Life has a tendency to go according to plan. You go to work, you eat, you drink, you put things in your iCal, you show up at those things. Then, occasionally, something so unexpected happens that you have to abandon all your plans. You have to make big, consequential decisions, right there in the moment.
At the start of June 2014, filmmaker Marcus Haney was making a music video for his friend's band Bear’s Den—a radio-friendly folk affair. He arrived in Seattle to film his brother's friends at the end of the term at Seattle Pacific University. They were a bunch of kids who'd had conservative, Christian upbringings but were, for the first time, discovering the freedom to question their parents and teachers and explore the world for themselves.
The shoot started off going according to plan. They rode motorbikes, went to the woods, smoked, drank beers, built fires, and did homemade tattoos. It was beautifully shot, and everyone was having a good time during filming. It looked cool.
During Marcus’s four days filming, a lone gunman, Aaron Ybarra, attacked the SPU campus where Marcus’s brother and friends lived, killing their 19-year-old friend Paul Lee and injuring two others. The freewheeling joy that Marcus had planned to document turned to a sorrow and fear the likes of which he had never seen.
At that moment there was a choice to be made: Would Marcus give up on the shoot or continue filming as events unfolded?
We spoke to Marcus to find out what happened next and how he made those decisions.
Noisey: Obviously events overtook you. Before the shooting, however, what had been the original premise for the video?
Marcus: To be honest, I hate doing music videos. But I heard the song, and I fell in love with it, so I had to pitch on it. I know Bear's Den, and they have a kind of "safe," Mumford-esque image, so I wanted to do something really different, unexpected.
I knew a group of people through my brother. They were at this conservative college, all from very conservative families. They are kind of at that tender stage in life where they're trying to figure things out for themselves, and realizing that not everything their parents told them—or their church told them—was necessarily true. I was really drawn to them, so I cast them in the video.
And what was the plan once you started shooting?
Well, here they are, at this far right Christian college, and they're questioning everything: Smoking, drinking, trying to figure out what right and wrong means for them. So my idea was to shoot them just being themselves, just doing the things they would normally do, with their friends. Going to the waterfall, skating, trips to the forest—with the thinking being that the gang's genuine edge would inevitably shine through. They're not pre-canned, pre-fabricated hipsters. They're real people.
You were there to make a music video, not a documentary, so why did you decide to carry on filming?
I really left it up to the participants. They said they wanted me to carry on filming. But the whole time, it was just a really difficult situation. In one sense I felt that recording all this very real stuff was somehow important and of worth. And I suppose I was also aware of the fact that no one has ever based a music video on this subject matter before, which is, I suppose, at least something. At the same time, though, it felt exploitative to be making a music video based on the events. And these weren't strangers—it was my brother and his friends. It was a gnarly balance to try and find.
What was it like that night, when people were finding out about the shooting?
That whole weekend after the shooting I lived in Paul’s dormitory where all his friends were. The night before the names of the victims were released, one kid in the dormitory pulled his mattress out of his bunk and put it in front of the elevator in the hallway. The idea was, if the elevator door opened and it was Paul, then this kid would be the first one to know. Soon another kid did the same, then another, then another, until about 60 kids—the entire floor—are sleeping, trying to sleep anyway, in this hallway together, waiting for Paul to come back. The image of those 60 or so mattresses is something that… I dunno… It was literally one of the most chilling… basically, it made the whole situation very real for me.
Were people hopeful that he would just show up?
I mean, I think that by that night those boys knew it was Paul who'd been shot. But I think they couldn’t admit it to themselves until it was, like, official. I mean, right up until the announcement there were rumors circulating that, say, Paul was fishing at the time of the shooting and endless debates over the news footage showing the body bag being taken into the ambulance. They’d be like: “Are those Paul’s shoes? But Paul would never wear those shoes!”
Why do you think the subjects wanted to carry on being filmed after the shooting?
Well the stuff we were filming kind of turned in to an outlet for the kids. It was kind of like they were dealing with the situation on camera, releasing a lot of their anxieties—say like in the plate smashing scene. All the kids’ reactions you see on the video are real. They told me it helped them deal with what was happening.
I was caught between doing right by a tiny band who didn't have the money to make another music video and ensuring I made something that was respectful to Paul’s family—and which, of course, also did right by Paul himself. I mean, my brother and I talked endlessly about what should go into the video and what shouldn’t.
So in the end how did you go about deciding what would be appropriate and what would be going too far?
It was all in the edit. For example, on one occasion we were shooting the video’s skater guy skating past the flower memorial site. And It just so happened that a bunch of the skater's friends were there, and they were all crying and holding each other. We had three cameras running so we decided to film it.
When we came to edit the promo, however, the footage just didn’t really work. A music video does not provide context, and the image of a bunch of pretty tough guys completely losing it needed, or rather deserved, context. And stripped of that context, it just came across as cheap sentimentality.
What’s more, you gotta remember that two out the three cameramen were just volunteers from the college, who knew Paul. So during the shoot the guys behind the camera are losing it as well.
What happened when you left?
Well the shoot finishes, and the next day my brother’s dropping me to the airport so I can fly back to LA. And he turns to me and says: ‘I didn't know whether to tell you this or not.' He tells me that, on the day of the shooting, he was scheduled to be in the lobby of that building at the exact time of the event, selling yearbooks for two hours in precisely the same spot in the room where the event took place. And the only reason he wasn't there, selling yearbooks, is because he’d gotten out of it in advance, knowing that on that day he’d be picking me up from the airport for the shoot. And the irony is, the shoot was subsequently pushed back a week anyway.
Yeah. When I heard that, all the emotions I’d been repressing over that heavy weekend just hit me.
After, when you had to go back and edit the footage, did you find that hard?
I guess I just felt a huge sense of responsibility to just do the video and do it right.
One of the most striking things about the video is that, when mid-way through the shooting happens, their reactions continue to be interspersed with depictions of all these other things going in their lives. You didn't just make it a video about a shooting.
Well, we never wanted it to be a video about the shooting. My plan was always to dedicate the same amount of screen time to the event as to any other thing in the video, which we thought might lend what was a completely extraordinary scenario a scary sense of normalcy, if that makes sense. We wanted to show the "everyday" in order to convey the idea that life goes on.
The Paul Lee foundation helps people struggling with mental and emotional health issues. You can find out more and donate here.
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