Aug. 1, 1966: U.S. Marine and University of Texas at Austin engineering student Charles Whitman entered the UT tower, climbed to the 28th floor, took his position, and opened fire on the campus. For the next 96 minutes, Whitman shot 49 people, killing 11 from his sniper perch. It was later discovered that Whitman also killed three people inside the tower and his wife and mother earlier that morning.
But over 50 years later, the story of the “Texas Tower Sniper” and the heroic acts that took place during that slaughter are not well known, which is why Keith Maitland’s documentary, Tower, is a necessary and revelatory piece of work. One that was born out of Maitland’s own encounters with a lack of information.
“The first time I connected with the Tower story at all was when I was 12 years old,” Maitland says. “It wasn’t taught in the history class curriculum, but it was taught because my history teacher was there that day. So the very first connection I had to this story was a first-person perspective, and it was a very similar story to the one that ended up in the film. She was a witness that day and learned about the shooting as it was unfolding in front of her eyes.”
Tower reconstructs those 96 minutes by using eyewitness testimony performed by actors for Maitland’s camera, which was then rotoscoped—a technique that traces live-action footage and replaces it with animated drawings. The effect is jarring, but it allows Maitland to create believable recreations of memories that have the immediacy of the present tense.
“For Tower, it made perfect sense to me that the animation also works as a way to relay memory—and the fuzzy nature of 50-year-old memories,” Maitland explains. “Through that kind of disarming quality, this animation actually offers an opportunity for intimacy where audiences can connect to these stories and these characters in a real direct and unique way.”
Maitland also connects these stories directly to the audience by narrowing his focus from a third-person omniscient story, a standard construct in documentary storytelling, to a more grounded, personal approach.
“The aim the whole way through was telling a first-person story,” Maitland explains. “Because I knew from the very beginning it was going to be a mostly animated film. I realized that would put it under a microscope as far as what’s truth and what’s reality. I wanted to be in a position where I could stand by every frame of the film as being as authentic as possible, and the only way that I felt comfortable doing that was relying solely on first-hand accounts.”
Since the dead cannot give a first-hand account, Maitland stuck with the survivors. That choice meant reducing the sniper’s screen presence as well.
“As a documentary filmmaker, one of my favorite parts of this whole process is the research,” Maitland says. “I started out researching the subject of the tower shooting, but what I discovered is literally hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities online, in libraries and newspapers to learn about the sniper. His story had been explored from every possible angle. I learned all about his childhood. I learned all about his relationships. I learned about the days leading up to the shooting, all kinds of innuendo—fact and fiction about his life—but through none of that could I answer the number one question about what plagued me about him, which is why.
“There was almost nothing asking what I think is a much more important question, which is how,” Maitland continues. “How do you survive this? How do you live with this for 50 years or for the rest of your life? And that hadn’t been asked anywhere. These people, there were dozens of people directly impacted by the sniper, hundreds of people that were right there, thousands of eyewitnesses—their story hadn’t been explored and hadn’t been told…We made a decision fairly early on in the process to focus on them, and to exclude the story of the sniper, and to leave that for another investigation. As frustrating as that will be, because, again, the question of why I don’t think we’ll be able to answer.”
But even if we cannot answer the question of why, Tower can still be a part of the healing process—a process that now comes standard with each mass shooting, but wasn’t given much thought 50 years ago.
“They came from a world and a time when nobody was talking about this,” Maitland says. “The idea of exploring your feelings wasn’t front and center. There wasn’t counseling. There wasn’t support groups.”
Unfortunately, the shooting on Aug. 1, 1966, is far from being an aberration. Which is why Tower rings true today. It’s a documentary about the past that feels as fresh as today’s headlines.
“What we did with Tower, we felt like we were telling the story of these very specific people, this very specific moment, but we were also telling the story of Columbine, of Newtown, of Orlando, and beyond American school shootings, the story of Nice where the man drove the truck into the crowded promenade,” Maitland says. “At each one of those situations, there is somebody that is injured and needs help. There is somebody that is scared but risks everything to help them. There are police officers who are trying to figure out what to do, and there are the press who are trying to figure out how to report.
“Where Tower differs, and where we had a real opportunity here in making this film, is by focusing on the 50-years perspective,” Maitland continues.
“[That’s] where the Tower story differentiates itself from these others,” Maitland says. “We can see how an event like this affects people, how it affects society, and how little can change in that amount of time.”