NEW YORK — As parents of young girls and as two of Hollywood’s most prolific producers, Kathy Kennedy and Frank Marshall believed that “Columbine,” journalist Dave Cullen’s exhaustive investigation of the 1999 school massacre, contained compelling and often untold stories that needed to be shared with a larger audience.
So when the book was published five years ago, the producers of “Lincoln” and “The Bourne Identity” purchased its rights, hoping to turn “Columbine” into a feature directed by “The Social Network’s” David Fincher.
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 “Side Effects,” “Contagion” and “The Informant!”: screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh.
With an ensemble cast that includes Chloë Grace Moretz, Lili Taylor and Michael O’Keefe, “The Library” received mixed to positive reviews after opening this month at New York’s Public Theater. Although the play, which was nominated this week for an Outer Critics Circle Award for best new American play, is set to close Sunday, Kennedy and Marshall hope to adapt it for HBO and want to take the play to another city or country.
From his initial reading of the book, Burns was fascinated by how the perceived truths surrounding the massacre, in which students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher before taking their own lives, clashed with the actual facts. He told Kennedy and Marshall that he believed the story would work better as a play, where the medium’s heightened theatricality could focus closer attention on how language and storytelling can conspire to create a fictional reality.
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 Columbine High School library where they were reading “Cold Mountain” when Harris and Klebold descended upon them with their weapons.
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 Jennifer Westfeldt) aren’t certain their daughter is telling the truth. At the same time, the mother of Joy, the student who Gabriel insists did reveal the hiding place, works to make sure her child is martyred through a book and a movie. The play features Daryl Sabara as the misinformed accusing student, Taylor as Joy’s mother and Tamara Tunie as a detective convinced that Gabriel is not just lying but somehow complicit in the attack.
“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 “The Bourne Ultimatum,” met with investigators of the shooting and Schnurr, who is now a therapist who works in child protective services. “She’s a remarkable woman — very together,” Burns said. “And she has a lot of insight into this issue of how one heals if their narrative is not acknowledged. What happened to her inside the school, as horrible as it was, was then made much worse when her narrative was questioned and denied. And people wrote some really horrible things about her.”
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.”