Tower co-executive producers Amy Rapp and Meredith Vieira (also with Steve Eckelman, Pamela Colloff, Luke Wilson, Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Keith Maitland's Tower joins Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson's The Ivory Game, Barbara Kopple's Miss Sharon Jones!; Ken Burns and Artemis Joukowsky's Defying The Nazis: The Sharps’ War; Ava Duvernay's 13th; Dawn Porter's Trapped; Andrew Rossi's The First Monday In May; Roger Ross Williams' Life, Animated; Gianfranco Rosi's Fire At Sea (Fuocoammare); Jim Jarmusch's Gimme Danger; Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley's Landfill Harmonic; Steven Cantor's Dancer; Morgan Neville's The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma And The Silk Road Ensemble; Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years as a key contender for the 89th Academy Awards Oscar shortlist.
University of Texas Austin tower: "We are really immersing you in that day. Most of the movie takes place on August 1, 1966."
DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Meredith Vieira hosted an intimate screening and reception for Tower up on Central Park West. Co-executive producer Amy Rapp, who is also the head of Meredith Vieira Productions, following the screening, gave us some of the background that led Keith Maitland to pursue the story and the decision to use animation.
The first mass school shooting in US history took place half a century ago at the University of Texas in Austin. A sniper on top of the tower overlooking the campus, unleashed terror for 96 minutes. 16 people died, dozens more were wounded. The first person shot was Claire Wilson, a pregnant 18-year-old freshman, whose boyfriend, Tom Eckman, was shot and lay dead next to her. Tower is told from several perspectives as they recount the story of that day. The shooter remains nameless in the film, as he was for the people present during the siege in 1966.
Amy Rapp: Keith first learned about the story in 7th grade. A teacher of his in 7th grade was on campus that day. So she had mentioned it in passing and that was the first time he was intrigued by it. And then he went to the University of Texas in Austin for college. And they took him on a campus tour and he asked about it. And the tour guide said "We're not allowed to talk about it." So he was further intrigued.
Claire Wilson and Tom Eckman on the University of Texas Austin campus
Then it wasn't until the 40th anniversary in 2006 where Pamela Colloff wrote a story in Texas Monthly called 96 Minutes, which is an oral history of what happened that day. Our film is based on that article. A lot of our characters in our film were interviewed in that article.
It was ten years ago on the 40th anniversary when Keith said, I want to make this as a film. He was very compelled to tell the story from the point of view of the people who experienced it. He didn't start making the film until about four years ago. He's been sort of ruminating on it for six years. And he did a ton of research. He can tell you anything about the shooter you want to know. But he very deliberately decided to not approach it from that approach. He really wanted to honor the survivors, the heroes and the witnesses and immerse you in the experience of what happened that day.
And the point, the truth, is that if you were a survivor or if you were a witness, you didn't know who was firing at you. You didn't know his name, you didn't know his background, you didn't know where he was coming from, and you certainly didn't know why he was doing it. So if you're going to experience it from the perspective of the people on the ground, you don't need to know who is the one doing it, because they didn't.
First gunshot victim Claire Wilson on Rita Starpattern: "Claire said that she did save her life."
We show the film from eight different characters' point of views and they each have a kind of different perspective on the event and what they experienced. That's kind of the point of the film - everyone has a different way into it. We screened the film around the world, really. And even in places like Jerusalem or Iran or France, where they had the truck run into the crowd of people on the holiday [in Nice on Bastille Day] - everyone sort of brings their own kind of tragic experience as a way to relate to the film. Or they go, well what would you do if you had been in that experience? Would you be the person who stayed inside and didn't go out? Or would you be the person who ran onto the open lawn and saved someone?
The reason he [Keith] chose animation is - there are really two reasons. One is because the archival footage that exists - and we really used pretty much everything that exists - it's all shot from a very long distance. It's all wide angle, it's all extreme distance. Because all the news people were standing as far back as possible so as not to get shot themselves. So that's the archival that exists. But when you're making a movie, of course you're mixing in wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups. That's what brings you into the story.
Austin policeman in communication: "You don't need to know who is the one doing it, because they didn't."
The animation and the rotoscopic animation allows you to create those different angles and shots to tell the story. That's one reason - to be able to immerse you into the experience. The other reason is, because we really hoped to reach young people with this movie, who are living under the threat of this kind of violence every day on campuses around the country and around the world. It's very different for an 18-, 19-, 20-year old to watch stories about an 18-, 19-, or 20-year old versus a 68-year old telling a story about something that happened to her 50 years ago.
Anne-Katrin Titze: Is that also the reason why you chose to have young people voice them in the animation?
Amy Rapp: Yeah, because we are really immersing you in that day. Most of the movie takes place on August 1, 1966. You're not brought into present tense until the last twenty minutes … That's all first-person testimony from interviews with the real survivors. It was all transcribed and then the actors related it.
Austin policeman gun drawn: "The animation and the rotoscopic animation allows you to create those different angles and shots to tell the story."
AKT: We will hopefully never know how we would react in a situation like that.
Meredith Vieira: Well, exactly.
AKT: This is the point where everybody questions themselves - what would I do?
The film clearly focuses on moments of decision making for the people on the scene. Each one had to ask - Am I a hero or a coward? Can I help? A young woman named Rita Starpattern runs out to the shot, pregnant Claire and lies down next to her, talking to her, both pretending to be dead to the sniper on top of the tower.
AKT: And we can't say because we are not in the situation.
MV: Who would be Rita? Who would run out there and lie there?
AR: Claire said that she did save her life.
MV: She kept her awake.
Austin police force: "He [Keith] was very compelled to tell the story from the point of view of the people who experienced it."
AR: What's interesting is, you saw, Rita died a few years ago. We premiered in South By Southwest in Austin this past March and people in the audience knew Rita. But they didn't know the story. Rita didn't talk about it. Afterwards, they came up to Keith and they said, we didn't know this. And Claire, of course, describes her as a hero. And they said, Rita would have said, that was the stupidest thing I ever did.
The other thing Claire said was that it wasn't until this film … She's been living with guilt for fifty years because she told everyone that her boyfriend Tom was dead. So she for 50 years thought that he died because she said that. That maybe he wasn't dead.
And it wasn't until she saw the archival footage and saw that he was carried off minutes after she was that she knew it wasn't her fault and that he really was dead because you see his limp body. But for 50 years she thought he was dead because of her.
AKT: How did Clair de Lune come in as the music choice?
AR: Interestingly, the music in the film is a mixture of songs that were very popular on that day, August 1, 1966, along with original composition, along with songs that create the emotion that we're going for in any given scene. There's an interesting story with Clair de Lune, though. And this actually comes out of the [Texas Monthly] 96 Minutes article. The shooter went over to a friend's house before this happened. Apparently, he knew how to play piano and he played this song on the piano.
AKT: That's chilling.
Tower will be screening in the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam at the Groninger Forum on November 26 at 9:45pm.
The Oscar Best Feature Documentary shortlist of the 15 contenders will be announced in early December. The nominations for the 89th Academy Awards will be known on January 24, 2017.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebration takes place on February 26, 2017.