"She was on a balcony at a private dormitory and saw people running left and right. She wasn't sure what it was. Somebody said, 'Somebody is shooting.' They looked around. Finally, they looked up to the top of the tower and she saw the sniper and that's when it all came together. He's shooting at those people and those people are students, just like me. Then she realized, if I can see him, he can see me. And that's the moment that always grabbed me."
Filmmaker Keith Maitland is 40 years old now, but he can still remember his seventh-grade history teacher in Dallas, describing her experience at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. On August 1st of that year, Charles Whitman, a mentally ill 25-year-old engineering student with self-described "overwhelming violent impulses," climbed to the top of a campus tower and shot 49 people, killing 17. Until the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, it was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history; though like today, history seems to focus on the shooter over the victims.
"The story had been reduced to trivia and whatever information that existed was about the shooter, " Maitland says. "What were his motivations? Why did he do it? How was he raised? I have no issue with anyone asking those questions or wanting to understand that. But that's not want I wanted to understand. "
After reading a 2006 oral history of the shooting in Texas Monthly – as told through the voices of surviving victims – Maitland set to work on Tower, a gripping new documentary currently in theaters that augments rigorously researched journalism with a devout humanistic bend. Combining archival footage with animated sequences of first-person accounts, interviews and police reports, the film bypasses Whitman's backstory – his name is only mentioned three times – and focuses on lesser-known but key characters: the bookstore manager who stormed the tower with police; the 17-year-old who rushed into the crossfire to save a victim's life; and the off-duty officer who helped bring the gunman down. "It read like a script to a great film already," Maitland says. (Whitman himself was killed atop the tower by two police officers. His name is notably absent from any of the film's press materials or marketing.)
After optioning the article, Maitland and his team began collecting stories from more than 200 people who were there, distilling the film into recollections of eight main characters. Using college-age actors to emulate the voices of the survivors circa 1966, the director shot the re-enactments mostly in his own backyard in Austin using a 40-foot palm tree as a stand-in for the tower. After taking photos and matching film angles on the campus with his iPhone, Maitland handed over all the material to animation studio Minnow Mountain. Then a team, led by animation director Craig Staggs (A Scanner Darkly), spent over 18 months "rotoscoping" (a process in which live-action footage is traced over) some 660 shots and 290,000 individual frames.
The use of animation was both a practical and aesthetic device, given that the university hardly wants to be known as "the shooting college" – tour guides for incoming freshmen are told not to mention the tragedy unless asked. Maitland knew staging re-enactments on campus was verboten. But with animation, he hopes to reach a younger audience that may have no knowledge of Whitman, yet has plenty of first-hand knowledge of active shooter drills.
"The standard PBS documentary audience is like a 63-year-old white woman who should remember this event," Maitland says. "But kids today don't have that relationship to this history. Some may have a relationship to Columbine or Newtown, but I wanted them to know that it didn’t start there. Kids today live under the threat of this violence. They drill for it. Because they live under that reality, it’s easier for them to take for granted the human side of what these events create. "
As the film shows, it seems morbidly quaint to imagine a time when an event like this was shocking. "Random violence and mass murder wasn't something we knew," Brenda Bell, who witnessed the shooting, says in the Texas Monthly article. "If this happened now, there would almost be a feeling of having seen it before. But we had no reference point then."
Tower is striking in its apolitical stance – "I don't think anyone is pro-school shooting," says Maitland – as the film focuses on the humanistic side of tragedy rather than the partisan opportunism that can arise out of any national tragedy. "We need to talk about this [when it happens]," executive producer Meredith Vieira says. (Actor Luke Wilson is also a co-producer of the film.) "It was really important to us that we keep politics out of the picture."
"It was all about this shift in the conversation away from a binary political conversation and into a more experiential, learning conversation," Staggs adds. With over 100 school shootings in the U.S. in the past five years alone, it's a conversation most people have in the days following each one. But more than a reminder of the present environment, Tower is a singular harbinger of what's to come; a group psychological evaluation of the tolls of surviving a mass shooting decades later told through the people who lived it. It's a film equally at home at PTSD groups as on the college campuses Maitland hopes to bring it to in the future.
"Seeing the pain, sorrow and guilt that [survivors] still live with speaks volumes about what things like this do to people," Vieira says. "There's something so human about this story."