BY ROB FELD
CANDID CAMERA: James tries to stay clear-eyed but compassionate about his subjects. “As a filmmaker you go on a journey—but you don’t really know where you’re going.”
“To make the kind of documentaries I’ve gravitated toward, and to make them well, you have to be interested in psychology.” So says Steve James, whose films Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), At the Death House Door (2008), The Interrupters (2011), and now Life Itself (2014), about his friend Roger Ebert, explore the extraordinary, sometimes disturbing behavior of subjects over long periods of time. “Stories of people at important junctures in their lives, how they handled them, and what that says about who they are, consistently appeal to me. There are so many more layers to people; it’s a lesson I’ve learned and reveled in on virtually every film.”
Given his interests, it seems appropriate that James married a clinical psychology grad student from Southern Illinois University where he started his study of film. Although initially drawn to documentaries, it was a narrative director, Jean Renoir, who first gave him the bug to direct.
“What I took away from Renoir and applied to my approach was his full appreciation of human nature and its complexity; to capture and create life. It’s like that famous line from The Rules of the Game: ‘Everyone has their reasons.’ That sums up his body of work, but I believe it, too.”
Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, about a violent coal miners’ strike in Kentucky, was also a pivotal film for him. “To see how deeply she dug into a tense and emotional situation, which had so much on the line, resonated with me,” he recalls. “The Maysles’ films (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), took you to surprising places; you didn’t know where you were going because they didn’t know either. And Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai was liberating because as much as I was falling for documentary, I was already developing narrow ideas about what a documentary should or shouldn’t be. But that movie said, ‘No, it can be anything.’”
James’ breakout film, Hoop Dreams, spanning nearly five years in the lives of two promising inner- city high school basketball players, wasn’t initially meant to be a longitudinal documentary. James credits Michael Apted’s Up series with opening his mind to the possibilities of such long-term projects. “The notion that you could watch someone grow up before the camera wowed me,” he says.
The challenge of Hoop Dreams was figuring out how to sequence the parallel stories of the two boys. “We were going back and forth a lot, and you never got fully invested,” explains James. “The breakthrough was realizing that you can’t play ping-pong between them. We discovered it was more important to stay with one of them longer to root the audience in their story. Then we could find not only the right place to leave and go to the other kid, but also the most interesting contrast point between the two of them. I learned a lot getting my MFA in filmmaking, but most of the real lessons were learned on Hoop Dreams, and are continuing to be learned.” He won a DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary for Hoop Dreams and was later nominated for The Interrupters and At the Death House Door.
James has traditionally shot his films using a single camera—even the basketball scenes in Hoop Dreams. “Aspiring filmmakers ask me about shooting a vérité scene, assuming I use multiple cameras,” says James. “But, no, it’s always about achieving a level of intimacy with the subjects so that the camera can capture private moments.” Transforming that personal connection happens in the editing and coverage. “Even if you are privileged to bear witness to the most amazing thing, you have to realize while you’re shooting that you’re going to have to cut it; not just to make it shorter but to make it fuller and more revealing.”
However, for Life Itself, his interview-driven documentary on the iconic film critic Ebert, James employed two cameras to give himself the option of alternate angles. But, again, he faced the problem of crafting a narrative. “There’s an aesthetic storytelling challenge to each film,” says James, “and I like to think I figure out the best way to solve it. How do you tell a lively and entertaining story of Ebert’s remarkable life in a way that doesn’t feel like every other biopic?”
ON THE ROAD:: In Life Itself, James collects anecdotes from Roger Ebert’s life and documents his last four months in cinéma vérité fashion. (Photo: Kevin Horan/Magnolia Pictures)
Life Itself is deceptively non-chronological; it starts with Ebert’s childhood and ends with his battle with cancer. But the story is driven more by anecdotes that he recounted in his memoir (of the same name). “What pushes it further from standard biopics,” notes James, “is that the spine of the film is the last four months of Roger’s life, which we documented in a cinéma vérité fashion. And my email correspondence with him is another spine that threads through the film as a way of showing his failing health.”
James has avoided the propensity he has observed in some documentary filmmakers to tell the story they went looking for, rather than the story they found. He figured out Hoop Dreams as the boys revealed themselves on camera, and he didn’t begin Life Itself knowing he would be chronicling the end of Ebert’s life.
“As a filmmaker you go on a journey—but you don’t really know where you’re going,” he says. “Hopefully you’re not just clicking off the boxes as you go. I think what makes an audience care is the degree to which subjects honestly and intimately open up their lives to you; how revealing people are about universal things that touch us like loss, triumph, disappointment.”
None of James’ films convey more of that personal journey of discovery than does Stevie, which tells the story of the fillmmaker’s return to rural Illinois to reconnect with Stevie Fielding. Ten years earlier, James had been Fielding’s “advocate big brother,” but what he found when he arrived was tragic and disturbing, and turned what was going to be a 16 mm short into a 145-minute feature documentary, chronicling four-and-a-half years of Fielding’s family and legal troubles before and after he was arrested for child molestation. The events are compelling, but James’ personal relationship with Stevie forced him to confront the issues of exploitation, which documentary directors frequently must face as they interject themselves and their cameras into the private lives of their subjects.
“I think you never want to get past worrying about that,” says James, who attempts not to let himself off the hook. “You can only try to navigate it, and hopefully at the end of shooting you feel like you acted as a human being instead of just a filmmaker. This means that sometimes you do things for your subjects that a straight-ahead journalist would say you shouldn’t do, but I’ve never thought of myself as a journalist in that way. I’m trying to build a human relationship with subjects, and still tell a story with candor about who they are. That’s a tricky thing.”
James talks about wanting to do one more documentary that stretches over a long period of time, like Stevie and Hoop Dreams, but acknowledges the financial difficulties presented to filmmakers. He has learned that the secret to keeping afloat as a documentarian is to checkerboard his projects, to always have the next one in the hopper.
“I’m more prolific than I want to be, meaning that I’d like to spend more time on each film, but there’s a certain reality of funding that doesn’t let me do that,” he says. “To do a longitudinal doc right requires a serious commitment, but I love the immersiveness of them. Hoop Dreams was like living inside a Dickens novel: the rising and falling fates of these guys and their families—the unexpected twists. Stevie felt like Faulkner: torturous family history coming back to haunt and dictate—the sense of fate. Living inside them, you’re as fascinated by where they’re going as any page turner.”