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School Shootings Examined in Films Born of Anguish

Movies* A Michael Moore documentary, honored at Cannes, and a cable TV drama were created in the aftermath of campus violence.


Hollywood's infatuation with firearms is getting a dramatic twist in two new films--a documentary feature and a cable TV drama--that attempt to tarnish the titillating appeal of guns in American culture by examining the phenomenon of school shootings.

It remains to be seen whether Michael Moore's documentary "Bowling for Columbine," which opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York, and Showtime's "Bang Bang You're Dead," which premieres Sunday, draw large audiences. But both projects enjoyed a remarkably smooth and swift path to production and distribution, in large part because of executives' strong support of their anti-gun-violence message.

"Bang Bang You're Dead" is built around William Mastrosimone's 40-minute play that has been downloaded by 100,000 schools across the globe since it was posted on the Internet in 1999. In the play, a student gunman is revisited by the ghosts of his victims, forcing him to confront the consequences of his rage.

In the fall of 2000, Showtime's president of programming, Jerry Offsay, gave the green light to Mastrosimone's proposal to embed his small but popular stage production in a feature-length drama.

Mastrosimone created a depressed protagonist named Trevor who had threatened to gun down the football team the previous year and who returns to school an outcast. His only friend is the drama teacher, played by Tom Cavanaugh (NBC's "Ed"), who casts Trevor as the lead in the school play, "Bang Bang You're Dead." Through daily rehearsals, Trevor, who is played by the pasty-faced Ben Foster, must reintegrate himself into school while coming to grips with his past desire for vengeance.

Trevor's behavior and Foster's physical appearance bring to mind Kip Kinkel, the 15-year-old student from Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., who killed his parents in May 1998 and then took his .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle to school, where he killed two students and wounded 24 other people. Kinkel is now serving a 112-year prison sentence. The resemblance is no coincidence, because it was Kinkel's rampage that brought the issue of gun control into Mastrosimone's home.

A few days after the attack, Mastrosimone's son came home and reported that a classmate had written on the blackboard, "I'm going to kill everyone in this class. And the teacher too." Mastrosimone, 55, wrote "Bang Bang You're Dead" that night, keeping in mind the limitations of a school drama department budget. The play can be performed with 11 actors, almost no costumes and few props. He was planning to mail it to the drama teachers at his son's school and the one at Thurston High in Oregon, but his assistant, who was Internet savvy, persuaded Mastrosimone to post it on the Internet, where it immediately got thousands of hits.

"This is a mission I did as a parent, not as a screenwriter," says Mastrosimone, who was nominated for an Emmy for 1994's "The Burning Season."

"I really feel that these are not psychotics. I feel the media has been hasty in branding them," Mastrosimone says. "They're normal kids who have been pushed to their limits, pushed to fantasize about trying to get back."

Like Mastrosimone's play, Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" was informed by a school shooting. It was April 1999, and Moore walked into his office to see his employees gathered around a TV watching coverage of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Two student gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher and then turned the guns on themselves.

"My first thought was not to make a movie but to run against Charlton Heston as head of the NRA," Moore says, referring to the National Rifle Assn., which Heston has headed since 1998, "but that sounded like too much work."

Moore is a lifelong gun user and a member of the NRA, but he is at odds with the culture of fear he says both the government and the NRA have cultivated. The film climaxes when Moore accompanies two students who were disabled by gunshot wounds at Columbine to the corporate headquarters of K-Mart; the shooters had purchases their bullets at their local K-Mart. The encounter yields surprising results.

"Bowling for Columbine" (named because the two student gunmen went to the local bowling lanes before heading to school) was made with $2.2 million from a Canadian film company, and Moore insists that despite its heavy message, his goal was to make it entertaining.

"If I just wanted to make a political statement, I'd run for political office. I'm a filmmaker," he says. But then, as befits his reputation as a provocateur, he notes, "If I only reach the people who believe in what I'm saying, then I'm OK, because they're the majority. Every poll shows that. Every poll shows that people believe in gun control."

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