It’s almost been four years since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, which took 20 kids, six teachers, and shook both the nation and the small town of Newtown, Connecticut.
But unlike the news media that circled around the events of that day, Kim A. Snyder’s emotionally devastating documentary Newtown spends relatively little time dissecting the shooter or his motives. Instead, she focuses on the community, both in the aftermath of tragedy and in glimpses at their lives before. Amidst the media circus, Snyder, who made the film over two and a half years, was given a private, personal look into Newtown residents’ trauma, their healing, and their fight for gun reform.
As a documentarian, how do you tell a story with material so public and a subject so raw? Where do you begin? We spoke with Kim Snyder at this year’s South by Southwest, where the film premiered, about building trust with her subject, honestly capturing intimate moments, and the importance of owning her story.
Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Did you spearhead making this film, or did someone approach you with the idea?
Kim A. Snyder (KS): It’s a cliché, but the story found me. I certainly would never have run up to Newtown right after. I knew some folks in a not-for-profit group that gave me a call and said, “We’re doing some short-form material up there, and we have a connection with the inter-faith community in Newtown. Would you consider going up and just developing some things? Maybe you could have an eye on a longer form of story.”
So my entry point was to this inter-faith community and the character of Father Bob Weiss, who buried eight of the 20 children. They were very gracious and opened up to me about the whole idea of a more holistic view—not necessarily religious, but the shepherding of this community and this enormous grief. And then I started to develop a larger vision for something that would portray the entire community through different lenses.
MM: You can’t make a movie about an event like this without talking about the killer, but I appreciate how little you talked about him because the film is really about community and gun control. Were you developing this point of view as you were going, or was there a specific moment when you knew this is what you wanted to say with the film?
KS: Well, my last film, Welcome to Shelbyville, was about a community; there was a sense of community. That was also about America at the crossroads of a tough issue, which was immigration in the whole of America. What I was most interested in with Newtown was the collective trauma and the idea of how the fabric of community changed and repaired—or didn’t. I was drawn to things that matched the guts of Ordinary People, a film about grief and loss, and such a seminal movie about looking at what happens in a family unit. Then it felt like, “OK, you times that by 20.” It’s “community as family,” which is what I quoted at the end. So then it becomes “nation as family” and underneath that is, like, “What do we do as a community/family about this?” So we wanted to show things that had been depicted less, like the neighbor, the cop, the teacher, not just the victims’ parents. Actually, there was a time that I hadn’t even thought about having parents in it.
KS: In the beginning I didn’t want to get near them—I wanted to respect the privacy. Some people introduced me to Nicole [Hockley] and then I realized, “No, I need to have some parents at the epicenter. You can’t really tell this without them.” The first interview I did with a parent was with Mark [Barden], and that was a game-changer, the part in the film when he says, “You can only imagine how difficult.” So it was about fates that interconnect, and asking people to be involved; it was just very organic and quiet.
MM: As the coverage of an event like Newtown can show, in the wrong hands it’s easy to sensationalize or tell the story badly. Was there any worry or feeling of “don’t do this” that you felt from the community?
KS: I felt it from myself! I felt a lot of unbelievable responsibility and pressure.
MM: That’s what I mean. The families must have been worried about how you’d tell the story.
KS: I constantly had an image of a field of land mines all over the place underneath the surface, and it’s inevitable you are going to step on one somewhere, because you don’t know where they are. So, it was such a vigilant, scary, careful process. But to answer your question directly, I wasn’t interested in going anywhere I felt any resistance, because I wanted to respect people’s healing. There were people that wouldn’t talk in the beginning, whom I interviewed in the last three months of editing. If I didn’t feel that people were at a place where they needed to bear witness as part of their healing, I just didn’t go there. I never cold-called a single person. Someone would just say, “I think this person actually wants to speak.” So it felt very organic.
MM: I’m reminded of the scene at the kitchen table with two parents and one of them says, “I’m sorry for your loss. Your kid was a good kid.” I’m paraphrasing, but in that scene the cinematography was so close and intimate. These aren’t actors; they probably aren’t used to being around cameras. As a documentarian, how do you get your subjects comfortable with being at their most intimate and their most broken on screen?
KS: I think, definitely, the trust with the parents was essential and happened over the two and a half years. Nicole told me that after going through this, she just had to go by gut and instinct. For some of them, I think that at a certain point it’s like, this is a public story. Having said that, some of them had done lots of interviews, and they had to decide to trust us or not. And I think I did a lot of things that helped—one example is some of the things I filmed with the Wheeler’s. David called and said, “I’m not sure.” There was always a rule I made with my own self that if someone said “no” once about anything, that was it.
MM: Did anyone ever change their minds, after hearing how you were interviewing other people? Did anyone change their stance on wanting to talk?
KS: Yeah. People would say they’d heard from the priest or someone in the community. I don’t really want to even give this a mention, but there are these crazy people who denied this [shooting] happened. So the families have even more of a reason to be scared, because they are under attack. For example, Gene, the neighbor whose kids landed on his lawn, said, “I would never do this. I haven’t spoken since then, but I vetted you. I spoke to Father Bob; I spoke to whomever, and they said you’re good people so I’m going to do this.” I think at a certain point they believed that I didn’t really have an agenda and that I wanted to explore collective grief. I really made them feel collaborative.
MM: Are you in the room when you’re interviewing them?
KS: They were all done, always, at the bottom of this one church in town. I asked the Reverend, “How would you feel about just putting the word out that anybody who’s willing to talk can come to the basement?” So for the first ones I would leave the room; I would set up the camera and talk to them a little bit. Sometimes people did it that way. Other times we would be right outside and they’d say, “I’m feeling awkward. Can you come back in?” Then over the next two years, we started doing more, and for most of the interviews I was in the room.
MM: What do you think is the right way to cover shootings? Do you have an opinion on this? Is there a stance your doc is trying to make in terms of trying to prevent this in the future?
KS: It’s not the fault of the news; it’s the nature of the medium of news. Shootings are happening so often that they have to cover it quickly, and then we move on to the next one. That’s what we’re trained to do. I remember the day it happened, before anyone was going to make this film, waiting for the number [of victims]. In the beginning it was only the few, and I remember thinking that no one knew the number yet. Why does the number have to feel so relative? Are we going to get to a place where it’s like, “The count is in the 50s—so stressful. It’s in the 20s? ‘Oh no.’ Then we hear it’s just two or three and we’re like, ‘Well, there was only two or three.’” I feel that long-form documentary obviously has a certain advantage to it. That’s why I wanted not to make it an advocacy film, but to make it visceral and experiential and not “informational.”
MM: Right, because I do often wonder if we can learn anything at this point from covering a killer the way the news has recently. You also talked about gun control and what these parents are doing in that arena. Was it always your goal to have some sort of push in that movement, or were you just covering it to make sure that it is on the record?
KS: Newtown is just 28,000 people. So, like the rest of the country, there are a lot of varying opinions. There are many spaces, and one of the spaces is gun reform—I like to say “gun reform” rather than “gun control” because there are a lot of people saying, “Look, we have so many things in this country that are regulated. We have food that’s regulated. And we have seat belts, and they save some lives. We just want to make sure that our kids are safe and that guns stay out of the hands of criminals and unstable people.” But there are lots of other spaces, like social emotional wellness. So yes, I wanted to honor several parents that you can see in the film, and they wanted us to allow the cameras in because, as David Wheeler says, “It is inherently political, but it’s really about, when something like this happens, as a human being, you want to do something to pay it forward and see if you can prevent it from happening to somebody else.” For me, the first step in that was honoring what happened and not sweeping it under the rug. It’s important to chronicle it, and I felt like the mantra for me was that first responder in the film who says, “We do not need to know graphically but emotionally; the world needs to know.”
MM: What advice would you give a documentarian who is going to cover a subject like Newtown—something that is sensitive and gripping and that the nation did collectively see—something that they have a certain responsibility to cover. What advice would you give them as a filmmaker?
KS: I mean, it was totally uncharted territory for me. I’m no expert, but I think my advice is to follow instinct. The ethics are essential, and you have to question every ethical choice you make. These are real lives.
An example would be the first anniversary of the shooting. I was the only filmmaker allowed into churches that day; they respectfully asked the media to stay away. I was in the back, because I was always conscious of the idea that the documentary was not more important than this moment for a lot of people. You have to feel that. You have to become, in a way, one with that experience, that community, so the camera just becomes a vehicle. If you do that, well, people sense that; people can feel that. You’re never going to get everything right because everybody grieves differently, but the fact is that you make that effort. All you can do is try to be ethical and realize these are real lives. It was critically important to me that I honor the integrity of what I was saying to people and not go back on it.
The other advice is to try to own it, literally, because I think a lot of times as journalists, we’re used to honoring some kind of journalistic integrity about sources. But with a documentary, it’s harder to do that because to get funding you oftentimes have to give up ownership and control. So you can find yourself in a very tricky situation if you don’t have control and own it, because then you’re going out on a limb, telling people things that you can’t honor in the editing room. So I felt it was essential for me to be able to control and own what I was doing out there. MM
Newtown opens in theaters October 7, 2016, courtesy of Abramorama.