Interview with ‘Documenting Disaster’ Student Filmmakers at Christopher Newport University

As I confirmed in my previous post, “Documenting Disaster” is a must-see film for student journalists and their supporters.  The documentary gives us a glimpse into the newsroom of The Collegiate Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Tech, in the immediate aftermath of the April 2007 shootings.

“Disaster” is the triumphant work of four student filmmakers.  They are graduating seniors at Christopher Newport University who are also finishing up stints as staffers at CNU’s student newspaper, The Captain’s Log— Victoria Shirley (Captain’s Log editor in chief), Samantha Thrift (news editor), Andrew Deitrick (online editor), and Cassandra Vinch (sports editor).

The film premiered with a pair of shows in mid-April at CNU– the second showing held on the four-year anniversary of the shootings central to the story.  According to Deitrick, roughly 100 people turned up at each show, including some family members of the student victims.  The full film was placed online soon after.

Last week, three of the student filmmakers– Shirley, Thrift, and Deitrick– were gracious enough to chat with me via Skype video about creating the film, including their monthlong sleepless stay in post-production purgatory (AKA the living room of Shirley’s apartment).

The filmmakers watch a "final run through on DVD" in Shirley's apartment.

In Thrift’s words, “It was the most stressful month of my entire life.  I hope I never ever get faced with that amount of pressure.  We just felt this heavy weight that we wanted to make it perfect, give it justice not only for the Collegiate Times but the family members [of students killed in the shootings], especially after we met them.  My biggest concern was that it was just flawless for them.  The whole way through we were such perfectionists that any type of glitch was just like a stab to the heart.  We sacrificed sleep.” Deitrick confirmed, “We also all sacrificed class time, homework time, study time, friend time, social time, all that stuff. . . . But it was worth it.”

A screenshot of my video chat with filmmakers (left to right) Victoria Shirley, Samantha Thrift, and Andrew Deitrick.

During the interview, the trio also touched on what surprised, angered, and saddened them during the filmmaking process, which took them from Manhattan, Kan., to downtown Washington D.C.

How did the idea for the film come about?

Samantha: The Captain’s Log went to Louisville for the ACP/CMA National College Media Convention [last October].  I went to a session where Kelly Furnas [the former faculty adviser for the Collegiate Times] was speaking about how the newsroom handled April 16.  After I saw it, it just hit me that it was a story that needed to be told. . . . Two of the victims [of the shootings] went to my high school and my sister was a good friend with one of the victims and my best friend was a friend with the other victim.  And the shooter went to my high school too. . . . Before that session, I hadn’t even thought about [the CT’s role during the tragedy].  It was a completely new perspective and that’s one of the reasons I was so taken aback by it.  I literally ran to my friends immediately after and told them everything about it.  It hit me, and I thought it might touch other people to hear the story too.

Andrew: We’re blessed by having a very awesome adviser [Dr. Terry Lee] who hooked us up with some of his own research money.  It was an initial concern [money] but he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.  Whatever you’ve got to do, do it.’  And he also does documentaries, so equipment-wise and financially we were pretty good to go.

How did you divide the workload?

Victoria: At the beginning, the four of us sat down and decided what each of our roles would be.  I am a wedding videographer, so I’m very familiar with film and editing and all that stuff, so we decided technology would be my specialty.  Sam is super-organized and she’s our news editor [at Captain’s Log], so she’s very good at investigating information and getting names from everywhere– so her first main task was gathering information of the different contacts who were at the Collegiate Times and who the important people would be to talk to.  Andrew is our online editor and is very good at building websites, so his main job was building a platform for the documentary to eventually be online.  Cassie is also very organized, so she was in charge of planning our trips everywhere we went and making sure we got reimbursed. . . . Then we just started shooting the interviews.  The hardest part was definitely the post-production, just deciding what would go into the documentary. We had such good interviews.  Everyone had so many good stories to tell and to fit it all into a 45-minute documentary was one of the hardest parts.

How did you decide how to tell story?

Victoria: I would say our overall theme changed very quickly after we talked to Kelly Furnas.  Our initial perception was, “Wow, how were they able to separate themselves from students and journalists to cover the story?  They must have been such professionals to be able to do that.”  But once we mentioned that to Kelly Furnas, he said, “No, I encouraged them not to split themselves into two pieces and [instead] to be a member of the community and report on this and that’s what made their coverage ultimately different.”

Did anything particularly surprise you during filmmaking?

Samantha: I know the first time I heard Kelly speak, when he said their photographer got arrested, that really threw me for a spin.  I didn’t even realize their communication went down or the fact that the media played a large role in identifying some of the victims.  We were able to speak to a public relations officer from Virginia Tech.  We were fortunate enough to speak to him and hearing his story too and just what they were going through, just how ridiculous and crazy and chaotic of a day it was and how they were able to do something that I already find completely stressful is bewildering to me.

Victoria: I agree.  I talked to Larry Hincker, who was the PR guy at the time.  I think as student journalists we always think it’s us and them, us and the administration.  We never stop to think about what the administration goes through.  And he was going through as much stress as the Collegiate Times staff members.  He wasn’t sleeping.  He was so caught up in the day as it was happening it didn’t even occur to him to email his family to get in touch with them until that night. . . . Something I hadn’t really realized was just how cruel the national media was. . . . We’re all student journalists who aspire to have jobs in this industry later in life.  There were times I was watching just how insensitive the national media was and asking myself, ‘Could I do this?  Is this what I will turn into if I make it to the network level?’  It just disgusted me.  I think through all of it, it taught us, as journalists, what type of journalists, we want to become and we’re not going to ever dehumanize.  I do think a big part of the media is to heal communities and it’s just disappointing to see the national media, instead of healing, focused on tearing it apart for ratings, to get as many tears, as many people in pain, as they could, just for ratings, because people want to watch that.  It’s disappointing, I think.

What were the emotional high and low points?

Samantha: My largest concern throughout the process was not being so involved in it that we became numb to the story.  That’s why I’m glad when we watch it, every time I see Nikki Giovanni’s speech [the famous “We Are Virginia Tech” poem reading, still shot below], I still get chills.  That’s what was so important to me.  Even at the very end, we had a couple of victims’ family members come to the shows and some friends and when I saw them being emotional my emotions came flooding back.

Andrew: When we out to Kansas to meet Kelly [who left Virginia Tech for Kansas State University last spring], we had a really casual dinner with him and then he pulled us into his office at night.  And here we are in the middle of nowhere, Manhattan, Kansas, and he pulls from the bottom of his bookshelf a stack of papers from the week [of the shootings].  And that’s when it became for me, real.  Later on, Sam and I went to see “Living for 32,” a documentary by one of the victims of the shooting who survived.  It’s about gun control. . . . At one point, it had a showing a few minutes from our school [CNU] and we went there and several of the victims’ parents were there.  We were there promoting our own documentary, but we had time to speak to them and that was another one of those ‘wow’ moments where we’ve been looking at this on a computer screen and in our heads for most of the semester but here’s someone who’s really been through it and really knows the emotional toll from the whole thing.  Those kinds of things helped bring it to life for me personally.

Victoria: One of my main responsibilities was to find all the B-roll, all the national coverage, all of that.  Emotionally, it was tough, especially this one clip where we showed this student was obviously having a hard time keeping it together on camera and this CBS reporter kept poking him and poking him, trying to get tears for ratings and I just got so angry.  I think throughout the process we felt a lot of emotions.  It was an emotional topic.   I know, I myself while editing, cried watching the footage.  I’m the editor in chief of the newspaper here and just putting myself in Amie Steele’s shoes, it really hits home.  That’s what made it real for me.

Talk to me about post production.

Victoria: We turned my living room, to my roommate’s dismay, into an editing hub.  We had two monitors and we lived in my living room for the month that was dedicated to post-production. Usually post production takes the longest amount of time, but we weren’t blessed with the abundance of time because we wanted to premiere on April 16, so I would say most of us were editing eight to 10 hours a day for three weeks.  I personally can say that I definitely suffered in my academics because of it.  But this was my number-one priority. Luckily we had already selected another editor in chief so she stepped up and we had awesome assistants to make sure the paper was still going out.  I guess that’s how we survived. . . . We didn’t sleep at all.  The documentary team members basically slept on the couch of my living room the whole month.  I would sleep on the table by the computer.  [Laughs] We took breaks to make sure the paper got out every week and to go to classes we absolutely had to go to but other than that it was documentary time, around the clock.

Samantha: People would get tired of us using the excuse of the documentary for not hanging out.  [Laughs]

Victoria: In retrospect, it was all worth it.  I would do it again.

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  1. […] Documenting Disaster follows the 2007 Collegiate Times staff as they recall How the student paper chose to cover the events. […]

  2. […] Documenting Disaster follows the 2007 Collegiate Times staff as they recall How the student paper chose to cover the events. […]

  3. […] with their input, for three weeks straight. You can read more about that arduous experience in the interview about us here. We premiered the documentary at Christopher Newport University on two nights and a couple hundred […]