Karl Shefelman was a young boy when the University of Texas became the site of one of America’s earliest mass shootings. Fifty-plus years on, many Austin residents still remember that day. Shefelman, who was eight years old at the time, watched it from a mile away.
“We had a clear view on our back porch, we could see little puffs of smoke coming from the tower,” he tells me on the phone. When we talk, he is standing on the rooftop of his New York City apartment building, where he had a view of a completely different tower tragedy in 2001: “Watching the World Trade Center attack triggered my memory.”
Shefelman, who has been a New Yorker longer than a Texan now, has worked in film since moving to Manhattan for school way back when. As a professional storyboard artist, he has worked with the best: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jonathan Demme. Recently he completed a project with Ron Howard, which is slated to shoot next year.
But his earliest film-school impulses of becoming a director never dwindled. Over the years, he has made various short films as well as a feature-length production in 2017. “Looking for the Jackalope,” he tells me, is a cautionary tale about nostalgia, where the protagonist learns a powerful lesson about living in the past.
He didn’t heed his own warning when making “Man on the Tower,” which brought him straight back to his childhood in Austin. The film opens with a montage of postcard-esque pictures of the city circa the 60s, while a radio recording of the day interrupts with breaking news.
Shefelman recounts to me how he and his younger brother were pulling into the driveway with their mother when a neighbor’s housekeeper screamed out to them, there’s a man on the tower shooting people!
His father, a professor at UT’s School of Architecture, was on campus at the time, and the family had no way of getting in touch with him that afternoon. They waited, anxiously listening to newscaster Neal Spelce, who reported live on the radio from the scene in his “Red Rover” station wagon. Eventually Shefelman’s father came home on foot, unharmed.
In 2016, Shefelman attended a screening of Keith Maitland’s film “Tower” at the Museum of Modern Art, commemorating the 50 years since the Austin shooting. Ideas about his own story started kicking around.
He planned to make the short film right in his old neighborhood, in the woods near Shoal Creek, where he and his brother used to play as young boys. Shefelman crawled around the area, just like the old days, encountering the same rocks and trees from his youth.
“We’d run wild, playing army for hours, until my mom would ring a dinner bell,” he laughs. “You can’t do that anymore.”
Filming at his childhood home on Wooldridge Drive proved impossible in 2019, but there was another locale just down the street, the historic Klein House. Owners Ed Tasch and Anne Crawford were happy to oblige.
“There was a treehouse in their backyard, which I already had in the script,” he recalls. The treehouse naturally came equipped with an 11-year old boy, the couple’s son Aloysious, who ended up playing the role of Karl’s slightly older protagonistic self in the film.
Shefelman’s kismet kept coming: an Austin film crew formed quickly, thanks to Mindy Raymond at New Republic Studios, a shooting stage and production facility in nearby Elgin. Raymond connected him to Christine Chen, the film’s assistant director, and actress Julia Barnett, who also served as casting director. “These three women were just incredible, I had this whole crew busting themselves for me to relive my childhood.”
Clocking in at eleven minutes, “Man on the Tower” is a fictionalized reenactment of that August afternoon in 1966.
“The film isn’t about the shooting, the shooting is the backdrop,” Shefelman says, pointing to its underlying message of violence in America and timely tagline: “It’s not safe anymore.”
“My dad was very stoic when he returned home that day,” Shefelman explains. Tom Shefelman was a well-regarded Austin architect who taught at UT in the 1960s and 1970s. He was active with city planning, and helped reenergize the downtown area. The trees now lining Congress Avenue are evidence of that work. Tom Shefelman passed away in 2016; Karl dedicated the film to his father.
Recently, he reached out to his father’s UT colleague Bob Harris to ask him about the tower shooting. “Bob clearly remembered my dad running out from where they were crouching, to try to help someone before running back.”
Shefelman never did learn from his dad about what exactly happened that day.
“We live in a mad society,” he tells me. “I think it’s more widespread now than it was in the 1960s. We had political assassinations back then, but we didn’t have international terrorism as much, or mass shootings. Ironically mass shootings have been overshadowed by everything else going on in 2020.”
COVID has been particularly challenging for those New York City residents who are stuck in small spaces until further notice. Karl and his wife Ellen, a native New Yorker, have occasionally fantasized about a move to Texas; while making this film last fall, he really reconnected with his roots. Austin was a great place to grow up, he concedes, and it still has some old charm.
“Man on the Tower” will appear online at this year’s Miami Short Film Festival November 1-15, with more festivals to come.
Shefelman is already working on another project he’d like to shoot in Austin. “It’s a great place to bring a production these days,” he gushes, adding how folks like Mindy Raymond at New Republic Studios have worked on legislation to reinstate tax incentives for the film industry.
As for Shefelman, he says he can work remotely and be a storyboard artist anywhere. “This project is me circling back, really — even though I don’t recognize parts of Austin anymore, I’m still nostalgic for it.”