To what extent is the film true to the real-life story? Did you use creative license to write up the conversation between the two characters outside of the phone conversation with the police? How did the research process go?
I started the writing process by collecting all the research I could get my hands on, which included the transcript of the 911 call that the film is based on, court documents, police reports, interviews given by Antoinette Tuff, and security camera footage. There was a camera in the elementary school front office and it captured all the events preceding and directly following the call (without sound though). So, between all these different sources I was able to fill in pretty well what transpired outside the call. And I was committed to using as much of the actual dialogue from the call as possible. Lines were changed here and there, but much of the dialogue was pulled verbatim. The adaptation process involved giving the dialogue and events a structure, rearranging them, but doing so without telling a “lie,” as it were. By that I mean structuring it or enhancing it in a way that would make it more gratifying for an audience or “dramatic,” but ultimately false. My aim was to present something as close to what actually happened between these two people as possible.
What motivated you to tell this story?
Not sure how to answer that. I stumbled on the 911 call while I was researching another project about a mass shooting incident. I remember so vividly the first time I listened to it. I was sitting on my couch in Los Angeles, and I kept having to stop the recording because I would become overwhelmed with feeling. For days, I couldn’t stop thinking about the elementary school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, and the gunman, Michael Hill. Her compassion; his regret. I’m not sure I’ve found a way of articulating its power that doesn’t immediately reduce it, but of course it has a lot to do with her orientation toward people. Her empathy. And his decency, actually. He’s not a “bad” guy, just ill and shaped by tough circumstances. It touched me in a deep place. Also, this felt like a scene from contemporary American life that spoke to the society as a whole. Or at least that’s where my mind kept going. In the end, I just wanted to try and give a viewer even a sliver of what I got from listening to the phone call.
The relationship that develops between the two characters is very moving. How did you cast the roles?
I have developed a pretty rigorous casting process that just involves many weeks of online research, mostly on IMDb. I found both Tarra Riggs and Bo Mitchell (my two leads) this way. Neither live in Los Angeles, so I auditioned Bo over Skype and Tarra over the phone (her Skype wasn’t working that day). I hired each of them on the spot.
You have worked exclusively on short films. Are you interested in directing and/or writing a feature?
Yes, definitely. I’ve written/directed one more short that we’ll finish in April. Meanwhile I’m at work on feature and will begin looking for financing as soon as the script is ready. Probably later this year.
Any cinematic coups de cœur in the past year you’d like to tell us about?
I haven’t seen much this year, sadly. I’ve been tied up finishing DeKalb Elementary and prepping my next film. I did, however, finally see Corneliu Porumboiu’s films (The Treasure) this year. Very inspiring.
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote or story from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
I’ve never been. Honestly, not sure what to expect. Really looking forward to seeing other films and then getting to watch our film with an international audience.
Are you taking part in other events during the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival (Espressos, Conferences, etc.)?
I will be smack dab in the middle of shooting my next film for most of the festival, so sadly I will be unavailable for a lot of the events. I am going to catch a red-eye to Clermont-Ferrand from New York City, however, the night we wrap production. I will be able to catch the last two days of the festival and whatever events may be scheduled. Looking forward!