Determining the Calculus:
An Interview with Todd Chandler
By Chris Shields
Todd Chandlerâ€™s new film, Bulletproof, paints a stark and unsettling picture of the security industry surrounding schools in the United States. With cool detachment, Chandler shows viewers a Las Vegas trade show where vendors sell bulletproof dry erase boards, individual safety pods, and portable defibrillators. We watch teachers at a firing range discharging guns into the darkness. A young entrepreneur makes bulletproof hoodies and a live school shooting simulation. Despite the grotesque reality of everything we see, Chandlerâ€™s film achieves a chilling elegance. Bulletproof forgoes the overly scripted, interview-heavy approach of many contemporary documentaries, and instead presents a stream of unhurried tableaux, crafting a nuanced and complex vision of the nexus where guns and schools meet.
Often, this meeting place is in the classroom, and here, Chandler, who regularly teaches in Brooklyn, is uniquely skilled at capturing evocative details. In one of the filmâ€™s most delicate moments, we see a group of students practicing mindfulness exercises. Some kids squeeze their eyes tightly shut while others peek. Itâ€™s this kind of close, humanistic observation that creates Bulletproofâ€™s strange cumulative power. In moments, it feels like a dystopian near future conceived by J.G. Ballard, where security industries overshadow all other concerns; at other times itâ€™s a banal vision of everyday America. Chandlerâ€™s film is a gorgeously photographed, patient, and at times darkly humorous dispatch, just formally disquieting enough to mesmerize. Todd Chandler took time to speak with Reverse Shot about his eerily beautiful new film in advance of its broadcast on PBS.
Reverse Shot: Can you talk about your aesthetic and formal approach, particularly when dealing with such raw material? Does it involve a certain degree of distance or detachment?
Todd Chandler: I started thinking about this as a film or as an idea for a film in 2014 or 2015. I remember doing one test shoot. We went to a place that manufactured bulletproof whiteboards. They were a contractor with the Department of Defense, and they built bombproof Humvees and bombproof bridge infrastructure, things like that. But they had this sort of side project in which they were selling these handheld bulletproof whiteboard shields for schools. We went to their factory in Maryland. It was so much about procedure; I just became really interested in that. Already my aesthetic in general tends to be slow and observational. But I was just sort of watching this manufacturing process, and then hearing the language around it, the pitch for this kind of product. I was both fascinated and horrified by it. There's something here that's so strange to me and yet so, kind of, prosaic. Like we could be at a paper manufacturer. [laughs] The approach has to do with distance and has to do with a certain kind of frame. Then part of it has to do with thinking about the kind of details and the real minutiae that comprises all these moments. So, I started thinking about that from the beginning and then the deeper we got into making the film, the clearer it became that this approach made sense.
RS: You said when you started to do research, it began to feel strange to you. Thatâ€™s the sense I got from the filmâ€”I felt like I was watching science fiction. There are all these cold white, institutional spaces that honestly look like prisons. It feels dystopian.
TC: It is definitely dystopian. I did think a lot about science fiction, and part of that was thinking about my own lens and the process of shaping the material and the film. And maintaining that lens involved restraint. I donâ€™t think the film is without a point of view, but I also wanted it to be measured enough that people could enter it and find their own way. That includes taking things that many people would find shocking and filming them or cutting them together in a way that counters that, that is unexpected. And also taking moments that appear very normal, like being in class or a homecoming parade, and making those things feel strange. So, everything is sort of living in this same kind of slightly askew world. That combined with duration... [if] you hold a shot long enough, a thing that maybe isnâ€™t funny becomes funny or a thing that is not disturbing starts to become disturbing. Thereâ€™s something about those two things that informed how I was making the film and that also allowed me to find moments of actual levity. But again, trying to always stay within the sort of general parameters of that kind of distance.
RS: The film has a sort of absurdity but never goes too far. For instance, there is something both grotesquely funny and banal about the sequence at the Las Vegas trade show.
TC: Like I mentioned before, itâ€™s about restraint. Thereâ€™s a moment in that trade show where you see the show girls, but on the second day we were there, the show girls werenâ€™t. They were replaced by a Donald Trump impersonator. And so, I was filming that, and, at that moment, I was like, â€śThis is cinematic gold.â€ť Heâ€™s got all these people posing with him, all kinds of people from this school safety trade show. And then heâ€™s on break and sort of slumped over in a chair, with glasses on reading People Magazine. We were filming it all, and it was amazing. And once we got into the edit, it was so clear that was a step too far. It was positioning the film in a certain way that I didnâ€™t want. Thereâ€™s a very thin line. Thinking about a filmmaker like Harun Farocki, who is so good at these indictments of systems but not of individuals. I wasn't interested in making fun of people. So that required a lot of restraint because on one hand you say, â€śOh, how can I not use this Donald Trump moment? It's so good.â€ť But I couldnâ€™t, it would have undermined the film.
RS: As an educator, did you feel a level of comfort filming in a school and did that comfort influence your approach?
TC: Iâ€™ve taught in so many different contexts for so many years that I do think I have a certain comfort level in schools. I had a clear sense pretty quickly of the rhythms and energy of each of those places. The flow of students and the style of teacher in a particular classroom. I feel comfortable talking to young people in the classroom. We would go in and I would just start off just by talking with them and say, â€śIâ€™m a teacher and weâ€™re making this movie, and this is what we're doing.â€ť If the kids were younger, we would show them the microphone and explain to them how the microphone works and the camera. It took a bit of time, but it seemed to put them at ease. So, it was easy for me to step in there and know what I wanted to film. And it gave me some space to really take in details that I wanted to. It felt like a very natural place for me to be.
And I also think, my general impulse in making a documentary is, Iâ€™m rarely interested in the action. Iâ€™m rarely interested in whatâ€™s happening at the center. And so as soon as that pressure is gone, to capture everything, to make the story work, as soon as that pressure is not there, it just creates space to pay attention to whatâ€™s on the edges and to really look at the details and it becomes really fun. I think making a super tightly story-driven documentary that depends on arcs and resolutions sounds stressful. I feel like removing that from the equation just allows me, the filmmaker, to listen and to look in a different, maybe deeper way. I mean, itâ€™s not that I have no agenda, but it does free things up.
RS: Have you been surprised by any reactions to the film?
TC: Itâ€™s a very strange time to put a film in the world. The film was finished in March of 2020. The first time I saw it in a theater with people was at the end of October 2021. So that was very strange. One of the most interesting responses was from the head of school security who appears in the film. Before the film was out, we went down to Texas to his house and watched a cut of the film with him because we felt like it was going to be out in public and have a life and he features fairly prominently in it and he gave us a lot of accessâ€¦like a ton of access. Heâ€™s a complicated person and a person with whom I probably have very significant differences politically. But he trusted us and told us essentially that we could go anywhere in town, say his name, and they would just open the doors. We felt like we should show him, not that we were going to make changes, but maybe we could have a conversation with him about it. And he watched the film and ultimately said, â€śYou know what? I was really worried that I trusted you guys too much and that you were going to represent me in a way that was sort of biased or in a bad light, but I feel fairly represented.â€ť [laughs] I felt like that was a compliment, because I also felt like he was fairly represented, and I had complicated feelings because I so strongly disagreed with a lot of what he was doing.
RS: He is in one of the filmâ€™s most intense scenes, when heâ€™s showing you the guns from the safe, and there is a very naked moment where we finally see the thing that this is all about.
TC: I think it's the only time you hear my voice in the film.
RS: Yes, Heâ€™s showing you the AR-15, and youâ€™re looking at it and there is just a palpable tension and itâ€™s clear he wants to get it over as quickly as possible. What was it like shooting that scene?
TC: I was clear with him I didnâ€™t want to focus only on the guns but that is a real part of things, and he wasnâ€™t by any means shy about it, but he also didnâ€™t want to overemphasize them. So, I said, why donâ€™t you just show us, show us and tell us about them. And so, it was actually pretty straightforward. I think if I had had any further questions, he wouldâ€™ve answered them. I didnâ€™t. You know, whatâ€™s there to say? I mean, you bought 26 AR-15s for your school. Um, that says a lot.
RS: I think the most explicit statement the film makes about the overarching situation is the scene in the math class where we hear about two parallel lines that will never intersect. Do you feel like that understanding of the current conversation surrounding guns, schools, and the security industry was one you arrived at or was that how you entered?
TC: Maybe not either. Shannon Kennedy and I coedited the film. That scene was like the last thing we shot. I remember sending her a cut of that scene and I had that in there, the sort of solution to the math problem thing, and I almost didnâ€™t even notice it. And I remember her being like, that was amazing. I was like, â€śOh, yeah, right. Of course.â€ť [laughs] And then, you know it sort of stayed and became important. I donâ€™t think that I, or the film, arrived at a single conclusion. If the film is a fragmented and incomplete survey, then that conclusion feels somewhat bleaker than I would hope. I think that what I arrived at was less about this sort of binary or dichotomy of two sides, not being able to reach a solution, but more about this question of solutions at all, and how we define problems and how we define solutions.
So, I think that line in the math class was really about the notion of a solution that is stony and complex. For me, going in with questions and wanting to emerge with more complicated questions is the way to operate. I donâ€™t want to go in with predetermined answers, and I donâ€™t want to go in expecting any answers. I want to go in with just questions and then have those questions get warped and distorted and deepened.
Photo credit: Danielle Varga