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Oscar Hopeful

Alumnus Reed Van Dyk's award-winning "DeKalb Elementary" is now an Academy Award-nominated film

By Noela Hueso

DeKalb Elementary, a 20-minute film written and directed by Reed Van Dyk (M.F.A. ’17) while he was a student at UCLA TFT, is inspired by an actual 911 call placed during a school shooting situation in Atlanta, Ga. The story, which focuses on the interaction between a troubled young gunman and the school secretary he takes hostage, has been making an impression at festivals around the world, earning critical acclaim and winning accolades, including the Grand Prix at the 2017 Clermont Ferrand International Short Film Festival and a Special Jury Award at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival. On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the film garnered its biggest distinction to date when it was named one of five films nominated for a Short Film (Live Action) Academy Award.

A day after the Oscar nominations were announced, Van Dyk, 32, spoke with his alma mater about the recognition, his film, and how his UCLA TFT education informed his filmmaking style.

How did you find out DeKalb was nominated for an Oscar?
I set my alarm and woke up to see the live [5 a.m.] announcement. My girlfriend and I were both half asleep but we watched it on my phone. Two minutes later I found out the film was nominated. I was really, really proud and happy.

Your film has gotten so many accolades and so much attention thus far, you must be overjoyed with the reception.
When you make a movie, you just hope that it works as a film and then you’re hopeful it can play a few festivals. This story seems to have connected with people, so it’s nice; when these things happen, it just means more people get to see the film. It’s a story that I loved when I first heard it so I’m glad more people get to share in that.

Why do you think people have connected to it so well?
When I first stumbled on that 911 call on the internet — I was doing research for another film I was writing — the audio of that situation really held me captive; it touched me in a deep place; that probably has something to do with it…what [the school secretary] was able to see in someone who was scary, at first glance. He was not a “bad guy,” he was someone who was shaped by really tough circumstances and obviously confused. It was a cry for help. There was something unexpected about that.

The film is understated and that's what makes it so compelling. Was that your intent?
My tastes run outside the mainstream — I prefer something that isn’t sensational, isn’t overly dramatized but gets life as it is. Early on, I was explicit about not wanting to take what happened and turn it into something that was ultimately false…that didn’t capture what was inherently interesting and moving about what transpired between them. There’s a lot that could have been done in terms of the filmmaking where the tension could have been amped up. It just felt exploitative and wrong to do something like that with a real situation.

What filmmakers do you admire?
I could talk to you for an hour about that. It’s much easier to talk about the films and filmmakers I love than it is talking about my own film. There are a number of European filmmakers who are my film heroes. I love Michael Haneke (The Moor, The Piano Teacher), an Austrian filmmaker who works mostly in the French language; I love the Belgian Dardenne Brothers (The Kid with a Bike); and I really like Steve McQueen's films — Shame and 12 Years a Slave and Hunger; I love Paul Thomas Anderson's films. These are the folks I get excited about. There’s an intelligence guiding their movies.

Have you seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-nominated Phantom Thread?
I’ve seen it twice. There’s a strangeness about it that is so intriguing. It’s idiosyncratic. It doesn't feel quite like anything you've seen before. That’s very attractive.

Are you trying to convey a message with your film?
I don’t see it that way. It’s about trying to leave enough room for people to engage with it themselves. I got what I got from the [911] phone call and maybe somebody else got something different out of it.

Is that the approach you will take with all your projects going forward?
Yeah. I like something that Michael Haneke says: That filmmaking is like balancing precision and clarity with abstraction; he also describes it as building a ski jump for the audience — you build it and you let them ride off it. You’re creating room for multiple interpretations. There’s nothing more powerful than having your own private experience with a movie and not feeling like it is hammering you over the head with a message.

What was your biggest takeaway from your time at UCLA TFT?
I learned how to fight for what matters to me; to make films on my own terms and to know when to compromise and when not to. TFT allows a lot of room for the filmmakers, which I appreciated. It really is what you make it. I had some great teachers. They introduced me to different filmmakers and helped me break down movies and deconstruct films to see the choices that other directors and writers make.

I was ambivalent about going to film school but it ended up being really good for me. It gave me a place to exercise my craft and to practice, practice, practice, with some helpful guidance along the way.

Why were you ambivalent?
I applied on a lark. The ambivalence was partly financial — it’s a big investment. [Prior to attending UCLA TFT] I was trying to build my own film school, in that I was exercising the muscles as best I could on my own. I became attracted to the idea of doing that alongside other people who were doing the same thing and learning from my classmates and their work. I liked the idea of working outside of a vacuum. I’ve also made close filmmaker friends and that’s pretty invaluable.

At what point in time did you decide to become a filmmaker?
I was an actor when I was a young kid; I grew up outside New York and I was doing musical theater. I really wanted to be a musical theater actor in New York City and I went to [Cornell University] with that intent. Then I got interested in straight acting and then directing. I directed a play and that led to a film class where I made a film that won a student Emmy Award. That was encouraging, I thought. I liked film directing more than anything else I had done. It was right at the tail end of my undergrad experience that I thought, “I think this is the direction I’m going.”

But before you started UCLA TFT, you were doing some projects on your own.
I was. I worked for a feature director, Elizabeth Allen, for 2 1/2 years from the very beginning when her film, Ramona and Beezus, was greenlit until it was released in theaters. That was a great education and an amazing time. It was riding shotgun, getting to see a real director who is freelance, writing and working on her own stuff. I watched her and thought, “Would this work for me? Could I do this? Does this suit me?” It was a big help in clarifying that this was the job for me.

Posted: January 31, 2018