Writing ‘Foothills’ – A film about a school shooting

Reflecting on an average American school shooting through screenplay.

Working Log Line; In the immediate wake of a school shooting, the community of Foothills Christian High and first responders struggle to contain the situation and understand what has happened.

(I’m not above admitting this log line is awful… it’s a work in progress)

A school shooting is an impossible subject to wrap one’s head around if you’ve never experienced it. I’m one of the lucky 99.999% who got to go through my school years safely. That being said, I’m also part of the generation raised on lockdowns and active shooter drills. Columbine was almost twenty-one years ago; I was nine when it happened. Millions of people in my demographic had lock-down drills and lived with that weird, intangible tickle in the back of our minds that, while probably nothing will happen, something could.

It was always there.

Starting my research, I came to realize more and more how affected I actually was by the events of Columbine, and all the subsequent shootings. Mainly because it didn’t affect me. School shootings were both mundane and terrible. It seemed like the norm, even though I think we all knew deep down it couldn’t be. I imagine it’s even worse for students who were born post-Columbine (and even more heartbreakingly, post-Sandy Hook), as shootings have become nearly normalized. I, and so many other children, absorbed the stories about shootings the way a child absorbs everything else.

But there was that thread of fear, mostly unconscious, that I absorbed as well. Sometimes it was comparable to my fear of quick sand or the Bermuda Triangle, sometimes evolving into the more real fear every Californian has of a massive earthquake, sometimes as present as a car accident, a mugging or a heart attack.

It could happen.

How do you write about something like that?

Even as I work on this project, I’m still unsure. How do you write a movie about a tragedy? But that’s not quite it; the sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy, all the wars and battles humans have fought are tragedies, a plane crash is a tragedy. These events have movies about them. It’s easy. School shootings are inherently different. I think even as we come to terms with them happening over and over again (at least in America), we are struck by that unnameable ‘differentness’ that permeates the event. We know, deep down, that a school shooting is inexplicable. It should not happen.

That was the first thing I wanted to focus on; an event that shouldn’t happen.

As I write this project, I’m brought back over and over to the juxtaposition of what was supposed to happen on a day versus what actually happens that day. An AP History test, or a bullet in the stomach. The contrast between expectation and reality is how we frame everything. In this instance, it’s just far more pronounced.

As a writer, I love it (as a human being, I hate it). Even pushing myself through the horrors of what I’m writing about, I can’t help but be drawn back to that contrast. In many ways, that contrast has a certain beauty and presence to it that establishes the impact something has had on peoples’ lives. This is true for any sort of writing: Campbell’s Hero’s Journey called it crossing the threshold; entering the unknown.

It’s in that contrast that life happens.

A second thing I internalized even before starting this endeavor, was the concept of ‘No Notoriety’. This movement began after the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting when one of the parents of a victim repeatedly saw the name and photo of the perpetrator in the news, (source and more info). The concept is simple; a call to action for media to refrain from naming the perpetrator/s of a mass shooting event or showing their photo.

My shooters have names because I created them and their lives; I needed to know who they were. But that’s for me. I’m making a conscious effort to never show their faces or their actions (the project is not yet completed) on screen. I knew deep down when I started this project that I didn’t want it to be about the shooters at all. There are not a lot of large scale media (TV, films) about school shootings, but what is there is very intensely about the killers. Of course, there are victim accounts and psychological analyses, but there is this inane focus on the ‘why they did it’ aspect that brings the story back around to the killers again and again. I don’t want that in my project.

(Frankly, I cannot imagine a worse fate for my screenplay than to have it be reworked in such a way that it intentionally or inadvertently glorifies these crimes and criminals. It’s a possibility. This is a common occurrence in the industry; someone buys your script and changes it to fit their needs… heartbreaking but inevitable. One can only hope that whoever is directing a film of your screenplay is on the same page as you for 80% or so of the story.)

The timeline;

Finally, I made the choice — probably foolishly — to have this story be nonlinear, (because god forbid I write a sell-able screenplay). I jump back between after the event in question and before (I spend very little time with the shooting itself). This is one of those writer things that was simultaneously conscious and unconscious. It happened because I finished laying out the entire timeline of a school shooting with what each of the characters was doing and thought, “Wow, it’d be kind of cool to open here!” and ‘here’ was smack dab in the middle of the event. It’s like closing your eyes, spinning a globe, and traveling to wherever your finger lands.

But also, human existence is defined by what has happened in the past. Our pasts are important to how we function whether it was this morning or a thousand years ago. I think I knew the meat of this story would not be in the 15-minute window of a school shooting but what was surrounding it (statistically, most school shootings last less than 20 minutes, which is buck-wild to me).

The reason flashbacks are so abused in writing is that that’s how we think about life. You’re walking down the street and see an ad for milk and you remember that moment just that morning when you used the last of your milk in your cinnamon toast crunch. We also use events (read; flashbacks), as chapter markers in our lives. Where were you during the moon landing? (I didn’t exist). What were you doing on September 11th? (sleeping and then going to school) Do you remember where you heard about Columbine? (no. it feels like it was always there)

I don’t want the events before the shootings to be flashbacks. That’s one of my main hurdles right now. The plot is essentially two stories that I keep weaving in and out of each other. If anything, they’re parallel stories; they don’t touch at all, save for where they meet at the shooting. That’s hard and stupid and I’ve made things much harder and more stupid for myself by doing it.

But it’s also a fun puzzle.

The act of trying to work out the peculiarities of the timeline help ease some of the weight of the grim subject matter.

Finally, I think there’s a meaning in the non-linear timeline. I’m just not sure what. I feel drawn to this story, presented chopped up and mixed around as it is, in a way I can’t shake. The confusion feels nonlinear, the emotions run nonlinear, the event feels nonlinear. There’s something there.

Resources and quotes;

Columbine, Dave Cullen
(Amazon Affiliate Link)

The hardest part of all this was the research. Which was a good thing. At a few points in my life I’ve worried that I’m too jaded and desensitized to violence. However, reading the articles and books and listening to podcasts and witness accounts have dashed those thoughts to the ground. I’m still affected. These events are still horrendous and abnormal and affecting. I’m still struggling with making this story work, but at least I know that the subject matter still horrifies me. One little sliver of my heart worried this would be too mundane for screenplay competitions or my portfolio, but I don’t think that will be the case.

Of all the things I read, ‘Columbine‘* by Dave Cullen was the most intense and in-depth. It is the quintessential read regarding the Columbine shooting, written ten years after the event. I gathered a few key quotes that I believe truly highlight the emotional weight of the events of April 1999. It was these quotes that I took with me into the beginnings of this project, and that I believe frame the story invisibly throughout my work.

“The coroner asked them to retrieve their kids’ dental records.”

“Six months after the tragedy, Mr. D had run into a Japanese film crew up there, enraptured by the charming rodents. The crew had come to shoot a documentary about the massacre; they had expected teen angst and American social Darwinism. And they were seduced by the tranquility — less than a hundred yards from the school. They shot hours of footage of the twelve-inch prairie dogs. The Japanese crew saw this place somewhat differently than Americans did. Their depiction was by turns tumultuous, brutal, explosive, and serene.”

“In the ten years after Columbine, more than eighty school shootings took place in the United States.”

These are the things that truly got to me. I still have trouble wrapping my head around the story about the Japanese film crew enraptured by prairie dogs near the Columbine campus. In all honesty, I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the entire concept of school shootings, despite it being such a prevalent part of American culture these days. It will never make sense.

Finally, here are some other extremely helpful resources;

  • Since Columbine – Colorado Public Radio/NPR podcast. The entire premise of this podcast explores the changes in the twenty years since Columbine in an extremely local way.
  • This episode from “You’re Wrong About” podcast regarding Columbine — this was especially helpful as a foil to Dave Cullen’s book. It tackled some of the issues I personally had with the depressive/psychopath narrative that permeates the Columbine story, as well as the awful concept that if someone had just read the shooter’s journals this wouldn’t have happened. It reiterates the fact that high school students are weird and violent, but not all of them become mass murderers. A really excellent listen from a really good show.
  • No Notoriety
  • (And of course ‘The Screenwriter’s Bible‘*. I’ll shill for this book until the cows come home. You need it if you’re writing screenplays)

I’m going to end this post, but I want to tell you one more story.

A few weeks after I turned thirteen, I and three other friends dressed up for our school’s annual Halloween costume contest. We were ‘goths’ (barely). We wore black clothes, black makeup, and I think one of us even dyed their hair black. I think I wore a long black duster-sweater, maybe one of them wore a trench coat, but I don’t think so.We were voted ‘Scariest Group Costume’.

At the time we thought it was kind of a joke. A K-8 all-girls private school didn’t really have a dearth of students dressing up in scary costumes, so we won by default.

That was 2002, around three years after Columbine.

What I wasn’t aware of then was that the shooters at Columbine wore trench coats. They were obliquely connected with the goth subculture (though not identifying as goths themselves, and their actions contributed to a lot of angst for anyone goth-y after the fact). But even hundreds of miles away in a posh private school for girls, I bet that that image might have struck a chord for my teachers. Angry seventh graders in black could be nothing, or it could be something.

We were the scariest group costume.

(*Amazon Affiliate Link. If you buy from this link I get a small percentage and can buy more coffee, please and thank you!)

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