Exclusive Interview: ScreenAnarchy Talks To Steve James About LIFE ITSELF And More

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Exclusive Interview: ScreenAnarchy Talks To Steve James About LIFE ITSELF And More

It's a rare pleasure to be able to follow up with an interview subject on a given project. I had the pleasure of speaking with documentarian Steve James mere hours after his remarkable film, Life Itself, made its debut.

With a room chock full of Roger Ebert's friends and families, it was certainly a raw and emotional screening, and our conversation (found here on Moviefone, along with a chat with Chaz Ebert) proved to be a wonderful experience.

Several months later, James was in Toronto, screening the film to members of Toronto's Doc Institute. This was one of many unofficial screenings between the Sundance premiere and the Cannes release, allowing James to essentially lecture on the film, using it as a way not only to talk about Ebert's remarkable career, but also how the film works within James' own run of powerful and moving documentaries.

James' early success with Hoop Dreams has led to a string of remarkable films including 2011's The Interrupters and the ESPN 30 for 30 Doc No Crossover: The Trial Of Allen Iverson.

We drilled down a bit more about his career in general, the state of documentaries, and how the world is indeed a complicated place.

The film is produced by CNN films, so we're obviously getting a television version. What specific challenges did you have in doing the cut that showed at Sundance and will you be changing it when it goes to a TV audience?

Will I be changing it? No, I don't think so. I never think about that distinction when I do films.

A lot of times when I do films, the broadcast partner is already in place, not always, but oftentimes that's been the case. I take the attitude that it will sort itself out. A lot of times you have contractual arrangements where they're requiring you in the contract to give them a 60 minute version or 90 minute version or 90 minute with commercials or whatever. There's all kinds of requirements around that. I think I've been fortunate in that regard.

I take the attitude that you should make it the best film that you can make it and then you'll figure out is that what's going to be in theatres and is that essentially what's going to be on television? And a lot of times you have to make some sacrifices to be on television. [Take] The Interrupters, for example - we had a theatrical version that was 2 hours and 6 minutes, the television version was an hour and 51 minutes, so we had to make some changes because you had to fit it into a 2 hour slot. It's still basically the same movie, it's just I like the theatrical version a little better.

When you are doing something that you know is specifically for television that has commercials, you are going to have those rises and falls to fit into that particular structure. Does that even come into play when you are reconstituting the television version?

This is a film being played on television, not something made for television, that's the way I look at it. We [don't] need a cliff-hanger before we go to commercial break. I don't think of it that way at all, and thankfully the broadcaster doesn't think that way.

CNN is very excited about the film and the reception of the film. I give credit to the broadcasters for this, is that when they finally see the film, then they want that experience to be what they showed too, with some modifications for length, but they don't want to have the knockoff version.

Is it easier for you to have someone else take it down those 20 minutes, or do you do it yourself?

With The Interrupters, it first played at Sundance at 2 hours and 44 minutes. That's the epic version. There's a lot of great stuff in there. But I like the version you saw best, but I honest to god had people who saw that version come up to me and go I can't believe you cut it down. Why did you do that? I did several of the cut downs myself, down to the theatrical version and I did the cut down for public television but then we had to do a further version for CBC. They aired it originally in the 2 hour for the doc channel here, but then for CBC Newschannel it had to be 88 minutes. I let someone else do that. I said I can't do that. I'd done it enough already, I just couldn't do it.

They did a good job with it, it's just not the same film.

What, for you, embodies the state of contemporary documentary? You have seen this thing change radically, and were at the forefront of it really, with Hoop Dreams being shot on video.

I'm an optimist about the current state of documentary in the sense that there's more being made than ever. There are more people who want to make documentaries coming out of film school.

When I came out of film school, you would not say to anyone "what I really want to be is a documentary filmmaker". You might say I'd like to make some documentaries, but you didn't think of it as a calling or a career. Very few people were doing that successfully.

I think the form is being expanded creatively in a million different directions, ven pushing the boundaries of fiction and documentary with films like Act of Killing or Stories We Tell. There are several of these films coming out every year, so I think it's an exciting time to do documentary.

The technology makes it possible for anyone to make one. You may not get paid to do it, but you at least have the means at your disposal with fairly reasonable level of resources to go make a documentary. I think all of that has fed this explosion in a lot of ways.

The downside in a way is the upside, that there are so many more people doing it, and so many more documentaries being made that the scramble for resources is also very real. Even though there are way more ways to consume them, there are more strands, there's more opportunity with the internet and on-demand and all of this, there are just so many more films out there. So, unfortunately, a lot of first time documentary filmmakers struggle. You make your first documentary, and even if it plays at a great festival or two or three, and it's well received, that's no guarantee you're going to get to make another one. You may have to go through the same made scramble going into debt to make your second film.

I think there's always been that feeling, that hope, that if you do it once, and you're successful at it, that then the doors open. There are more doors, there's just more people banging on them.

Do you think that your success with HOOP DREAMS was driven more by you not getting an Oscar nomination than if you had been nominated?

Well, the people at Fine Line [Features] that distributed it like to say it and I think they're right.

At the time, there was a lot of talk leading up to the announcing of the nominations, that Hoop Dreams, and Fine Line was pushing for it, give Hoop Dreams a Best Picture nomination, forget documentary whatever. It deserves a Best Picture nomination!

There was all of this talk about that, which I thought was a lot of hubris and maybe would alienate voters, but they did it anyway and so that's what they did. So what they would tell you is the best thing that happened, there were two great scenarios for Hoop Dreams in terms of commerciality: One was to get a Best Picture nomination. That would have been huge. It never happens. It still hasn't happened.

The next best scenario was to get snubbed. [Fine Line] had it ready to go, they were opening Hoop Dreams, and expanding to 250 theatres right after the announcement of the Oscars. They were basically banking on [that] if it had got a Best Documentary nomination then fine, but if we get snubbed, they had their whole campaign ready for "look at how this film's been snubbed".

It's true that Hoop Dreams did not become a commercial success until after it got snubbed. It's now been dwarfed by Michael Moore's films, but at the time it did become the highest grossing documentary, theatrically.

The usual narrative is that Ebert and Siskel were the chief proponents of bringing it to the public's attention, and through, given the fact that it's a Chicago story, given the fact that it's basketball, and Siskel's fetish for the sport, that they did it. Do we read too much into that? Were there other people that brought that forward?

Well, they were the first. They reviewed it when it was at Sundance. They went on their national show in over 300 markets and said the only place you can see this film is at Sundance this week, and they basically were making a plea to distributors. They said this film deserves wider release.

So we shouldn't underestimate their role at that point.

We shouldn't underestimate at that point. You have to understand, this is a 3 hour documentary playing at Sundance about two guys no one had ever heard of and it did not end with them going to the NBA.

It was already generating some buzz at Sundance because people liked it, but when that happened, suddenly all of those distributors that we had sent it to on two video cassettes because it was so long were I think like "wait, when's that playing? I've got to see that thing!" They had never watched it before. They just came in and it was like huh?

So, yeah, you can't underestimate, and [Siskel and Ebert] championed it throughout the entire year. They reviewed it in some fashion 4 times on the show. They did what they did for Errol Morris basically; it was the same kind of thing. Every excuse they had to talk about it, they did

It did catch on with other news and reviewers and other people embraced it, it wasn't [only] them. But they gave it a major kickstart and also were major voices in sustaining it.

What was that like as a filmmaker for these two titans of popular film criticism to be championing your work? How did you go from that to being friends with Roger to then being the person who was going to document the end of his life? How did your relationship change if at all with Siskel?

I only met Siskel once, and that was at a Bulls game, oddly enough. Because Peter Gilbert, my partner on Hoop Dreams, who shot [thefilm], he had Bulls season tickets. So I got to go to a game with him, and there was Gene Siskel.

Literally the only time I met Gene Siskel was at the Bulls game.

Did you talk about basketball or did you talk about documentaries?

We talked about basketball. He said, "you're great", but we talked about the Bulls.

Roger, I never became friends with him, we just had friendly relations intermittently over time.

It's been 20 years since Hoop Dreams was made. I met Roger in Toronto at the Toronto Film Festival, so nine months after it premiered at Sundance. I met him at Toronto because there was a dinner put together because the film was getting ready to open theatrically, and he was at a table with a bunch of people I didn't really know. I met him, that's it. He interviewed me about a film or two over the years, like Prefontaine or whatever. I ran into him at the Chicago Film Critics' Awards a couple of times.

I went to his star dedication because I thought that was cool. I wasn't invited personally, I just showed up. I saw him afterwards and he said "oh, thanks for coming".

I would e-mail him when I had a film coming out just to bring it to his attention.

I thought there was a firewall between critics and filmmakers. I did not attempt to form a friendship. I didn't think that was something I could do. If I had known I could do it, would I have? I don't know. It's not like we ran in the same circles.

So you know, I think actually what that did is that it put me in a much better position to do this film because I was not beholden to him over friendship. I wouldn't have done the film if I didn't admire him.

After I read his memoir, I admired him more.

I didn't set out to do a film about a good friend of mine, and I didn't set out to do a film that would be just a celebration and a tribute to him and I think he liked the idea when it got around to making the film that I wasn't Gregory Nava [director of El Norte], I wasn't Martin Scorsese. [Pauses] Well, he probably would have liked for Martin Scorsese to do it honestly, but you know what I mean! [Laughs]

I didn't have that history with him. I think he liked that.

What was Scorsese's involvement in the film?

Creative executive producer. He looked and gave his thoughts at one point. [Plus], be in the film, which was the big thing. He was busy with Wolf of Wall Street, so he wasn't going to come and sit in the edit suite with me.

He also did the Indiegogo thing which was great. And he did that in the midst of his own, he had a lot going on and he found the time to do that and that was nice.

Let's go back. I think I'm the only Toronto critic that hasn't seen STORIES WE TELL. But there's a couple of films that I've gone nuts for, just jumped up and down for and when I saw ACT OF KILLING, I thought this is something transcendentally great about that film. Regarding the collision between the cinematic and the documentary forms: As somebody who has done much more pure documentaries, what is your response to that hybridization?

I think it's great. I think it's great for the form, it's great for just film. Maybe it will be a whole genre to itself that won't be called documentary. It might be called something else.

Errol Morris likes to say "I'm not a documentary filmmaker, I'm a non-fiction storyteller". I think that anything that plays with those boundaries, as long as it's not engaged in acts of deception around that. Sarah Polley's story does that but it comes clean at a certain point, it's part of the point of it.

As a documentary filmmaker, I'm sure I'm not alone in this, I figured it out well before the end that this clearly could not have been a real documentary. It has to be actors because despite all of the beautifully done ruses to make it feel like it's real, they wouldn't have had all of this material. They never would have had this.

I think that as long as there's a clarity about that and it's being used in a creative way that is clear about its purpose and understanding it's great. It's like anything. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, then I don't have moral issues with it.

[It's] Just like that I don't have moral issues with Errol Morris doing all of his reenactments. It was clear what it was, and it was clear what purpose it was serving.

For years I'd avoid most theatrical docs as they'd simply be commercials for a given cause, mere advocacy rather than something cinematic or journalistic. Yours, however, seem to avoid ever succumbing to this two dimensional form of advocating for a given cause

I've never thought of myself as an advocacy filmmaker. And I've never thought of myself as a journalist, really.

Depending on the films of mine you're talking about, some of them have a much stronger journalistic underpinning than others. When I did the 30 for 30 on Allan Iverson, that was more journalistic in one way because I was going back and investigating, trying to understand what happened and who and why all of that. But it was also not journalistic in that I included myself and interviewed my mom and gave it a more personal aspect.

I have all of these impulses, journalistic, but more than anything I think of myself, to borrow again from Errol Morris, as a non-fiction storyteller. I want to tell stories that are journalistically sound, but I'm interested in the complexities of the way the world is, not in the solutions. I'm interested in solutions as a human being, and as someone who wants things to get better. But in my films, I'm more interested in what makes the world complex and difficult than in a recipe for solving the world's problems.

Some people think of The Interrupters as a kind of advocacy film because it's focused on a group that is really trying to make change. But it's not a profile of that organization at all - if it was a profile of the organization, it would have been a very different film. It's really about those three individuals who are doing something very innovative, interesting and courageous, but we also looked at it as a way to show just how hard it is and it doesn't always succeed.

[It's] a passport into those communities of what it's like to live there and deal with that day in and day out, and a passport into people who have committed acts of violence and who are they and why do they do it and they actually are not people we should throw away.

I like to think it's more complicated than that, but it's actually been used in remarkable ways that I never expected by advocacy community people in a wide spectrum of ways and I think that's great.

As long as I feel like the film has a kind of integrity to the truth and the complexity of the truth, then I think it's great when advocacy groups can embrace a film and use it.

Stevie was the same way. When Stevie was going to be on television, we had outreach people reaching out to Big Brother/Big Sister programs around the country to try to get them on board with it because I was a Big Brother. It was really interesting because some groups in some cities looked at the film and said "great, yes, we want to be involved because this is hard and this film shows that this is hard and complicated", to be a Big Brother to people like Stevie. Other groups were like, "you've got to be kidding me, we would never be involved in this because it wasn't successful".

My brother [asked] me when I told him I was doing the film years ago, "what are you working on?", and I said "well, I'm doing this film about a kid that I was once a Big Brother to and so he's grown up and he's molested his cousin and he's probably going to go to prison", and my brother goes "nice job on the Big Brothering".

That's the way he viewed it, because when you sign up for those programs, they talk to you about all of the successes, well, so and so's a Big Brother and you know what his little brother is doing right now, he's in law school. That's what they tell you about, but that's not what it's about.

I like to embrace the world as a complicated place, but I feel like the films have a point of view. I have a political point of view on these things, but I try not to let that prevent you from seeing the world as a complicated place.

Life Itself is now playing in select theatrical engagements in the U.S. and Canada. It is also available to watch via various Video On Demand platforms. 

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