The Inspiration Behind Oscar-Nominated Short Film ‘DeKalb Elementary’

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Writer-director Reed van Dyk’s 20-minute film “DeKalb Elementary” just earned Hollywood’s highest possible distinction: an Academy Award nomination for live-action short film.

A 2017 MFA graduate of the University of California Los Angeles’ film school, van Dyk has been steadily gaining experience both on the stage and behind the camera. “DeKalb Elementary,” about a troubled gunman and the school secretary he takes hostage, was conceived at UCLA, eventually winning special honors at the Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival as well as SXSW. Backstage chatted with the film’s young visionary about his inspiration, casting performers through IMDB, and acting in shorts.

How does it feel to be nominated for an Oscar?
“I don’t know what to say! It’s really cool. The ceremony should be fun. It’s great to get to share ‘DeKalb Elementary’ with more people now, as the film will get released with the other Oscar shorts in theaters. That’s one of the biggest thrills of all this, to get people all across the country to see it.”

Have you ever used Backstage in your career?
“I did! I was an actor when I was a kid. I grew up in New Jersey and was in musical theater, mostly, in New York. I used Backstage to get a number of auditions for TV and film. I did a couple short films, one at NYU and one at Columbia, which I’d read about in Backstage East in New York. One ended up getting a Student Academy Award, and the other went to Cannes! That was my experience with Backstage.”

How did you then transition to becoming an Oscar-nominated filmmaker?
“I was still pursuing and interested in acting through undergrad. I went to Cornell and got a theater arts degree there, started directing theater, then a short film. That led me to L.A. That first short I had done won a prize out here, a student Emmy Award. And I linked up with a Cornell alum who was a TV and feature director and I started to fall for film directing and writing. I worked with that director for a few years, continued directing some of my own stuff, and that led me to UCLA where I made the film that is nominated.”

Did working in theater prepare you for film?
“It’s a good question and there’s never a good, pat answer. Certainly my exposure to the rehearsal process and working with actors—both as an actor working for directors and then just starting out directing in college—that exposure to the process and learning how to be helpful to actors through their process is a big part of what I’ve carried over into film. Of course the biggest difference between the two mediums is the camera. So my education outside of theater became one of how to use a camera to tell a story.... In terms of frame size, you’re always in a wide shot when you’re in theater. The way the body has to be used, the way the voice has to be used, it’s meant to communicate to an audience in a wide shot, whereas in film you can be right up next to someone’s face. It is matter of scale in that way.”

How did “DeKalb Elementary” come about?
“It’s inspired by a 9-1-1 call that was placed during a school shooting incident in Atlanta, Georgia. The film deals with the gunman and a school receptionist who meets him in the front office and ends up being his direct line to the police while he has taken the front office hostage. The phone call it’s based on, I stumbled onto randomly. I was just Googling 9-1-1 calls—I was interested for another project in how dispatchers answer the phone, I needed to know what they say—and that happened to be the phone call that came up. It’s about 12 minutes long and it’s harrowing and heartbreaking and fascinating. That became the source material. A lot of the dialogue is verbatim, what was said between this woman and this young man who comes in with the gun. The incident happened in August 2013, I discovered the call about a year later.”

Did you immediately think it would make for a great short film?
“I was at UCLA at the time and we were required to make a couple short film projects. But quite honestly when I first heard it I was so moved by it that I wasn’t really thinking film. I was just carrying my experience of the call and those two people around with me. Then as time went on I began to think, I wonder if I can do this any justice. And yeah, in a short form.”

Does artistic inspiration typically work that way for you?
“It does. I could not let go of those two people. Every time I would think about them and what happened between them I would feel emotional. I ended up talking about it with people and it stuck with me. I thought, Maybe I could try to tell this story.”

How did you go about casting those two actors?
“It took a very long time. I looked on IMDB, I would go through every film that I thought had actors that might be the right type. I saw Bo Mitchell’s headshot for a film called ‘Palo Alto’ and thought, Gosh, he looks perfect. He lives in North Carolina so I auditioned him over Skype and hired him. Tarra Riggs was the same story, she’d had a part in ‘The Help’ which got cut out of the movie. I saw her photo, looked up her other films. I tracked her down, she lives in Mississippi, I auditioned her—over the phone in this case, her Skype broke so we did it over phone—and cast her on the spot. I just did my due diligence and hunted and hunted until I found the people I thought had the essence.”

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What’s your advice for actors working on short films?
“Obviously be discerning. Don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re not going to be able to learn anything or thrive in any way. [Short films are] a great opportunity to focus on process. It’s a learning experience, a way to exercise your craft. I’m sure there’s always something to learn.”

Check out Backstage’s short film audition listings!