‘Under the Gun’ Director: ‘I Stand By’ Controversial Edit

Stephanie Soechtig Under the Gun
Katie Jones/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

Director Stephanie Soechtig is sticking up for her documentary “Under the Gun” after executive producer Katie Couric apologized for a controversial scene in the film.

Couric, who also narrates and appears in the movie, expressed regret Monday for a moment in the film in which she asks members of a gun-rights group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League a question about background checks for felons and suspected terrorists. The group members are shown sitting silently for eight seconds before finally answering. Couric and the movie, which premiered May 14 on Epix, became targets for gun-rights advocates last week after unedited audio revealed that the silence had been added into the documentary — the VCDL members had responded immediately to Couric’s question. In her statement Monday, Couric said, “I regret that those eight seconds were misleading,” and claimed that she raised concerns about the edit to Soechtig during the filmmaking process.

Speaking to Variety Wednesday, Soechtig defended the editing decision. She also praised Couric with whom she’s worked on two films, calling her “incredibly supportive.”

Katie Couric said on Monday that the eight-second pause the had been edited into the scene with the VCDL members did not “accurately represent” their response. Do you agree with that assessment?

The focus on this exchange shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the film gave the VCDL a platform to express their views and opinion. It’s really important to keep in mind that this is a group that thinks domestic abusers should have guns and that guns should be allowed in schools and bars. If I wanted to make them look bad, I would have focused exclusively on their radical ideology. But I didn’t do that. I wanted to allow them an opportunity to explain their beliefs. In hindsight, had I known that the NRA would focus on eight seconds of a two-hour film, I might have done things differently. But I made the creative decision and I stand by it.

What was your intention with inserting that pause?

You have Katie asking the group this question, “Do you think people on the terror watch list should be allowed to own guns?” Katie’s asking the question of the group, but as the filmmaker, I want to ask the question of the audience. So what I was thinking, my editor was thinking was we need to stop for a second, because the film moves along at a really fast clip. So you’ll see that throughout we’ll stop down after something happens or when we present something. The terror watch list is a real pivotal feature in the film, as is the whole notion of background checks. So this felt like a really crucial time to stop down and allow the audience a moment to let that question sink in.

Is that sort of edit in line with standard practices for documentary filmmaking?

I think it has a different standard than the nightly news has. When you’re making a film like this, the goal is to get people to come to theaters to watch your film. You have to provide a thematic experience for them. I don’t think we misconstrued any of the facts. I think the VCDL made their position on background checks very clear earlier in the film and throughout the film. So yeah, I do think it’s pro forma for filmmaking.

Couric said in her statement that she spoke with you about the edit and raised concerns. Did she?

We talked about everything in the film and all edit choices. I’m the director of the film and at the end of the day I felt it was necessary to stop down and give people a moment to consider the question.

She mentioned you by name in her statement. Did you feel at all like she was attempting to shift blame for the controversy to you?

Not at all. Any time Katie does an interview and receives a compliment on the film she says, “It’s all Stephanie. I can take very little credit for this. Stephanie and her team did all of this.” That swings both ways, right? In other decisions that I made I need to take responsibility, too, and this was my choice.

Were you surprised to see this moment in the film singled out?

No, if they didn’t find this, they would have found something else. Honestly, I think it’s interesting that they’re focusing on what’s not in the film instead of what is in the film, because if they focused on what is in the film, it would threaten their livelihood. This is very textbook gun-lobby intimidation tactics, and I won’t be intimidated.

Have you been threatened or harassed since the film premiered?

I’ve been harassed up the wazoo. If you check my Twitter feed, the harassment has been fierce. But it’s what we talk about in the film. These types of intimidation tactics are very common. The survivors in the film, people who lost their babies in Sandy Hook or their daughter in the Aurora theater, they get hate mail all the time. They’re getting it now saying, “Your daughter deserved to die” or “You’re making this up. You never had a son.” There is a small but noisy fringe in this country. They’ve been really loud, and to be honest they’ve been really successful in preventing our legislators from passing any meaningful legislation on this issue. So I expected it. What I’m getting is really very little compared to what the victims and survivors are getting.

There was a shooting today at UCLA. Do you see the way that people are responding to these events changing?

We talk about this in the beginning of the film. We have this script that’s been rolled out — mass shooting, breaking news, a grieving public, everyone asking “How does this happen? Why does this keep happening?” Then a cute kitten video pops up and we all move on with our lives. My hope with this film is that it makes us stop and actually see things for what they are.

Do you see any political movement on the horizon with this issue?

We do, we see a lot of movement. In the film we cover Washington state where they closed the background-check loophole. We’re seeing a lot of ballot initiatives coming up too for this coming election, one in Maine and one in Nevada. This has really become a people’s movement, and ballot initiatives have really become an effective way for people to vote directly. I think that’s really encouraging.