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“How Do You Evoke the History of Violence in a Space Without Showing It?”: Hannah Peterson on The Graduates

A young girl with straight brown hair looks to the side as she holds another boy's head against her chest.

“She plans to continue working with ‘first-time performers in live settings’ and is developing a feature she hopes will be in production in the next year,” is how the profile of writer/director Hannah Peterson concluded for our 25 New Faces of Independent Film list in 2018. The Graduates, about a group of students returning to their high school one year after a mass shooting, is that feature, having just made its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival, winning Best Cinematography in a U.S. Narrative Feature for director of photography Carolina Costa.

Co-starring John Cho, Maria Dizzia and Mina Sundwall, The Graduates is neither the first nor the last narrative film to address the specifically American health crisis (some being quite successful in their own right), but in the context of an ensemble drama focusing on how it’s possible for students to proceed after experiencing such a traumatic event, it offers a worthwhile window into the months after the countless news trucks and reporters and “thoughts and prayers” have packed up and moved on to the next education site massacre. Set and shot in Utah, The Graduates is a film about dealing with the aftermath of what shouldn’t feel inevitable. 

Also a documentary filmmaker who has been making her way into narrative works of social realism, Peterson spoke with me about her conversations with students and grief counselors leading up to her feature, working with first-time actors, editing her own material and much more.   

Filmmaker: Your short films, East of the River and Champ, are about young, high school-aged people, and your first feature, The Graduates, is too. As in Champ, the characters in The Graduates are dealing with a past trauma, so I was curious if you’ve identified that as a particular theme in your films. Even in your nonfiction work, you tend to gravitate toward working with young people and helping them deal with [their tribulations].

Peterson: I guess it’s emerging as a theme, though sometimes you don’t realize it as it’s happening. Making East of the River was a really formative experience for me, as I made it off the heels of working on The Florida Project and I took a lot of pages out of Sean Baker’s book, meaning that I cast real high school students, shot on location and collaborated with the students to come up with the story and each of the scenarios. East of the River was my thesis film in grad school and I was just starting to experiment with [the form], but it was such a rewarding experience and I knew I wanted to continue. That lead to making Champ, and now The Graduates, my first feature. But I knew since making East of the River that I wanted to tell a contemporary, coming-of-age story in the American public school system, albeit on a larger scale.

Filmmaker: I was actually just in Florida and even visited a few of the shops (Magic Castle Gift Shop, Orange World, and Twistee Treat) and the hotel featured in The Florida Project, funny enough. The complex is all white now and going through some kind of renovation.

Peterson: Are you serious?

Filmmaker: I have a friend who lives down there and we drove over.

Peterson: That makes me so happy. I mean, those were some of the more memorable moments of my life on Route 192, those exact locations. It’s funny because the hotel was painted purple right before we started filming, so we just went with it.

Filmmaker: I know you’ve worked with  Taylor Shung before, as she produced your short film, Champ. Did you two initially meet while working on Nomadland [Shung was a co-producer and Peterson the costume designer on Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning feature]? Did you always envision collaborating again?

Peterson: Taylor Shung, Elizabeth Godar (who was the production designer on The Graduates [and oversaw art direction on Nomadland]), and I all met on Nomadland and these were definitely conversations we were having on the road. We were all coming of age in the industry at the same time and wanted to make sure we’d continue to work together. It was always the plan to have them be a part of [my] film team. And while Carolina Costa, the cinematographer on The Graduates, wasn’t someone I had worked with before, she fell right into the fold with us.

Filmmaker: What is the experience like of working with first-time actors? Are you communicating with them differently or altering your approach to how you direct for performance? 

Peterson: I think I’m communicating with them just the same as I would an actor with more experience. Often it’s a mix. In Champ, our lead actress, Eva Noblezada, was very experienced but the other actresses were actual basketball players in Los Angeles who didn’t have acting experience. There’s always a mix of levels [of experience] and that was also true on The Graduates where Mina Sundwalll, Alex Hibbert and Yasmeen Fletcher obviously have a lot of experience, but then we did a lot of work to cast locally for the [participants in the] grief circle scene and on the basketball team, especially. As to how I’m communicating with them, I think I’m always approaching it similarly. However, I’m always looking for moments in the script where I can leave space [for the actor] to be more flexible with the dialogue and blocking. I’m certainly thinking about that when working with actors who might have less experience.

Filmmaker: What was it about The Graduates’ narrative, of the aftermath of a school shooting, that made you want to pursue it as your first feature?

Peterson: While I was really interested in telling a contemporary, coming-of-age story in the American public school system, I didn’t know exactly what that would look like, so I set about speaking to high schoolers and recent graduates about their experiences: “What’s it like to go to high school today? What are your fears? What are your anxieties? What are the highs and lows?” The thing that kept coming up again and again was everyone mentioning [their] anxiety pertaining to safety in their schools. That immediately struck me as a throughline I was interested in pursuing. It seemed as if you couldn’t really talk about education or the American public school system without talking about gun safety in our country—uniquely in our country.

Filmmaker: The film is set in the aftermath of a school shooting, in the aftermath of a major traumatic event. As such, the film is about dealing with the grief that follows. The characters are removed from the event in terms of time, but the emotional scars remain fresh. Did that always seem like a clear way into the narrative?

Peterson: That was important to me, yes. I was writing the film in 2018, a time when we were beginning to see school shootings in constant succession covered in the news. [Around this time], there was a school shooting at a nearby high school, and I watched as the news cameras descended upon the city and [soon after] picked up, turned around and left. But within weeks, those students and faculty members were returning to the school, some still having years [to go] before they graduated. These were images that struck me and it’s why I decided to place the film in the aftermath. Grief is something we’ve all experienced and this was a broader way into a specific issue. Each of the actors could bring their experience and empathy into the work.

Filmmaker: Were there moments where you had to resist the urge to further sensationalize these dramatic events? There are a few fleeting flashbacks to simpler, more peaceful times where Genevieve (Sundwall) is spending time with her boyfriend, but for the most part, the film remains in the present, post-school-shooting. 

Peterson: The easiest choice I made was to not show the act of violence itself. While that was my starting point, it created a lot of artistic challenges. How do you evoke the history of violence in a space without showing it? How do you evoke what happened to these people? How do you give context without actually showing what the context [was for]? We designed the language of the film, through visuals and sound design and performance, around that. I think the opening sequence where Kelly O’Sullivan, who plays the guidance counselor, walks down the hallway was incredibly emblematic of how we decided to present this film, partly because I felt like it was the best way into the story and partly because it was a way to create a film about gun violence that could also be accessible to survivors.

Filmmaker: Your screenplay went through various stages of [institutional] support, including the Sundance [Creative Producing Labs & Summit]. Did the script change much based on all of the different types of feedback you were receiving? If it did, in what ways did it grow or morph thanks to those programs?

Peterson: It evolved constantly, as we were working on the script for four years. It did go through the Sundance Producing Lab, and also Gotham Week’s Project Forum in 2019, and received a lot of feedback from our peers. I also spent many months reaching out to survivors of gun violence, hearing their stories, and passing scenes back and forth to see what they thought and if they thought they were realistic. Then, when the actors came on, we did a lot of workshopping to make sure it sounded more natural and was in their words. So it was, I would say, evolving all the way through our time on set, and then even in the edit.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the cast, there are a few actors in the film, including John Cho as the basketball coach, who are well known to the general public, or, at least, I think they are. Did the green light to go into production hinge on securing high-profile casting? Did it need that extra push?

Peterson: I feel really lucky because, while this was my first feature, it was not cast-dependent. I always wanted the movie to feel like it fell from the sky, like this could be a high school set anywhere in America’s backyard. That’s why it was important, particularly for the youth in the film, that not only should the actors be close in age to their characters (Alex Hibbert was 17 when we filmed and Mina Sundwall was 19), but that they felt like they were a part of that world. In the casting of John Cho, it was a conversation of how much can he sink into this world and not stick out. A lot of the supporting [actors] were locally cast and were really attending that high school or were really playing basketball in that city, so it became a kind of dance to make sure that everything felt like it came from a natural fabric of this world.

Filmmaker: Since the production wasn’t cast-dependent, were there certain windows of availability pertaining to the locations that made you realize “it’s now or never?”

Peterson: First there was a lot of time spent writing and thinking about the film, [having it] gestate. We then participated in SFFILM Invest [where “individuals from Bay Area philanthropic and film funder communities unite with the most exciting voices in independent film”] and received a small grant [through the program] which we used to reach out to different film-incentive offices in hope of finding our main location [the school building]. We ended up in Utah. 

It was important to find a high school that was going to be collaborative, would allow us to cast within their student body and perhaps let us film while [classes] were in session. The school is our main set piece in the film and we wanted to find a high school that could also embody this kind of history. Once we found it, we had to figure out when the best time would be to film there. We began casting through Zoom (as this was during the pandemic) and found our actors pretty quickly, then brought on department heads. By the time we secured financing, we already had several department heads and cast members attached, so as soon as everyone was ready to go, we were ready.

Filmmaker: Were there specific requirements the school needed to be met in order to allow you to film there? Given the film’s sensitive subject matter, was there a hesitancy on their part? How did you work to build that relationship?

Peterson: The principal of the high school was incredible. We were really upfront about what the film was [going to be] and the school was willing to be our partner in that. We never show the name of the school [in the film], and that was a part of our partnership. We wanted to work hand-in-hand with them to make sure we were creating it in the most responsible way.

Filmmaker: You mentioned that the school had history that was [relevant] to the film. How so?

Peterson: The school we found was an enormous structure that was, I believe, built during the Great Depression. I had never seen a high school like it before. During the pandemic, the school lost a lot of their student body [to remote learning], so they were left with this large space with not a lot of students in it. It had this almost haunted feel to it, as it [consisted of] vacant spaces that used to be populated with students. That’s what happens to the school in our film too. The [situation] did us many favors in that the building evoked something that used to be there. 

Throughout our early conversations, Carolina Costa brought these photographs [to me] that she had taken as a photojournalist of a school that had been bombed. The photos captured different rooms where you just could tell that something had happened [within them]. That was the look we were going for. In many ways, the school we chose lent itself to that feeling.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the scenes where you incorporated moments of the school’s “new normal,” i.e. in one moment when a fire drill unexpectedly occurs, everyone instinctively assumes it’s a siren to alert the classmates of an active shooter (in surviving one school shooting, the students will now be on edge for the rest of their lives). It feels like the type of scene you arrive at from speaking with students who have gone through traumatic experiences and are still living with grief on a daily basis.

Peterson: For many survivors (and even people who haven’t survived gun violence but are wary of all the news of it), those drills can be traumatizing and we wanted to get that across. It was a group decision made with the sound designer [Kent Sparling] on how to approach that scene. He even did a lot of intricate work to create the sound design for the “memory scene” in the hallway. It’s subtle, evocative and haunting, and it was a way for us to double down on the history that this space had and how that might feel and reverberate through the hallways.

Filmmaker: How many classrooms did you have to film in? Was there only a certain section of the school you could use? Did you ever have to redress the classrooms or a hallway in a different way for multiple scenes?

Peterson: We essentially had an annex to ourselves. However, for two of the classrooms that we filmed in, one of them was a social studies classroom, and that’s really the social studies teacher at that high school and that’s really his classroom. We didn’t have to dress it at all. We filmed those scenes on weekends when the students weren’t there.

Filmmaker: I was struck by the scene where Mina Sundwall suffers this intense panic attack while riding home on her bike, causing her to rush to the sidewalk, sit down and let it pass. It’s an uninterrupted, one-minute oner, and I was curious about the planning and staging of that shot as well as why you chose to present it that way.

Peterson: We only wanted to film it as few times as possible, for the actor’s sake, so we planned for it to take place within this long durational shot, because we wanted there to be an organic buildup. It’s such a subtle film that the bigger emotional moments have to also feel like they live within that. That was part of our strategy. We had Mina riding on a bicycle and the camera operator was in the back of a car that is leading [in front of] her, and that’s how we filmed it. I think we did two takes, and in the edit it was about figuring out when you could leave or cutaway from this character. She’s in this really big moment, and if we leave too soon, it feels like we’re leaving her there. But if we stay with it too long, we have to figure out what breath to take her out on. It’s like you had to leave her on an exhale, basically.

Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned the scenes in the grief circle. I felt as though some of the people in that scene really were recounting their personal stories, depending on whom you were cutting to.

Peterson: That’s a real place, The Sharing Place, located in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s a grief center for teenagers and children, and they really do have a teen and parent grief circle, and yes, we worked with them to cast within their alumni group. People who had been in the program and who wanted to share their story on camera [came aboard]. Aside from Mina Sundwall, everyone is really sharing their story of a person they had lost.

Filmmaker: Does that bring a different energy to the scene when you’re putting an actor in the room with these real people? 

Peterson: We sat in on group circles before we filmed the scene, so everybody was very aware of the circumstances. We found it to be really useful as the moderators who worked with us at The Sharing Place are actually playing the moderators in the scene and really did guide the sessions with their questions. For instance, “What’s a big moment in your life where you’re really going to miss your person?”—that’s a question that is frequently asked within those circles, so it was something that people were familiar with and able to answer. In those moments, it was really about listening and that was the vibe of those sets with both me and Carolina—how do we just sit here and listen to everybody?

Filmmaker: You serve as your own editor on the film. Is that something that comes naturally to you as a director? After the shoot, do you remove yourself for a little bit from the material to go into that mode or are you already thinking as an editor during production? If there is a mindset switch, how do you make that switch?

Peterson: I was definitely thinking as an editor, especially since I knew I was going to edit the film. I like to say that I was the cheapest, most available editor for it [laughs]. I knew [I was going to be the editor], so I was thinking of that while I was in production. I was also constantly talking to Carolina about this, thinking about transitions and how things were piecing together, and editing on the day [of]. I’ve also spent a lot of time working with Sean Baker and Chloé Zhao. Both of them edit most of their work and that’s the model I envisioned with my own feature.

I asked nearly everyone in my life to give me feedback, maybe even a little too much. I definitely waited until I first had a cut, then I showed the roughest cuts to the people I felt most comfortable with or who knew my work best. As I got closer to a fine cut, I was sharing it with people who, generally, I wanted feedback from and who didn’t necessarily have to know me or the context of my work. I particularly asked a lot of editors for feedback, which was also really helpful.

Filmmaker: As the film gets further out into the world, are you thinking of it in terms of impact and working with impact campaigns or different groups that might have ties to the subject matter? I suppose the conversation will lead and grow itself, but I was curious if you plan to screen the film for some of the communities you’ve mentioned that have dealt with what the characters have in the film. Is there a hope or a strategy to create further awareness?

Peterson: Thank you for asking that. That’s certainly the hope, for people to be able to connect with and have different conversations around the film. I really hope that people become more aware of and get involved with the Gun Violence Prevention movement, as that’s something really important to us. We recently held private screenings in San Francisco and in DC with Moms Demand Action and Everytown [For Gun Safety] and that was helpful in providing resources to people who wanted to learn more or take action after they viewed the film.

There are so many things [I learned on this film]. I could write an encyclopedia of the lessons learned. But what really sticks out to me is that it makes such a difference who you surround yourself with, who your collaborators are, who the community is that becomes involved in your film. I got to work with friends while making this film and was able to create so many generative relationships through it, even now by working with Moms Demand Action and EveryTown. There’s this continuation of community and people who I’ve been able to surround myself with through the making of this film. People are the center of films, communities are the center of films. That’s my biggest takeaway.

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