In 2006, a young man named Kyle Huff attended a rave. He didn't normally go to events like this "Better Off Undead" party, and he hung close to the walls. He chatted with a few strangers. He was invited back to a Capitol Hill house for an after-party. Then at 7 a.m., he went to his car, retrieved several weapons and an extraordinary amount of ammunition, spray-painted "NOW" on the sidewalk and the steps of several houses, and killed six people on the porch and in the house before killing himself. Some circles in Seattle can still feel the empty holes where their friends should be.
Five years after what is known as the "Capitol Hill Massacre," local filmmaker Jagger Gravning announced his plan to make a movie based on the events of that night. Now the film is a finished indie drama titled Wallflower, and it's playing this week as one of only two local features highlighted at the Seattle International Film Festival. And some of the people involved with the project, it appears, are not happy with it.
After the shooting, Gravning was not alone in trying to make sense of the tragedy. Local media bounced all around: Was it guns, or mental illness, or social persecution, or the all-ages rave scene? Why did Huff do this? What could have stopped him? The Stranger's rapid-fire coverage and rejection of victim-blaming helped launch Slog as we know it today; many also remember the paper's cover that featured no headlines, just a close-up of the infamous house's pale-blue slats. National media got involved. The case fascinated people because of both its massive impact on Seattle communities and the killer's unique relationship with his victims. It wasn't a crime of passion against loved ones, and it wasn't an attack on anonymous strangers—it was something unexpected.
Writer/director Gravning had a clear focus for his investigation. The 2011 Kickstarter expressed his intention to make a film that would "accurately portray Kyle's emotional downfall." A line from the campaign's description reads, "Although he committed a monstrous act, there was a man within the monster much like many other lonely and confused young men."
Some community members were not pleased by this pitch. Looking back on the years-old media coverage, Gravning told me, "I knew what I was making, and the film was not what people thought it was."
Up until this point, public opinions about Wallflower have been based on an outdated promo and statements from the director. But the movie is done now. It's polished, with strong acting (including improvisation) and a few charming moments from the ravers. It features familiar, picturesque shots of Seattle, which local audiences will eat up. The opening scene is creepy, intriguing, and atmospheric.
But from what I can tell, something soured in the making of this film. It's so firmly rooted in the killer's perspective that, most of the time, the ravers seem unlikable and cliquey instead of joyful and loving. Wallflower confidently walks the audience through the increasingly aggravated and violent mental gymnastics of a murderer trying to justify his impending massacre—and does so without ever knocking the killer off his imagined pedestal. I felt that the film makes the murderer seem powerful and the killer's paranoia seem real. It gives attention and validation to the man who wrote in his suicide note that this traumatic event was "the most important thing to happen since man began."
The unsettling final result is not due to Gravning's lack of effort. He invited survivors to help him shape the film as associate producers, and he brought on forensic and clinical psychiatrist Dr. Richard Adler as a coproducer and consultant. He promised to make a movie that would uplift and inform rather than traumatize. He wanted the film to explore the killer's point of view while also celebrating and exploring the local community.
Lindy Boustedt, a former coproducer and production coordinator on Wallflower, told me that she originally signed on to the project thinking the story would be told through the perspective of one of the ravers, a queer woman of color. But only after seeing a rough cut of the movie did she realize that this production was not what she believed it to be. She said to me: "I was holding out hope that the tough stuff would be worth it and we'd make something really good. When I saw the cut, I felt physically sick. I couldn't even talk to [producer John Comerford] or Jagger after watching; I just left. I couldn't put into words what I was feeling. I knew it was wrong. And I was a part of it." Boustedt removed her name from the project.
Boustedt wasn't the only one to change her mind about the project. Associate producer and survivor Randi Pinney, who got involved with Wallflower in 2011, realized the film wasn't what she thought it was at a screening for friends, family, and survivors on May 30.
Pinney texted me, "We were not at all mean. And he made us seem like we were. Like we were judgmental. He said he was going to bring awareness to mental illness through the film. Which no mental condition was ever discussed in the film. He said he wanted to show the people how the rave community is full of love and compassion. He made us look like fucking assholes! He said something about wanting to not have sympathy for Kyle Huff, but empathy. By the time the gore was over, you were tricked into believing he was just being bullied. The trigger (PTSD) memories I have shared with him were exploited as visual candy for the horrors he was filming."
Pinney also wrote: "I told him what was most significantly traumatic to me was seeing blinking gloves covered in blood and intestines. He made the gloves extremely present through the movie. Which I take personally, because on set he saw how they affected me emotionally. I feel like he played off that reaction and wanted his audience to see the horror I did."
Pinney added that she found the shooting scene (a short sequence that comes just after the opening) the only part of the movie that was accurately and respectfully depicted. About the film, she wrote, "If it was done the way it was promised, I don't think it would have focused entirely on the shooter and his night, nor would it have made him out to look like the victim." She feels "like we all were lied to" and "my initial impression, what I was approached with, is not at all what I saw on that screen." Pinney hasn't yet voiced her concerns to Gravning or the rest of the team. "I'm not sure how to tell him how I feel," she wrote. "I don't like to be rude to people or be mean."
She may not be the only person torn between their feelings about the film and their feelings about the filmmaker. Gravning has not only poured years of his life into this project, but he's made it a priority over recommended medical care for his stage II colon cancer.
When asked about Pinney’s criticisms, Gravning wrote: “Our coproducer, Dr. Richard Adler, a psychiatrist, and a team of other health-care professionals saw the completed film in advance of the screening, before showing it to survivors and those directly affected, and they did not interpret it the way that is depicted in Randi's comments. These health-care professionals were present at the screening. Randi has every right to her reaction to the film. But if the film was universally seen as described in Randi's recent comments, making an armed man who premeditatedly murdered children ‘look like the victim,’ no professionals would have worked with us to show it to a room full of survivors of the real-life shooting.”
To be fair, not all of the responses have been negative or conflicted about Wallflower. The other associate producer and survivor, T. Vincent, for example, does not feel lied to. She wrote to me, "The film was well done. It is very professional and time sequences/overlaps gave an ethereal quality to it. It was very emotionally moving, regardless if the viewer was actually involved or not." She added, "I think having the story interpreted through the eyes of the bad guy makes sense. I feel that many people whom this touched want to know/understand a bit more of how he may have felt at this time."
One of the turning points in the film is loosely based on eyewitness reports from that night. Several times, the killer stopped a partygoer and asked, "What's going on here?" or "What's really going on here?" In the film, the second time the killer asks the question, he gets a thoughtful if muddled response about finding your place in history and escaping from the mundane. The perpetrator latches on, nodding intensely, with a look in his eyes that screams "epiphany." In a movie full of interactions with the ravers, some empathetic and others antagonistic, this scene seemed important. It seemed significant, like it carried meaning for the rest of the movie.
Gravning said, "I wrote that scene that morning [the morning of the shoot]. 'Cause I knew that he couldn't really provide a satisfying answer. And so, I took part of Ecclesiastes. I think that's part of the book of the Bible where it's like 'the world also turns,' and thinking about generations cometh and generations passeth away. So it's basically like a raver version of Ecclesiastes, mixed in with his daily life working at QFC. The idea is that he's struggling to explain, and failing, in that scene. And then David Call [the actor portraying the killer], who basically never improvised at all in terms of dialogue, he did a really interesting thing where he's really absorbing on it. He's really focused on it in a really serious way. I thought it just worked great."
I asked if my interpretation—that this moment was where the killer decides to go through with the act—was correct. Gravning responded, "Yeah, I saw that as an interpretation of that as well. Again, that was a scene I wrote that morning. So basically I had only written [another character's] lines, and it's a usual scene where I didn't write anything for David. So David just made that choice, it was his first choice, I didn't direct him to do that. I directed David very little in this film, almost not at all. But I directed the other actors a lot." My impression, then, is that this moment, which seemed to carry great significance for the killer (it's one of the only moments where his purpose, not just his feelings, becomes clear) happened mostly by chance.
Through my conversation with Gravning, however, it was clear that he and I agree that promises, creative visions, and trailers can rile people up, but the film should speak for itself. All judgment should be delayed until the final product is shown.