How an Oscar-Nominated Short Found Inspiration in a Frighteningly Real 911 Call
A focus on sound design helped Reed Van Dyk make 'Dekalb Elementary' into a visceral experience.
Some filmmakers find inspiration for future projects via the real-life events they view on the news, but only a few find a potential story in one they hear. Based on a 911 call made during a 2013 school-shooting attempt that, due to the strong-willed and caring demeanor of a school office attendant, avoided disaster (and human casualties), Reed Van Dyk's Dekalb Elementary is an equally frightening and tearjerking short about human negotiation and connection.
Praised as a national hero—she even received an appreciative phone call from President Obama—Antoinette Tuff was heralded for the calm way in which she defused the situation by speaking openly and honestly with the gunman, and Van Dyk's film, while a fictional account, is a dramatic testament to her bravery. With the enormity of what's at stake, the film is surprisingly quiet, and as it progresses, achingly sincere. Nominated for a 2018 Academy Award for Best Short Film (Live Action), Dekalb Elementary highlights both a strong voice behind the camera and two in front of it: actors Tarra Riggs and Bo Mitchell.
As the 2018 Oscar ceremony nears, No Film School spoke with Van Dyk about visualizing a film inspired by a primarily auditory experience, working with actors to depict an equally intense and calm scenario, and why very wide and long lenses just wouldn't work for this particular story.
No Film School: The film is based on true events. Was there a specific thwarted school-shooting that you drew from for this project?
Reed Van Dyk: Yes, the film is inspired by an actual 911 call that was placed during a school shooting incident, and the recording made national news back in 2013. The call lasts for about 12 minutes. It was an incident where a young man, Michael Hill, walked into an elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia, and, just as it unfolds in the film, had an AK-47 with a lot of ammo, and said that he was going to kill everyone. He sent everyone out of the office except for Antoinette Tuff, who was filling in for the school receptionist at the front desk. My film is directly inspired by that incident, and some of the dialogue is actually verbatim from the phone call, from the 911 recording. Within the first two minutes of the incident, he had her make the phone call to police to open up a line between him and the cops. Just as everything unfolds in my film, this particular incident happened in reality.
NFS: The film opens with an extended still shot of your camera placed outside the school hallway, peering into the quaint administration office. Within sixty seconds, the entire story is established: Cassandra will oversee the office while a colleague steps out for 20 minutes, a parent checks in with their child, and the gunman casually walks in and takes an AK47 out of his backpack, announcing his intentions. Did you always want to open the film with all of the narrative information announced in a single shot?
Van Dyk: Yeah, and that was always the intention at the script level too, to have a static frame serving as a window into a moment in time. I liked the idea of allowing life to unfold in the way it does, with its natural rhythms. The audience would be fixed into looking at it before we disrupt with the entrance of the gunman. I was also interested in the idea of not knowing who the lead characters were at the start of the film. I wanted everyone to be a part of an unfolding day, so much so that we aren't even sure that Cassandra, who comes in [to watch the office for a few minutes], is going to be the last person who ends up interacting with the gunman. That was definitely part of the design.
As a director, you're always thinking, “how do I open a movie? What’s my first shot?” I thought it was important, within the same shot, to allow for the natural flow of undramatic life be interrupted by something that's obviously figured into our national nightmares, which is someone walking into a safe space, an everyday place, with a gun. That was always the design, and yeah, you're always looking for a way to get the story going [right off the bat]. The other idea I had was to approach the film less from one particular character's point of view. Of course, we end up identifying with Cassandra over the course of the film, but I wanted to start the story in a particular space and live in it before and after the events of the film unfold.
"I find the sounds of things to be scarier and more evocative to an audience than to actually show it."
NFS: At one point, the gunman walks into the hallway with his weapon, and we hear the screams of students as they run through the halls in panic. We never actually see the students, however. How did your sound design help illustrate the severity of the story (and the presence of the potential victims) at play?
Van Dyk: I was thinking about the sound design as I wrote the script because, as you pointed out, a part of the movie's visual strategy was to play with offscreen space, and that idea was born out of the fact that my experience with the story was, from the very beginning, auditory. All I had were the voices of these people on a 911 recording, and it left so many questions that I found to be interesting, as a listener. I thought it'd be worth trying to approach the visual side of the movie in the same way, to essentially leave certain things offscreen and remain almost entirely in the office. The other reason for the choice was due to me finding the sounds of things to be scarier and more evocative to an audience than to actually show it. The picture you create in your own head is more interesting than the one I could show you. That became a big part of our process. In those instances, I knew that much of the film relied on the sound design.
NFS: We even hear sounds of an offscreen helicopter circling the school...
Van Dyk: Yeah, we were essentially using sound to create the world outside of the office. It became just as challenging and interesting to try to accomplish that as the stuff that we actually put in front of the camera! You're almost writing [the sounds into the screenplay] in the same way you would write something that does appear onscreen, and so there's a sense of reality and logic to when the helicopter arrives, how many children are in the hallway, and the revelation of people realizing what's happening as you hear doors begin to close [out of fear]. You're scripting everything off-camera and then designing it for sound.
"You're trying to let the audience come to you as opposed to underlining each beat of the story and arc of the character."
NFS: Later in the film, we actually see that school hallway, bathed in sunshine and completely empty. It's one of the few shots, outside of one in which the gunman notices police officers stationed outside the school ready to fire on command, that takes us out of the office. When did it feel right to emphasize the scope of the situation by cutting to shots outside of the main setting?
Van Dyk: It was definitely intuitive. There's only one shot I cut out of the finished film, which was a shot of children on a playground as a school receptionist comes to retrieve Cassandra, who is placed in the background of the shot. It was an alternate opening for the film. The only other exterior shot (or shot outside of the office) was the one you pinpointed. That was all we got.
I had the idea that it would be interesting to hear the interaction between Cassandra and the gunman, when he's asking her to go over the intercom and apologize to the students [on his behalf], from the perspective of the intercom outside the office. Without really being able to intellectualize it, it felt like the right time and place to briefly step out.
That was my experience with the 911 call too, a feeling like these two people are surrounded and yet there's no one else there. I remember when I was listening to the call, waiting for the police to come in and arrest him, that things were so quiet, and I wondered, "is there anybody there? Are the police coming? Where are they? What's going on?" The shot you pointed out comes right before the last sequence where we're waiting for the police who we've not yet seen arrive.
NFS: How did you direct your actors to play both the enormity of the situation with the intense intimacy apparent in such a small space?
Van Dyk: Well, we had a guidepost, this recording of what the real people sounded like under these circumstances. What was striking was how calm and "everyday" some of it sounded, and that's a credit to Antoinette Tuff, the real woman whose relationship to the gunman was less hostage-to-shooter and much more friendly. And so we had this document of the real people and always used it as a reference point. When these kinds of events are portrayed in movies, they often turn up the volume on everything. If we were to do that here, we'd be missing the truth of how these two people interacted and responded to one another. There's always an impulse to make something dramatic, of course, but the goal became, at the performance level and every level beyond that, to portray the events just as they happened. We stuck to that even when it was undramatic or not terribly sensational and tension-filled. If this were a documentary, would we believe what we're seeing? And usually what we're seeing is something less clear and more ambiguous. It's certainly less overstated than what we're used to seeing in movies.
I worked with Bo Mitchell, who plays Steven, the gunman, on not telegraphing what the character was going through. And that was the case in real life: it wasn't always clear what Michael Hill was feeling. You're trying to let the audience come to you as opposed to underlining each beat of the story and arc of the character. You want to create room for an audience to watch, observe, and interpret. That's how these things actually happened.
NFS: There's a moment where the gunman admits he wants to die and Cassandra discourages that notion, revealing that she is a suicide survivor and has made it through. When you have powerful exchanges like this between two actors, what goes into brainstorming the most effective way to map out the exchange? For example, what made you choose a shot-reverse-shot rather than a two-shot here?
Van Dyk: A good question. A lot of it's intuitive, but in this case, I was aware from the beginning that while there may have been times where I wanted to have a two-shot, the large distance between the actors in the space [wouldn't allow for it]. They were physically on opposite sides of a room, and so the camera couldn't always hold them. I'd certainly be missing nuances of what's happening, nonverbally, between them if I did a two-shot [in that conversation]. In a way, the story and its circumstances defined what the right visual approach would be. The shot size is informed by Cassandra's relationship to the gunman.
The conversation you mentioned takes place at a point in the movie where she's beginning to see him with different eyes. I think the extent to which she's able to understand and empathize with him grows, and so you're playing with the idea of drawing in closer to him. We then had questions in the edit, which are again partly intuitive, that you begin to understand intellectually after you decide why it was right. As far as being aware where your camera's holding or where your edit is holding, and on who, and when, and how long, yeah, all these things are being considered.
"In part because we wanted to create a visual document of true life events, we ruled out very wide and extremely long lenses that felt more expressive."
NFS: Were there specific camera and lens choices you made to get those choices across?
Van Dyk: Yeah, we shot with an Alexa, and for some reason (which also felt intuitive) a 75mm lens seemed right for anything in a medium closeup or closer. A 50mm lens seemed right for pretty much everything else. In part because we wanted to create a visual document of true life events, we ruled out very wide and extremely long lenses that felt more expressive and less like the way one's eye would capture everything if you happened to be an observer in the space.
NFS: The film has spent the past year screening across the world, and now it’s nominated for an Academy Award! Could you briefly take us through the process of choosing where to submit your film, the experience of premiering it, and then qualifying it for awards consideration? Do you have any advice for fellow filmmakers hoping to get on that path?
Van Dyk: Hmm, I obviously didn't think about any of this when I was making the film, as you're just trying to make a movie that works and I was really excited by the story. Pure intentions are always the best way into these things, without considering its life after the film is finished. And then the film got into the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and won a prize there (which was ultimately what qualified it for the Oscars), and then after that, it played at SXSW and played a lot of other places since. As far as our "Oscar process" goes, there really wasn't one for me. We just qualified, and when the time came, I sent the film to the Academy. We then found out that the film had been shortlisted and later we found out that it had been nominated. There was no real strategy there. We did kind of hold the film [in the beginning], hoping it would play at some of the bigger festivals, and so we started at Clermont and then SXSW. There hasn't been a whole lot of strategizing in that way. It's been a lucky situation where people seem to respond to the story.
After I finished the movie (it was my second-year film at UCLA), I talked to some people who were responding positively to it, and they were encouraging about its festival chances. I think it was right around August or September  when I felt ready to start submitting the film, and so we sent it to Sundance and SXSW and Clermont-Ferrand and Berlin. We targeted five of the bigger festivals happening within the first quarter of the year, and we hoped it would get in somewhere. Something I've since learned since is that, due to the film getting into Clermont-Ferrand (which means a lot more in Europe than it does here in the States), a lot of other festival doors opened up. I only applied to maybe a half-dozen festivals, and then everywhere it played since has happened via invitation or because they heard about the film after it played at Clermont or SX. Festival programmers would ask to see the film, and then they invited the film to their festival or they didn't. My only strategy for the festival run was [identifying that] these five festivals were really great and that'd I'd start applying to those and see what happens.
Seeing as how we're having this discussion for No Film School, I definitely feel that, while it's very clear film school isn't necessarily for everyone, it's a case-by-case [situation]. A lot of my favorite filmmakers never attended, and it ended up being a judgment call on how can I spend the next three years most productively getting better at this craft. It is what you make it. It's been good for me, but for a long time, I was debating whether I'd go in the first place. And I'm thankful for websites like yours. Even while I was at film school, I was watching No Film School tutorials. It's funny that in some schools, No Film School is still what a lot of people use.