Michael Bergeron
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A Talk with “Tower” Director Keith Maitland

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Keith Maitland spent four years making the documentary Tower, which covers testimony from victims and eyewitnesses of the August 1, 1966 University of Texas sniper incident. In fact, during that time he also made a documentary on the ACL music scene, A Song For You: The Austin City Limits Story. The latter film is currently on the film festival circuit while Tower opens in Houston this weekend. Both films world premiered earlier this year at SXSW.

“I was inspired by an article in Texas Monthly called ’96 Minutes’ by Pamela Colloff. I optioned that article,” says Maitland speaking to Free Press Houston in a phone interview.

Tower focuses on eight characters. Four of them were from Pam’s article – Claire Wilson the pregnant woman who was the first person shot; Ramiro Martinez, one of the two police officers who ended the siege; Neal Spelce, the radio reporter; and Brenda Bell, who narrates her observations from the classroom where she hid. All of those people Pam introduced me to,” says Maitland.

“The other four emerged through my own research. When I called Claire I expected her to be apprehensive,” says Maitland. After all, he was going to ask her about the most traumatic event of her life, that he was making a film about that occurrence, and that the film would be partially animated. “She was the opposite of that. She was eager to talk and told me that for so much of her life nobody wanted to talk about the shooting.”

Maitland shot scenes in high definition video and then rotoscoped the footage. A good example of rotoscope animation is Richard Linklater’s 2001 A Waking Life.

In Tower the animation takes the viewer inside the events while allowing a sort of emotional distance from the violence. Around an hour in Maitland starts cutting to the real life people talking to the camera as well as actual news footage taken by film crews at the time.

Claire referred Maitland to Artly Fox who was a student who ran to her aid and carried her to safety after she had been lying wounded on the ground for over an hour. Artly’s amazing rescue was one of the moments captured by news cameras on that day.

Tower starts by showing Claire and her boyfriend (who was instantly killed) in a series of three shots right before the shooting begins. Later towards the end of Tower Maitland repeats those three shots but stops before the shooting begins. It’s at that moment that the full weight of emotion hits the viewer.

“That was something we figured out in the editing. We had developed the first hour of the film and because of the animation you have to be decisive – it’s too expensive a process to be overly exploratory,” explains Maitland. “The first hour was very planned, but then the last half-hour is open to editorial interpretation. We started using the documentary footage and knew we would repeat some of the animation as needed to illustrate what we wanted to say.

“We wanted to connect the dots with the audience to the young animated versions of the characters and the real life current day versions of the real people. We also wanted to honor the idea of memory. The way memory works is you remember these highlighted moments and you replay them: a reaction, a look, a glance, a peaceful moment of walking on campus just before things go sour,” says Maitland.

Tower purposely avoids direct mention of the shooter Charles Whitman. “That wasn’t the initial structural concept of the film. We came to that decision after a lot of research. I had learned everything there was to know about the sniper but the one thing that everyone wants to know - why?” says Maitland.

“Questions about the sniper had been asked numerous times. If you Google Texas Tower shooting you find hundreds of online sites that focus only on Whitman. We then decided to focus the film on the victims, the survivors. I’m glad we did that because there’s an interesting side effect. As we’ve taken the film around the world at film festivals, people from other countries, other races and religions are able to relate to the stories of the victims. If we had included explicit details about the sniper it would have taken the universality of the message off the table.”

Tower opens exclusively at the Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park starting today.