NEW YORK — As parents of young girls and as two of Hollywood's most prolific producers, Kathy Kennedy and
So when the book was published five years ago, the producers of
They quickly realized that a movie based on the shooting was unlikely. "We worried it would just be too difficult for people to look at," Kennedy said.
The proposed movie was shelved, but Kennedy and Marshall refused to abandon the material. Over several years, they transformed "Columbine" into "The Library," a one-act play currently running off-Broadway from the writer and director of the movies
With an ensemble cast that includes Chloë Grace Moretz, Lili Taylor and
From his initial reading of the book, Burns was fascinated by how the perceived truths surrounding the massacre, in which students Eric Harris and
In the case of Columbine, many people still (falsely) assume that Harris and Klebold had been bullied and targeted athletes and popular kids — they in reality hoped their bombs would kill everyone — and that they were part of an outcast clique called "The Trench Coat Mafia."
But the most pervasive — and to Burns most telling — myth involved two girls, Cassie Bernall and Valeen Schnurr, and what they did and did not say inside the
In a tale erroneously reported by the media and embraced by evangelical Christians, Bernall was said to have been asked by Harris whether she believed in God: She said yes, the story went, and then Harris killed her. In fact, the question was directed not at Bernall but at Schnurr, who not only answered in the affirmative — "Yes. I believe in God," she said — but also survived being shot and seriously wounded by Klebold.
It didn't matter who said what.
Bernall had been first identified as the faithful speaker, and she was thoroughly embraced as a martyr. Her name rang out from church pulpits, songs were written about her beliefs and her mother penned the book "She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall." For disputing that narrative, Schnurr was ostracized and called a liar. Even inside her own church, the pastors praised Bernall, not her.
"We just need something to hold on to — something that makes us feel better, even if that story isn't true," Marshall said.
In "The Library," which is a fictionalized version of a school shooting set in "the near future," Moretz plays teenager Caitlin Gabriel. Gabriel survived the attack but has been accused wrongfully by another student of guiding the shooter to a closet where several students were hiding, who were then slain.
Gabriel's parents (O'Keefe and
"I didn't really want to write about Harris and Klebold," said Burns, who had never written a play before "The Library." "I wanted to write about narrative and how it gets corrupted in the aftermath of a tragedy. I wanted to write about what people tend to believe in, in order to survive.
"We have this huge reliance on the question of why, but there are some things we don't get to know the reasons for. We feel the universe owes us that. And if we don't get the answers from the universe, we better get them from CNN."
Burns, whose screenplay credits include
Soderbergh, who has directed two plays previously but none in New York, said that our typical reaction to unspeakable acts is to try to fit them inside some understandable and relatable story. The trajectory of that mythmaking, usually communicated through the news media, is consistent: Focus on the perpetrators rather than the victims, assign motive as rapidly as possible, and start speaking of "closure" and "healing" as if those psychobabble constructions were as definable and exact as days of the week.
"People would rather be first than be right," said the director, who has said he is giving up making movies to focus on other creative endeavors such as a proposed musical about Cleopatra. "And how is it that people can remember the names of the killers but none of the names of the victims or the survivors?"
When Burns first started writing "The Library," he, Marshall and Kennedy had no idea what would become of it. Kennedy showed a draft to playwright Tony Kushner, who introduced the producers to Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater.
"In the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, it felt extremely relevant to us," Eustis said of the 2012 attack in which 20 children and six educators were fatally shot. "It was a play about how we go about trying to understand what's going on in our world when things are beyond understanding, and how to impose meaning that comforts us."