Steve James: Film Person of the Year (Documentaries)

Movies Features Steve James
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Maybe Steve James should direct his next film under an assumed name.

Back in 2004, James made a movie that would change the face of documentary film in America. Hoop Dreams would be named the best documentary of the year by a host of authoritative sources, including the New York Film Critics Circle, National Society of Film Critics, and the Directors Guild of America. Both the International Documentary Association and Roger Ebert would eventually name it the greatest documentary of all time. But the one award it didn’t win was an Oscar. The Academy, bafflingly, didn’t even see fit to give it a nomination.

Fast forward seven years to 2011, where Steve James has once again come up with what we consider to be clearly the greatest documentary of the year, The Interrupters. And, like a bad dream (or a bad Hollywood drama), the Academy has struck again. The Interrupters didn’t even make the shortlist for the Best Documentary award this year. Does the Academy have a grudge against inner city Chicago African-Americans? Or just against Steve James?

Either way, it’s scandalous. In addition to being the most artful documentary of the year, The Interrupters is easily the most socially important. Where else will you find a film that addresses one of the most baffling and crucial issues of our time (inner city violence), actually offers a feasible solution (violence interruption, a theory that grew out of epidemic research) and presents a group of fascinating, brave and inspiring protagonists to boot?

Steve, we can’t give you an Oscar. But despite a rich year for documentaries, you ran away with our award for Paste’s 2011 Person of the Year for Documentary Film.

Below are some excerpts from our series of conversations with James over the course of the year.

On beginning The Interrupters

The inspiration came from an article that Alex (Kotlowitz, James’ co-producer) wrote in The New York Times Magazine, a great article where he talked about CeaseFire and focused on the Interrupters in particular. So I called him up and we had been looking for something we could do together. He’d wanted to do a real film instead of some not-to-be-named other things he had done. So I just said, ‘What do you think about doing this?’ It was such a great piece, and he was game, so we met with some folks. Ameena [Matthews, the main subject of the film] was one of the people we met with, and immediately we knew we wanted to feature her.

On Ameena

If you see the movie, you get why we would be fascinated with her. She really stood out at the table, in part because she’s one of only two women to do the work, in part because she’s a practicing Muslim, and in part because of her dynamic personality. And then when you find out she’s also the daughter of Jeff Forte [after Al Capone, probably the most notorious gangster in Chicago history]—well, we’d have to have our heads examined if we didn’t want to tell that story. And then of course, you see her at work in the streets and you see this incredible brilliant gift she has to read a situation and respond accordingly. She can jump in your face if that’s what’s called for. Or she can sit on a park bench and play with your hair as she does with Caprysha, and try to talk soothingly and reason with her.

On Eddie

Eddie serves two thematic roles in the film. He’s the guy, when we started the film, who had only been out of prison for about two years. He’s clearly still trying to come to terms with what he did, to the point that he even has difficulty putting words to it. And he’s clearly haunted. The fact that every year on the anniversary of the crime, he goes out and meets people who’ve lost loved ones is pretty remarkable. I think most of us would stop doing that. But every year he feels duty bound to do that. So that was the one aspect of him that was fascinating to us, how haunted you can be by one act. As he says in the movie, you can never get over it.

The other thing we loved about Eddie is that he is just this really questioning guy. He’s a guy who wonders whether what they’re doing is a band-aid. He’s a guy who’s really searching for different ways to reach young people, through art. He’s a guy who is really trying to come up with new ways of preventing violence.

On Flame-O

We think about him as the Omar of our film. He’s this renegade criminal type, he’s not affiliated with any gang, and he’s got his own shit going on, right? And he’s just charismatic.

On Cobe

Cobe is this teddy bear of a guy. His way of dealing with these guys is to be their friend, to be the guy who’s on the block calling out their name, calling them on the phone. He’s not the most flashy guy out there in the way he goes about what he does, but he’s very effective. Flame-O says at the end of the film, “You were like this fly buzzing around all the time, and sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with that fly.” Cobe’s the guy that just doesn’t let go of a situation. He’ll do everything he can to get you to do the right thing, in a big brotherly kind of way.

On shooting with a small crew

In all of the films I’ve done, we try to work really small. Usually it’s me and a shooter and a sound person, and sometimes I’d even do sound, making it just two of us. So with Alex getting involved, we talked about how we could keep it small, and that’s why we decided it would make sense for me to shoot it, too. I don’t shoot a lot, but I totally got into doing this because that way there could still be only three of us. I could shoot, Alex could be there producing and take the lead on the interviews with me pitching in, and then we had this great co-producer Zack Piper who was also our sound recordist, a real backbone of our production. So we kept it really small.

On impromptu vs. formal interviews

There were some impromptu interviews, like with Ameena on the bench at the end of the film. Those moments are always great to seize. I really believe that some of the best interviews you get are with people in the moment like that. And when the moment presents itself, you ask them then, because they’re feeling it. And she was feeling it. So there are moments like that in the movie that are these off-the-cuff moments. But the backbone of the interviews in the movie is the more formal interviews, where we set up with a tripod, and Alex sat where I usually sit, in the chair having the conversation. And then it became a true conversation between me and Alex and whoever we were interviewing because we believe that’s the best way to get people to talk, to make it feel less like an interview and more like a conversation. So we don’t light much, because I don’t know enough about fucking lighting to make it look that good anyway. We try to keep it simple. But it works, I think.

On shooting in potentially dangerous moments

There were situations that did get tense, and what made it possible for us to capture them was because we had been there. For instance, Latoya and her two sons. We had been with Latoya and Cobe, and we had been with Cobe and each of the sons separately. Then we were with all of them in the car. At that point they all knew what this was about, they all knew who we were, and they just were who they were. And there’s a lot of anger and frustration in that car, and it’s a very powerful scene, but it doesn’t play like reality TV to me. Reality TV, you just see the screaming and yelling. We’re trying to get you to see who these people are and what leads to that. And it’s not just a snapshot. That’s the best thing about doing long-term documentary; it’s not just a snapshot. We could have left Flame-O on that porch. It would have been powerful; it would have been, ‘Hey, you really got something.’ But instead of a snapshot of Flame-O, you get to see the next thing that happens to him. You get to see the wheels turning, when he goes to get the jerk chicken, about how he doesn’t want to be that guy on the street who just came and went.

On editing such a large amount of footage

Starting in January of 2010 we brought in Aaron Wickendan, who is a very talented editor, a very talented young guy who has worked with me for eight years now. He started out as assistant editor, then post-production supervisor. But he always wanted to cut, and so on some of my previous films I would let him cut stuff and I saw that he had a talent for it. So this January when we started shooting, he started to cut stuff for us. He worked as an editor from January until we wrapped this thing two days before Sundance. Around July, I started to segue into the editing room so that we could tag team it.

Then it becomes this collaborative process because Alex lives near me in Oak Park. So Alex would make regular visits by the editing room, and I’d show him what we were up to. I have this little hole in the wall of an office, and every day three to four of us would squeeze in there and watch. Very early on, we arrived at this idea to break it up by seasons. And in a documentary sense, we were fortunate, although obviously unfortunate in the larger sense, that it was a very violent year in Chicago, a year that made headlines, while we were out doing this film. So that became something we could thread through this film structurally. It was the seasons, and what happened, and their personal lives. It was a different film from Hoop Dreams, where you had this narrative that happened to these kids and their families. It made it more challenging, in a way, They were both challenging. But we were pleasantly surprised and excited that this structure seemed to work.

On the various cuts of The Interrupters

The version at Sundance was the longest version there ever was. We had rushed to get the film done for Sundance. As wonderful as the Sundance experience was for the film, we felt it needed another pass to focus it more. There were scenes in there that weren’t directly related to our main three subjects. They were interesting in themselves, but for a film that already has so many people in it, it was asking too much of an audience to juggle all that. So we cut some of those scenes out, and we certainly focused some of the scenes that remained. That’s the version that went out and played the festival circuit, and it was about 18 minutes shorter than the Sundance version. We had great success and great audiences, but part of our contract with the BBC is to trim the film down for TV audiences. And in the course of doing that, when we sat down and watched it a few weeks ago to review the changes, we all agreed that this version (the theatrical version) worked the best. And that version had another 18 minutes or so taken out, so just over half an hour gone from the Sundance version. But we felt like the heart of it, the breadth of it, everything of real power is still present in this version. We’ve had people tell us at film festivals, seeing the version you saw, that they could have sat and watched three more hours. And I love those people, are you kidding? But I think you’re a minority. I think the challenge with any film, but especially a documentary, is how do you give people the nuance and the details and the complexity as economically as you can do it. And this film is still, at two hours and five minutes, a long documentary. By about 40 minutes. But what would depress me is if people thought it had lost the epic sweep.

On bonding with collaborators

Especially with a film like this that takes so much time to make, you really are doing it together. And the subjects, whether they articulate it or not, once they feel that, they are just as invested in the film’s outcome as we are. I’ve done a little bit of narrative film, and it struck me that what you’re doing in both cases, like Sidney Lumet says, is getting through to something honest and true.. That’s the struggle. In documentary, it’s getting them to peel back the layers of defense that we all have and letting us in to get to the honesty and truth. Ameena’s talked with us about a lot of stuff, like with her family, that will never be in a movie. It’s not just filmmaker-subject; it’s an actual relationship.

On documentaries as therapy

When a documentary is working for everybody, it really is a therapeutic endeavor. And something I’ve observed over the years is that one of the primary motivations in going for the long haul is not just the commitment that it’s an important story, which is the foundation. It’s the sense that you’re giving people a chance to talk to you about their lives, about what they think, about what they’ve felt, about what they’ve been through. How many of us have someone in our daily lives who’s sitting there genuinely wanting to hear that? Unless you’re paying a therapist to do it, when does that ever happen? So the process can be incredibly therapeutic. I definitely think it was for Eddie, and you can see that very much in the film. It was for Cobe, too. Maybe Ameena had it all figured out. That’s another thing about this film—you see people trying to discover who they truly are. If you met Eddie on the street and talked to him, never in a million years would you think he did what he did. Cobe’s wife calls him a nerd, but he was not a nerd back in the day. Ameena is the same person she was, because I can still see that enforcer in her. But now she’s an enforcer for good.

On what those inspired by The Interrupters can do will lead you to our outreach campaign. The goal of that campaign, which is really in its formative stages, is to target certain neighborhoods in certain cities to really make a difference in using the principles of CeaseFire, but also to expand this notion of Interruption. When he saw the film, Anton Seals, our outreach coordinator, said, “I would love to see this idea of interruption expanded—interruption can go on with education, with jobs, with family relations.” There are so many ways in which people can interrupt and help, and so many ways people can contribute. If it’s money, then it’s money. If it’s volunteering or teaching, then it’s that. We hope we can steer people and give people very tangible, practical ways in which they can do that. People have to be engaged about this. When we started this film, we sensed a high degree of hopelessness in these communities, and we also sensed in the middle class community an attitude of “well, there’s nothing that can be done about those folks.” That’s what we wanted to fight against.