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Tower director looks back at Texas sniper shooting 50 years later

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On a blistering summer day in 1966, a sniper opened fire from atop the bell tower on the campus of the The University of Texas at Austin. Keith Maitland’s tense documentary Tower reconstructs the horror of that day by seamlessly blending rotoscoping animation with archival footage, then introducing present-day interviews to depict the panicked confusion of seven witnesses, including Claire Wilson, one of the sniper’s first victims. Though it occurred 50 years ago, the shooting feels devastatingly familiar today. EW spoke with Maitland about the importance of seeing the people behind the statistics in an era when we’ve become desensitized to mass killings.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide that the campus tower shooting back in 1966 was the subject for your latest documentary?

KEITH MAITLAND: I grew up in Texas, and the first time I ever heard about the tower shooting was in my 10th grade history class. I didn’t hear about it because it was on the statewide curriculum, it was because my history teacher was there that day. So the first person I ever heard it from was a visceral first-hand witness — somebody who found herself in the sniper’s line of fire. She looked up and realized if he could she could see him, he could see her, and she ran into a building. That was my first knowledge of it: the moment, the realization, what does that feel like?

You studied at the University of Texas. When you were a student there did you learn more about it or at least expect to hear about it more?

I expected to learn about it pretty much on day one since it’s an important history. But — when I was as student in the ‘90s — what I discovered was the university had no relationship to the history at all. Every day there’s tours given of the campus, and on every tour somebody asks about the shooting, and the tour guide always says the same thing, “We’re not supposed to talk about that, but if you stick around I can show you where there’s some bullet holes.” That had bothered me because it seemed like it was a really important opportunity to learn from the lessons of that day. As I tried to connect with that history, the only thing I ever heard was information about the sniper; what his potential motivations were, what drove him to this. There was never anything that aligned with my history teacher’s perspective of what it was like to be there and what it meant over time. That’s the reason I decided to make the film.

The documentary is also inspired by Pamela Colloff’s oral history of that day, 96 Minutes. How did that shape the narrative of the film?

It was during the 40th anniversary, 10 years ago, that that really incredible oral history was published. It was the first time I had been exposed to the story of the real people on the ground and the way they told their stories. I know that campus like the back of my hand, so just even hearing stories of, “I started in the Student Union, and I ran across the West Mall,” these were all locations that I could easily put myself into, and that’s what I wanted to do with the film: create a world that people could easily put themselves into. I wanted it to feel rooted in authenticity of that time and that place, but I also wanted it to be universal so that people who had never been to Austin, or never been to that campus, or were born years after 1966, could see themselves up on that screen.

So, then the next step would be to reach out to these witnesses and ask them to share their stories with you. I imagine that must have been a very delicate and difficult process?

Yes, I realize when I’m reaching out to people and asking them to talk about the most traumatic thing to happen in their lives, I have to be really sensitive and thoughtful. We were careful as we started reaching out to people, but we discovered over and over again how many people expressed what the film expresses: that they didn’t have a chance to contextualize or work through what happened. Just about nobody went to therapy or expressed themselves solely on the subject, so most of the people we interviewed — and I ended up personally interviewing over 50 people who were there that day, and my team has interviewed and collected stories from over 200 people — said some version of, “We just didn’t talk about it.” I think there’s been such a vacuum. Claire, who is really the central character in our film, has seen the film now seven or eight times, and each time she watches it, she watches for more and more information about what she was experiencing while she was lying there. She felt disconnected from that for 50 years.

The film is mostly animated through rotoscoping. What was your reasoning behind using that technique?

I was reading Colloff’s article in 2006, and when I got to the point in the article about the redheaded coed who emerges from the bushes and runs out into the mall to lie down with Claire, that was the moment where I realized two things. 1) This is exactly the kind of story that has never been told about this day, and 2) By not focusing on the sniper, it’s a much more powerful story of humanity than anything that I’ve seen. I knew that this was the story that needed to be told, and the way I was imagining those events unfolding as I was reading the story was so visceral and had such a visual sense to it, because I knew the scene so well. I knew that was what I wanted to capture. The animation allows for a level of intimacy that is uncomfortable in standard video or film treatment, to really push in close to get the extreme close-ups or angles, and it has a dreamlike quality that just allows you to put yourself into it and see yourself up there.

I also knew that I wanted to present it to younger audiences. Claire is 67 years old, and she’s talking about a thing that happened to her when she was 17, and honestly the people who need to see the story unfold and understand it are the high school kids and college kids who live under the threat of this kind of event. I didn’t want to give them an excuse to look past the story of a 67-year-old woman. I wanted to create an environment that placed them right in the heart of the story that allowed them to feel.

Toward the end of the film, you introduce present-day talking head interviews. The witnesses, at the age they are now, appear on screen to talk about that day and the aftermath. Did you intentionally withhold that footage until near the end?

Yes, that was always the original concept. I always knew that we would honor the real people by revealing them and ending with them. We decided to hold off on that as long as we possibly could. It just felt like the further we could hold it off, the stronger the connections would be. It would’ve been a lot less expensive if we didn’t animate the interviews with the younger people, and if we took the more standard documentary approach, but I think that there’s power in fighting that temptation.

You also incorporate archival footage throughout. It’s done so seamlessly that looking back on the film, it’s hard to distinguish between what was animated and what was real footage. Was there a lot of archival footage available?When I started researching way back in 2006, I learned that there was approximately 14 minutes of archival footage, and that was all from within the gun battle, and then another 20 to 45 minutes of aftermath footage — news reports, etc. I knew that I wanted the film to take place as much within the shooting as possible, and looking at that archival footage — as a filmmaker and editor — many of these archival shots are really great wide shots or long lens shots of what’s happening across the way. All we needed to do was fill in the blanks with close-ups and medium shots that we create with animation, and fit the two together.

Considering the current climate, with mass public shootings far too commonplace, the release of this documentary sadly feels very timely. How do you hope this film further the conversation on gun laws?

We said from the beginning: We realize there’s a story to tell here, but what we’re not going to be able to do — from either an intellectual standpoint, or a creative standpoint — is solve the problem of mass public shootings. What we can do is recontextualize the conversation. One of the things that really struck me about the tower shootings when I would read about it — before I really got into the research — was everyone just says in a very blasé way, “So the shooting lasted 96 minutes.” The thing is, that’s an incredibly long amount of time for anything to last. I realized if we force people to acknowledge all of the thousands of facets that are part of the story during those 96 minutes, then we can’t just do what we do when a story like this pops up on the news, which is shake our heads in frustration and then change the channel. We just wanted to say this is an important story and an important dialogue that needs to be born out of this story. It’s not just a past; it’s the present, as we all know from watching the news every couple of days. Hopefully smarter people than us will have an opportunity to look at this a little closer, and focus on the emotion and humanity that’s so apparent in these untold stories. If they can look past this as just as story or a set of statistics, we can be part of that conversation. It’s really up to the audience out there to do what they will with those feelings.

Tower will be released on Wednesday in select cities.

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