Join Ashley Kennedy for an in-depth discussion in this video A documentary case study - Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA (Part 1 - Dissecting the first and last scenes), part of Conversations in Video Editing.
- So I'd actually like to get a little specific here and look at one of your projects, specifically the one you've been referencing a little bit, the one about the NRA. - Yeah, that's a good one. - It's called Gunned Down: The Power of the NRA and before we go into looking at some scenes, talk about the process of arriving at the approach that you took with this particular film. Just from start to finish how the idea came about and how you were brought in and what image systems you developed.
And then structurally how you laid it out. - Well, it was a very interesting story about Gunned Down actually that it just comes to mind is that one of the things that made us so excited about this film is gun control is one of the most very tricky films that's hard to approach. People have very strong feelings on both sides on that issue. It was kind of a subject we were kind of keeping at bay until we could find a good way through it. And then we discovered this interesting aspect which was that the idea that this sort of unique theory that there never will be gun control because there's this disconnect between the people who are affected by gun violence and the people who are gun owners.
Still thinking just a little big for a second. The idea was that victims of gun violence, the people who are affected like all of us by the horror events of gun violence are we move on to the other things that we're interested in but gun owners don't. That's gun owners another thing. So they have the advantage right from the word go. Even if there was some compromise that could be made it's very hard politically to get that done. Basically impossible politically. There is no political will. So we said okay, well that's a cool idea.
Now how do we say that, how do we tell that story? We realized that we had this amazing sort of moment with Gabby Giffords, Congressman Gabby Giffords and her experience, a gun owner herself, and the subject, and the recipient of some severe gun violence. And so we said okay, let's take the story through her perspective at least to begin with. Let's set the stage with her and kind of say, okay, so what happens? What happens with this kind of scene? That was very telling so we created that whole open sequence which I guess we're gonna watch here, really with the intent of bringing Gabby Giffords as a story through the whole thing.
But it turned out not to be the case and we can talk about that after we watch a little bit if you want. - I would. I would like to watch the first scene and the last scene or almost the last scene for that reason. So if you would drive and put us in full screen here - Okay. - Let's take a look. - Okay. - In Tucson it was a beautiful crisp, clear blue sky with a few puffy white clouds that was a perfect January morning.
- 40-year old Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords was about to meet constituents an outdoor shopping center. - I went to thank her for her being kind of a blue dog democrat and really working for the people and not for the lobbyist. - Her first person she met with was a young man that was in the Army Reserve. She took some pictures with him. That was the last picture taken of her before she was shot. (gunshot) He shot Gabby from about three feet away.
Right in the middle of the left side of her forehead. He had a nine millimeter Glock in his hand and a 33-round magazine in it. (gunshot) - There was a bang and then a slight pause and then a continuous (gunshots) bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. (gunshots) - Emptied the magazine 15 seconds.
There were 33 wounds from 33 bullets so it looks like every bullet hit a person. - I could see him advancing quickly. I'm thinking I wonder what it's gonna feel like, how bad it's gonna hurt if he shoots me. - The killer tried to reload. He dropped the high capacity magazine, was tackled and dropped the gun. - I'm not able to get the gun because it's too far away but I am able to get the magazine that he's pulling out of his pocket.
- There were 19 victims gunned down. 13 were rushed to area hospitals, 6 were dead. Congresswoman Giffords was in critical condition. - But when I got to the hospital, she was just recovering from surgery and one point, that evening I remember one tear coming down her eye. There was just one bloody red tear. I think that kind of said it all. - The tragic shootings in Arizona are bring the national debate over gun control.
- Saturday's attack is now putting gun laws under a magnifying glass. - Then once again a familiar response. A public call for the federal government to just do something, something about guns. - Guns, those damn things. - Here you have, you know, one of the democrats own in congress being struck down. A shooting which showed the effect of weak gun laws. - As we wait for the latest medical update, President Obama is-- - At the White House, initially there was sort of a wait and see, and I think a lot of it rested on to what extent was the president gonna be willing to take this up.
- Breaking news, we've just learned that President Obama will be going to Tucson on Wednesday - This just in the President-- - In the wake of the shooting, the President was facing a political crisis on an issue most politicians try to avoid. - President Obama will deliver what some have called one of the most important speeches of his presidency. - President Obama on a mission to comfort and rally the-- - Please welcome the President of the United States Barack Obama. (crowd cheering) - This tragedy prompts reflection and debate as it should.
Let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. - People who wanted to do something about guns listened carefully. - The president was enormously compassionate, he was enormously eloquent but he did everything in his power to avoid using the word gun in the wake of that shooting. - We may not be able to stop all evil in the world but I know that how we treat one another that's entirely up to us. - The silence was deafening.
His gun control ardent supporters were irate. The degree of fury over this really can't be captured in words but he was never gonna do it. - Washington Insider say his advisers told him the political cost was too great to take on the nation's most powerful lobby, the National Rifle Association. - It was in an extraordinary moment and an extraordinary commentary on the advantage that the NRA enjoys and that tilt toward the side of the debate that says there is simply nothing more to be done about regulating the civilian ownership of guns.
The issue is off the table. - Without lifting a finger, the National Rifle Association had demonstrated its power. - They are the best equipped, most feared special interest group on Capitol Hill. They are sort of the gold standard in how to do lobbying work in Washington. - So initially what we want to do, I wanted to do a sense of flying in so that we got a sense of place. And the audio underneath it describes the date, the time, the environment that this all took place, this event, this beginning thing.
And then we kind of meet her and again, she's in a still form because I feel like people can focus on the still and get to see the person as a opposed to the action if they're moving. Patricia is a first person witness which is just ideal because it puts you in there and her husband tells the story of this photograph of this man. You get to really see her in the photo. Now, here's where things get interesting for me. This.
This is the introduction of an image system which is we are using because we had a lot of sound in this film. - Powerful sound. - Powerful sound but I didn't want to show, I didn't want to do a reenactment in the sense of there's a gun comes into the screen and fires off. Plus (mumbles) all kinds of different guns were used, most of them were nine millimeter in this film but a lot more rifles. We just didn't want to have all these stuff, all these gear and to kind of do sort of some abstract reenactment. So we were pondering it and the assistant editor and I, I came up with the idea of a wave form and then assistant editor and I designed this look.
We showed it to the producers and they said, "Yes, this will work." This is the first time you see it and all these gun shot it's just to put the idea of this image on stage. Where it is really used is during the 911 calls, the 911 calls in places like that because you want to try to... How do you show, the audio is very important, critical to what's going on during a 911 call but at the same time, what do you see? There's not tape recorders, there's no spinning wheels anymore, it's a digital file and that digital file has a digital aspect to it.
So we tried to create some of that but still maintained a kind of familiar analog look to it so it was both digital and familiar in the analog way. That was the first sort of thing we did. - It's even more visual than a gun shooting really because you are seeing these like bursts of shape and that it's taking over the screen. And then you see it happen 33 times in a row. - That's correct. - It's overwhelming, you're just like wow, that's a lot of shooting. - Yeah, now this is very interesting because what we did here is we decided that there are a lot of people who don't have guns.
- Yeah. - I personally don't have a gun so the idea of holding a gun or looking at a gun, I don't know what it looks. Again, I said what we might want to do is show the gun in a way that is, shows the component parts and how complicated they are. They're not a simple sort of, a Phazer out of Star Wars. They're a complicated machine that are made up of many parts that require some knowledge of, and so that's why we create these schematics as a way of saying well, let's blow these up, let's do this exploding graphics.
Again, the version I made was much more 2D, I gave it over to the assistant editor. He made it into... Elliot Choi is an excellent assistant editor, please don't take him from me. He made these beautiful, beautiful animations from. Yeah, another just fantastic. What's interesting though is the next... I love this line where she sits there and says, looks like here but these, what we wanted to do with this image and that was the whole reason for creating this was what's it like to be in an environment where someone fires off 33 rounds? What's that feel like? You're in a place and there are 33 rounds going off.
I mean, even just the counting of them is impressive so we said this is the medium that we're gonna do it, the spikes will be a counting system for that counting of the gunshots. I think it was very effective. - It was, yes. - Now we originally had them all one after another and we separated them somewhat. This is definitely what I would call a reenactment because no one was there recording the event. We just know that there 33 rounds, we know that there was chaos and we know that people were screaming. This is all from reported events.
We know the kind of space that the guns or shots were done in so we knew the kind of sound we were looking for and we constructed this. Originally, we had it at 33 sort of measure beats, we should be very kind of somber here and do boom, boom, boom. But A, we didn't feel organic and B, it didn't allow people who were watching the film to sit there and look at their persons and respond say, "Can you believe this?" Or, "This is amazing. "God this is hurting me." We need to put some pauses in there for people to react to it, right? - Considering your audience.
- Right. The idea is that that's why there are some spaces in the shots fires so that people can react to it and then basically it just goes. - Well it certainly seems more realistic. I mean, that's what would have happened. - It feels organic and natural. Reenactments are very tricky things. Reenactments are dangerous and that you don't want people to think that it is the thing. And so, Frontline tries to keep all their reenactments very abstract so that there's a separation. This is not it, this is a reenactment of a moment to try to communicate what it was like to be there.
Here's the 911 call and we used the same method because it is the other side of that horror of the sound, of the clack, clack, clack of the bullets. And so, we put it on there but then once we had... But we kept the audio and we went to the helicopter seeing here's some evidentiary material that's we try to key that one if possible and so the people know what it is that this is not some guns we laid on the table, this is the evidence itself. And then the chaos ensues and we just subtitle what was going on there to make it clear for everybody.
Now again, we jump so there was not coverage, a lot of video coverage at the moment but there were people taking stills. This is Gabby Giffords being pulled off out of the scene. We decided to go with that still image as a way of slowing things down a little bit in the chaos and letting people sit on an image and see what is it like to see a loved one of yours being dragged into ambulance and taken away. I think it was very effective use of stills here. And anyway, so then you got her in the hospital and you just see how messed up she is, and you start to feel for her and you understand the outrage.
Why can't we do something? Can nothing be done? You quickly see that a little obvious group of the NRA is capable of influencing this national speech of the president of the United States, and that's sort of an amazing event. You see the power of the NRA. - I mean even before you were talking about the importance of character, we haven't actually heard from Gabby Giffords. We don't have any actual video footage of her but we already care deeply about her because of everything that you've just mentioned.
I mean, she is not only a character but the character that is going to drive us through this narrative. We're several minutes in and it's set up. - Yeah, so the idea is you would start Gabby Giffords, set up the problem, realize that the president wasn't gonna do anything about it and then go into back story about wait, how did this all begin? Well it began way back in the day with Columbine. - Right. - You go all the way through all these horrific events, you end up finally at Sandy Hook and Sandy Hook is just because these are children, these are first graders.
I'm getting chills just saying that phrase. It has brought the level of the horror to such a personal level almost of every American. The people of Sandy Hook got together and they say, "Let's do something about it," and they're gonna try to put something on the Capitol Hill and this is sort of the fight at Capitol Hill, and one of the things that this team has in their back pocket, you'll see in the playing of this film. - Remember this TV ad? - And even went after Senator Manchin. - As your senator, I'll protect our second amendment rights. - That was Joe Manchin's commitment but now Manchin is working with President Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Concerned? You should be. - Senator Manchin was vilified by the NRA. It was almost like a personal vendetta. You know, they chewed up one of their own. It was stupid. Absolutely stupid. - The NRA activated its playbook. Denouncing the legislation, alerting its members and threatening law makers. - You can deal with anything as you know upfront you're dealing with. I knew they were not gonna be supportive, I was fine with that.
I didn't know that they would be in opposition as strong as they would and come out as strong as they did. - But the democrats had a secret weapon and one day she appeared on Capitol Hill. - The idea here is that you start the film of Gabby Giffords as the, not the poster child but as the protagonist in a conflict. You start this film with Gabby Giffords as the protagonist in a conflict of two forces. These two forces are not good and evil.
These are two forces that have definitely their own opinions that are backed up by the lifestyle and the beliefs of their own families. But they're two forces, that are diametrically opposed to each other. Gabby Giffords is at the center of it so then the whole film plays out through that conflict of the two forces trying to find either common ground or supremacy. And then at the very end she comes back as once again the protagonist in the battle for gun control or some gun control, and she comes out wounded, damaged, forever permanently mentally disabled.
And speaks to congress and her words were amazingly powerful. Let's go back and let's watch that if we can. - But the democrats had a secret weapon. And one day she appeared on Capitol Hill. Gabby Giffords. Giffords had been pro gun, a proud owner of a Glock 17 hand gun. - We must do something.
It will be hard but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Thank you. - It's decision day for new gun control legislation. - The first votes taken today on the gun safety legislation.
- The members of the family in the gallery today. - With parents of the victims looking on. - Sitting in the gallery watching the vote, I was so anxious. And I genuinely thought we were gonna be okay. It would be close. But I thought it would go through. - Mr. Baucus, Mr. Begich. - The votes of five key senator would decide the matter. None of them would agree to talk to Frontline about their position.
As the rule was called, the crucial votes were slipping away. - I remember sitting there kind of in a daze. - Mr. Lautenberg, Mr. Leahy, Mr. Lee. - And that's about all. I'm sorry that I have such a, you know, I think my psyche was just kind of letting in little bits at a time. It was just also such a whirlwind of craziness for me. - Mr. Schumer, Mr. Scott, Mr. Sessions, Mr. Shaheen, Mr. Shelby. - Also watching in the gallery, Tucson survivor Pat Maisch.
- It went from being sad to being mad. They're all down there in their good old boy stance, shaking hands, chatting. - On this vote, the amendment is not agreed to. - Like people's lives aren't in the balance on this and I just thought they needed to be shamed. They should be ashamed of themselves. I stood up and said, "Shame on you." Shame on you! - There will be order in the senate.
- Because they needed to be shamed. Shame on them, shame on me if after what I've gotten to witness I choose to be quiet. - I'm surprised that she was the only one actually that burst out. Because it was so intense and so charged. - Okay, so that was kind of the bookend of everything that we started with. Talk about your strategies in that starting with-- - Well, just as you go through this narrative of the various times in American history where there has been the fight for gun control, we started with Gabby Giffords as sort of the protagonist of the experience of the horror of it.
And then we go into a back story about the history of it from Columbine up to the present that brings us to Sandy Hook to this legislation that they're trying to get through. One of the weapons as they said in the film, one of the tools that the democrats had was in fact our original protagonist in the beginning. She was coming back full circle. She was able to bring all that emotion from the beginning of the film back into the narrative at the end of the film, which is basically a policy vote.
Nothing happens, a bunch of guys saying yay or nay. But because she starts it off, those yays and nays become much important. She acts sort of as a standard bearer of one side's position, not the NRA's obviously. Because we have introduced her so emotionally in the beginning when she comes back and you see how disabled she is, she truly does become sort of a statement in it of herself about the whole gun control movement from her point, from that point of view.
We had it, we knew we were gonna do it. We cut it out of the film once for time because it's not relevant to the narrative that's happening but once we cut it out we realized that it lost its emotional and became much more academic scene. So her, putting her back in there helped establish the emotional element of that moment and then the rest plays out as history dictated.