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Producer Elena Bawiec talks the magic of filmmaking and the highlight of her career

Creating magic. That is what Elena Bawiec believes all filmmakers do. Like a magician, she creates something out of nothing, turning a simple idea into a feature length film. She aims to move the audience in every project she takes on, either educating them on an issue or making them feel something through her work.

“Did you know that the brain cannot tell the difference between events in the movie or a book and real life? We actually live them through and experience them as our own. That's why we get scared watching horror, or laugh because of a comedy, or cry over a novel. Of course, this works only if the story is good and the audience can empathize with the protagonist. There's nothing better than to be able to tell a good story that means something to those who watch it,” she said.

As an internationally in-demand producer, Bawiec has the opportunity to tell good stories every day. This is exemplified with films like Only Light, Blood Brothers, Incendium, and more. She strives to tell every story in the best way possible, and this is evident in her work. She knows just how to captivate an audience, and her many multi-award-winning projects do just that.

The highlight of Bawiec’s esteemed career came in 2017 with her film The Suitcase, based on an incredible true story of a declassified FBI investigation. Stuck in the minutiae of life, Joe Franek, a Boston-bred baggage handler, fears he'll never amount to anything. Being a pilot is his goal, but the dream seems far off as financial pressures mount. When tasked with transferring an incoming bag, Franek cracks and steals from the suitcase owned by a passenger, Mohammad Atta, and destined for American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11th, 2001. The suitcase misses Flight 11, forcing Franek to re-tag it for later departure. Franek's world is turned upside down when Flight 11 crashes into the World Trade Center. All air traffic is grounded, and the chaotic airport is locked down. Tortured by his careless actions, Franek becomes obsessed with tracking down the bag he delayed. Risking his job and sacrificing his security, Franek becomes a suspect, but his act of courage turns him into an unlikely hero and gives him the legacy for which he longed.

“This was a 9/11 film without the 9/11 in the traditional sense. Meaning, we are not in New York, we are not at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, but we are watching what was happening behind the scenes at Boston Logan from where one of the airplanes took off. The 9/11 story has been told in documentaries, feature films, through the newsreels, but The Suitcase centers on a moment of unseen or publicized courage. By making this film we were able to expose the rare scars of a tragedy that touched everyone. The more we zoom in on these rare scars the more we understand that everyone has them,” said Bawiec.

The director, Abi Damaris Corbin, and Bawiec had been discussing the idea for the film before the first draft had even been written. The producer remembers immediately connecting with the story of Joe Franek, a down on his luck baggage handler at Boston Logan airport, who is thrust into the midst of action on 9/11.

“It’s a story about someone who wants to matter despite the circumstances. I like the duality of the character. He was real, he was flawed,” said Bawiec.

Premiering at Tribeca Film Festival 2017 where it was an Official Selection, The Suitcase exploded onto almost all Oscar-qualifying festivals in the United States. It went on to win several awards, including the Jury Award Best Narrative Short Annapolis Film Festival 2018 and the People’s Choice Award Best Short 40th Denver Film Festival 2017, to name a few. It was also partnered with several large production companies, including Disney, Universal Pictures, Amazon, Equinix, Wipro, and Google.

“It’s a very rewarding feeling when the audience connects with your work. We had an extraordinary amount of positive feedback from audiences and our favorite filmmakers, such as Christopher Columbus, Megan Ellison, Matt Damon’s company Pear Street, Casey Affleck, Timur Bekmambetov and many others, screening the film at Sony and Paramount. We still get emails asking whether there will be a screening from people who had seen the film a couple of years ago, and now they want to show it to their friends or family,” said Bawiec.

Working on The Suitcase was a fun and exciting challenge for Bawiec. Namely, finding an airport to shoot was immensely difficult. They had to find a working airport baggage system that would allow access to a film crew, and they had to put a SWAT team on an airport tarmac. That is not an easy thing to do. You can film at almost every big airport in California, but you cannot film beyond the TSA security checkpoint, or where you can, you still won’t have access to baggage handling system, as it does not belong to the airports but to the airlines. Then of course, there’s the SWAT team on the tarmac. This is not possible in a functioning airport, because there’s a chance that passengers will see a SWAT team with guns and then the filmmakers will be in the news in five minutes.

Bawiec looked into almost every airport in the Los Angeles area, encountering problem after problem. Finally, she found San Bernardino International Airport, which is for the most part non-operational, and they were able to accomplish the scenes without compromise.

“Working on this project, I liked collaborating with an ambitious director, who pushes herself harder than anyone else, and the team follows. I also like a challenge. A beautiful and poignant story can be contained within one room, and I actually think it is more difficult to tell a story like this well, but The Suitcase required scope. We needed to see the airport, we needed to be inside the airplane and on the tarmac, we had to have a SWAT team, we had a splinter unit shoot in Boston too. All of this had to be accomplished on time and on budget. This was not an easy feat, but I loved it nonetheless because of the team and the story. When you have a good story to tell, nothing drives you more,” Bawiec described.

Bawiec supervised all aspects of physical production. She was essential in finding and securing locations, hiring crew, budgeting, logistics. Once the film was complete, fellow Executive Producer Jean de Meuron, and Bawiec spearheaded the PR and marketing campaign, which ultimately led the film on a very successful festival circuit. Without her efforts, The Suitcase could never have been seen and appreciated by as many people as it has. Be sure to watch the film to be moved by the compelling story.

Watch the trailer for The Suitcase here.

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