The director's short film, DeKalb Elementary, is based on true events in which an Atlanta school bookkeeper was able to convince a gunman to surrender

By Brianne Tracy
March 02, 2018 08:27 PM

As the gun control debate rages on in wake of last month’s tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the Oscar nominated live-action short DeKalb Elementary couldn’t be more relevant.

The film, written and directed by Reed Van Dyk, depicts the mass school shooting that wasn’t — it’s based on a 911 call from a 2013 incident in which Antoinette Tuff, an Atlanta elementary school bookkeeper, was able to convince 20-year-old gunman Michael B. Hall to put down his weapon and surrender to police.

“The thing that I keep getting struck by was that it was relevant back when I made it,” Van Dyk tells PEOPLE. “Sadly, given [the] lack of words, the lack of attention and consorted effort at preventing these things from happening makes it not surprising that we would be in the position we’re in right now. But, it’s tragic. It was relevant then, and it’s relevant years later.”

Credit: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty

DeKalb Elementary takes place almost entirely in an elementary school office as the interaction unfolds between the Hill and Tuff inspired characters, Steven Hall (played by Bo Mitchell) and Cassandra Rice (played by Tara Riggs.)

When Hall confides he’s off his medication and mentally unstable in the film, Rice is able to prevent any bloodshed by showing him compassion and sharing her own story of attempted suicide. Ultimately, Hall hands over his gun to Rice and gets down on the floor to surrender.

Van Dyk was inspired to make the film after accidentally coming across the 911 recording between Tuff and the police while working on another project and says it made him “heavy with sadness.”

“I started wondering about [Hill] and why someone so remarkable as [Tuff] would have tried to end her own life and why we are where we are today,” he says. “It raised a lot of questions.”

Though Van Dyk hasn’t been able to get in touch with the people involved in the real life incident, he says he’s “hopeful” that will change after the Oscars on Sunday.

“I would love nothing more than to take Antoinette out for lunch,” he says. “She’s an amazing woman. I’m so in awe of her.”

Van Dyk made the 21-minute film as his pre-thesis project while a student at UCLA and also with the help of the Princess Grace Foundation, which awarded him their annual Cary Grant Film Award.

“The Princess Grace Foundation is such a help in that the kind of work that I want to do isn’t necessarily immediately lucrative,” he says. “I’m interested less in mainstream film and so to have the financial support and their support means a lot and lets me keep pursuing the stories that speak to me.”

The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4 at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be broadcast live on the ABC Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.