When Reed Van Dyk ’07 happened to listen to a 9-1-1 call as he was conducting research for a graduate school film, he realized the story he was hearing was one he wanted to share with others.
That 9-1-1- call would lead him to explore what happened that morning in 2013 at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Center in Atlanta, Ga. between a gunman and a school receptionist, which would lead him to write the screenplay for “DeKalb Elementary,” a short narrative film recently nominated for an Academy Award.
“I knew how I felt when I heard that call and I thought, if I did the job right, I could give people a sliver of the experience I had,” Van Dyk said. “I kept thinking about what she said to him and what transpired between these two people.”
In the actual situation, the gunman took front office personnel of the elementary school hostage and the receptionist ended up being his direct line to the police, reassuring him and bringing the situation to a peaceful ending. Van Dyk’s movie is inspired by that story, but is not a documentary.
The film is one of five nominated for the Oscar in the live action short film category. It also won the Grand Prix at the 2017 Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival and a Special Jury Award at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
A theatre arts major who came to Cornell to become an actor, Van Dyk went on to study film at UCLA.
He says a directing class with PMA Professor David Feldshuh helped steer him away from acting and toward directing. Filmmaking classes with retired PMA Professor Marilyn Rivchin inspired his appreciation and excitement about film craft and led to his first film, “The Conservatory,” which won the Student Emmy Award in 2008 for best comedy.
Although Feldshuh’s class focused on directing for live theatre, Van Dyk said he applies on many of the principles he learned there to film. In “DeKalb Elementary,” for example, the entire movie takes place in one room, a situation that could be visually monotonous for the audience, so he thought about ways to establish “anchor points’ around the room so that actors could find reason to move around the space.
Van Dyk said his personality lends itself to directing films rather than live theatre.
“I directed a play my junior year at Cornell and it was horrifying to not have my hands more on it,” he said. “The control freak in me felt like I wanted to edit it.”
The process of creating a film gives Van Dyk lots of opportunity for control and visioning, he said, from writing to preproduction to production to editing.
“I was so excited about this story and felt for the first time that this was in the arena I’d like to go as a filmmaker,” he said. “I approached it as: ‘If this were the only story I could tell, how would I go about making this? ‘ ”
From spending hours on crafting the script to days and months finding just the right actors, Van Dyk said the process for this film was long and meticulous.
“I’m shocked at every phase of all of this,” Van Dyk said about the film’s success. “You’re just working as hard as you can to tell the story in a way that is right and you just feel lucky when it comes together in a good way.”
Because of its Oscar nod, “DeKalb Elementary” was released in theatres, showing alongside the other nominated shorts. It’s also playing on television in Europe and will end up on itunes and Amazon, exposure that Van Dyk hopes will help as he works on his next project, a feature-length film.