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Documentary 'Tower' Brings Immediacy To 50-Year-Old UT Tragedy

Courtesy photo
A scene from TOWER.

Fifty years ago a lone gunman ascended the University of Texas tower and opened fire on passersby, killing 16, wounding three dozen others, and terrorizing people for 96 minutes until three police officers and one citizen were able to get up to the observation deck and end the carnage. The campus itself still bears physical scars from that tragic day.

Director Keith Maitland’s film “Tower,” which premiered at the South By Southwest Film Festival on Sunday, revisits that horrible tragedy through a unique hybrid of animated and live action footage, both archival and recreation, through contemporary interviews with the survivors of the shooting, as well as young actors bringing voice to the words of those who bore witness that day. The result is a film that is gripping in its immediacy and currency to today’s world, where names like Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown have joined the bloody roll call of mass shootings that some say began on Aug. 1, 1966.

In the interview below, director Keith Maitland talks about the inspiration for the film, the techniques used in recreating 1966 and the tragedy, and the conversations he hopes will result from people seeing "Tower."


Nathan Cone: Congratulations on your premiere at SXSW. As you introduced the screening, you were very emotional, and you talked about how this incident in 1966 “sliced into our community,” and that people are still feeling it today. How so? 

Keith Maitland: Well to be honest with you, there’s several generations of people who are alive who remember this day. For years it was the number one thing that Austin exported to the world. And when people outside of Austin thought of this city several generations ago, they thought of this Tower shooting. Coming on the heels of the JFK assassination, this didn’t shine the best light on Texas, and I think a lot of people in town really were frustrated by outside perception of Texas and Austin because of the shooting, and then frustrated by the impact of the shooting on our community. And today, still, students who go to the university hear about the Tower shooting from secondary and tertiary sources. They walk on a campus that’s still riddled with bullet holes, but as of now there is not a memorial that helps bind that dark history with any form of understanding. I think that that’s an open wound, and so when we made the film, we hoped that we could play a role in addressing that open wound. That was our goal.

There is a tag at the end of the film that says that there will be a memorial put up on the anniversary of the shooting, on Aug. 1st, 2016. Do you think that memorial will close some things for some people? Does it offer some level of healing?

I know it will. The only reason I do is because “some people” includes people who are in the film who banded together to form a committee during the process of making the film, several of these folks who had never spent any time together, joined together to share stories and share history and to heal together. They decided to approach the university and appeal for a memorial that not only commemorates that day, but lists the names of those who were lost, and the university said yes. And that process is moving forward. As a matter of fact, several of the subjects of “Tower” are getting together this Tuesday to go out to Marble Falls and choose a piece of granite that will make up the memorial itself.

So this film—you originally were inspired to make it partially by a Texas Monthly article from 2006. What was it in that article that resonated with you, that said ‘this is the story that I want to get specifically on film?”

"I really want the film to speak to 20-year-olds. I want them to see themselves in these characters." -Keith Maitland

Growing up in Texas, I was aware of the Tower shooting, I had heard about it, I went to the University of Texas myself and was curious about it, but because the University didn’t have any public facing expression of this dark history. All I had ever heard were stories on the fringe. And mostly they were focused on the sniper and what his motivations were. That is something that I know a lot about at this point, but it’s not something that I was particularly drawn to. So that curiosity was left unsatiated until Pamela Colloff’s article in 2006. What that article had that really changed my life was the stories of the people who were on the ground that day and their first person perspectives. In particular Claire Wilson, the pregnant woman who was shot in the abdomen, lost her unborn child, and her boyfriend. It was her story that really resonated with me. And the story of the young woman who risked everything to come out and lay down next to Claire’s side, exposed to the sniper’s fire for over an hour, in what I think is the most heroic, humane action that I’ve ever known another human being to do. So as I was reading that article, I began picturing the film that we premiered today. And there are visuals in that film that ran through my head as the very first time that I read Pam’s article.

When you pictured your film, did you at that time picture it in the style that you decided to use, this rotoscoped animation style, digitally painting over actors who were recreating the scenes of 1966?

I did. The reason why is because I was working in that style of animation at the time on a previous project, I made a film called "The Eyes Of Me," which is a year in the life of four blind teenagers. And we used rotoscopic animation to explore questions of perception. And so I knew how intimate and immediate an animation style like that can be. I also knew that there was a large divide to cross for a film to cross like this. We needed to cross the divide of 50 years time, and we needed to cross a geographic divide—which is basically I knew immediately that there was zero percent chance the university would allow us to stage the kind of recreations I was imagining on their campus. Having gone to UT and knowing that campus as well as I do, It was really important to me that we got the details right about where people were. Where they were shot, where they were standing, how they went from point A to B to C. And from my recent experience with animation, I knew that we could film actors really in any setting, and that the animators could lay in plates of the backgrounds that matched the actual geographic locations, So it was a pragmatic solution to overcome that geographic issue.


A recreation depicting Claire Wilson and Thomas Eckman, just before the shooting.

But beyond that, what I realized later was that it was really important for me that this film spoke to teenagers and college students, because they’re the ones who live under the threat of school shooting violence like this. I felt like if I pointed the camera at 70-year-olds saying what they experienced as 20-year-olds, that we could make an enlightening and thought-provoking documentary that would appeal to 70-year-olds, and 50-year-olds, and 30-year-olds that love documentaries… but I really want the film to speak to 20-year-olds. I want them to see themselves in these characters. Very quickly I realized we needed to cast great actors, and we needed to hear these stories in the voices of 18, 19, 20 year-old characters, not 70-year-old characters. But I also believe in honoring and documenting the stories of these real survivors, so the transition moment from 1966 to today was something that was very important for me to also present. It’s really not that different in the film than the way that I initially imagined it. I assumed that audiences would be able to connect the dots if we were able to lay 1966 up against 2014-15 and ’16, and it seems like they are.

And it’s wonderful the way the film is in black and white for most of the recreation except when somebody is remembering something or having some sort of fantasy, and then it goes into this swirl of Technicolor animation. Or when you flash forward to the current day, you have interviewees presented in color as well.

Yeah, we chose to do the majority of the film in black and white primarily because I discovered very quickly that there was about 20 minutes of really incredibly-shot archival footage, filmed by newsmen on the scene. And all that footage was shot in black and white, and it was shot wisely. The cameramen were in positions of safety for the most part, shooting wide shots or long-lens shots of what was happening “over there.” And the editor in me realized we could take those wide shots and combine them with animated close-ups and medium shots and tell a full story. So I just wanted the animation to seamlessly cut with the archival. That set the palette, but I also knew that we’re telling stories about the late ‘60s, which is a colorful time in American history. So I wanted to mix color animation in anywhere I could as a visual break from the black and white, and also to honor the reality of the times. 

One more tech thing, and a shout out to your sound designer. During the recreations and during the time we’re in 1966, you hear the loud cracks of gunfire. They are LOUD on the soundtrack. And then there’s cicadas, which sound like Texas summer. And then there’s silence. A lot of that, too. So I really think it places you within the scene.

I appreciate that. Our sound designer is Lyman Hardy, and he brought so much to this film. You know, the cicadas were completely his idea. He said, ‘well it’s August in Texas.’ So I believe last August he stepped out into the hot sun with his microphone and his earphones on, and he went and recorded hours of cicadas. And he very definitely layered that into the film and there are times when they raise in volume and there are times when they kind of disappear into the distance depending on what’s going on inside the psychology of the characters. I love what he did as far as his treatment of the gunshots. There’s a combination of actual archival audio from that day—we have quite a bit of it—and kind of recreated bullet ricochets and gun blasts, but he’s a stickler for authenticity, which I appreciate and strive for in my work. We got a list of all the different guns that the sniper had at his disposal, and the likely types of deer rifles that civilians would be using. And he recorded some stuff and he tracked down some great audio libraries. The final process in any film is laying in the final audio and color correction. Working with Lyman Hardy on sound design and Park Gregg on color correction really took this very pastiche of all different mediums and helped bond it all together into one piece. 

With the victims and their interviews in this film, one of the things I was surprised as I watched this picture was the fact that several of them had not met one another after that day until just recently, probably for this film.

Credit Courtesy photo
Alec Hernandez, one of the survivors, on camera.

The most common refrain I hear from everybody involved is “we never talked about it.” And if you’re not going to talk about it because friends and family don’t know how to bring it up with you, or because the university doesn’t engage in dialogue over it, then you’re not going to find people who share this common experience. So yes, the people in this film for the most part are a series of individuals who basically have been islands unto this history. Throughout the process of making this film, there have been various opportunities for people to get together and to share their stories with each other. I’m thrilled to know that these folks have formed very strong relationships in the last couple of years outside of the film, and have a dialogue of their own going on that sometimes I’m drawn into on camera, and sometimes I’m drawn into behind the scenes, and often goes on without any involvement from me. That’s really a wonderful byproduct of the film.

One of the gentlemen in the film, Artly Snuff, who helped rescue Claire from the sniper’s fire—I believe he says at one point in the movie when he’s thinking back on this incident, “there are monsters that walk among us.” But you also have footage of Walter Cronkite, from 1966, basically pointing the finger at a society that encourages violence through media, the government, and the way we bring people up in this country. I don’t think your film really says so, but where are we amongst these two things? Is it just that there are monsters among us, or are we as a society somehow creating these things now?

That is a great question. I do not have the answer. If I did, it may have found its way into the film. I think there’s a lot of gray area in life. Our film did its best to allow the characters to express themselves along those lines. They all have different opinions. Claire Wilson says very poignantly in the film that she forgives the sniper. She recognizes him as a damaged individual, but she prefers to think of him as a three-year-old innocent child whose life went awry, and she forgives him for what he’s done. I don’t know that I would be able to find that place of forgiveness if I had lived through this, but I’m inspired by Claire’s response. And at the same time, I agree with Artlee. There are monsters that walk among us. Whether they’re created by society or whether they’re self-motivated to do harm, I really don’t know. But I do hope that the film sparks conversation that allows audiences and viewers to draw their own conclusions.

But I have to say that the Cronkite piece—I’m glad you brought that up, because when we found it I was shocked and amazed. It was something that I specifically searched for for several years. There’s a piece that is widely available on YouTube of David Brinkley [ed: Chet Huntley] from that night on NBC news, and he does a very great job of reporting the news, but he certainly doesn’t editorialize. And I specifically looked for Cronkite because, he is the icon of that era, and he is a Texas ex himself, he went to the Univerisity of Texas, and I just hoped that if we found a piece of [archive footage] of him, that he would say something personal about his relationship to that space. But when we finally found the piece of footage, and Cronkite comes in and lays the hammer down, he says something that I couldn’t imagine a single newsman in America saying on a nightly news broadcast [today]. In fact the only newsman in America that brings that kind of fire and editorial approach is Jon Stewart. I think that’s an indicator of how times have changed, too, in the last 50 years. I was thrilled to be able to include it in the film, and I’m glad it had an impact on you in some way.

What is the most surprising thing about this story you’ve found in the course of making the film?

That’s hard to say. I’ve been working on the film for four years. But I think the thing that surprises most people outside of the project is how willing the subjects of the film were to engage in this dark history. I really don’t know in any documentary project how somebody is going to receive an introductory email or phone call saying “hey, I want to talk to you about x y or z.” But this story in particular, you’re asking people to kind of dig in to fifty-year-old, deep, traumatic wounds. And so I was very apprehensive and tried to be sensitive in my approach. But what I discovered overwhelmingly is that the people who were there that day wanted to talk about it. They had a need in some instances to explore something that they hadn’t had a chance or an opportunity to do. There were two or three people who let me know that they did not want to get into it, and of course I honored their wishes and cut off communication. But for the most part, what was most surprising is that the people who lived through this tragic event wanted and in some instances needed to engage with it. And I was thrilled that they were willing to and that we got to.

Lastly, I’m glad you included the scene of Officer Martinez coming and speaking to first responders in Austin today, and you said after the screening how you really wanted to emphasize the victims as well as the first responders in this film, rather than putting the emphasis on the shooter himself. From a personal standpoint, my boss asked us recently—as a staff—to watch a video about active shooters in the workplace. I cried because this is the world that we live in now. When you talk about young people identifying with this film, I think that that’s where they’re coming from as well. This is their world.

I agree. We live in a world filled with challenges and obstacles, and this is one that has seemingly become more prevalent. I’m not a big facts and figures guy, so I can’t tell you if there are more school shootings now than there were before, but I can tell you that it feels that way. And I can tell you that there’s a fatigue around it, where when most people see there’s a shooting on the news, they want to flip to another channel. There was a mass shooting in Pittsburghjust three days ago where five people were killed. I’m willing to bet there’s one today somewhere. I don’t understand it. I don’t have the energy or the disposition to explore the phenomenon in its entirety, but I did hope that putting a focus on this event fifty years ago, whose main difference from the Tower shooting to Columbine or Newtown is that we have the benefit of fifty years’ perspective. I was hoping that we could engage in a conversation around this phenomenon, and that somebody smarter than me would maybe come up with some solutions. I don’t have them, but I do appreciate the people that let me into their lives, and have allowed me to have this conversation.

"Tower" screens once more at the SXS​W Film Festival on Thursday, March 17 at the Paramount Theatre. You can follow the film's journey after the fest online at its official website and on Twitter.