Jagger Gravning says he went to great lengths to make a film that doesn’t glorify Capitol Hill mass murderer Kyle Huff, focusing rather on the light-hearted and goofy nature of rave culture, and how a conflicted man’s struggle navigating it ended in tragedy.
The writer and director for “Wallflower,” which has its world premier during this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, Gravning spent nearly seven years putting this passion project together.
Kyle Huff killed six people and wounded two others at a rave after-party in the 2000 block of East Republican Street on the morning of March 25, 2006. He had been invited there after attending the “Better Off Undead” rave at the Capitol Hill Arts Center the night before.
Gravning also had been invited to the rave, but declined. During an interview with the Capitol Hill Times, Gravning said the thought that he could have been there didn’t spook him. Even if he’d gone, it was highly unlikely he would have gone to the early morning after-party.
“I knew people in the rave community, and some that were at the house that night,” he said. “… I didn’t have the idea for the film until years later. I didn’t get interested in filmmaking until years later.”
Gravning met “Wallflower” producer John W. Comerford while attending a filmmaker course as part of the Artist Trust’s EDGE Professional Development Program in 2011. Comerford taught the class, and Gravning reconnected with him a few months after.
Then came the $10,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund the film. While no one ever approached him in person, the online backlash was fierce.
“I think people had this idea in their head that I was trying to glorify this mass murderer,” Gravning said, “and then other people were responding to that.”
Gravning said “Wallflower” mainly focuses on the rave community, on people finding joy partying to electronic dance music and socializing.
“It’s really about this community being confronted by this darkness,” he said.
While the gunman in the film is meant to be Huff, he isn’t given a name. Gravning said he did use the name at one point while writing the script, but for the film he is simply referred to as the gunman.
“What I wanted to capture in ‘Wallflower’ were people really alive and happy and funny,” Gravning said, “and to me that’s the tragedy; that’s what was lost.”
A lot of research went into making “Wallflower,” Gravning said, including interviews and poring over police records. Because Huff was dead, and there was no one to charge, Gravning said the autopsy results remained sealed, so he didn’t know what drugs might have been in Huff’s system.
Gravning was unable to connect with Huff’s twin brother, the siblings having lived together in North Seattle prior to the shooting. He spoke to the apartment managers, who had known Huff for four years.
“They were absolutely convinced that the only way he could do this was under drugs,” Gravning said.
When a letter penned by Huff was recovered, it went on about the rave community and the immorality within it — the drugs and sexuality.
“I think that’s disingenuous, actually,” Gravning said. “I feel like he wanted to be a part of it, but he was so awkward that he had a hard time getting along with other people.”
From some of the accounts, he said, Huff was friendly during part of the time spent with the ravers, and enough so that he was invited to the after-party.
“He actually spent hours with these people that he had already planned on shooting,” Gravning said. “I think there was definitely conflict. I think in a way, he was trying to convince himself not to do it.”
But, as the story goes, Huff left the house at some point during the party, went to his truck and grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun, a 40-caliber semiautomatic handgun and more than 300 rounds of ammunition. Before returning, Huff spray-painted “NOW” on the sidewalk and the steps of a nearby home. More weapons were later found left in the truck.
Huff shot five people outside the after-party, most on the porch, and then shot two more people on the first floor. A couple in a bathroom on the second floor was not struck when Huff shot through the door.
When confronted by an officer, Huff put the handgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
David Call was cast as the gunman.
“That was very hard to cast, and I think it was hard on him too,” Gravning said. “He gained 25 pounds, and he wasn’t bathing.”
Call was kept away from the rest of the cast during most of the filming, most of which actually took place in the University District and Queen Anne.
“The idea is that everybody knows each other, except him,” Gravning said, so that’s why Call didn’t have much interaction with the cast during filming.
Gravning said psychiatrist Dr. Richard Adler was brought on as a co-producer for “Wallflower,” because there were so many questions about how to deal with the real survivors. Just the existence of the film could cause post-traumatic stress to crop up, he said.
“Wallflower” will have its world premier 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 6, at The Egyptian, followed by an encore screening 3:30 p.m. Thursday, June 8, at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
Prior to the premier, a private screening will be held for the survivors of the Capitol Hill massacre, as well as some of the first responders. Gravning said counselors will also be there.
Survivors had a hand in helping shape the film. Gravning has known one woman at the after-party since they were 12, he said. After the shooting, Gravning’s mother took her in.
“She took my friend in and got her a job at the same place that she was working,” he said, a jewelry shop in Alaska.
During the backlash of the Kickstarter campaign, Gravning issued a response in the Capitol Hill Seattle blog, addressing how his mother was herself a survivor of attempted murder, having been stabbed inside their home by an intruder when Gravning was a teen. Gravning said his mother remains a great champion of the film.
As for his friend, Gravning said he brought her to the set one day. Crewmembers were just standing around on the porch of the house being used for the after-party scenes, which brought back memories of those victims that had been gunned down that fateful night, he said.
“She just started bursting into tears, and she wouldn’t approach the house for a while,” Gravning said, adding she eventually did get closer, and even took questions from the actors.
Another survivor reached out to him after they found his phone number at the bottom of his letter published on CHS, asking to be involved, he said. Those two survivors are credited as associate producers for “Wallflower.”
Gravning also received a call from the producer of the “Better Off Undead” rave, so he invited him to the set too. He said he also let him read the script.
“He was convinced that what people thought we were making was not what we were making,” Gravning said.
The “Wallflower” writer and director didn’t just face challenges with producing the film and responding to criticism. Production was also slowed down when Gravning was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer.
“I’m OK now. I’m not considered cured,” he said. “I’m in what they consider remission.”
Gravning skipped post-surgery chemotherapy to continue making “Wallflower,” he said. Faced with his own potential death, he said he and his wife decided to have a child.
By post-production, he had a newborn, Jagger Gravning Jr., sitting with him as he worked on the film. Gravning cautions he made his baby wear headphones, and kept his eyes off the monitors.
“In fact, we’re still working on it,” Gravning said. “We’re actively working on it.”
The final cut is expected to be ready for the premier, and Gravning hopes people will come into the screening with open minds.
Following his interview with the Capitol Hill Times, Gravning sent an email that explained more about his choice to make the film while dealing with cancer, and also his thoughts about the premiere.
“I don't know if people will still be angry upon hearing about the launch of this film. It's a daunting situation because we have a limited capacity for a single world premiere showing and then one encore screening, so most people in this city who would want a chance to see it for themselves won't be able to do so during the SIFF festival,” Gravning writes. “As such, the film will continue to exist to a great degree as hearsay, rumors and conjecture. Regardless, I want to communicate that we have made a great film — a film produced in Seattle, filmed here and a film which contends with a traumatic passage in our city's history that is definitively worth addressing.”