Content warning: School Shootings
It was the fall of 2004. I was a young and restless boy who harbored a strange fanaticism for a Canadian teen melodrama: Degrassi: The Next Generation. I sat in front of the TV on Friday night, watching the newest episode like normal (#noshame). I vividly remember as the episode ended, a trailer began for the next block of episodes. All the promo showed was Rick Murray holding up a gun in slow motion and the screen cutting to black as we hear a gunshot. I was in total shock. (I’ve also been trying to find this promo online for years and have had no success so I could be having a Berenst[e]ain Bears moment, but I digress.)
Going into its fourth season, the show already tackled intense subject matters: abortion, sexual assault, child abuse, and self harm among others. Since the birth of the Degrassi franchise in 1979 with “Kids of Degrassi Street,” the show had always been praised for its ability to realistically depict teenage life and educate viewers on topics not often seen in shows aimed toward younger audiences. However, they were about to feature a story-line that would catapult the show and result in one of the franchise’s most iconic and important episodes.
In the two part episode “Time Stands Still,” student Rick Murray (Ephraim Ellis) is pushed to the edge after being the subject of severe bullying and a humiliating school prank. In retaliation, he decides to bring a gun to school and ends up shooting star athlete Jimmy Brooks (Aubrey “Drake” Graham) before losing his own life after fellow student, Sean Cameron (Daniel Clark) intervenes to stop the shooting.
When the episode aired in the US in December 2004 (I did not realize at the time that episodes aired two months earlier in Canada or else I would have hit up LimeWire), I sat and watched in disbelief as the episode unfolded. I never thought this show could reach the levels of suspense and urgency it did in this episode. Watching a character get shot was such a jarring thing to see on Degrassi and something that was so difficult to wrap my head around.
In the 15 years since the episode aired, the issues it explored have sadly become a common reality. Re-watching the episode as an adult, I feel an extra level of admiration that Degrassi was able to touch on an issue so controversial in such a layered and well crafted way. It is still regarded as one of the franchise’s best entries amongst its fan-base.
For the 15th anniversary of “Time Stands Still,” I spoke to Brendon Yorke, co-writer (BY); Stefan Scaini, director (SS); Daniel Clark, Sean Cameron (DC); and Ephraim Ellis, Rick Murray (EE), to reminisce on their memories creating the episode and their thoughts looking back at it all these years later.
Sadly, Drake’s people were quick to decline my interview request. I’m not upset, though.
Part I: Origins
“Time Stands Still” Parts 1 & 2 were written by Aaron Martin and Brendon Yorke. Pursuing a school shooting story-line had been on the minds of the writers and producers since the beginning of Degrassi: The Next Generation and it finally came to a culmination in the fourth season.
BY: There were probably a lot of things going on behind the scenes that led up to us finally taking a crack at the school shooting story-lines. It was a topic we knew we would need to address at some point since, unfortunately, preparing for and dealing with school shootings are things a whole lot of students in the United States are forced to confront at some point. School shootings are vastly less routine in Canada, but your news travels north. The fundamental issues of bullying and violence are commonplace in Canada as well. By the fourth season a few things came together that we felt would facilitate the telling of a dramatic, yet balanced school shooting story. We had many of the young actors really hitting their strides in terms of being able to pull off what would be a very complicated and emotionally tough story-line.
When it came to deciding which characters would be involved in the narrative, the writers chose to bring back Rick as the shooter. He was a character that many fans thought they had seen the last of after he was the culprit of an abusive relationship story-line the previous season.
BY: We never thought of creating another character. Rick already had a built-in backstory that put him at odds with some of our other main characters, so that was useful. We also felt that we had an actor in Ephraim who could pull off a very intense and demanding story-line, so it was kind of a no-brainer.
EE: It was a complete surprise because Rick kind of gets run out of town on a rail at the end of Season 3, so I wasn’t at all expecting to come back. I do remember being told by one of the producers that they’d been wanting to tackle a school shooting story-line for a while, but hadn’t found the right character for that kind of story until Rick came along. I was very honored that they had faith I could pull it off!
As far as which characters would be left to deal with the repercussions of the shooting, the writers chose to focus on Emma, Sean, Spinner, and most of all Jimmy, who after being shot, became paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair.
BY: The character dynamics between Emma, Sean, Rick, Spinner, and Jimmy had been developed to the extent that every one of their points of view could be understood and used to tell an honest and compelling story. We saw how life-changing this would be for Jimmy, and how it would be a gold mine for future story-lines involving the character. We also knew that Aubrey/Drake would be able to shine as an actor playing a character who had to go through a whole lot of ups and downs in the aftermath.
Veteran television director Stefan Scaini was chosen to take on the task of directing “Time Stands Still.”
SS: I was quite delighted that they wanted me to do it. I used to do a lot of the more intense episodes because I’m more of an actor’s director so I really like to work with the actors and get that performance and get the honesty, truth, and heart within the scene rather than just do something more stylish.
Developing an episode of this size wasn’t something taken lightly, as the creative team wanted to make sure they did the controversial topic justice.
BY: We did a fair bit of research, specifically reading a lot about the incident at Columbine and its aftermath. It was a complicated balancing act. We wanted to show how somebody could be bullied to the point of desperation. We also wanted to show how retaliating with violence is not an acceptable response. Basically, two wrongs only add up to a much bigger wrong.
SS: Linda [Schuyler, co-creator of Degrassi] actually made arrangements to bring in a woman named Barbara Coloroso who I believe was one of the crisis management people that went down to Columbine after it happened. Barbara was helping me and the writers and everyone to find the truth and what’s really going on as opposed to the “Hollywood” version of it. We wanted to tell the real story. We wanted to get into the truth of it and into what would really be going through this young man’s head.
Degrassi: The Next Generation was notorious for naming its episodes after songs from the 1980s. For this episode, they chose the Rush song “Time Stand Still,” originally released in 1987.
BY: I thought it conveyed the idea that one moment, when a horrible decision is made, can change lives forever. Also, as the only Rush fan ever to write for Degrassi, I felt it was my obligation to represent for the legendary Canadian (Torontonian!) band. Fun fact: The actual title of the Rush song is “Time Stand Still” but somewhere along the line, maybe through auto-correct, the “s” was added to “Stand.”
Part II: Preparation
When working on Degrassi, the actors were often kept in the dark about future story-lines until they read the scripts for the first time at table reads. Many of the actors did not know that the show was about to be making an episode depicting a school shooting.
SS: Linda conducted the table reads almost like an exam. You walked in, sat down at your spot and the script was in front of you, but it was upside down and you couldn’t turn it over until Linda said so. Something the cast used to do which would make me laugh was, they would try to look through the back page of the script to see who had the last line in the episode because whoever had the last line tended to be who the episode was about. So when we sat down for this episode, they’re looking down and they say, “Wow, Linda used really thick paper. We can’t see who gets the last line!” [laughs]
BY: Usually the cast were reading the scripts for the first time at table reads. However, there were definitely a few exceptions depending on the nature of the stories. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m fairly certain Ephraim, Aubrey, and Miriam [McDonald] would probably have been given the heads-up. Often it’s not just the intense nature of the scripts that would lead to this, but when characters look like they’re being “killed off” we would talk to the actors about whether or not it meant they were leaving the show.
DC: I don’t recall the writers or executives ever disclosing to us the issues they hoped to cover in that season. So when we sat down for the table read for “Time Stands Still,” that was the first time we became aware of this episode that was going to be covering school shootings. Degrassi’s MO was to cover tough issues for young teenagers, but it was kind of a shock because this one was a very important issue that a lot of television shows didn’t deal with.
SS: I remember as I was watching the actors, usually there would be a certain amount of energy and high-spirit, but the read-through got quieter and quieter and more serious as it went on. People were just looking down at their pages completely focused. I remember when we got to the point when Ephraim first pulls out the gun, everyone in the room was just breathless.
DC: There were never any guarantees with Degrassi. We were all subject to the writers and the decisions they made. After reading the first episode, I thought it was possible that Sean could either be killed or mamed in some terrible way or who knows. They didn’t really give us any indication that it was going to go one way or the other.
SS: When they read the part where Aubrey gets shot in the back, some of the kids burst into tears. By the end of that read-through, you could hear a pin drop because everyone was so affected.
Given the significance of the subject matter, it was important that the actors had a full grasp on how serious this episode was.
EE: It was such sensitive material. The topics this arc dealt with needed preparation. Columbine was still pretty fresh in people’s memories.
DC: I was younger when Columbine happened in Colorado and it was something that was talked about a lot. That was by no means the only example, but I think that incident really catapulted the idea of mass shootings and school shootings into the consciousness of a lot of people who were growing up during that time. You reflect on it differently as an adult, but all of us were aware politically at that point of what it meant to be a part of those two episodes.
SS: It was a pretty raw script and they had to really take this on and essentially embody the story and in many ways, they had to live it.
EE: I think we all just knew how important these episodes were going to end up being and we wanted to do right by the material and do it justice. Characters like Rick are always an incredible experience to play because you get to explore and create complex and powerful emotional states. When it comes to getting into a character’s mindset, I always try to find what I have in common with them first. Both Rick and I were weird theatre dorks in high school, so I just started from there so I could have a more normal jumping off point before moving on to figure out how to play all these much more complicated and dark parts of him.
Part III: Filming
The atmosphere on set during the filming of “Time Stands Still” differed quite a bit from the usual experience of making a Degrassi episode.
EE: Usually, the Degrassi set was pretty laid-back, fun, and light, and it was for the most part when shooting those episodes. Things got very quiet and serious while we were filming the climactic scenes in the hallway with the gun.
SS: I told the assistant director that we needed to keep it almost like the set of a play. I wanted the actors to be very focused and I wanted them to be very much in tune with the material and the emotions they were about to play.
DC: We were still friendly, but we were all very quiet in between scenes and takes so we could get into the moment and do our best. A large part of it was us reflecting on what we were creating during those moments.
The cast and crew strived to give their all while shooting these episodes, both from an emotional and technical point of view.
SS: I wanted it to be very much in the point of view of the people who were experiencing it. It was shot in the perspective of the players. In other words, where the camera was placed, the height of the camera, everything was more of an experiential kind of style. I had the camera following the characters more. I had the camera closer to the characters. I used wider lenses so it felt like you were standing there amongst them as opposed to from a distance observing. I wanted to make sure the audience was in the moment versus just observing it.
EE: I spent so much time covered in paint and feathers. If they removed any of it they’d’ve have to recreate it for continuity later so it made more sense to just leave it on once it was on. It was surprisingly uncomfortable, but that kinda helped in a weird way, since Rick’s obviously not meant to be in a comfortable place. I tried to use that feeling as much as I could on camera.
DC: It was very challenging. Emotions, and particularly fear- there’s a way to sell it if you’re doing a horror film or if everything is very apparent. You know, there’s a guy with an ax running around, there’s blood everywhere, and you’re screaming. This was more nuanced than that. You have to have the same level of fear come across without all the gimmick and without all the screaming and the murder taking place right then and there.
SS: I tried to not rehearse the actors too much. Typically if I was doing a scene that featured three actors, I would go off set and run through the scene with them and kind of polish it and find the nuance. For this, I made the choice to rehearse them individually and give them their notes, let them think about it, and then I brought them on set together and literally said, “Roll cameras.” Let’s just roll cameras and see what happens purely on instinct and purely them reacting to what’s being said to them versus having prepared it off set and mimicking it.
EE: Most of the Degrassi cast (myself included) didn’t tend to stay in character in-between takes, but with those scenes you really had to keep your head with the character to preserve that energy. I definitely needed time to decompress and shake Rick’s cobwebs out of my brain at the end of the day.
DC: Even though we knew the outcome, I think we made a point of forgetting the outcome. I think that we all wanted to be at a level to when we looked around, we felt like we were saying, “Goodbye.”
SS: I actually had sleepless nights during and after the making of it because it really affected me on a strange level. I had to ask these young actors who were also my friends to reach into their psyche and go to this terribly dark place. Doing that to these people was really hard for me.
One of the most demanding parts of filming the episode was of course the scene where Rick shoots Jimmy.
SS: There’s a couple different ways of doing shooting scenes. Usually in youth shows, you don’t see the impact. You only see after the impact. In this case, I thought it was important to see the actual impact.
EE: If I’m not mistaken, we used a real gun. Film sets have special experts they bring in called “gun wranglers” to make sure they’re dealt with safely – unless we were actively filming with it, it was in a box with the guy in charge of it.
SS: There’s a lot of protocols we had to achieve before we could bring a gun on set. The Emergency Task Force were there and we had special gun wranglers. The gun has to be brought on set, it has to be shown to all the actors open to where they can see there’s no bullets in it and then every actor has to confirm they see no bullets in it. Then it’s handed to the actor that’s using it who has to hold it a certain way before it’s time for the scene.
EE: It was only ever loaded with blanks for the one shot that’s fired, and during that shot the five guys on the camera crew were behind a Plexiglas screen and protective blankets since the gun was aimed sort of towards the camera.
SS: We put something called a squib, which is a small explosive, on Aubrey. He wore a small protective patch where he was going to be shot in the back. They put the little explosive there and then on top of that, they put a small bag with fake blood in it which was probably four square inches. The wardrobe was very lightly torn so that it would blow open. He was wearing a wire down his pants that was attached to a remote. I wanted to get the shot and the impact together at the same time, so I set up two cameras to get both angles at once. When Ephraim fired the gun, it made one hell of a noise and all the actors and extras reacted. Then when the squib exploded on Aubrey’s back, he felt it. I mean it didn’t hurt him, but it blows you with an impact. When you see him arch forward, that was legitimate.
Part IV: The Aftermath (Why’d You Shoot My Boy Drake?)
The effects of “Time Stands Still” would end up shaping the rest of the fourth season and for some characters, the arcs of their tenure on the series. For Daniel Clark, it would ultimately lead to his character temporarily departing from the show.
DC: I don’t remember if we had all agreed whether that was going to happen during the season by that time or not. I think it was more that it was a natural sort of progression. I thought that Sean having a breakdown and trying to push the reset button on his life was a pretty organic reaction to what happened. Having a lack of an authority figure in his life seemed to be a pretty heavy theme even when he was first introduced. At first he lived with his brother, then he lived by himself. He came from a broken family. He didn’t really have a support group after the shooting, and I think he was mature enough to recognize that he couldn’t have dealt with what the incident did to him without the support he needed.
Stefan Scaini and other directorial and production crew would end up winning the award for “Outstanding Team Achievement in a Television Series – Family” in 2005 at the Director’s Guild of Canada Awards for their work on the episode.
SS: The subject matter to me was far more important than the accolades. I am a father of four and two of my kids have experienced bullying, so this subject was close to my heart and close to my psyche. But winning an award was great. It was for all of us. It was a team effort. This was one of those episodes where everybody was in 100%. I guess being a director is a bit like being the captain of the ship, but I gotta tell you, everybody contributed to this one.
For Ephraim Ellis, he was only able to experience the aftermath of the episodes from his interactions with fans. Even though the importance of the episode isn’t lost on people, it doesn’t stop some humorous remarks from slipping in from time to time…
EE: I still get recognized at least three or four times a month, to this day! Everyone is always very positive and effusive about how powerful the episodes were. I do get ‘Bro, why’d you shoot my boy Drake’ tweeted at me ALL the time, which is kind of hysterical. I usually tell them ‘because it was in the script.’
Part V: Final Thoughts
When reflecting on “Time Stands Still” 15 years later, those who worked on it look back on their work proudly and still feel it holds up.
SS: The one thing I really enjoyed about working on Degrassi was the support I had from Linda Schuyler. She really believed in us and let us find the right voice to tell these stories. She would say “Here’s what we wanna say and achieve, but you guys figure it out.” Something so incredibly important to her were the voices of the young actors. Linda was so clear that we had to make these characters absolutely real. These particular episodes are what they are because Linda Schuyler made them that way.
BY: It has become an iconic episode for the Degrassi franchise. I don’t think I’d change a thing. Afterwards, we were contacted by Barbra Coloroso to tell us we basically nailed the interpersonal dynamics of such a tragic event. So we must have done something right!
EE: Degrassi was my very first professional TV job. I count myself very lucky that I got to be a part of such an important piece of television, especially as my first gig. Fifteen years on, I still look on that character and that performance as some of my best, proudest work. It’s very cool and humbling that those episodes are still so relevant after so long.
DC: I think Degrassi did the issue an incredible amount of justice. With Degrassi, when we covered an issue there were always consequences. Very real consequences. They sometimes embellished a bit perhaps, but ultimately there’s always a lesson to learn and some of those lessons are hard ones. That was really our entire focus. I don’t think we could have done a better job.*
Here are some of Andrew & Kinsey’s favorite tweets about this episode of Degrassi!