As the debate around guns and gun violence dominates the national conversation, the Sundance Film Festival has announced its 2016 lineup which includes a few movies that deal directly with the issue. Among them is "Under the Gun." This documentary will play in the Premieres section of the fest, which is reserved for more established filmmakers.
The film’s director is Stephanie Soechtig. She co-produced the documentary with Katie Couric, who is also the film’s narrator. They previously collaborated on a documentary about sugar and obesity in the U.S., called “Fed Up," which premiered at Sundance in 2014.
In the festival announcement about "Under the Gun," it's noted that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was considered a watershed moment in the national debate on gun violence, but the body count from firearms has only increased in the three years since. Through interviews with victims' families, as well as with pro-gun advocates, the film examines the issues surrounding gun violence and possible solutions.
The Frame's John Horn sat down with Stephanie Soechtig in Los Angeles while Katie Couric joined the conversation from her New York office at Yahoo, where she is Global News Anchor. Below are highlights from the interview.
Katie Couric: The content of this film could not be more relevant, but it has been for decades. I've covered so many mass shootings in the course of my career. But it does seem right now — given San Bernardino and Colorado Springs — there is what's considered a mass shooting almost everyday in America now. We desperately need to have a conversation. While it's very polarizing, I think there's a group of people in the middle who want to figure out ways to reduce the number of deaths as a result of gun violence.
John Horn: How do you make sure you're not simply preaching to the converted?
Stephanie Soechtig: What Katie does so effectively is she really speaks well to middle America. If we don't make a film that speaks to them, we're just preaching to the choir.
Horn: And you worked on Bill O'Reilly's [Fox News] show before you became a documentarian. Do you think that helped you book people who might have a different political point of view than most people in Hollywood?
Soechtig: I do. And I think it also helps us bring a certain sensibility to the project too. Because there is no point in making this film if it's only going to speak to people who already believe that we need stricter gun safety measures. So I think having that vantage point of having worked for Bill O'Reilly — and one of our producers ran his show — we all came in knowing that we wanted to reach the unconverted. And I hope we'll be as successful as we were with "Fed Up" in doing so.
Horn: Did you talk with the National Rifle Association for the documentary?
Soechtig: We made repeated efforts to the NRA and to other gun groups as well.
Couric: We did request an interview with Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, and they said no.
Soechtig: The actual quote from the NRA was, "It's a blanket no." Because we said, "If Wayne won't talk, would [executive director] Chris Cox talk? Would any of your board talk?" We really wanted both sides of the debate represented. And it was just impossible. We've been working on the film for about 18 months. But after these subsequent mass shootings we would call and say, Do you want to talk now? And Katie's interviewed Wayne in the past, so he knows that she's fair and that we weren't looking for a gotcha. We really wanted to understand both sides of this debate and I think we got that because we did speak to many, many gun owners.
Horn: When the director of the documentary, "The Square" — which was about the uprisings in Tahrir Square in Egypt — was premiering her film at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2013, she was re-shooting or adding footage to the film even after its premiere to make sure the film was as current as possible. How much updating can you do to this documentary? At what point do you stop?
Soechtig: We were in San Bernardino covering it for the film. I think we'll continue to update it for as long as we can to make sure it feels current.
Couric: On the other hand, because we spent many months with the characters in the film, I think we have to resist the notion that everything has to be completely updated. Because, as we talk about in this film, it's become almost routine. So every time there's a mass shooting, it's really important to us to focus on the characters and the people we spent months with, and telling it through their eyes. There will be other victims — sadly, tragically — who will be able to tell their stories as well. Everyone has their own experience but, unfortunately, many of them are eerily similar.