Even as mass shootings in the U.S. seem to happen ever more frequently in real life — there’s been 355 this year, in only 338 days — the subject remains taboo on TV and in movies.
While a few indie films have tackled the subject, including Lynne Ramsay‘s 2011 movie “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Gus Van Sant‘s 2003 indie “Elephant,” they are far and few in between — and most have had a hard time finding an audience.
Commercial prospects, consumer resistance and the fear of glamorizing violent acts lead a seemingly long list of reasons why networks and studios have been hesitant to greenlight productions that delve into the topic.
“Guns are synonymous with individual power in America,” one producer familiar with the genre told TheWrap. “And the truth hurts people. Audiences aren’t exactly looking for that.”
Mass shootings can be off-putting to audiences, particularly those forking over money at movie theaters. Films about large, recent tragedies have performed poorly at the box office, with “Kevin” earning less than $2 million. “Beautiful Boy,” which also came out in 2011 and followed the parents of a teenager who mass murdered his classmates and then committed suicide, made only $77,000.
Sometimes, even the idea of a movie or TV show depicting a real-life mass shooting can incite anger, as when Lifetime was developing an adaptation of Dave Cullen’s nonfiction book “Columbine” from writer director Tommy O’Haver.
The mere announcement of the project in 2012 was met with outcry, as well as a petition to scrap the movie. The petition received more than 6,000 signatures, including one from Anne Marie Hochhalter, who was injured in the shooting.
The project never got a greenlight at Lifetime. “This was not an exploitative piece,” manager Jeff Field, who reps O’Haver, told TheWrap. “This could have been a game-changing project for television and could have prompted some needed dialogue on this issue. There are people in our business who are trying to address this difficult subject matter.”
O’Haver still hopes his “Columbine” adaptation will see the light of day someday.
“I think it’s always relevant, in many ways it was the defining mass shooting in this country,” the writer/director said. “If I could bring the knowledge that book brings, that sort of insight, the humanist look at something so inhuman… My hope was to bring that to a wider audience.”
Field and O’Haver are not alone in wanting Hollywood to address the issue in its art.
“There’s something going on in America. We can’t keep looking away,” said Isaiah Washington, star of 2013’s “Blue Caprice,” a drama inspired by the Beltway Sniper serial shootings that crippled Maryland and Washington, D.C., in 2002. “‘Blue Caprice’ is inspired by this mindset — what we were trying to do was observe happens when you have toxic leadership. What happens if you’re following the wrong leader?”
“Blue Caprice” tells the story of a father who indoctrinates his son, recruiting him to become a cold blooded sniper targeting random victims in public places. It’s the kind of storytelling Washington finds rare, and thinks audiences will only discover through innovative platforms.
“A studio would’ve never bought ‘Blue Caprice,'” Washington said. “I don’t know if it’s fear but I’d almost rather people discover these kinds of stories through Netflix or streaming.”
Washington insisted honest portraits of these tragedies should not be regarded as efforts to humanize killers — rather as artistic expressions of human decisions.
“There’s a story about what happened on [Robert Dear’s] car ride to Planned Parenthood,” Washington said of the man who killed three people and wounded nine others at a Colorado reproductive health center in late November.
“We should tell that, not to show him as a hero, not to show you right or wrong, but what led to that choice? It’s difficult for anyone to understand people that commit acts like these, but people suffer. They tend to suffer alone. Film should tell the world you don’t have to suffer alone.”
Still, studios and networks recognize another danger of depicting gun massacres on screen: inspiring copycats.
“There’s a fear, that’s not unfounded, that — like suicide on TV — when you depict it, there are people who get ideas,” Neal Baer, a former longtime executive producer on shows like “Under the Dome,” “ER” and “Law & Order: SVU,” told TheWrap.
“Reasonably, networks have to be very careful about what’s depicted,” Baer said. “When I worked at CBS and NBC, we don’t show bullets going into people, we don’t show blood squirting out. We shot a gun only about three times on ‘SVU’ [in my 11 years on the show]. We just did not use guns. And most cops don’t.”
Baer that Hollywood has a responsibility to portray sensitive but very real issues. “People learn from television, they believe what they see,” he said, pointing to data showing an episode of “SVU” raised awareness of the HPV virus from 9 percent to 60 percent among viewers.
When mass shootings — or the threats of such events — are depicted on screen, they tend to center around school shootings perpetrated by marginalized or bullied students. Teen shows, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “One Tree Hill” and “Glee” all broadcast school-shooting episodes, using the platform to teach its young viewers in the process.
That said, it’s important to depict real-life subjects with absolute honesty. “We can’t hide behind the idea that we’re just entertainers and we can write whatever we want because it’s just pretend,” Baer said.
“We go to great lengths to make everything seem real. It looks like a real hospital on ‘ER,’ we dress everyone in scrubs, we use real machines, we train actors to look like they can treat people. If we bend over backwards to make people believe it’s a real hospital, then they’re going to really believe that what they’re seeing is true. So we better be accurate, because they might make some personal decisions based on what they see.”