In the documentary short “Speaking is Difficult,” director AJ Schnack marries B-roll shots of public spaces where mass shootings took place with voiceover of the events’ 911 calls. It captures the mundanity of grocery parking lots, main streets, schools invaded by extreme violence, and how quickly life appears, superficially, to return to normal.
In broad daylight on August 1, 1966, the Austin campus of the University Texas was host to the United States’ first mass shooting at a school. From atop a tower in an open courtyard, sniper Charles Whitman held what was the equivalent of five city blocks of the campus hostage for 96 minutes, killing 17 people and wounding 32 others.
Dallas-born filmmaker Keith Maitland’s fascination with these events began when he learned about them in middle school. He couldn’t grasp the contradiction of how President Kennedy’s assassination, which took place in his hometown three years prior to the Austin shooting, were constantly dissected and relived, while the Austin tragedy was something people took great pains to avoid discussing.
Maitland asked about the shooting when he toured UT as a prospective student in the late ’80s. The response: “We don’t talk about that here.” More than 20 years later, having graduated and laid down roots in Austin, Maitland grew to believe that Whitman’s actions still weighed on his adopted community.
“It’s been an open wound and you can still feel it,” said Maitland. “It hadn’t healed because it was never tended to.”
Maitland began making “Tower” by conducting detailed interviews with the survivors of the mass shooting. He then dug into police and public records to get firsthand accounts from those who had passed away. His detective work even led to prescient families who documented their now-deceased parents’ accounts of the shooting, and locating black-and-white 16mm newsreel footage from three different cameras that captured the unfolding events.
The filmmaker amassed an exhaustive archive of primary source material to make a “proper” documentary that could give a full historical account of those 96 minutes. However, like the 16mm footage shot by cameramen crouched behind trees and cars, it would have been emotionally distant. Maitland wanted to capture what it felt like to live through those 96 minutes.
One of the things he noticed throughout his interviews was how the survivors’ emotions from that day were crystal clear, but when pressed for beat-by-beat specifics and geographic layout, details often became fuzzy. Having been inspired by the dreamlike quality of rotoscoped animation (computer animation of live-action footage) used in fellow Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life,” Maitland thought he could use the technique to capture the fussy visual quality of memory, especially with how the background details can become abstract.
Maitland took his transcripts, picked eight accounts, opened Final Draft, and turned his subjects’ words and descriptions into a script. He re-conducted the interviews with actors to use as the film’s dialogue; for the visuals, he would shoot it like a narrative fiction film that he’d later rotoscope, intercut, and overlap with the interview accounts.
Filmmaking is the most striking thing about “Tower.” Whitman remains a faceless, distant menace as we are grounded with our characters in the visceral and terrifying experience of being pinned down by his erratic and frequent sniper fire. Maitland uses cinema to bring us inside his eight characters. A frenetic handheld camera captures their unease, but the shot sequencing is so precise that Maitland shapes the audience’s experience of the events. His filmmaking is reminiscent of the downtown Los Angeles shootout scene in Michael Mann’s “Heat;” Maitland could easily direct a big-budget narrative version of these events.
Yet what is remarkable is “Tower” was a wholly DIY operation. Maitland knew the University of Texas would never let him recreate full scenes at the actual locations (not that his low budget had those kinds of resources, anyway). He and his wife, Sarah Wilson, shot the film piecemeal, largely in their half-acre backyard. Relying on family, neighbors, Facebook calls for help, and with borrowed guns and kids’ toys for props, the film was the definition of an indie film production.
Regardless of resources, the ability to seamlessly weave eight protagonists’ stories is an extremely challenging piece of storytelling, one that has led most filmmakers who aren’t named Altman, Linklater, or Renoir to fall flat on their faces. What’s key to Maitland’s success is his ability to efficiently get the audience to relate to each character. He grounds us in dramatic tension once shooting commences: the dilemma of how to save the wounded pregnant woman laying exposed in the open courtyard, the cop trying to find his way to the tower, the reporter trying to relay events while shielded by his open car door. Maitland weaves in and out of their perspectives, avoiding jarring transitions and giving the audience a spatial understanding of how Whitman held such a large portion of the campus hostage.
Maitland also found a way to combine the 16mm archival footage with his animation and interviews. Newsreel images ground the animation with the constant reminder that these events really happened. To make the distant, grainy footage match the immediacy of the imagery and stories, Maitland used the black-and-white footage to start building his shot list and selected the exact moments when it could be used as effective establishing shots or as a green screen-like backdrop for the animation.
While the interview subjects’ memories of specific details may be fuzzy at times, they all spoke to Maitland in great detail about the haunting, echoing sounds of the sniper fire ricocheting off the concrete and buildings. The sound design of “Tower” captures the piercing sounds, and the editing makes each gun shot a jarring event for the audience. The sound design of “Tower” is rich with the careful layering of authentic details, right down to the cicada songs that define Austin summers, all of which help draw the viewer further into the story.
All that said, for some in the documentary community “Tower” crosses an imaginary line for what constitutes nonfiction filmmaking. While Maitland has taken great pains to capture authenticity, the old-guard mentality separates documentaries from other art forms in that it’s not a form to be used for expression. It’s an ongoing debate, but in regards to “Tower” it’s worth highlighting that Maitland was only able to bring the viewer inside these events and find an emotional truth by using the tools of cinema.
When the film premiered at SXSW in March it became an event. Having won three prizes, the documentary screened three more times (a total of six altogether), and drew sold-out crowds. During the Q&A, older residents began to tell their stories of August 1st, 1966. Conversations spilled out into the street and into the campus. For that week, the Austin community couldn’t stop talking about “Tower” — more specifically, they were having a conversations about events that weren’t discussed for five decades. By reliving the traumatic events in “Tower,” there was a sense that the healing Maitland wanted was starting to take place.
In a year filled with trauma, I can’t think of a better film to hold up as example of the power of movies and exceptional filmmaking than “Tower.”