EXCLUSIVE: Jay Roach has been set to direct 67 Shots, a film that recaptures the circumstances behind the fatal shootings at Kent State University in 1970. Shivani Rawat’s ShivHans Pictures, which backed Roach’s lauded Bryan Cranston starrer Trumbo, will finance development after winning a competitive auction for a package that has award-winning playwright Stephen Belber writing the script, based on the Howard Means book 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence.
Roach will produce with Tina Fey, Jeff Richmond and Eric Gurian from their Little Stranger banner, along with Michelle Graham from Everyman Pictures, and Rawat and Monica Levinson from ShivHans Pictures.
The project started with Richmond, the composer and husband of Fey who attended Kent State, and Gurian. They brought the idea to Roach, who previously worked with Fey when he produced the 2015 comedy Sisters. Roach, director of the Austin Powers and Meet the Fockers franchises, has moved into socially and politically aware films including Trumbo, Game Change and an in-the-works drama on the election of President Donald Trump for HBO.
In 67 Shots, Roach will direct a drama that chronicles the buildup that led to the horrific event: the May 4, 1970 shooting of student protesters on the Kent State campus, where 29 guardsmen from the Ohio National Guard fired 67 shots into a crowd of students protesting the war in Vietnam. They killed four students and injured nine others. Roach sparked to numerous parallels to the contemporary political landscape and specifically the collision between law and order and the fundamental right to protest.
“It is a cautionary tale,” Roach said. “Kent State was a big event for me, and I remember arguing with my dad about it when I was about 13. There was a prevailing movement in the country — they measured it with polls — where the vast majority of Americans blamed the students for what happened. Maybe 60% in Gallup-type polls felt the students brought it on themselves. We have footage of people on the streets saying, ‘I wish they’d shot them all,’ ‘I wish they had machine guns.'”
That intersects with today’s politically polarized climate and the possibility of overreaction when tempers run hot.
“The tamer version of this now is the NFL protest, the hatred that comes out for any show of what some people consider lack of patriotism,” Roach said. “Back then, these were the days of draft card and flag-burning protests and people clamoring for law and order. Nixon ran on law and order and so did the governor of Ohio, who was running for Senate. Both Nixon and the governor said, ‘These are thugs, these are bums, brown shirts, communists.’ Much like we hear now, they said these were paid protesters, out-of-towners who traveled from campus to campus. This was done to dehumanize them and make the anti-protester sentiment kick in.
“There was obviously a lot of vitriol on the left as well and Nixon inflamed it by promising we were pulling back from Vietnam and then announced we were invading Cambodia that Thursday night,” Roach said. “It all took off from there, four days of growing unrest that led to the National Guard coming on that Monday. More people are marching in the streets now than maybe at any time since the 1970s, and it made me feel this was a story worth revisiting, what could lead to an overreaction like this one, where military soldiers with bayonets could march onto a college campus with live ammunition in the chambers of their M-1 rifles. What kind of chemistry would have to be in place for that to happen back then, and how does that relate to what’s going on now?”
Roach said he worries about even the chance of history repeating itself.
“I have college-aged boys, and there are not infrequent marches on their campus,” he said. “There were many last November and the early part of this year. I worry about someone overcompensating a law-and-order approach that might lead to some kind of overreaction. There is obviously a political component to all this, but it’s more about respecting the right to protest. I delved into this a bit with Trumbo, the idea that dissent is an American tradition. We are a nation founded on dissent and free speech, and it becomes about what happens when law and order trumps that.”
Roach said there were several offers for the 67 Shots package, but he felt comfortable making the movie with ShivHans, the company that backed Trumbo.
“We got to make the movie we wanted to on [blacklisted writer Dalton] Trumbo,” Roach said. “They are a relatively new company, but they were supportive and want to make movies about something and they are not afraid of controversy. That makes them good collaborators, who just want to get the story right, so we’re thrilled to team up with them again.”
Roach’s Everyman is repped by WME, Mosiac and Behr Abramson Levy; Little Stranger by WME, 3 Arts and Ziffren Brittenham; Belber is with ICM, Kaplan/Perrone and Stone Meyer; the author is repped by Paradigm on behalf of the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency; ShivHans Pictures is repped by Stutz Law Corp.