Reed Van Dyk was writing a film about a mass shooting when he realized he didn’t know how a 911 dispatcher answered the phone.
Listening to a real 911 call during an attempted shooting at an Atlanta elementary school, however, gave him the inspiration for a different film.
“After hearing that phone call, I kept having to stop it because I was so overcome with feeling,” Van Dyk said. “I couldn’t put it down mentally until I tried to make a film about it.”
The graduate student in directing began adapting the call to his award-winning narrative short film “DeKalb Elementary” in fall 2015. On Feb. 11, the film won the Grand Prix award at the 39th International Short Film Festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and will be featured at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March.
Van Dyk, who has been directing films for 10 years, worked with his cast to produce a realistic portrayal of a phenomenon he said is particularly relevant to modern American society: mass shootings.
The film is based on a 911 phone call placed by Antoinette Tuff, a school faculty member who used her calm demeanor to talk a gunman into backing down and surrendering to police in 2013.
She was heralded as a national hero and Van Dyk said she is the foundation for the character of Cassandra Rice in “DeKalb Elementary.”
The 20-minute short film depicts the interaction between the gunman and Tuff that was recorded during the call, as she attempts to calm an armed man who enters DeKalb Elementary with the intention of shooting its occupants, Van Dyk said.
“It’s a movie about our relationship to people who are different or other,” Van Dyk said. “(The shooter) seems to be distant or remote within himself and certainly different from the kind of people that we’re used to encountering. (Cassandra’s) refusing to judge him … creates the possibility for them to connect.”
Tarra Riggs, the Mississippi-based actress who plays Cassandra, said she admires the strength and grace that her character showed. Riggs said Van Dyk’s directing techniques – getting to know her as a person and pushing her to get every scene just right – helped her trust him as a director and grow comfortable with the role and film.
Riggs hopes the audience can learn from the control and collectedness that her character demonstrates throughout the film, she said. Her character responds to the shooter with a sense of grace and empathy that Van Dyk said many other people would not have. In the real 911 call, Tuff referred to the gunman in terms such as “baby” or “sweetheart,” which Riggs emulates in the film.
Riggs said that she initially found it difficult to work up the emotions necessary to refer to the gunman in such terms, but Van Dyk helped her look at her own personal experiences to convey them. Van Dyk, Riggs said, asked her to talk to the gunman like she would talk to her own son.
Van Dyk approached one of his former UCLA adjunct professors, Andrew Wagner, for feedback on the first draft of the film. Wagner and Van Dyk have kept in touch since Van Dyk’s first year in graduate school.
“The truth of my feedback was that the film was working beautifully,” Wagner said. “The first stunning feature … about the film is the immaculate reality he achieved. It’s almost impossible to separate it from a feeling of absolute reality.”
Van Dyk directed the actors’ redo scenes in order to get the emotions of the scene just right, Riggs said. During various scenes, Riggs said that Van Dyk would have her perform over and over again, showcasing emotions from intense anger to cool collectedness.
“He (has) a passion for watching behavior in a way that we don’t expect,” Wagner said. “He was able to support his actors in achieving a moment-to-moment truthfulness in their intentions and reactions.”
Van Dyk said that since working on “DeKalb Elementary,” his curiosity surrounding mass shootings has grown. He is currently working on another film inspired by another mass shooting. The next film, he said, is loosely based on the early life of Anders Breivik, the man who committed a mass shooting in Norway in 2011.
“I’m interested in the people whose lives are affected by these events as well as the people who carry out these events,” Van Dyk said.
Van Dyk said he feels the film is particularly relevant, as school shootings are an occurrence that is becoming more frequent. It was difficult, he said, to capture just the right amount of emotion in each scene without sensationalizing the event, as many other films dealing with shootings tend to do.
While Van Dyk said it was difficult to articulate the poignancy in the phone call that inspired “DeKalb Elementary,” he found that he couldn’t stop thinking about the compassion that Tuff showed toward the regretful gunman after first listening to it.
“I’ve never made a film that I felt so passionate about,” Van Dyk said. “I thought that if I did it right, I could potentially give the audience a sliver of what I felt from that phone call.”