February 26, 2020

Director Jeremy Kagan takes aim at effects of gun violence in ‘Shot’

When filmmaker Jeremy Kagan first watched the gangster-film classic “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967, he was taken not only with the brilliance of the storytelling but also by the profusion of gun wounds suffered by its characters.

“A lot of people get shot in the movie who are innocent bystanders,” Kagan, 71, said during an interview at his Venice home. “I remember walking out of the movie being impressed, but also asking myself, ‘Whatever happened to the woman who got shot at the bank? Or the cop who got shot on the chase?’ ”

Over the years, Kagan pondered what he calls “society’s thriving on the image of the gun.” He hadn’t escaped those images in his own film and television projects: In his first effort as a director in his mid-20s, on a TV series called “Nichols,” a drunken patron at a Western pool hall shoots the town’s sheriff in the opening sequence. Characters also get blown away in episodes of TV’s “Chicago Hope” and “Taken” that Kagan directed.

“Chekhov once said, if you write a gun in a scene somewhere, then you’re going to have to use it,” Kagan said.

After mass shootings such as those at Columbine High School in 1999, Kagan continued to reflect on the preponderance of firearms in the media and concluded that filmmakers seldom show the actual human consequences of gun violence. He wondered, “What is the visceral experience of what it means to get shot?”

His answer comes in the new movie, “Shot.”

The film begins as sound editor Mark Newman (Noah Wyle) is amping up gunshot sounds in a movie shootout scene. Minutes later, Mark himself becomes the gunshot victim while walking down the street. From the moment he hits the pavement, the film follows his journey in real time, from the seven minutes he lies on the street to being placed on a stretcher, carried into an ambulance and finally arriving on a hospital examination table.

Meanwhile, with the use of split screens, the drama simultaneously recounts the guilt and horror of the teenage shooter, Miguel. The second part of the film describes the lives of the perpetrator and victim five months later, as Miguel struggles with whether to make amends and Mark battles the lingering effects of his spinal injury.

Describing himself as an American-Jewish filmmaker, Kagan said “Shot” expresses the talmudic thought, “Whoever destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.”

As he said this, Kagan sat in his home office, looking rabbinical in a long white beard, surrounded by his own colorful artwork recounting scenes from the Torah. Silk textile art on the ceiling depicted images of the kabbalistic concept of the Tree of Life.

A poster from his 1981 movie, “The Chosen,” based on the book by Chaim Potok, graced one wall of his office, along with a lobby card from his 2007 television movie, “Golda’s Balcony,” about former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Kagan’s films often delve into social action issues, as influenced by his father, a Reform rabbi who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and preached about progressive causes from the pulpit. The director’s 1987 TV movie, “Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8,” drew on Kagan’s involvement with the politics of the 1960s, and his 2004 television film, “Crown Heights,” follows the true story of racial tensions between Chasidic Jews and African-Americans in that Brooklyn community in 1991.

In his research for “Shot,” Kagan, a professor of film and TV at USC, spent time in emergency rooms, talking to physicians and gunshot victims.

“I’ve seen one person come in with three gunshots in him and he’s talking like you and me, while another person was shot in the foot and in agony,” he said. “I’ve ridden in ambulances with the EMTs and seen the ripple effect of what one bullet can do.”

He became aware of the grim statistics — 90 people a day are killed by gun violence in the United States — as well as the lingo, including the so-called “Golden Hour,” which refers to the fact that if you survive a gunshot for one hour, chances are you will live. He learned that even though a bullet wound appears tiny on the skin, it can ricochet throughout the body and damage internal organs. And he studied the five stages of grief as outlined by psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — which he and Wyle brought to the character of Mark.

By following the protagonist both at the time of his injuries and five months later, the film “shows the level and degree to which the violence permeates,” said Wyle, best known for his long-running role of Dr. John Carter on the TV series “ER.” “The first stage is physical and traumatic and horrific, but the second, emotional stage is far more insidious.”

Wyle’s research for the medical section of the drama included the specificity of how a spinal injury advances, “where you feel sensation and where you lose sensation, what differentiates a cramping from a stinging sensation, what moment of panic would put this character over the edge, and what would he be aware of and what wouldn’t he be aware of,” the actor said. “I wanted to make sure that, moment to moment, everything rang as true as possible, so that audiences would forget that Noah Wyle is playing this character and just think in terms of, ‘Holy s—, I don’t want to get shot.’ ”

Both Kagan and Wyle said their goal is for the film to be more than entertaining; they want it to spur dialogue about anti-gun legislation.

“I hope it will have an influence on people I will never know or meet,” Wyle said. “I hope that somebody somewhere will see this and want to take corrective action of some sort.”

“Shot” opens in Los Angeles theaters Sept. 22.