by Brian Clarey
In 1994, at Grimsley Senior High School, 16-year-old student Nicholas Atkinson shot an assistant principal on school grounds, wounding him severely, then turned the gun on himself.
Greensboro filmmaker Louis Bekoe was a freshman at the time; he heard the shots from the football field, where he was practicing with the team.
“You could sense something was wrong in the air,” he said.
To make his short film “The Kill Switch,” about a high school student pushed to the limit, Bekoe said he channeled that memory, and one other from his days as a Whirlie in Greensboro.
It was a fellow footballer, Tom Neal, whom Bekoe says tripped his own personal kill switch one day on the practice field during an extra-point drill. Bekoe was on defense. Neal, who had been hazing him all season, hit Bekoe hard enough to lift him off the ground — no small feat, even when Bekoe was 14.
“He did bring out my kill switch,” Bekoe remembered. “[When I came to] I was trying to snap his neck through his helmet. I was in fear, and my fear turned to anger. I hope to never go there again.”
The lead character in “Kill Switch” — Zack Connolly, played by young actor Gwydion Lashlee-Walton — suffers not only through bullying at school, but also the sort of mental condition that requires medication. When he stops taking the pills, things get ugly.
The plot begins with a school board meeting discussing the threat of gun violence. Zack’s dad Scott, played by Jeff Kidd, gets into it with gun-nut Earl, played by Darren W. Conrad, also the executive producer of the film.
Earl says Zack, who’s been harboring a creepy crush on Earl’s daughter Amber, may the biggest threat to the students’ safety.
Later, Amber and her boyfriend pelt Zack with eggs. He’s off his medication by then, and from nowhere he pulls a trench knife and threatens the bullies with it.
When the sheriff comes to the Connolly home to bring Zack in for questioning, with a hastily deputized Earl in tow, the entire thing erupts into a gunfight that leaves very few survivors.
It plays like an after-school special gone terribly wrong.
“I had to come up with a two-hour story and shrink it down into 20 minutes,” said Bekoe, who wrote, shot, directed and edited the piece.
Though just 26 minutes in length, the story is fraught with tension, particularly during the freak-out scenes with Candace Blanchard, who plays Zack’s mother Hannah. At one point, as she imparts to her husband the importance of having a gun in the house, the veins on her temples stand out in relief.
“She’s definitely a method actress,” Bekoe says. “Even after that scene she stayed in character between cuts and breaks.
“She killed it,” he added.
But there are lots of killers in this one, proving the old adage that if you show a gun in the first act, you need to use it in the third.
The climax, where the bullets fly in the Connollys’ driveway, was nothing like the scene he witnessed in high school.
“It wasn’t classic movie style,” he says about the Grimsley shooting 20 years ago. “There was no music. It was quiet. It was real. The only music you heard was the different tones of people screaming.”
Bekoe and Conrad released the film quietly on Vimeo last week for friends and crew, but took it down Sunday night. Now they begin the arduous process of submitting it to festivals for 2015. For now it lives on Facebook, gathering fans until festival season begins in January.
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