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The news first surfaced in the Hollywood trade press last month: The Lifetime cable network is developing a miniseries about the 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Based on a best-selling book about the tragedy, the project involves a team of heavyweight producers whose collective film credits include the fact-based dramas Moneyball, The Social Network and Boys Don't Cry.
Sam Granillo heard about the miniseries on Facebook a few days later, as the story got discussed and linked and passed along to people in the flyover states who generally don't pay attention to such things. But this news was different.
A miniseries? On Columbine? Based on actual events, as they say? Really?
"When I read about it — I don't know if furious is the right word, but I was intensely emotional," says Granillo. "I was beyond irritated."
The thirty-year-old Granillo is a cameraman and production assistant who's worked on a slew of commercials and television programs, from MTV Extreme Cribs to American Idol. But his interest in the proposed miniseries goes deeper than professional curiosity. A couple of lifetimes ago, he was a seventeen-year-old junior at Columbine.
On April 20, 1999, he was eating lunch in the school cafeteria, known as the Commons, when seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold began shooting students outside. The pair soon entered the school, firing randomly at cornered teens and tossing pipe bombs. Hundreds of people fled the Commons in various directions. Granillo and seventeen other people ended up trapped in a small room in the kitchen area, listening to shots, screams and explosions. The door had no lock, so Granillo planted his feet against it.
In the course of about 50 minutes, Harris and Klebold killed twelve students and one teacher, injured 21 others, then committed suicide. The ploddingly methodical SWAT rescue teams didn't reach the kitchen for almost three hours. The police led Granillo and the others through a broken window, past pools of blood and lifeless bodies on the ground outside. Some of those bodies had been friends Granillo knew well. He'd also known Klebold since he was ten years old — or thought he'd known him.
Past the scenes of carnage was a battery of police investigators demanding written statements, reporters trolling for eyewitness accounts — and television cameras poised to soak up the shock and grief. For weeks, survivors of the attack were buttonholed, interrogated, stalked. A reporter followed Granillo and some friends into an Old Chicago restaurant, only to be ejected by management. Tabloid journalists offered hard cash for a hot-off-the-presses copy of the school yearbook, racing to be first to publish the killers' senior photos. The headlines went on for months, followed by "anniversary stories," documentaries, books and feature films loosely based on the shootings.
Even when he thought he was through the mourning process, Granillo found that Columbine wasn't through with him. He had bouts of anxiety, recurrent nightmares about being chased and trapped. "At first the coping mechanism in my brain downplayed a lot of what happened to me, but it stuck with me," he says. "Then I wanted to get counseling, and I kept running into dead ends. I found out a lot of other people were in the same situation. It was available to us once, and now it's not. I've had people come up to me and say, 'Sam, it's been ten years. Aren't you over it yet?' But it's never going away for us, ever."
A few months ago, Granillo began raising funds and conducting preliminary interviews for a documentary about the long-term trauma left by the shootings. He figured this might be a way for him and others to put the tragedy to rest, take the discussion in a new direction.
Then he heard about the miniseries. A true story about the worst day of his life, his friends' lives. A true story. Based on actual events. Told by people he's never met.
"Anyone who wasn't there doesn't understand how we feel about having our lives put on display for everyone to see," he says. "Who would want that? I'm worried for my friends who are going to turn on the television and see themselves portrayed as who knows what. A miniseries? That's like the fucking straw that broke the camel's back."
Another Columbine graduate soon launched an online petition, "Say 'No' to Columbine Movie." "We ask for basic human respect to be shown to a community that does not want to be exploited over a sensitive and persistently prodded event," the petition states. "There is no mention of any proceeds being directed at programs that address school violence. There has been no indication that people were actually consulted from the community. There is no indication that anyone has been contacted for likeness rights."
Within a week, thanks largely to social-media activism among alums and their families, the petition had collected more than 5,000 signatures. Some of the protesters posted comments expressing their displeasure with the project's source material: Columbine, a book by journalist Dave Cullen, who bills himself as "the nation's foremost authority on the Columbine killers." Cullen's book won awards and made several critics' best-reading lists for 2009, but it's had a rougher reception in Littleton, where some prominent members of the Columbine community have taken issue with its accuracy and its slant.