Reed Van Dyk may go home with an Academy Award just three months after his graduation.
Van Dyk, a fall 2017 graduate of UCLA’s MFA directing program, wrote, edited and directed a live-action short film about a 911 call placed from the office of an elementary school before a potential shooting. "DeKalb Elementary" is based on events surrounding an August 2013 shooting at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Georgia. Van Dyk said he chose to portray the incident as realistically as possible, refraining from using conventional cinematic techniques like music and elaborate camera movements to sensationalize the event.
The call the film is based on records a conversation in which front desk receptionist Antoinette Tuff convinces gunman Michael Hill not to harm anyone at the school. In the film, they take the names Cassandra Rice and Steven Hall, respectively.
Van Dyk said he intended to simply document the interaction between the two, not dramatize it. Subtle background noises of sirens and visuals of windows breaking only occur in the audience's periphery, but their main focus remains on the conversation, he said. He wanted to keep the film realistic because he hoped viewers would experience the same awe he did when he witnessed the power of the receptionist's words in stopping a potential tragedy.
“I was not trying to turn up the volume on what had happened,” he said. "I was just trying to provide a document of what happened, and I trusted that my response ... would be the response of most people to the film.”
Becky Smith, Van Dyk’s former professor of directing at UCLA, said he created a realistic portrayal of the shooting by choosing to avoid techniques filmmakers traditionally use to create suspense. For example, he chose to omit background music in the scene where the gunman first enters the front office. The lack of music leads to the absence of a suspenseful buildup, keeping the film as close to reality as it can be, Smith said.
"What is really interesting in life is subtext. It’s not what you say, it’s what you really mean, and (Van Dyk) is very, very good at that," Smith said. "(Van Dyk) works with (his actors) so closely that he really makes sure that they understand what is underneath what they’re saying and they understand the larger reality."
Co-producer Cory Desrosiers said Cassandra's words help the film capture the connection between two human beings with tragic personal lives. At the time of the incident, Hill was not taking his mental health medications regularly, and his actions may have been a cry for help, Desrosiers said. In the film, Cassandra tells Hill she herself had battled depression after recently divorcing her husband, which she used to connect with Hill and convince him violence wasn't the answer to his plight, he said.
“To me, the film is about communication and human connection," Desrosiers said. "You’re kind of in there with them, in this room, and you end up gaining empathy for both of the characters ... everything’s not so black and white."
Van Dyk said he is glad the Oscar nomination will increase the audience of his film and bring more attention to the subject of school shootings. However, the heavy subject matter and suffering portrayed in the story make any sort of recognition bittersweet, he said.
“I hope that there would be something to be gained ... for people watching the film, especially in light of what happened, and hope that the conversation around this subject matter doesn’t end as abruptly as it typically does," Van Dyk said. "My film will only play a very minor role in extending that conversation, but I’m very hopeful that it can."