One of the most powerful documentaries of 2016, Keith Maitland’s Tower immerses the viewer in the 1966 massacre at the University of Texas, during which Charles Whitman fired from a clock tower in Austin, shooting 49 people and killing 16. The film takes a somewhat surprising and stylized approach to re-creating the shooting: Maitland hired younger actors to re-enact both the events of the day and interviews he had done with survivors. He then incorporated those with archival footage and animated nearly all of it. The result is a film that carefully switches between immediacy and reflection — placing us in the midst of this tragedy while also creating a dialogue with the past.
Tower was released theatrically in October of last year, but it remains indelible in my mind; I find myself revisiting it quite often. It also continues to show around the country, and is now available on iTunes, Amazon and other streaming outlets. Recently, I had the chance to talk to Maitland after a screening of his film in New York.
This is a pretty compelling story in and of itself, but your approach to it is unique. Tell me about why you decided to re-create the shooting, and why you had the survivors describing the event via their younger, animated selves.
First, I wanted to transport audiences back in time. That was the goal: to create a film that was immersive in 1966. What stood out to me the most is that the shooting lasted 96 minutes. That is a tremendous amount of time. When you think of shootings, you think of them in moments: seconds, or even split seconds. But these people spent over an hour and a half pinned down on the campus. If you’re someone like Claire [Wilson, an 18-year-old pregnant woman who was wounded and unable to move to safety], melting into that hot pavement, watching the clock tick away… It’s one thing to just say that something lasted a long time, but it’s another thing to feel that time ticking away.
I also realized something else pretty quickly: Claire is 68 now; she was 18 then. Listening to a 68-year-old talk about what happened 50 years ago is kind of the standard documentary approach, but I didn’t feel like the action of that day and that feeling that I was going for would be sustained if we were breaking that spell every couple of minutes by hearing an older person talk. It’s one of the tricks to the movie. My producers and I talked about this a lot. Everybody in the film who talks survived. I know that because I spoke to them, and I think the audience probably realizes that because you’re hearing their story and it’s a documentary. But there’s still kind of a suspension of disbelief there: By casting these younger actors to portray the real people back then, we can extend those questions for that first hour.
But part of why I love being a documentary filmmaker is I fall in love with these people, and I get so entrenched in their story and who they are that I couldn’t just, like, flash a photo of each of them at the end and say, “Claire adopted a baby.” I wanted to honor them as much today as we could, and so that transition from then to now became so important. We knew that there was a lot of action in that first hour, and I just didn’t want to lose the audience by pulling the rug out in that last half-hour. So the connection points had to be strong enough that people would be willing to go wherever these older folks took us at the end.
I love documentaries that play out in the present tense — that place you right in the middle of an event, even if the event happened in the past. But by cutting back and forth between the survivors today and their younger, animated selves, and doing it in a very careful way, your film becomes a dialogue with the past. And the film’s style helps that, too, because it’s not a pulse-pounding thriller. It’s certainly suspenseful, but at the same time you’ve got this soft, almost nocturne-like piano music playing. There’s a gentle tone throughout.
I never really thought of it as “gentle,” but I hear what you’re saying. I looked at it as kind of a Western. You know, you’ve got the town square, and you’ve got the villain at the top of a tower, and you’ve got these unlikely heroes, and all of these witnesses. If you just swap out the saloon and the bank for the student union and the English class, it’s very similar. So, for music, we actually watched and listened to a lot of Sergio Leone movies. I wanted something that was going to be a sparse little theme that we could revisit in different contexts. I’m a big fan of Robert Altman, and one of the things I love in The Long Goodbye is the way that he plays with the theme; it’s just used in all these different ways.
I appreciate that you said “careful.” We want to be sensitive because these are real people, and this is such a traumatic thing. They are still so real and hurt. We didn’t want to glorify it, but I also didn’t want to lose an opportunity to strike a little terror in people — because it is a terrorist act, and it was haunting to people. And to be trapped there, and to be a witness to that, to be a part of that 96 minutes, kept ringing out in my head.
Was it difficult getting people to relive this event?
It’s not like I set out to say, “I want to make a film that’s all about healing,” but it emerged really quickly just as I started talking to people. I was so nervous when I reached out to Claire: “Hey, you don’t know me, but I want to make a movie about the worst thing that ever happened to you 50 years ago, and it’s going to be a cartoon. Let’s talk!” So I was really anxious. But she’s such a warm and wonderful person, she said, “Yes, I do want to talk about this, because nobody else wants to talk about it with me, and I’ve always wanted to talk about it.”
And I said to her, “I just have to warn you this is an independent documentary film. It may not even be completed. I need you to understand that going into it.” And she said, “Well, just from talking to you, I can tell that this is going to be therapeutic, and at the minimum maybe I’ll get some free therapy out of it.” And just about everybody I reached out to had a similar response. They wanted to understand, they wanted to contextualize, they wanted to just bring this to the surface because it had just been left unattended.
When I went to the University of Texas, my first day of freshman year in 1994, I took a student tour and I asked about the tower shooting. I was told, “We’re really not supposed to talk about that.” That was the official stance from the university. And then the tour guide said, “But if you stick around afterward, I’ll show you where there’s some bullet holes.” Everywhere on campus there are remnants of this thing — these little scars. It’s actually more like an open wound over our community. Because it hadn’t been tended to; it was like a wound that had been infected but kind of lived with.
The way you use color in the movie is striking. Once someone becomes a part of the shooting narrative, the color in their story drops out and it becomes black-and-white. And then later, after the shooting, the color sometimes comes back in, very gradually.
That’s exactly right. We always talk about the moment of realization, and so, for me, the very first time I heard about the shooting was in my seventh grade history class in Texas. And every seventh grader in Texas has to take Texas history, and I learned about it not because it was on the statewide curriculum — because it isn’t — but because my history teacher was there that day. So she told us her personal story: She was on a balcony, and went outside, and she couldn’t figure out what was happening. Finally someone said, “There’s someone on the tower,” and she looked up and she saw the man with the gun, but even then she didn’t realize he was a bad guy.
Then she saw him level the gun at somebody and shoot, and that’s when she realized what was happening. And she realized if she could see him, he could see her. But it was that moment of realization. The first thing the film’s about is confronting that moment: What’s going on and then what do you do, and how do we show that? I had already decided that it was going to be a mostly black-and-white film because our archival footage was in black and white, so I was looking for ways to incorporate color. And once we realized, OK, each character has a moment of realization, then we decided we can kind of treat them each individually in that moment.
There’s a very tight discipline to the film. It seems there are a lot of avenues you could take, but you stay pretty tightly focused on this event.
To have the kind of narrow dramatic boundaries of telling a story like this, there’s a lot you leave out. And one of the things we left out is that Aleck [Hernandez], the paperboy, because he was the only high school student who was shot, the Texas education administration offered him a college scholarship. He had no plans to go to college. No one else in his family before him had gone to college, and so he decided, “OK, I’ll go to college.” While he was in college, the draft was going on, and as soon as he graduated, his draft number came up.
He went to his draft board. When he went in for his physical, he dropped his pants and they saw he’s got a 40-inch scar that runs basically from his knee to his rib cage because he was shot in the hip, and they had to do real reconstruction. When they saw that scar they were like, “Well, you’re definitely not going to Vietnam.” So that changed his life again. But then he felt guilty because some of his cousins and his friends were going to Vietnam, so he went and he got a job working for the Army as a civilian. And he just retired two years ago. He’s been working for the Army since 1970, and in his role, he’s lived in 18 different countries around the world. No one in his family had ever left South Texas. And he raised two children who both have master’s degrees because they were children of the world. So his life took this real turn.
And the fact that Claire got shot and lost her baby — that wound up changing the life of the Ethiopian boy that she later adopted.
That’s another one of those things. He was from Ethiopia, and he came over to have heart surgery. His biological father was with him. After the surgery he was supposed to go back to Ethiopia, and his biological father said, “If I bring you back to Ethiopia and something else happens, all of this will be for nothing, the surgery and coming over here.” And they had 11 kids, and they were like, “We don’t have the attention to give him.” So he reached out, and through some people they got to Claire and she adopted him.
Well, a few years later, the father called Claire and he said, “I want to come to the U.S., and I need a sponsor.” So Claire sponsored him. He moved to the U.S. Two years later, he brought over his brother and his other brother. They brought over their wives, they brought over their children. Claire sponsored each of them. Twenty-six people came over, and her son today lives in Atlanta with his biological family, getting to know his brothers and sisters and cousins — all because of Claire’s graciousness.
How did you direct the performances of the younger actors re-creating the interviews with the survivors? When we do see the actual survivors, they seem much more emotional. With the younger actors, it seems like you brought the performers down a little bit.
I watched a lot of man-on-the-street interviews with people after traumas. And all kinds of traumas: plane crashes, house fires… And for the most part, people in the immediate aftermath are shell-shocked, and they’re a little stunned. I cast those actors, and they’re mostly unknown actors, with mostly theater backgrounds. I appreciate a subdued performance typically. So I thought, “Let’s try and get all that theater acting out of the way. Let’s get that off the table.” Also, the emotion of the real people at the end of the movie when you see them — I wanted to build to that, and I didn’t want to burn that moment off early.
At the very end, you refer to other shootings that have happened in more recent years. Explain the decision to include those.
At the early stages of thinking about the film, I probably had a much more in-depth chapter that connected the dots a lot more heavily. But as we were working on it, two things emerged. One, it’s just impossible not to think about Columbine or Newtown or Orlando when you’re watching, and so, trusting the audience is something I believe in. So when we finally got to that point, we almost didn’t even include it at all. But the reason I included it wasn’t so much to say, “Hey, look, this keeps happening again.” Because I think we all know that.
Instead, it was this: If you ever watch the coverage of the aftermath of, say, a school shooting, the footage for the most part focuses on the faces of young people. What I was trying to say there is that those young people at Columbine, those young people at Newtown, in Orlando, at whatever happens next week — their story is just as detailed and intimate and personal and full of pain as what we just watched for the last hour. And these people are those people. Next time this happens, don’t let those images of the blond boy crying or the kid getting dragged out the window, don’t let them just fly by as a piece of news B-roll. Recognize the humanity in those people.