Sundance: Katie Couric Talks Gun Violence Film, San Bernardino Media Coverage

Katie Couric - H 2015
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"I think there is an opportunity to find some common ground to address the problem and come up with some solutions," says Couric, whose doc 'Under the Gun' will premiere at Sundance.

Among the films announced Monday as part of Sundance's lineup is Under the Gun, a gun-violence documentary produced by Katie Couric. The film couldn’t be more timely, with the country still reeling from the most recent mass shooting just days ago in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead and 21 injured, and in a year that included tragic shootings at a historic Charleston, S.C., church and at Santa Barbara’s Isla Vista college community.

For Under the Gun, Couric reteamed with director Stephanie Soechtig, who helmed the childhood obesity documentary Fed Up, which debuted at Sundance in 2014. The new film, which was produced by Atlas Films, explores the national debate on gun violence through the lens of victims' families as well as pro-gun advocates.

"It will be a great jumping-off point for a conversation about this subject," says Couric. "People talk at each other a lot when it comes to this issue, but — call me an optimist — I really think we have an opportunity to have a civil, productive conversation with the majority of Americans in this country who feel gun violence is unacceptable — and that’s both those who do and those who don’t own guns."

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Couric, who currently serves as Yahoo's global news anchor, about the new documentary, the NRA and the biggest challenges of investigating this pressing issue.

Why did you decide you wanted to make a film about gun violence prevention?

Fed Up was such a gratifying experience to be able to take a comprehensive approach to a complicated topic like childhood obesity. I wanted to find another big issue we could tackle and explain in a similar way. It’s a very different film than Fed Up, but once again we’re taking this giant issue and trying to unpack it. After Newtown, I was really interested in the disconnect between public opinion and what could be accomplished legislatively. Most journalists come to most stories with the same potential question: Why?

Newton and Aurora happened while we were working on Fed Up, but after Isla Vista I called Stephanie Soechtig, and said, "Why don’t we tackle gun violence in America?" I'm really pleased I get to work with Stephanie and the Fed Up team again. Just as the problem of obesity has gotten worse, the problem of gun violence has gotten worse. I covered Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, and I just wanted to have a better understanding of both sides of this conversation. We really made an effort to hear from gun owners, from people who had been affected by gun violence, from policy makers — to understand this issue from every angle we possibly could, and I think the result is a great way to better understand its complexities in America.

Did the NRA participate?

We asked for the NRA to participate. [NRA executive vp and CEO] Wayne LaPierre declined. But we feature a former lobbyist with the NRA, and we talked to many members of the NRA. I had a roundtable conversation with gun owners to understand their feelings. We tried to provide different perspectives from all sides of the issue.

Any concerns about the NRA coming out against the film?

We didn’t set out to make a film that the NRA would like or wouldn’t like. We tried to do an unflinching look at the issue, at the organization and the policies that have been in place. We tried to take a cold, hard look at this issue. Some people probably won’t like it. We tried to go on a fact-finding mission and present what we learned.

How did this process differ from Fed Up?

I think it was quite similar. We followed a number of people who have been affected by gun violence and they provide some of the threads of the story, as well as some people who feel strongly about gun rights. We started working on it a year-and-a-half to two years ago. We fanned out across the country. I did a number of the interviews — I went to Chicago and Virginia. Then we put it together. I think we’re always making sure we’ve included the right things. You have to make really hard choices in terms of what you can include because it’s such a broad topic — you can’t talk about everything. We could have easily made a six-hour miniseries on this because there are so many facets to the issue. I just got back from Los Angeles, where we were figuring out what we might have to cut to make it not so long. It’s been an ongoing, constant process of iterating the film. The biggest challenge was that the topic was so huge, and it’s complicated.

What do you hope Under the Gun does for the debate?

With both films, my goal is to help people have a better understanding of the issue. I hope they’re able to connect the dots. I hope they’re able to learn something. I hope they’ll be able to understand some of the obstacles but also appreciate that there’s a lot of hope. I think people will be surprised at a number of things in the film. I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised at some of the things that are being done. I don’t think we present a panacea at all. I think gun violence will never be completely eradicated. You wouldn’t know if it you’re listening to the debate — but I think there is an opportunity to find some common ground to address the problem and come up with some solutions. At a time when it’s so depressing, I think people will appreciate that.

What do you think of the TV news' coverage of shootings like San Bernardino?

It’s really challenging, especially in the proverbially 24-hour news environment, to always do things the right way. I think there is a sincere effort on the part of reporters to convey the latest information to a public that is hungry for details and anxious to understand the story. As a result, people literally don’t have time to think before they broadcast and they’re so anxious to impart the information to the public that sometimes the best decisions aren’t made. I think it’s because they’re trying to get as much information as they can. But the gap between news gathering and news delivery has shrunk to literally nothing. So people are now, and have for some time, been privy to how news is made. I think that presents a lot of challenges. News organizations probably need to step back and think about how they’re doing things, because just because the technology allows you to doesn’t always mean you should.