Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Stave James returns to his native Chicago to look at a group of ex-cons who have formed an organization dedicated to wiping out the violence that has plagued their streets in The Interrupters. By Jason Guerrasio.
Within a genre that has changed drastically over the last two decades, Steve James has stayed the course charted by vérité giants like the Maysles Brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, and Frederic Wiseman. Highlighting unique subjects and stories of the underprivileged in films like Stevie, At the Death House Door, and the seminal Hoop Dreams, James’s intimate filmmaking is more substance than flash. He eschews the tropes of reality TV and rarely uses music to amp up the drama. Rather, he keeps the focus on his characters, committing to them with his lengthy shooting schedules and following their stories until the end.
Recently James has been producing others’ work (Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes) and doing made-for-TV docs like The New Americans series or ESPN’s 30 for 30 installment, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. But he returns to his native Chicago for his latest long-form doc, The Interrupters, training his camera on CeaseFire, a group of former convicts and gang members attempting to stop the violence that is ruining their city. James first learned about CeaseFire when author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) wrote about the group for The New York Times Magazine in 2008 (Kotlowitz is also a producer on the film). Shooting more than one year, at a time when Chicago was considered by many to be one of the most violent cities in America, James follows CeaseFire members (also known as Interrupters) Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie through their daily grind of checking in on those who need help as well as those who could cause harm.
Filmmaker talked to James while he was on the festival circuit to discuss the challenges of making The Interrupters, what he thinks about today’s documentaries, and his pick for the most honest film he’s ever made.
The Interrupters opens in July through Cinema Guild.
How did you develop your film from Alex Kotlowitz’s The New York Times Magazine story? Alex and I have been friends for 10 years; we live four blocks apart. Alex wrote a seminal non-fiction book called There Are No Children Here about a family growing up in the projects. It came out around the time Hoop Dreams did, and some people made comparisons. Alex and I had been looking for something to do together since, and he told me about this article, which is about something very important to us. For him, that’s because some of the people in There Are No Children Here have been killed in the intervening years, and, for me, because Arthur’s dad Bo and William’s brother Curtis [from Hoop Dreams] were both murdered. So it really resonated. We felt this was an opportunity, through profiling CeaseFire and particularly hanging out with Cobe, Ameena, and Eddie, that we could get [viewers] into that world, into those communities, and [show] that you need to care and that there are things that can be done.
Was CeaseFire hesitant at first to be filmed? Alex had spent six months there while reporting his article, and they were very pleased with it. So we had an automatic in. And they were familiar with some of my work, so that didn’t hurt either. I think the biggest issues were how were we going to document the work that the Interrupters do in the streets. It’s instantaneous and in difficult situations where us being there with a camera could be potentially problematic. So the first thing we said to them was that we’re not making a reality TV show. After the article they had been contacted by reality producers, and I told them we didn’t want to do that because those shows are all about just going from one conflict to another. We wanted to dig deeper, to understand the problem, and to watch people solve it. We talked individually with some of the Interrupters [and asked to follow them]. The response we got was that depending on the situation, we could, but that there would be other situations where it would not be wise. So we took a bit of a leap of faith, shot a little bit, and put together a demo. I went to IDFA and pitched it, and we were able to secure some foreign broadcast money as well as ITVS. ITVS led us to Frontline [which will air the doc on PBS after its theatrical release], and we were off.
Creating a sense of intimacy while shooting was key, I would imagine. What size crew did you have? I’ve always worked small, but for this I ended up shooting even smaller. There were times where it was just me and Zak Piper, who did sound and is co-producer on the film. Usually [in my films] there’s only three: I’m directing, someone is shooting, and someone is doing sound. But because of Alex’s involvement in the film it made sense to keep us even smaller and for me to take the position of shooter. And we were literally on call. There were stretches of time when we were shooting four days a week. We’d shoot three hours this day and five hours that day and two hours that day so it was impossible to have a consistent d.p. So whatever my merits are as a cinematographer [laughs], at least they were consistent and I didn’t have to call anyone else.
Was this the most time you’ve had behind the camera since your early days of making films? Yeah. I did a fair amount of shooting for the story I did for The New Americans, and that was partly for budget and practical reasons as well, but generally speaking I don’t [shoot]. But after I got my feet under me again, I really enjoyed it. And because this is such a vérité scene-driven movie, I loved being right there in the middle of it. In my past films, with the exception of Stevie, which I was in, I’ve often done sound.
How did you choose your individual Interrupters? We first started filming the CeaseFire meetings and saw this as a way to get to know more of the Interrupters. There was a lot of encouragement [given to the possible shooting subjects] by Tio [Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois]. We identified people who we thought would be great candidates, but we didn’t want to confine ourselves initially. Ameena was clearly one of them. She was one of the only women Interrupters, and initially she was somewhat reluctant. She had been interviewed by local news before, and I think she tended to think of us as “the news.” So she would spend a little time with us and say, “Well, didn’t you get enough?” And I’d go, “No, no, no, this is different than the news. It was great but we need more.” I think it took her a while to get her mind wrapped around what we were doing, that we weren’t out for some kind of headline-grabbing moment.
As you show, the biggest thing in these neighborhoods is making sure that the people you interact with are not going to snitch on you. How were the Interrupters able to make people understand that the film crew could be trusted? The key there was that the Interrupters command so much respect in that neighborhood because of who they were and what they did in the past. That’s a key underpinning of the whole philosophy of the Interrupters program. As Tio says early in the film, they have to “intercept whispers.” So, for instance, in the film where the woman calls Cobe about her two sons, [it’s because] he’s gone back years with her. They have a history. So [when we were shooting with Cobe] he’d keep it very simple and just say, “I’ve got my film crew with me because they’re doing a thing on my work.” People knew we weren’t cops, and he would drop things like Hoop Dreams when he felt it was helpful. Or he’d mention Alex’s book, because if you’ve done prison time and you’re from Chicago, you’ve probably read Alex’s book. With Ameena it was a little different. She would say, “Yeah, we’re filming.” Nobody says no to Ameena.
You can kind of gauge the subjects’ comfort levels by where the camera is. In some scenes it’s close, and in others it’s further back. Yes. One time when Ameena went down to talk to this group of guys, I’m like, “Can we go with you?” She said, “No, stay here, I’ll call you down if you can.” I knew that wasn’t going to happen and when I started to see [a situation] unfold, Zack and I slowly inched our way down there. I was able to zoom in but we still stayed outside of the whole thing. You have to feel out those situations.
Did you ever feel in danger during the film? No. It really is true that people — and I found this in my other films too — take their cues from the people you show up with. So if we showed up with Cobe, or Ameena, or Eddie, there was this trust or comfort that went a long way toward people acting normal. When Flamo came out on his porch and threw the phone, what an entrance! In the raw footage Cobe told him we were going to be with him and he ranted for 20 seconds before saying to us, “Who the fuck are you guys again?” Cobe said, “Remember, these are the guys doing the film.” And he was like, “Oh, okay.”
Did you and Alex ever think people may have been acting up because they saw cameras around? We talked about it. It’s the age-old documentary question, and it’s probably heightened in this case given the kinds of situations we were filming. But for instance Flamo — if you talk to somebody who knows nothing about our film but who knows him, they’ll go, “He’s one crazy motherfucker!” We went back and got a line from Cobe after the fact for the voiceover [to explain this because] when we showed the film to people as we were making it, they would laugh at some of the stuff he’s saying. We didn’t want people to think a) that this was all show for the camera and b) he’s not really a dangerous guy, because he is. He’s 32 years old and he’s spent 15 years behind bars. He’s hilarious and scary [in real life], and that’s the way he is in this film. So my feeling is, yes, anytime you are filming it has to have some impact [on people’s behavior], but I’m more amazed, frankly, that in all the years I’ve been doing this how little the camera changes what unfolds if it’s handled in the right away. We don’t make a big deal about what we’re doing; we try to make it seem like this is nothing. And I’m always amazed at what people will say and do.
Is it true at one point the leader of a Latino gang in Chicago said you couldn’t film on their turf anymore? There was a scene in the movie where Eddie meets this guy who was shot and paralyzed, which had caused [Eddie] to retaliate and murder somebody. They sit and talk about what happened back then, and Eddie tries to explain to the guy that going to prison was the best thing that happened to him. Eddie’s trying to pull him out, because even though he’s still in a wheelchair, he’s still in that life. The guy is like, “Hey, this is who I am.” It’s a very poignant scene, but Eddie’s friend was very clear: you can’t use my face, and you can’t show my tattoos. We honored all of that but then the leader of his gang heard about this and said, “No, enough.” Eddie came to us and said, “I really tried to convince him but we can’t film anymore.” I said, “Can we still use the scene with your buddy?” “No.” I said, “Can we go talk to the boss?” He said, “No, you can’t go talk to him.” We cut the scene but the boss still said, “I don’t want them filming here anymore.” Eddie tried to explain, and he said, “I don’t care, I don’t want guys going on camera.” So with Eddie we don’t even know what gang he’s in, and we blurred out the tattoos on his arms. That’s how serious it is with Latino gangs. It’s a top-down system, and if I put guys on camera and they lose control, who knows what could come out of that. [Eddie] said for my sake, and the guy on camera, that we couldn’t use [the scene]. We were like, “Hey, it’s out, and we won’t go over there anymore.”
Because you had foreign broadcast rights sold and were involved with Frontline before shooting, did your filmmaking-style change? Did you consider these different audiences and outlets, or were you always thinking of it as a theatrical documentary?I don’t look at it differently from a shooting standpoint. My feeling is we’re just trying to make the best, truest film we can make. I’ve had people ask me, “This is going to be on PBS? This seems more like HBO territory.” And they’re right in the sense that on HBO nothing would have to be “bleeped” and we’ll have to deal with that on PBS. But it doesn’t govern how I approach the film. Maybe it should. [laughs] My feeling is, we’ll figure it out as we go. It’s one of the reasons why I love the fact that we’re getting the film out vigorously on the festival circuit and that we’re going to have a theatrical release. Whatever has to ultimately happen for public television, at least this film is out there in the way it should be.
So have you begun thinking about what you have to cut to make it work for TV? They’re having us cut a two-hour version, which means basically trimming a half hour from the theatrical version. But depending on the film’s profile come award season time, Frontline may advocate to PBS to broadcast the theatrical version for the premiere airing.
Though the film touches on some horrible aspects of Chicago, it also has a lot of hope in it. It is kind of a love letter to your city. We wanted the film to be raw, immersive, and uncompromising, but we also didn’t want it to be one long “oh my God, here’s this awful problem.” We wanted it to be a film that hopefully hooks you as a viewer. We wanted you to get invested in our Interrupters and the people they are working with. We wanted you to pull for them to succeed so by the end of this movie you feel some sense of inspiration from who they are as people and the work they’re doing. We wanted you to feel hopefulness that people don’t want to be violent, that people can change given a chance, given an opportunity, given some help, given some encouragement. It’s important, because to get people who don’t live in those communities to give a shit, you have to make them connect in an emotional way. You have to give them some sense that there is genuine hope. Earned hope. Someone reviewed the film and said they found it to be unsentimental but inspirational, and I liked that. That can be tricky to pull off because when people try to be inspirational they sometimes tug on the sentiment as much as possible. This film is very emotional but I feel like we found the right balance. That’s why there’s not a lot of music in it; we’re very careful where the music is.
The Interrupters are really father figures for these people. But it’s fascinating that for them to be that father figure they have to have murdered someone or gone to jail. Exactly. I equate it to when we did The War Tapes, when [the soldiers] came home. It wasn’t in the film, but we filmed them talking to a therapist about PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] after they came back. You could just see the soldiers listening to hear [whether the therapist] had ever been in combat. If he hadn’t been in combat, no matter how well intentioned he was, it wasn’t the same. So when I see the Interrupters, I see them as street therapists in a way.
I want to get your opinion on the evolution of documentaries over the past few decades. Do you think docs are in a good place right now? I think documentary is in a great place in a lot of ways. We used to tend to think of documentary as a genre, like the romantic comedy genre, thriller genre. Well, if documentary is a genre, all those [other genres] apply now too. The Cove was a heist film, basically, as was Man on Wire. An Inconvenient Truth, I don’t know what genre that would be but that was almost like the filmstrip you’d watch in school. I don’t mean that critically, because it was raised to a whole other level. American Movie is a comedy. And now there are animated documentaries too. The explosion [of ways] in which to tell non-fiction stories is really exciting. But I do think as we go forward we increasingly have to find ways for our films to be consumed outside of festivals and occasional theatrical releases or TV broadcasts. The Internet presents a real challenge for long form. We have to figure out ways that we can prosper with new technology, and I think we will. I think it will have to involve some changes from old-school types like myself and others, but I don’t think [documentary] is going away. People have this strong desire to connect to the real world despite the mediated culture we live in. For a lot of people, outside of their day-to-day lives, documentary filmmakers are that connection. Because it’s not happening through any other medium.
With all the great things going on with documentaries, though, my only worry, outside of the constant concerns about funding sources that we all deal with, is that documentaries are getting shorter and shorter. On one hand that’s good because they’re getting leaner, and that makes them more audience friendly, but on the other hand there’s a slickness to a lot of the work. It’s very impressive — I could never do it — but too many documentaries are too worried about being purely entertaining no matter what the subject matter. It’s funny because the most interesting narrative films being made these days are the ones that are adopting doc approaches, trying to achieve a level of authenticity that documentaries have. And I see a number of documentaries going the opposite direction, becoming slicker entertainments, and it’s a weird thing. I mean The Fighter was a total doc approach. And The Wrestler. Even the Jason Bourne movies. I think on one hand it’s a positive that documentary filmmakers don’t feel bound by old-fashioned notions of what non-fiction films should be. I totally agree with that, but I have this small worry that too many documentary filmmakers feel like they have to be slick, entertaining, and really short. Sometimes it’s okay to be just as authentic and as real as what you encounter in the world.
In the past we’ve talked about the chance of there being a Hoop Dreams sequel. What’s the latest on that? We were thinking about it and we’ve decided not to do it. We don’t want to taint the legacy of the film. But I still am very much in touch with [the film’s subjects].
It’s been almost a decade since your boxing movie, Joe and Max. Are you interested in doing a narrative feature again? Yes. I would love to. I’ve been trying to develop one part of At the Death House Door into a narrative because I think it would make a great narrative film and would attract great actors to it.
Looking back on your career, Stevie is the film that stands out for me. Would you ever make a film like that again, where you put yourself out there like that? That is the most honest film I’ve ever made. And you can say, well you make documentaries and they should all be honest, but in virtually every documentary you don’t put everything in that you could. There are degrees of candor and honesty in every documentary, and in Stevie the degree of candor and honesty is as close to complete as I’ve ever been and probably ever will be. Part of that was because I was putting myself in the film and not portraying myself in an entirely flattering way by any stretch — especially if you read what people wrote about it. [laughs] So I’m very proud of that film because of that. I hear from more people about Stevie personally, like through e-mails, than Hoop Dreams. When I go to film festivals I hear from more people about Hoop Dreams, no question, but for people who sit down and go, “I want to find this guy and write him because I was impacted,” Stevie is the film I hear about most. I think one of the things I learned from making Stevie was to always try and make the films as complicated and truthful as you can, to push for that, but to do so in a way where you’re really trying to get the audience to understand and not sit back in judgment.