Cheryl Horner McDonough wanted to make a different type of documentary about Parkland. Not one about the tragedy that transpired at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, on February 14, 2018, but a film focused on the young people and activism that grew out of it: the March for Our Lives movement. Inspired by how swiftly young people like Emma González and Jaclyn Corin moved to act after the shooting that took 17 lives in their high school, McDonough wanted to focus on the grassroots activism that emerged in the weeks after.
For her film Parkland Rising, McDonough, a two-time Emmy Award winner for MTV's True Life series, tapped award-winning journalist Katie Couric and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am as executive producers, and assembled a largely female team of editors and producers. Parkland Rising premiers at the Woodstock Film Festival on Friday, October 4, and there are more screenings in the works this weekend and later this fall.
Ahead, McDonough and Couric talk to Refinery29 about the inspirations and challenges of making Parkland Rising. (Also, watch an exclusive clip from the film below.)
What was your initial inspiration for this film?
Cheryl McDonough: "What motivated me to drop everything and create a documentary was witnessing the way these students and survivors responded after the tragedy. They responded immediately; they were out talking to the news media the next day. I thought they really got everyone's attention and changed the conversation, and I wanted to spotlight what they were doing."
Katie Couric: "Cheryl and I worked together on a National Geographic series called America Inside Out, and we were both so distraught when Parkland happened we wanted to figure out a way we could address the issue through chronicling the lives of these remarkable students. I care deeply about reducing gun violence in this country, probably because I’ve had to cover so many shootings throughout my career. Until we have more sensible gun laws, I will do what I can to contribute to the dialogue that should be going on."
Cheryl, did you have an initial idea of what the direction of the project was before filming? Or was it more that it came together as you went along?
CM: "I always had an idea for what I wanted to do, and the purpose was to amplify the activists' voices and to make sure their stories were being told long after the news crews had left. I know in a situation like this, you're only going to get so many news hits for so long, and then the world moves on. But I wanted to be the first in and the last out, and to tell the bigger, deeper story. I also very much wanted it to be from the young people's point of view. I listened to them, and let them say what they wanted to say. That's what I've tried to do with every documentary I've made. I try to listen and let people tell their own stories."
What about the timeline?
CM: "We started filming it about a week before the March for Our Lives in D.C., and ended at the midterm election. My assessment was that ending at the midterms was best. I remember watching the midterm results come in at a restaurant in Parkland with all of the founders of March for Our Lives — it was an incredible place to be. The last interview, with Jaclyn Corin, was the next day, and I thought that was a good way to bookend things."
What do you think makes Parkland Rising different from other films and media coverage about this tragedy?
CM: "Two things differentiate it from anything else that's been done: One, it focuses on the activism. The focus is not the tragedy itself; it's the grassroots political movement led by teenagers that grew out of this. I hope that, ultimately, it's inspiring and hopeful. Two, I've seen more Parkland-related stories than most people and I've never seen anything that covers this much of their story and journey, and includes the people that really started this — all of the cofounders of March for Our Lives working alongside the families of the victims, like Manuel and Patricia Oliver, the parents of Joaquin Oliver, and Fred Guttenberg, the father of Jaime Guttenberg."
KC: "In this day and age, it’s very hard for people to really do a deep dive into important issues because the news cycle moves so quickly and right now, understandably, President Trump, the impeachment inquiry, and the Democratic candidates are sucking most of the oxygen out of the airwaves. This film takes people on a journey and helps them understand what it feels like to be on the inside of a movement, spawned by unimaginable tragedy and trauma. It takes time to unfold, and you can’t watch it without becoming emotionally invested."
I wanted to be the first in and the last out, and to tell the bigger, deeper story.
What did you learn throughout the process? What were some of the biggest surprises as you worked on this?
CM: "One of the takeaways for me was that going to some of these events, these rallies, you start to see that the people who come out in favor of gun reform greatly outnumber the people on the other side of the argument. The people on the other side are very loud, intimidating, vocal, and sometimes carry guns — but they're a small minority. That's something I think people should know. It's not 50-50."
KC: "For me, it was the resilience and brilliance of these kids. They restored my faith in a generation that’s seen too much and isn’t willing to accept the status quo. And I think everyone will be surprised that despite the increase of mass shootings and everyday violence, committed citizens are doing the quiet, unglamorous work behind the scenes and changing the landscape."
Cheryl, what was the biggest challenge of making this film?
CM: "There were a couple of challenging parts. One was, early on, trying to get access and differentiate ourselves, trying to get through to say we’re different and we're going to be there in the end. Second, raising the money. With a film like this, it had to be completely independent for us to do it the right way. So there are zero corporate sponsors — this was all funded by individuals, families, and people who donated time or services or did things at a discounted rate to help. I think that because of that, I was able to make exactly the film I wanted to make without compromising the message to appease advertisers or corporate sponsors."
Katie, what type of impact do you believe Parkland Rising will have on drawing awareness to the need for gun reform?
KC: "I think anytime you can immerse yourself in deeply personal experiences and be a fly on the wall, you can’t help but be moved and inspired, if you’re receptive and open-minded. That’s the tricky part, though: So many people have made up their minds about this issue. There are, however, a lot of folks who are fed up and feel like something has to be done. These are the people who need to take this issue even more seriously, by getting involved in organizations that are aligned with their views and supporting candidates who, if elected, will make this a top priority."