it to take a dark turn." (The sensitivity applied to Avari's character does not seem to have been applied elsewhere in the film. In one scene, Carvey has his skin darkened with makeup in order to portray a turban-wearing Indian snake charmer. The accent Carvey uses is ... rough.)
Avari also recounted that during post-production on Mr. Deeds, Sandler expressed slight worry about featuring an actor who resembled Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, who was all over the news. Shots from Mr. Deeds that featured the Twin Towers were also edited to remove the buildings.
As the invasion of Afghanistan ramped up, Avari was worried for his career. "I'm not Middle Eastern, but I look Middle Eastern, and in Hollywood, that's what's important. I just instinctively knew my career was going to take a downslide," he said. "A lot of the roles that I was getting after that were really offensive, politically."
After some deliberation, production commenced on The Master of Disguise roughly two weeks after the attacks. More specifically, the very first day of production was the Turtle Club scene.
It's standard, according to Blake, for the director to say a little something on the first day of a shoot before the camera rolls. “Thanks for being here,” “Let’s have some fun,” etc. But this shoot, obviously, was a little different.
"I'm the director, so I'm the leader of this group of people. I felt it was a little weird to be making this funny, silly kids' movie in the wake of this huge national tragedy," Blake remembered. "So I felt like I needed to say something. I gave a little speech, I guess you would call it."
Here's the gist of the speech, as Blake paraphrased it for me nearly 20 years after the fact:
It seems weird that we're starting to work on this movie, but I think if there's some time that we maybe need a bit of humor in our society and in our country—and especially for the kids of our country, this is probably such a hard time for them—there's something good about us coming together to make a movie that can make kids laugh and bring a little bit of happiness. So let's try to do that.
And then Blake led a moment of silence.
And then he called "Action!" and Dana Carvey got to work dressed as a turtle-man.
In retrospect, what else were they supposed to do? Without putting too fine a point on it, the uncanny feeling of going about your job as large-scale tragedy unfolds around you is an increasingly and unfortunately familiar one. What else can you do except the job you've been hired for? "There wasn't a bad mood. I think it more brought us together, because we felt like we had a little bit of a purpose, even though it's a goofy comedy," Blake recalled.
The 9/11 attacks hung over the film’s production in other ways as well. In the immediate aftermath—partially because of the mystery surrounding the destination of United 93, which crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania—Americans everywhere wondered if they would be the next to be attacked. Hollywood, a major source and exporter of American cultural values, was no exception. "We were all freaked out a little bit," Blake said. "The movie industry, we thought, could be a target because it's so American."
Avari, however, was unbothered by the prospect of an airliner striking the set of the Turtle Club. "I was being thoroughly entertained by Dana Carvey," he told me with a laugh. "If God wanted to take me out then, that's not a bad way to go."