Twenty years ago, as an incoming freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, Keith Maitland was given a tour of his new campus. He was most surprised about what he didn’t learn that day: anything about the terrible history of the 307-foot Beaux-art style clock tower that looms over the state’s flagship school.
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, an engineering student and former marine, holed up in the tower with a rifle. From his outpost, Charles Whitman fatally shot 14 people, including a pregnant woman’s unborn child, before being killed by police. It was the first high-profile mass shooting on a college campus in modern American history — and an event deeply ingrained in the state’s identity.
“I was shocked to find out there was no acknowledgment of it, no memorial, no mention of it the campus literature,” Maitland, now 40, tells The Trace.“When I asked, the tour guide told me they weren’t suppose to talk about it. It made me all the more curious. I wanted to understand what happens when a safe place is terrorized and forever changed.”
Maitland, a filmmaker, channelled his curiosity into Tower, a documentary which opened at New York’s Film Forum on October 12, and will roll out across the country in the coming months. Tower is a powerful, haunting depiction of the clock tower shooting that unfolds as if the audience is experiencing the incident in real-time. And while the documentary chronicles the carnage, it’s the story of the victims, heroes, and survivors that shines.
The film avoids the “talking head” style of documentary production by employing a mixture of black-and-white archival footage and rotoscoping, a process in which animators trace over live images — a technique popularized by the dean of Austin filmmakers, Richard Linklater, in his ground-breaking 2001 movie Waking Life. Rotoscoping enabled Maitland to emphasize small details — stacks of the best-selling In Cold Blood at the bookstore, for example — and dramatize the consuming hysteria that spread as the event unfolded.
The “light bulb” moment for Maitland came when he read “96 Minutes,” the exhaustive 2006 Texas Monthly oral history of the clock tower shooting written by Pamela Colloff. Colloff was involved at times as an executive producer, but initially, she was trepidatious about the project he envisioned, she says.
“When Keith first told me that he wanted to animate his documentary, I didn’t really get it,” says Colloff, an executive editor at Texas Monthly. “I worried it might trivialize the material. But I also knew that he was a brilliant filmmaker with a vision. I’ll never forget the day he first showed me some of the footage on a handheld device, because I started crying in the middle of the restaurant. The animation achieved everything I’d always wanted my writing to achieve, but hadn’t. It gave the events of 1966 a currency, immediacy, and intimacy. It made the material accessible to a whole new audience, and another generation.”
The film focuses on a few key figures. They include Ramiro “Ray” Martinez, who along with fellow police officer Houston McCoy shot and killed Whitman; Allen Crum, a civilian bookstore employee who was deputized in the clock tower and assisted on the observation desk; Neal Spelce, a local radio newsman who risked his own life to report on the massacre; and most poignantly, Claire James (then Wilson), a freshman in her eighth month of pregnancy who lost both her baby and her boyfriend in the attack.
The scenes of James recounting her thoughts (as voiced by Violette Beane) as she lay waiting for help on 100-degree pavement for an hour and a half is especially affecting. Maitland shifts from the black-and-white palette to vibrant psychedelic colors, illuminating James’s flowing red hair as she tells of how much she cares about the dead man beside her. If this is her end, what she wants to think about in her dying breaths is love.
One central character of the day, though, is largely missing. Whitman’s name is only mentioned three times, and only in newsreel. “I wanted Tower to be about what was happening in the moment, and people on campus had no idea who Whitman was or what he was doing,” says Maitland. “I’m proud we were able to keep the sniper out of it, because nobody cared about his motivations, whatever they were, when they were trying to survive.”
Maitland stresses that Tower isn’t a political film, and that’s true to the extent that there is no call-to-arms for specific gun restrictions. But it closes with quick shots of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newton Elementary School, and other sites of notorious mass shootings, over an angry Walter Cronkite commentary where he calls the Austin massacre “society’s problem.”
The campus where that problem manifested for the first time now recognizes that history. In part due to Maitland’s efforts, University of Texas erected a proper memorial to the victims on August 1st of this year.