BY MICHAEL CHAIKEN
Like many Americans, Naugatuck’s Stephen Dexter has woken up to numerous headlines describing yet another school shooting.
Unlike many, however, Dexter opted to reshape his feelings about the deaths of more children into a work of art.
His short film, “American Morning,” “takes on “the horrors and aftermath of a mass shooting in a suburban elementary school,” according to press materials.
Dexter, who wrote the script, also stars as the central character, Connor Mathis. Mathis is an elementary school teacher who survived a massacre in his own school that led to the deaths of 27 children.
“I wish I didn’t have to write this story,” Dexter said in an email interview. “But sometimes there are things you want to write and things you need to write. This film was the latter.”
“American Morning” was “a form of catharsis, or rather bloodletting, for me,” he explained. “It deals with an issue that is at the forefront of my mind as an artist/activist and has sadly become as synonymous with this country as football and apple pie.”
By writing the script, Dexter said, “I wanted to address, to the best of my ability, the pain and guilt of many who’ve survived a mass shooting and must somehow carry on. It was a way for me to process and purge something. It is dark, it is ultimately ambiguous but it is not indifferent.”
The former altar server and lector at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Naugatuck added, “It’s at least better than offering piddling platitudes and pointless ‘thoughts and prayers.’”
The actor, who used to take the stage for Naugatuck Teen Theater and the Naugatuck High School Drama Club, is realistic about the power of “American Morning” and its purpose.
“Our film is not intended to be a political piece. It is not even an anti-gun film but rather an anti-ease-of-access film.
“I didn’t want this film to just be preaching to the liberal choir. I didn’t want it to come across as a preachy PSA for gun control. I’m not interested in those kinds of films and felt like I needed to appeal to a wider demographic. I wanted to connect on a fundamentally human level.”
Although headlines inspired the story, Dexter is quick to note it is not inspired by any single incident.
“I’d say 90% of the film is original and came from ideas and nightmares I’ve had over the past few years,” said the actor. “Any real-life elements were extracted from my extensive research of various sources, books, documentaries, news articles and interviews I conducted with teachers and gun violence survivors. It is an amalgam of many actual tragedies that have occurred in this country, but it is not the true life account of any one event.”
Playing the role of Connor also took a mental toll on Dexter as the production of “American Morning” moved forward.
“It was definitely a lot harder to let Connor go at the end of the day than to ‘get into’ the character,” he said. “As the writer, I incorporated so much of myself into him from the very beginning that it was relatively easy to ‘drop in.’
“But creating a world like that and a character so close to who I really am, it does make it harder to not bring it home with me.”
But Dexter said the process was a necessary one for the film. “I simply felt I owed it to the people and circumstances I was writing about to be as honest as I could be in my performance.”
The story was difficult enough for Dexter, an adult, to handle, so how did the children in the cast handle the intense subject matter?
“We were very up front with the kids and their parents/ guardians right from the beginning. … We told them, especially those new to working in film, that it was all pretend and that they would never see a gun on set nor hear actual gun shots,” he said.
“The sad thing we quickly realized during the audition phase is that the kids were so strong, so resilient, and already knew about all of this. There was almost a nonchalance,” said Dexter, a Central Connecticut State University graduate.
“Active shooter lockdown drills have just become commonplace, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
The completed film has made it through the gauntlet of the film festival circuit and has won several awards along the way.
Now the film is available on Omeleto, a streaming showcase for short films. The film also can be found and streamed for free via YouTube by searching for “American Morning.”
“This film now belongs to the world. We want it to be used as a fundraising tool, a catalyst for education and debate, and simply to facilitate change,” Dexter said.