From AD to UT: Keith Maitland on Tower
Racking up three prizes upon its premiere at SXSW 2016 (Best Documentary Feature, the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award, and an audience award), Keith Maitland’s Tower debuted on home turf — which doesn’t mean that audiences knew the tragic details. A breathtaking retelling of the horrific 1966 University of Texas campus shooting that left 16 dead, Tower tirelessly recreates, through modern day interviews, archival footage, and meticulously crafted rotoscope animation, the life-or-death situation many found themselves unexpectedly thrust into. By having the viewer live through the experience while simultaneously listening to the stories of those affected by it, Maitland’s film emphasizes memory and shared experience. Impressively incorporating animation, Tower is an on-the-scene account of an event we weren’t present to see purposefully brought back into the public consciousness. Tower opens this week via Kino Lorber.
Filmmaker: In researching your film background, I learned that you were a DGA trainee on a few big-budget narrative films at the start of your career. Could you speak about that experience and how you transitioned into documentaries?
Maitland: I was a DGA trainee straight out of college. I went to the University of Texas and then moved to New York to be a trainee. I didn’t really know what an AD was — the training program is basically an apprenticeship to become an assistant director. I knew I wanted to be a director and so the apprenticeship seemed like a good first step. The training program was an incredible opportunity (it’s difficult to get into and it’s a paying gig), so I was excited to be accepted. I worked on really incredible projects right out of the gate: my first day on set in New York was on Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead. I was “training to become the trainee” on that project, and over the next two years I worked on Law & Order, Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks, Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland, Janusz Kaminski’s Lost Souls, and the first season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I had a couple of other jobs mixed in there, but I had a great set of experiences working as a AD-in-training and then two years later joining the Director’s Guild as an AD. It really put me right at the center of classic big budget, union filmmaking. The AD stands at the center of the set — between the director and the producer, between the director and the director of photography, between the director and the actors — and is both the communications hub of the set and one of the main problem-solvers as issues arise. It was an incredible and fertile education.
I realized pretty early on, however, that I didn’t have the personality or the mindset to be an AD. Most assistant directors are clock-watchers and many are known for their temperament, for being yellers and keeping the trains moving on time. I was always much more intrigued with the creative elements of photography and the director’s and actors’ interpretations. While I was really glad to get the opportunity to be a trainee and an AD., I was really glad when I made the decision to step out of that world to become a director about six years later.
Filmmaker: As a University of Texas alum and current Austin resident, how often were stories of the 1966 sniper shooting relayed to you?
Maitland: It’s not talked about a lot. It’s a thing that most people who grew up in Texas have some idea of [it having happened]. My knowledge of the shooting goes back to my seventh grade Texas history class, a class that all seventh graders in Texas are required to take. I learned about it not because it was on the state-wide curriculum (because it’s not), but because my seventh grade teacher was there that day. She told us the story from her own perspective, as a student who was in the middle of the confusion and had to figure out what was going on. She eventually looked up and saw the sniper on the tower, and she realized that if she could see him, he could see her. It was that moment of realization that always stuck with me. When I went to the university years later, I expected to learn about it on campus, as an important part of the university’s history. What I discovered was that there was a complete vacuum there. I took a student tour on the first day of my freshman year, and when I asked about it, the tour guide said “you know, we’re really not supposed to talk about that.” That always stuck with me. There’s that old saying that “those who don’t acknowledge their history are bound to repeat it.” That’s just not a history that I could bear to repeat and so I’ve always wanted to understand it.
Filmmaker: The film is both a recounting-of and a living-through national tragedy. As “talking head” interviews give way to reenactments that feel depicted in real time (you introduce each character experiencing “just another day” — working a paper route, going through the motions at a news station — before they find themselves interwoven into a horrific national news story), you’re literally placed on the scene of an impending crime. How measured did your beats have to be to craft a nonfiction thriller?
Maitland: That was the goal. The story had many eyewitnesses, so there were many perspectives to work with. It was difficult choosing which ones to focus on and which perspectives to leave out. That process is what makes me love documentary filmmaking though, the research that goes into it. I interviewed dozens of people who were on the ground that day, collected their stories, and then eventually narrowed it down to our eight main characters. We took those characters’ interviews and edited them down to these story beats. I treated it just like a narrative film. I opened up Final Draft and started scripting. It reads just like a script to any movie, with the difference being that every word that’s spoken comes directly from the real life people who were there.
Filmmaker: The film’s first act is so skilled in its contextualization of ’60s Americana. Outside of researching the available archival material, how did era-appropriate music and other culture signifiers affect how you set your scenes?
Maitland: That’s all very important to me, to present an authentic feeling from that time. They’re college students and it’s 1966. It was an incredible year for music and no one’s lives are steeped more in music than American teenagers. I learned during my research that stories of murder were on the minds of Americans that summer. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was a bestseller that year, and it changed the way people viewed nonfiction reporting and true crime. There’s a little Easter egg to Truman Capote in the film, and all of those little details add up. It’s the type of thing I appreciate.
When I find a film that I love and connect to, I tend to watch it over and over again, having different relationships to it through the years. My favorite American filmmaker is Robert Altman, and when I first saw M*A*S*H (when I was twelve or thirteen years old), I mostly loved the comedy aspects of it. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized the subversive nature and qualities to it. I just turned forty this year, and now I look past the comedy and rebellious streak in the characters and look toward their humanity. The characters in that film are covering up the traumatic experience of being in a war zone with the comedy and the subversion. I want everything that I work on to offer audiences that kind of complex relationship. Those details, those authentic time capsule beats, only increase the likelihood of that happening.
Filmmaker: Jumping off your love for Robert Altman, were there any other fiction films that affected your style? The pop music merged with a sudden burst of violence reminded me of early Scorsese, and the introduction of a group of strangers brought together under unbelievable circumstances felt like a ensemble drama of a similar era.
Maitland: I love all of those films, and Scorsese in particular. There’s a great moment in Mean Streets where he uses the music of Ronnie Spector cut against the horrific beating next to the pool table. Having that music juxtaposed with that violence really highlights the violence and disarms audiences. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy. We used “Monday,Monday” and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” in Tower. Those are two songs that aren’t overused and weren’t featured in every movie from the ’60s that occurred beforehand. They both have a kind of sweetness to them, and “Monday, Monday” is a bittersweet song and it also happens that the shooting took place on a Monday and that “Monday, Monday” was at the top of the charts that week! That one was a no-brainer. I appreciate Scorsese and I love the ensemble storytelling of Paul Thomas Anderson and Magnolia. I really like how that film jumps from perspective to perspective, from character to character, and seeing how those stores are interwoven. A lot of documentary filmmakers (and I would count myself among this group) are frustrated narrative filmmakers at heart, and so the opportunity to rely on those aesthetic influences in the telling of a nonfiction story are something we embrace. I certainly do.
Filmmaker: How did Minnow Mountain come onboard to shape the animation work? As you’re also credited as the film’s art director, did you spearhead that collaboration from the very beginning?
Maitland: I developed a relationship with Craig Staggs pretty early on. I had done animation on my previous film with a different lead animator, and he is the one who recommended Craig to me when it looked like we wouldn’t be able to work together on Tower due to issues of scheduling. I was thrilled to work with Craig because he has a different hand and a different eye than the previous animator I worked with. He has an intensity to what he does that I respect, and I told him that I have an intensity to what I do too. I was very involved along the way, and I take my role of art director seriously. Every day I would be sent new pieces of animation, usually in five-second increments, and I would give very specific, detailed notes on what was working and what I was hoping to achieve. I appreciated what Craig was bringing to it, which was so much, that I couldn’t even have imagined. It truly was a collaboration, but like any director, I had the benefit of having the last word and Craig was a thrill to work with.
Filmmaker: While the film toggles between archival footage and animated reenactments, occasionally you merge the two together. You superimpose an animated image over pre-existing archival material, or you show an animated recreation before cutting to the actual scene of the event (i.e. the pregnant woman’s desolate surroundings as she lays in plain sight, injured and stranded). How did you work to visually make a seamless mutation between the material you found and the material you created?
Maitland: That was an idea I had from the beginning. Even before I had decided to make the film, I had seen the footage that existed on the news. Every year in Austin on August 1st there’s a retrospective [on the air], and I saw that there were numerous angles of the campus that day captured on 16mm film. When I looked closer, I found that there was about fourteen minutes of action within the archival material. It all looked pretty cinematic. Those camera operators, who I have since met, did a great job and what they shot were these really great wide and long-lens shots. What was missing were the close-ups and the medium shots that would carry the story and allow the characters to emerge. They captured the essence of what it felt like on that day from a wide angle perspective. Once I decided to treat the wide angle archival material as standard coverage, I designed the animation to fill in the blanks. In some instances it was as direct as lining up the archival material in an editing timeline and mentally filling in the blanks. I would then storyboard and connect shots that would lead to specific moments. In other instances, it was using the archival material as inspiration, i.e. we want to see Houston McCoy driving down the Drag and we want to see what he sees, what he describes, and I remembered that there were archival shots that matched that perspective. We realized that there were also opportunities to lay some of the animation on top of the archival in some instances. That was a lot of fun, an exciting way to look at things. I’ve never had the opportunity to do that, and we kind of made it up as we went along.
Filmmaker: I’d like to talk a little bit more about that process. In one scene, for example, a man recalls his glasses falling off his face as he carries the injured pregnant woman to safety. We see the actual archival footage of that moment and we also see the rotoscope version as the man describes the situation to us. In crafting this moment, what were the sequence of choices you made? Did you find the archival material first? Did you hear the gentleman’s recounting of the situation and then dig into the archives to find the footage?
Maitland: It went the opposite direction, actually. I met Claire Wilson first [the pregnant woman], and when I reached out to her to start the process — my relationship to that day begins and ends with empathizing with Claire — she said, “You know, this is great timing because just last month I met the man [Artly Snuff] who rescued me. I guess there’s something in the air.” For the past 46 years at that point, it hadn’t been very clear to Claire what happened that day, and suddenly some of the pieces were coming into place all at the same time. When she told me this, I reached out to him (he doesn’t live too far from me in Austin) and we shot an interview just a week or two later. It was in that interview that he told us the story about the glasses. We then went back to the archival footage and didn’t even realize that that was him or that it was Claire being rescued in that moment! We realized that the character I wanted to focus on the most had this incredible dramatic rescue that’s been captured from three different angles! I had seen the footage a few times in a lo-res Youtube version, and you couldn’t really see those glasses falling off. It wasn’t until he told us that story and we went back to the footage that we could almost see the glasses falling off through the grainy lo-res version. Eventually we got our hands on the original 16mm footage and were able to do a nice HD scan where it’s patently obvious. That’s what’s so exciting about documentary filmmaking. It’s never easy and it doesn’t just ever click into place. It’s a real process of discovery, and if you what you love doing is researching something and reading, thinking, and talking about it a lot, well, that’s the first year-and-a-half or two years of any documentary project.
Filmmaker: Was it always your goal to bring these survivors together? Your film serves, very clearly on-screen, as a means of closing the gap between the men and women who, for one reason or another, never reached out and spoke to each other to strengthen the healing process.
Maitland: It happened organically. When I set out to make the film, I didn’t know that the characters hadn’t known each other. In the scene where Claire and Artly are talking in the park at the picnic table, I believe that was the third time they had seen each other since they had reconnected. For 45 years they didn’t know each other at all, and I was capturing the third conversation they’d had since reconnecting on the phone. Going into the film, I didn’t know the story would take us there. That also applies to the two cousins in the film [who are reunited by the film’s conclusion]. I was shocked to find out that they hadn’t really talked to each other in over forty years. It’s just because….life happens. They come from a big family and were really close when they were little boys who lived near each other. Once one family moved across town, they lost contact. Those moments just happened to emerge.
That’s the thing about the kind of filmmaker I want to be and the kind of films I want to make. I don’t start out with an end goal of “the film is going to say ‘this.’” It’s finding a community of people who are ripe for investigation and exploration and really following that path. I don’t have an outline that I’m working backwards from or attempt to connect dots that I’ve already seen laid out in front of me. It probably takes a little longer because I don’t do that and [as a result] I go down some rabbit holes that I could avoid if I had a real explicit path laid out in front of me. I wouldn’t choose that path though, and I think the film is better because of it.
Filmmaker: I don’t believe it’s too much of a spoiler to note that you feature the real life men and women affected by the shooting in your film. While each of the testimonials were conducted in the present day, for the first half of the film, it’s spoken through actors playing the real-life person in the 1960s. You then transition to the real men and women, much older and greying, discussing their memories of the event. Were you hoping to make the transition a rather jarring effect?
Maitland: The film is based on 50-year old memories, and the animation has a dream-like quality that honors the idea of memory. When you remember yourself as a ten-year old or an 18-year old, you don’t think of yourself now…you think of yourself as that age. I wanted those first-person testimonials to speak to what Claire was like when she was 18. It is, however, filtered through a fifty-year old memory and so there’s room for the fuzzy nature of those memories to come through. As far as using that as a device, I wanted the film to speak to young audiences. I wanted high school kids and college kids to see themselves reflected on that screen. They are the ones who are threatened by this violence, and they’re the ones who have the most to gain from these stories. People Claire’s age likely remember this day. They probably don’t know the details or have thought about it much, but I knew we were going to have an audience in the 65-and-up crowd who have a memory from that time. I also wanted to make sure that we had an audience from the 17-and-up crowd. Seeing a brilliant young actress like Violett Beane portraying Claire as an 18-year old goes a long way to engaging young audiences. Violett was a 17-year old high school senior when we shot this, and now she’s on The Flash on The CW.
Filmmaker: In previous interviews, you mentioned that your wife is a collaborator and friend of Pamela Colloff, the journalist whose oral history for Texas Monthly, “96 Minutes,” inspired your film. Did “96 Minutes” help in finding your subjects and help contextualize and add more additional weight to the story you wanted to tell?
Maitland: Reading that article was a lightning bolt moment for me. Having grown up curious about the story, all I ever heard were stories of the sniper and what his motivations were. I just couldn’t relate to that. “96 Minutes” has the story of Claire, the story of Ramiro Martinez, the story of the radio reporter Neal Spelce, and even the story of Brenda Bell, the person in the window who says “that’s when I realized I was a coward.” That’s in “96 Minutes.” Many of the big moments that inspired me came from that. Where “96 Minutes” and the film differ are: Artly, who rescued Claire, is not in there, the book store manager Allen Crum is barely mentioned, and Houston McCoy is not included at all. A good amount of time is spent in the article trying to understand the sniper. That’s where I took some diversions. Pam is a great friend and she’s a brilliant reporter. The reason why I optioned the article is because I wanted Pam on our team and I wanted to benefit from her experience having done this. Even though it was on a much smaller scale (she spent about six months researching and reporting on the story and we spent four years), Pam handed me the keys to the story from the beginning. She also put me in touch with Claire and Ramiro Martinez and Neal Spelce to help get the ball rolling. Having Texas Monthly and Pam’s name attached to the story went a long way in helping an independent filmmaker who hadn’t made that big a name for myself with only one feature under my belt before this.
Filmmaker: Toward the film’s conclusion, you present the viewer with something that’s been in the back of our minds the entire time — news coverage of 21st century mass shootings in America. There’s much pain and suffering on display in this coverage, but without getting to know the victims, it seems like a tragically impersonal recounting of a frequent statistic. Is there a difference in the way these events were journalistically depicted now as opposed to fifty years earlier?
Maitland: I’m not a student of journalism and I don’t pay that close attention to how newsmakers report these stories either then or now. I don’t know if things have changed that much in the way they report things, but I do know that when another one of these shootings happens or a big act of terrorism takes place, audiences, myself included, see it on the news, shake our heads in shock and then change the channel. I wanted to create a space within the experience of watching this film where you couldn’t change the channel, where you were forced to get to know these people and see what happened. To me, the only difference between the tower shooting and a more modern shooting like Newtown or Orlando is that we have the benefit of fifty years of perspective in the tower shooting. That’s why the last thirty minutes of the film are so important and why I think it needed to be made. The first hour is the recounting of that day’s events, but the last half-hour, where we see how it affected Claire and how Martinez and McCoy deal with what they experienced over their lives, is where the lessons can be taken from. When we cut to footage of Columbine and all of those news angles, we see the faces of crying teenagers and parents grabbing their kids and news reporters unsure of how to deal with what they’re trying to report. I wanted the audience to say that those are real people just like the eight people we got to know [in the film]. They all deserve to have their humanity recognized and not to just be statistics or things that we shake our heads or change the channel from.