'Tower' Shows the Forgotten History of the First Campus Mass Shooting

We talked to director Keith Maitland about his rotoscope recreation of the 1966 shooting and how <i>Tower</i> prioritizes human nature over politics.

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Oct 14 2016, 6:45pm

Photos courtesy of Tower

Last year, dozens of Texans flocked to the state capitol to testify to lawmakers for and against a law that would dictate whether the state's university system would allow guns on campus.

Among them, testifying against campus carry, was a victim of the country's first on-campus mass shooting, which took place at the University of Texas at Austin on August 1, 1966. Claire James was 18 and eight months pregnant when she walked across the university's South Mall with her boyfriend Tom. Both were hit by a sniper shooting indiscriminately from atop the university's iconic clock tower. James lost her baby but lived to tell the tale after a harrowing ordeal. She lay on the pavement beneath the tower as the shooting continued for over an hour, waiting for help as Tom passed away beside her. A brave classmate named Rita put herself in the line of fire and ran out to comfort her. An off-duty cop heard the news and rushed in to work. Students hid in classrooms looking down on the carnage, and behind university landmarks, wondering what to do. Some took action, others didn't. A five-block perimeter formed around the live crime scene, as Charles Whitman, from his post overlooking the campus shot, 49 people and killed 14 before he was cornered by a few cops and one civilian, and shot dead.

The 96-minute killing spree is shocking not least because it took place within an atmosphere now inconceivable: No one expected it. High-profile mass shootings on and off campus are now an everyday reality for which even the youngest of children are prepared. Between 2013 and 2015 alone, Everytown for Gun Safety identified 160 school and college-campus shootings across 38 states.

The story of the country's first on-campus mass shooting is as political and symbolic as they come—but Tower, Keith Maitland's new film that recreates the event, is anything but. The play-by-play retelling is shown through rotoscopic animation of actors pieced together with archival footage and interviews with survivors, focusing almost exclusively on their exact movements during that day. Tower tells a powerful tale of fight, flight, and the many variations of the two that defined individuals' experiences of that day, begging that dreaded question of its audience: What would you have done?

VICE: Why did you pick the medium rotoscopic animation?
Keith Maitland: A lot of reasons. The first reason was knowing the University of Texas has never embraced this history historically. When I went to UT in the 90s, I took a tour of campus and asked about the Tower shooting. The campus tour guide told me, "Oh, we're really not supposed to talk about that." So realizing that that was their approach to the history, I thought there was about a 0.0 percent chance of them letting me film recreations on campus with guns and blood and hundreds of extras . But it was also really important to me that we capture the campus authentically. The animation was a tool to overcome that obstacle, but it was also a tool to engage much younger audiences. Claire is 68 years old, recounting a story of when she was 18. But I want to see that 18-year-old, and I want to hear that 18-year-old and live in that moment with that 18-year-old. Everything that's in the film is the words of the people that were there.

I did a story for VICE magazine last year about state gun laws, which involved me watching an eight-hour video of Texans testifying for and against campus carry and open carry. Claire, your main character, was one of them. I was struck by hearing her testimony but then was blown away to see her story animated—I initially saw her from a very political point of view, which reminded me that you weren't politicizing this story. It's more about human nature. How did you settle on that approach?
I'm the one who drove Claire to the capitol that day, and I was there for those eight hours. I'm not the type of person who's ever really scared, but that was the closest I've ever felt to feeling like, Someone in this room has a gun, and they're gonna pull it out . It was a nuts day, and we filmed it. There was an earlier cut of the film that showed Claire testifying, but it took the film in a political direction that I didn't think it actually needed to accomplish what my goals were. There is an incredible political documentary to be made around the issue of guns on campus and gun violence, and people are making those films. I really wanted to make a story that focused on humanity and the emotional impact of trauma. Taking any of those political pathways diverted from that.

From that point of view, it's a very relatable story because it's about human nature, whether you've had the misfortune to experience this type of trauma or not.
I'm talking to you from London right now. The film recently played in Jerusalem, and Iran later this year. It's playing more at international festivals than domestic festivals, and I think any of those political diversions would have shut off the international appeal. I got this great note from a woman who saw it at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and she said, "I know you think this story happened in Texas in 1966, but it actually happened last year in Tel Aviv at a bus station." It's meant to open a doorway to connect the dots on our greater humanity. These people have the tragic and unfortunate circumstance that they were in this place at this time, and experienced this thing that changed lives and in many cases ended lives. And it can happen to you, it can happen to me, at any point, so that's what I was hoping to explore.

The film makes an interesting media commentary as well, about then and now. When Officer Martinez finds out at home what's happening, he comes inside, he takes his newspaper, and he places it next to the TV that has some live coverage of what's going on. That newspaper falls on the table, and it's already out of date because of what's happening live.
You are the very first person out of thousands of people I've talked to about this movie who've ever noticed the thing about the newspaper. That was exactly a deliberate thing. It was a transitional moment in time for the media at that point. I kind of made a decision to focus on emotion and humanity over information, but this was the first ever breaking-news story to be carried live. For every other news story and most news stories in general, the camera doesn't start rolling until after the news is over, and it's like, well what happened here an hour ago was this, but because it lasted so long, it was a breaking-news story, and we're getting that moment by moment almost like a sportscaster. And that's something the 24-hour news cycle [has made us] so accustomed to now: instant gratification and instant knowledge.

You show Artly, the guy who ultimately put himself in the line of fire to drag Claire off of the pavement, as he agonized trying to figure out what to do. It's a really interesting portrait of a person in a horrifying situation where they have to decide whether they're going to take the risk to help. It makes you wonder, Well, what would I have done? What would you have done?
Those are the questions I want people asking. I'm like—I think—a lot of independent filmmakers: I'm a take-action kind of person, and so I relate to Artly, the guy who rescued Claire. I relate to that frustration of wanting to do something but not knowing how to, and then waiting and then doing it. I also relate to Rita who didn't wait, she just ran to help. Rita passed away in 1996, but I spoke to her partner to see if there's anything more to the story beyond strictly Claire's memory, and when I told Rita's partner about the story, she said I'm glad that Claire sees her as a hero, but Rita would never consider herself a hero—she barely ever told her story to anyone, but she always said it was one of the stupidest things she ever did. So it's all perspective.

Claire James with the director

There's also this sense of regret or guilt afterward for many of the subjects in the film—maybe they did something, but they didn't do it fast enough. There's this clear element of heroism, but people not feeling like heroes afterward. Did you have epiphanies about human nature?

You know, I've interviewed a lot of older people for various projects. And regret and guilt is something that I relate to personally. It's something that I've seen in older people, and sometimes it's a thing that emerges over time. I don't know. This is interesting to me, I don't know if Artly would have said those things a week after the shooting. For me, there's a thing that people say—all art is autobiography—and to me, the film is about overcoming trauma and survivors' guilt. That is the theme of the film for me, and I wanted to leave enough room that people could project or reflect their own themes as well. But you grabbed onto those moments of regret, and I didn't want to hammer it too hard, but Claire has regret. She has guilt.

I didn't include this, but when I interviewed Claire, even though she lay next to her boyfriend Tom for an hour and a half [and] she was sure that he was dead, when she got rescued—while she was being carried away—she says, "I told them that he was dead." And she always felt guilty that if she hadn't said that maybe they would have ran back out and rescued him faster. She wasn't aware that he'd been carried off after her, so she thought because she said that, that Tom's body lay there that much longer and maybe he wasn't dead and maybe he could have gotten help. It wasn't until the process of making the film that she saw the guy who picked him up, and she saw how limp his arm was. It's amazing the amount of gymnastics your mind will come up with to create pathways to induce guilt and regret, because the thing is we don't have almost any control over any of this stuff we do, and we have even less control over how our initial reactions are to things. The only thing we can control is how we slowly process what has happened.

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