We’ve seen numerous accounts of acts of terror adapted for the big screen before, but Reed Van Dyk’s “DeKalb Elementary” brings something different to the table. Nominated for the Best Live Action Short Oscar, this harrowing drama depicts the events surrounding an aborted school shooting. It is an incredible true story that was captured on a 911 call placed by the brave receptionist who calmly negotiates with the shooter. The scenario therefore required an uncommonly empathetic approach to a hot-button issue. In a recent interview with Van Dyk, we discussed how casting and tone were crucial in the making of the film. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: School shootings have unfortunately become so common in the US that there were so many incidents you could have chosen from. What compelled you to make a film about this one?
Reed Van Dyk: I first heard the phone call that it’s based on about two years ago. I stumbled on it very randomly. I was doing research about another mass shooting incident that I was looking at turning into a feature script. For that script I needed to know how a 911 dispatcher answers the phone, what they say when they pick up. So I googled “911 call” and this was the first one that popped up.
And I guess I really wanted to speak to my own reaction to that call. I was just listening to what that dispatcher says in the first two seconds of the call and I couldn’t stop listening. It’s heartbreaking and harrowing and really interesting. And I couldn’t stop thinking about the two people who were involved. They stayed with me for the next week or more. The circumstances of what happened were so moving.
Eventually I thought, maybe I could try and do a short film about this. Obviously what I found so moving about it had a lot to do with Antoinette Tuff’s orientation toward Steven Hall. It was a very surprising reaction that she had to him and was not one that was coming from a place of fear. So I guess that was what I felt connected to.
SS: This is such a touchy and divisive subject. Did you always have a clear idea of what you would and wouldn’t show?
RVD: From the start I knew that I didn’t want to sensationalize what happened or create false drama or manufactured tension. It felt to me that it would exploit what happened for entertainment purposes, which is not what I wanted to do. I wanted from the very beginning just to present what happened the way I understood it to happen, in the hope that the audience would get a fraction of the experience I had when I first heard that phone call. For me it meant there would never be music and I didn’t want a handheld camera or anything that I felt has become synonymous with gritty, tense filmmaking. So this approach informed a lot of my directorial and writing choices.
SS: Did you ever consult with Antoinette Tuff while you were writing the script?
RVD: I worked with just the research that was at my disposal. There was a video camera that was positioned in the corner of the office. It only covered about the first 4 minutes of his entrance and the last 4 minutes when the police come in and it didn’t have sound. So I had that, police reports, court documents from his trial and the 911 call itself. So it was cobbling together that research that ultimately resulted in the script.
SS: Unlike more deadly incidents where we can easily condemn the shooter, this film asks for your empathy. How did that affect the casting of this role?
RVD: Casting took a very long time. I had the benefit of the recording of their voices and any kind of footage or pictures I was able to find of them. In the case of casting Steven Hall, I was looking to capture the essence of the real guy named Michael. It’s my understanding that he’s not on the psychopath/sociopath spectrum, so you’re approaching a very different kind of character. At his core there seems to be something very decent about him and he expresses a lot of regret.
The more I learned about his life the more interested I became in him. This did seem to be an attempted suicide in a very public and potentially dangerous way. And while he’s there he wakes up to the situation he’s found himself in and tries to fix things and get the help he needs. We were looking to cast the essence of all this and I think we found that in Bo Mitchell.
SS: On a lighter note, you recently attended the Oscar luncheon. What was the most memorable part of that experience?
RVD: It was surreal. Something I’ve reflected on in the way this film has been recognized is that it’s exciting that more people will get to see the film and share in the story. On the other hand, this is a film I made as a student and I’m a student of so many other filmmakers. So it was very thrilling to have the film recognized by and alongside some of the filmmakers whose work and words have taught me so much about the craft of making movies. That was the most thrilling part. I found Ruben Östlund at the end of the lunch and told him what his movies have meant to me. I’ve watched “Force Majeure” a dozen times.