Meredith Vieira is putting her weight behind “Tower,” an innovative documentary about one of the country’s first mass shootings.
The former host of “The View” and “Today” has signed on as executive producer on the film and has been doing her part to draw attention to the project. “Tower” focuses on the 1966 murders at the University of Texas and combines interviews with people who were on campus as Charles Whitman opened fire on students and residents from his perch atop a clock tower, with animated recreations of the carnage. By the time police killed the gunman, 16 people were dead and dozens were wounded. The event shattered a sense of innocence in the country and raised the specter of mass violence; it’s an issue that Americans continue to grapple with as the death toll rises in places like Newtown, Columbine, and Orlando.
Keith Maitland directs the picture, which is currently in limited release. Vieira talked with Variety about gun violence, her involvement in the project, and the post-presidential election hangover.
Why was it important that the film be animated?
When I was told about the animation, I was slightly indignant. I thought “it would never work. Not with a topic as serious as this.” But it’s a very powerful tool. I was incredibly moved by the use of the technique. It was the only way to give the sense of immediacy and put you there. The animation plays up the surreal quality of that day.
Why tell this story now?
I was 13 when the shooting happened, so I had a memory of it, but not a strong memory of it. I couldn’t recall how many people were shot. I just knew there had been a shooting in a tower in Texas. The more I learned about it, the more it became clear that the victims had never told their story. We knew a lot about the shooter, but not the people on the ground.
One of my favorite moments in the film is there’s a college student who says, “I learned that day that I’m a coward.” I’m glad that’s included because people’s reactions that day ranged from true heroism to what she was expressing. I don’t know where I would fall.
I think I’d be a coward.
I think I would, too. I would hope that I’m not, but I totally understand the instinct to save yourselves. When 9/11 happened, I was at “The View.” Up until then I’d had 20 years as a journalist. My instinct that day was to run toward my family. To get my kids. Not to run toward the towers. That told me a lot about myself that day. A few years earlier, before I had a family, I would have gone to the towers.
Why hadn’t the people who witnessed the Texas shootings told their stories? Was the media different then in terms of how it covered a story?
I’m not sure if it was the news media. Certainly if it happened today the coverage would have been blanketed. There were snippets and some archival footage, but most of it was from a great distance. For the most part, nobody wanted to talk about it. People wanted to brush it under the carpet. Nothing like this had ever happened. Nobody thought you would be on a college campus and be shot. Once it was over, people wanted to put it behind them and there may not have been the emphasis on talk that there is now.
Do you want this film to make a statement about gun control or gun laws?
Keith didn’t want to politicize the situation. It wasn’t about the politics of gun rights. It was to tell the story of the folks that were on the ground. To humanize them and to give them their day. The hope is to provoke conversation on both sides. No matter how you feel about guns and gun control, Second Amendment rights, I don’t think anybody feels it’s okay to shoot students on a campus. It’s to keep the dialogue going. Too often we talk across each other and don’t listen to the other side. We need to keep the conversation happening, because I don’t think this is going to end. I wish it would.
The film barely includes a mention of Charles Whitman, the name of the shooter. Was that a conscious decision?
A lot was known about the shooter, because so many questions were asked about why he did that. Keith felt that he didn’t want to focus on him. The people on the ground that he shot, they didn’t know who he was or why he did what he did. They were just walking to class or delivering newspapers or whatever. That was the story he wanted to tell.
There is some debate about how much information you should publish about a shooter. Should you give them more attention by stating their names or writing about their backgrounds. Do you think there is value in trying to understand what motivates these killers?
Of course, I worry about copycats. But as a journalist I’ve always been taught that you tell the truth and relay facts and one of the facts would be, who is the person. Motivation is a curious thing, so I would air on the side of getting as much info as you can and knowing full well that may spark someone else to behave similarly.
The past presidential election was very hard-fought and consequential. Did you feel any urge to cover a big story like that?
Not really. I didn’t want to get back into the fray. This has been a very difficult election cycle for me, and I’m not talking about because Donald Trump won. There was such ugliness that came out. Almost from day one there was something dirty about it, and sad about it, and worrisome. What happened to me is I developed anxiety. I never binge watch stuff, and I started binge watching things. I think I was trying to escape it.
Are you still feeling anxious?
Totally. How many days are we since the election and already you’re seeing signs that are very divisive about who may or may not be in the cabinet and the tweeting. Donald Trump said he was going to bring us together, and I don’t sense that’s happening. There’s such unrest in the country, and I get it on both sides. I want to believe that we’ll work through it because we always have, but I’m just not sure.
You recently participated in a reunion on “The View.” What was it like to go back?
It was lovely. It’s a little like riding a bike. You get out there and you do your thing, and we did our thing the way we would have done it 20 years ago. I’m just sorry Barbara Walters couldn’t be at the reunion, because she was the one that most deserved a seat at that table.