“Can I make a phone call?” a young man you come to know as Steven (Bo Mitchell) asks in “DeKalb Elementary,” quietly making his way into the principal’s office and seemingly much too old to attending classes in the school himself. But he isn’t the one who ends up on the phone, as he soon reveals he’s carrying a gun and leaves the principal’s aide Cassandra (Tarra Riggs) on the line with a 911 dispatcher as he monitors the hallways, never quite ready to pull the trigger, but a fearsome presence nonetheless in Reed Van Dyk’s arresting dramatic short.
With the prevalence of mass shootings in America, particularly at schools, little context is necessary to imagine the panic that occurs outside of the room, with Van Dyk instead honing in on what happens inside when the young gunman’s conviction in what he’s doing and in himself starts to evaporate when faced with the reality of the situation. As Cassandra rises to the occasion with the grace she shows under pressure in talking to Steven, not as a monster, but as if he were anyone at the school asking for help, “DeKalb Elementary” becomes a study in humanity, probing weakness and strength that seem unfathomable to most until tested.
Deserving of the big screen, the film recently was nominated for a Best Live-Action Short Academy Award, becoming a rare short to get a nationwide theatrical release through Shorts TV’s Oscar Nominated Short Films program and playing alongside Derin Seale’s “The Eleven O’ Clock,” Chris Overton’s “The Silent Child,” Katja Beneath’s “Watu Woth/All of Us” and Kevin Wilson Jr.’s “My Nephew Emmett.” (The Documentary Shorts and Animated Shorts are getting the same treatment.) As “DeKalb Elementary” rolls into theaters, Van Dyk spoke about the real-life 911 call that inspired it, dramatizing a such an incident without sensationalizing it and how he got his actors — and by extension the audience — immersed in the tense situation through subtleties in the film’s production design.
How did this come about?
I was doing research for another script I was writing about a mass shooting incident in the United States and for that script, I just needed to know how a 911 dispatcher answers the phone, like what’s the protocol? What do they say? So I very quickly Googled “911 call” and my film is based on is the very first call that came up. I listened to the dispatcher answer the phone and this call went on for 12 minutes and I couldn’t stop listening to it. It was harrowing and heartbreaking and it really affected me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the two people involved — Antoinette Tuff and Michael Hill — and after about a week, I thought maybe I should try to turn this into a short film.
Did the visual language of this come to you immediately? The camera movement and how the scenes are framed are very deliberate.
Yeah, they were in the sense that [since] my initial experience of this story was purely auditory, I wanted to play with off-screen space and what we don’t see, trusting the dialogue without visual was so compelling. Then in addition, I knew I wanted to try and present what happened in a way where it was true to what happened without sensationalizing it, so the idea was to keep the camera back to present what’s happening almost from the perspective of somebody else in the room watching, so as to try as put the audience in the room with these people. Along with that, I never wanted to have music in the film and the approach was [steeped] into my response to the initial call and then to how I thought it would best be adapted into something visual.
How did you find your two wonderful leads for this film?
It took quite some time and I was just doing a lot of watching — anything that had actors who fit the type. I was looking at cast lists on IMDB, which is really where I did a lot of that research, and I would look at people’s photographs who I thought seemed right. I got lucky one day – I saw Bo Mitchell’s headshot in the cast of “Palo Alto,” which was a small movie with James Franco, and I thought he looked really interesting, so I tracked him down. He lives in North Carolina, so I had an audition with him over Skype and then Tarra was very similar. She lives in Mississippi and had a very small part in “The Help,” which I think got cut out of the film, but she was in another wonderful movie called “Ballast.” She auditioned over Skype and we had a Skype rehearsal process with both and then I brought them to Los Angeles to shoot it.
It was interesting to hear in another interview that you encouraged Tarra to talk to Bo in character as if she were talking to her own child. What was the process like of getting the actors into the characters?
The real woman, Antoinette Tuff, is a remarkable woman and rom the phone call alone, she’s so impressive in her capacity to understand and empathize with someone who would’ve otherwise inspired fear in anyone else. Her character’s relationship to the gunman is different [than you’d think], and certainly evolves over the course of the film, but I think the direction maybe [Tarra] remembered was a way in which we could define their relationship. There are times during the phone call where she refers to him very affectionately, as if she’s talking to another one of the students at the school or someone she’s close to. There’s a warmth, and it appears that there was nothing separating them. With Bo, we were rehearsing over Skype, a lot of it was improvisation and it was a means of just finding the character. I would get him improvising [by conducting] a police interview or we had created this idea that he had been posting some videos on YouTube, so we would just slowly but surely narrow in on the character.
There’s a great attention to detail in the production design and the props. For instance, Steven carries a flip phone that’s bandaged in duct tape that tells you a lot about him. How did you go about making the world real for the actors in that way?
Yeah, that’s the kind of work that often goes unnoticed and May Mitchell, my production designer on this who was also dealing with all the props, did a wonderful job. When you have two characters that you don’t ever know outside of the context of this room who are living and interacting in a space that’s not their personal space, you’re just looking for any opportunity with the props to define character or to evoke something in the audience’s mind about a life outside of this room. So that flip phone with the duct tape was an opportunity…obviously his backpack, what he was wearing. Without conjuring too specific a backstory, you’re just looking for ways to indicate or give a feeling of someone’s life outside of this.
We were also lucky to have a real school and they left a lot of what was there. May redid the space, but there was also stuff in there that we loved and then it became a process of subtraction or addition. I’m not even sure you see in the movie anymore, but somebody at the office there had had a cat, so there was like a cat cage and a receptionist in the real school had like a yoga ball that she would sit on, so those were the kinds of things where you go, “Yeah, that feels right and interesting and specific.”
Given that this is a conversation, were you able to shoot in sequence so there was an emotional build to it?
That would’ve been the ideal way to shoot this and I think it’s a great credit to the actors how it perhaps feels as if we may have. It was a logistical challenge because there were scenes where we had a gun outside of the office and you have to hire policemen to be on the premises outside if you have a prop gun visible to pedestrians or passerby on the street. We were working on a budget, so we were not able to shoot [that part] in sequence. But we were able to shoot the first five or six minutes in sequence.
You could’ve fooled me. What’s it been like being on the festival circuit with this film? Unfortunately, while it would be timely no matter when it would be shown during the last few years, gun violence seems more prominent than ever.
Yeah, unfortunately. It has been interesting. I haven’t been to the majority of the festivals that it’s played and [I’ve been to] only a couple of which were here in America, where the film speaks most to what’s going on here. But I went to Clermont, France where the film won a prize that ended up qualifying it for the Oscar, and they were very interested in this American problem and similarly, I went to a festival in Lisbon and likewise, there [was this] international interest in what is a distinctly American story.
What’s life been like since getting nominated for an Oscar?
It’s definitely been a trip. It’s great in the sense that more people will get to see the film and share in the story and it’s obviously encouraging as someone who’s a young filmmaker, but primarily, [this] is a story that every time I think back on my initial experience of that phone call, it had such a powerful and profound effect on me that the hope is, and always was, that I could do that story a little bit of justice in the film medium. So it’s really special that the film is being recognized in this way and I’m excited that more people will get to see it.