Director Keith Maitland on Exploring The Country’s First Mass School Shooting in Tower

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Tower: UT Shooting Documentary

From Kim A. Snyder’s Newtown to Stephanie Soechtig’s Under the Gun, the 2016 film festival circuit thus far launched a number of timely features and documentaries that tackle the issue and aftermath of gun violence, in the wake of the heightening national debate around gun legislation. Screened and just yesterday won the Documentary Feature Competition in this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, Keith Maitland’s Tower – a superbly original documentary that blends animation with live action in chronicling the University of Texas mass shooting of 1966 (the first of its kind in the US) – confidently joined this group of well-timed films that can help keep the ongoing debate alive and active. But Tower also accomplishes something more: it extracts a renewed sense of urgency out of a 50-year-old tragedy on its landmark anniversary, startlingly reminding us how fresh those old wounds still are and how far the country hasn’t come.

Though Maitland notes Tower is not a political advocacy film, he acknowledges that the characters in the film – actual survivors and heroes of the tragic events that left 14 dead and 32 wounded – voice their firm political opinions, which could hopefully help pave the way to change and progress. He unfolds the events of the day as one would in a thriller; introducing young versions of various survivors first (played by young actors, and shown in fascinating rotoscopic animation) and telling each of their stories via reenactments with a fast, high-tension pace from various perspectives. Seamlessly weaved in to the film with polished editing (which gives Tower its effortless flow), a wealth of archival footage – both shown in actual format and re-created in animation – aids the narrative too, until we arrive to the film’s final segment of live-action interviews with the actual survivors and heroes.

Tower exemplifies how sometimes the worst tragedies in life could bring out the best in people: the story of the then-pregnant Claire Wilson – shooter’s first target – and the kind stranger who lied on hot cement to keep her company/provide her support is especially memorable in this end-to-end powerful film.

Here are 7 questions we asked the Tower director Keith Maitland, just one day before his film deservingly walked away with the big documentary prize of SXSW.

Tomris Laffly: Tower deploys a seamless blend of animation and live action in a very unique way, creating much suspense and surfacing powerful emotion consistently. How did you decide this blend was crucial to tell this story?

Keith Maitland: It really was almost an immediate decision – I was working with this animation style on my first doc, The Eyes of Me, a year in the life of four blind teens, and so I knew how powerful and even intimate, the animated image could be. I also realized that the University would never allow live action re-creations on their campus, so animation allowed us to show the geography of the campus without having to actually film on site. The animated image, and the black & white palette that we used reflects the fuzzy nature of 50-yr old memories and it leaves plenty of room for audiences to fill in the blanks and complete the picture on their own, in ways that standard re-creation does not.

What was the process like between you and Craig Staggs and the rest of the animation team in piecing together the story from various perspectives and vantage points?

Craig and his team are all incredible artists and they were able to take the video we shot of actors, and different background plates and merge them into the cohesive visual tapestry that became the film. We spent a lot of time together, with notes and revisions and before too long, had a second language where we could recognize each other’s approach and know where our collaboration was working best. Because the production and animation took so long, we were constantly adjusting and adding visual richness to the animated pieces.

There is a very decisive and powerful moment when animated talking heads give way to live action, shifting the focus from reenactment/archival footage to present time.

It was really important to me that we could engage young audiences through the performances of the actors: the talents of Violett Beane as Claire, Chris Doubek as Allen Crum, and Blair Jackson as Houston McCoy would have to transcend time, geography and animation to bring the story to life. But I knew that to honor the real subjects of the film and to learn from their 50 years of perspective, we’d have to reveal them and finding the exact right moments for these reveals was critical. I had some specific ideas about where to reveal some of the characters from the start, and then really relied on my editor Austin Reedy to weigh-in and finalize those ideas.

During your research and interviews with the subjects, what was the most startling/surprising fact or anecdote you came across?

I think the biggest shock was that all of these people who were there, who had witnessed the tragedy, or had been shot at or shot themselves, had really never talked about it – with their friends and family and with each other.

Your cast collectively delivers powerful voice performances in portraying younger versions of the real victims and heroes of the shooting. How did you find them?

I was thrilled to get the chance to work with a great casting agent Vicky Boone, known lately for casting the Richard Linklater film Everybody Wants Some!!, and Vicky found most of our amazing talent. Two actors that I had particularly fantastic experiences with include Chris Doubek, a notable indie journeyman who also happened to live in the trailer behind my house, and Violett Beane. When Vicky found Violett, she was a 17-year-old high school senior here in Austin, and since working with us on Tower she’s been cast in HBO’s “The Leftovers”, and she’s currently featured on the CW show “The Flash”, as a young female superhero.

Read More: SXSW Coverage

You started researching the UT Tower shooting after its 40th anniversary. A decade in the making, and it lands at a very crucial time: when mass shootings are sadly routine and the needle isn’t moving fast enough towards sensible policy changes.

The film is not an advocacy film, although some of the characters express their very strong political ideas, and I’m glad that we are able to include the material. Honestly, I don’t think that the policies and issues surrounding guns will be easily figured out in our country, but we need to take a close look and we need to have a conversation around those issues. We hope Tower can provoke those conversations and that progress can be made.

How does it feel to premiere this film in Austin, the home of the UT shooting at its 50th anniversary?

I’m thrilled that our entire team, and Artcast, and the subjects of the film, and the entire community of Austin, has had a chance to see the film on the big screen here with its entire story unfolded. I hope this is just the beginning of a robust distribution for Tower, and I look forward to seeing what people think of the film outside of the Austin city limits. I know we will play on PBS’s Independent Lens, who have been an incredible support for the film since 2013, and I look forward to whatever else is out there…

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.