Steve James on Life Itself

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
img_stevejames-hikaluclarkeA conversation on gun control in America, perceiving truth as a filmmaker, and the life and legacy of Roger Ebert with esteemed documentarian Steve James.

Before Alex Gibney, Charles Ferguson, and the Werner Herzog renaissance came Steve James. Since Hoop Dreams 20 years ago, the personable Chicago man has been one of the great American documentary filmmakers, with work including Stevie, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, The Interrupters, and now the moving Roger Ebert biodoc Life Itself. Via Skype from his hometown and ahead of the film’s Australasian premiere at the Documentary Edge and Sydney Film Festival, we discussed Martin Scorsese, the role of politics and friendships in criticism, ecstatic truth, and love. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: There’s a great scene in The Interrupters when Ameena tells Caprysha “You gotta love yourself first.” Roger Ebert was someone who loved himself first, then others. There’s that charming scene where Chaz [Ebert] says, about when she first met him, “He was 300 pounds but he thought he was great, that was so sexy.”

STEVE JAMES: [laughs] Yes, I love that. I think that you’ve hit on something that, in a way, what this film is really about is a series of love stories. It was Roger’s love of movies; it was Roger’s love of Gene Siskel, despite all the other things that went on between them; and then, of course, the great love story with Chaz. But, you know, above it all was Roger’s love of life. It really kicked through shiningly in his memoir, and it’s something we tried to do justice to in the film, the way in which he embraced life starting very young.

AB: Roger loved the black community and vice-versa. The filmmaker Ava DuVernay hails him as an “honorary brother.” There are very touching scenes, like his granddaughter talking about his varied influences and inspirations on her in the hospital.

SJ: I loved that about Roger. Race has always been an interest, if not a full-on obsession of mine. You see it in a number of films that I’ve done. And I think when it came to this story, it’s not the central part of the story in that sense. I think in a weird sort of way, what made Roger so interesting when it came to questions of race was the way in which race didn’t really seem to matter in that relationship with Chaz. I mean, she talks candidly about his worry about his family when they were going to get married. But for him, he and Chaz just seemed to have achieved a kind of marriage across lines of race that was quite remarkable, in that it didn’t seem to matter.

AB: When I visited Chicago in 2012—you capture this adroitly—it’s impressive how beloved Roger Ebert is.

SJ: Yes, quite beloved. I mean, I think he’s one of the iconic figures in the history of the city as a writer, and beyond that as a personality and his influence.

AB: I stayed at Hoop Dreams’ former Caprini Green on the Near-North side. It was Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather’s homecoming at Seward Park: a community barbeque, tagline “chilling and grilling.” I was the only white guy there, there’s still quite a high degree of segregation in Chicago. Did you gain trust in the black community to do a film like The Interrupters partly because you’d done work like Hoop Dreams?

SJ: Well, it didn’t hurt. Cobe, one of the interrupters that we followed, he had a really great and deft way of referencing Hoop Dreams, and actually at the time we were making The Interrupters, at one point the Allen Iverson doco was on ESPN. He would help ingratiate us into situations by just saying “hey have you seen Hoop Dreams?” and guys would say “yeah, yeah,” and he would go “this guy did that,” or the Iverson doco. And what that did was help you get immediate credibility. It also served a really important function which was it helped dispel, in the back of the minds, many of the guys’ worries that this could be some kind of sting operation [laughs] with this white guy with a camera. I think that with Ameena too, you mentioned earlier, we had a struggle getting her to fully commit herself to being in the movie in the way we wanted her to be. She had had some dealings with media which were the local TV stations, and it was pretty simple what they wanted. So she gave us what she thought we would want, and then was ready to be done with us.

And one of the ways that we were able to convince her to give herself more to it was at one point, she said “Give me some of your other work.” Because her husband had played ball and had seen Hoop Dreams and he said, “Honey, you gotta see this film.” So I gave her Hoop Dreams and I gave her Stevie and At the Death House Door. She had a marathon screening one weekend, and she said “Now I get it, now I understand what it is you’re trying to do and the kinds of films you make,” and from that point forward she was on board.


A scene from ‘The Interrupters’.

AB: The Interrupters is vivid, hectic, riveting, and upsetting, her stories and the others. There’s also the inspirational storyline with Cobe and Flamo who starts off as an “eleven” just about to go up and shoot some people dead, and then at the end of the film has really calmed down and got himself a job and is doing well.

SJ: Yeah, I think that’s what of the things that can happen in a documentary when you go in and you can afford to spend the time and not essentially go in a take a snapshot of the situation, but go in and really follow the follow-through that Cobe had with Flamo and with guys like Lil’ Mikey and that Ameena had with Caprysha. When you’re able to do that it makes for a much more authentic, complicated, and richer portrait. If we’d only seen Flamo once in the film on that porch, he would certainly be memorable. But we would have a very, very different idea of who that guy is than we do by the end of the movie.

AB: When I was in Harlem in 2012, I went up to their exciting annual street basketball competition. A week before five people were shot there. That’s one reason why, like Roger  and you, I’m passionate about gun control.

SJ: Yeah. Chicago for years had one of the strictest gun control ordinances and laws on the books. And then the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional, which didn’t help. But you could say, even with those strict gun laws there was still an awful lot of gun violence in Chicago. That’s true, because the guns would come up from the south, they would come up from Texas, they’d come from any number of states where there are no real gun laws. Until this country decides—if this country decides—to really tackle it on a much broader level nationally, it’s always going to be hard to really make meaningful impact on that issue because it’s too easy to bring guns across state lines and into cities.

AB: Like his important friend Roger Ebert, Martin Scorsese has great passion for life itself. How was it working with him?

SJ: It was great. He’s one of my all-time favourite film makers. His film Taxi Driver was a film I saw as a very young man that was one of those films that made me want to be a filmmaker. Raging Bull was a film that, to this day, I think it’s the greatest film made in the arena of sports of any kind. He’s made so many great films over the years so to get a chance to meet him and work with him and interview him was a really special treat for me. In the movie, he’s both hilarious and extremely poignant. You couldn’t really ask for more, he’s like his movies.

AB: Alex Gibney told me on Scorsese, “He has such extraordinary charisma, and also he’s like the Energiser Bunny. You see sparks fly, and of course he talks very fast in rapid-fire fashion, but ideas are just sparking off his forehead. His mouth can’t catch up to the number of ideas he has at a certain moment in time.”

SJ: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t think I can improve on that. Why don’t you just attribute that quote to me? You don’t need to attribute that to Alex Gibney, he’s got plenty of good quotes.

AB: He added, “I think infectious enthusiasm is as good a description as any.”

SJ: Yeah, he was great. Frankly I really enjoyed interviewing all the filmmakers that we featured in the film. I could have interviewed 100 filmmakers, but I really tried to pick filmmakers for whom, and with whom, Roger had had more than just a casual relationship. That he not only impacted their careers but he’d actually become close to in some way. Not many film critics do that. Roger wasn’t held back by the notion that filmmakers and film critics should keep their distance. I think he really felt he learnt something about film making from that experience of getting close to a handful of film makers. He was also just a guy who loved people, especially when he met someone that really interested him, that was a real character like Scorsese, or Errol Morris (in his own way), or Werner Herzog very much. He was fascinated by these people as individuals, not just filmmakers, and that was enough for him to wanna become friends with them.

AB: Roger Ebert was a generous man, but he wasn’t the soft touch some of his critics say, even to a friend like Scorsese with The Color of Money. Did you read his sharp, mortality conscious pan of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones?

The Lovely Bones is a deplorable film with this message: If you’re a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to… less to the possibility that there is no heaven, and none at all to the likelihood that if there is one, it will not resemble a happy gathering of new Facebook friends.”

SJ: No, I missed that one. He went against the critical grain at times. One of the reasons I liked including Blue Velvet in the film was because Roger’s problem with Blue Velvet wasn’t that he didn’t think it was terrific filmmaking, he just thought the filmmaker had acted in an unethical way in the treatment of an actress. And that’s a really interesting basis on which to pan a film, because he’s really stepping outside the notion of what the film does to take a look at the larger picture of how it was made. And he was amazingly sensitive on that because he perceived it from watching the movie, and he articulated what he thought had happened, which was that David Lynch has basically blindsided Isabella Rossellini with the sequence, and the way in which she was ridiculed on camera in that sequence he read as too authentic to have been planned and acted. And then when Isabella Rossellini years later wrote an autobiography, she confirmed that that’s in fact exactly what happened.

AB: That’s right. Herzog has that idea of ecstatic truth versus the accountant’s truth, but Errol Morris disagrees with him (according to Andreas Dalsgaard) and says there are truths. What’s your view on this complicated issue?

SJ: It is complicated. I love the notion of ecstatic truth, and in every sense I’ve made this film I’ve been invoking it repeatedly as a defence for anything I want to do. But more seriously, I think the heart of what Herzog is saying is true. My cinematographer on this, and several of my films, Dana Kupper, she said that every documentary is a thousand lies in the service of the truth.

I like that quote because I think there are a lot of little cheats and lies and alterations, depending on how you want to define them, that go in to the making of any film, documentaries included. And ultimately, it’s really your decision as a filmmaker. Although people might watch it and make their own decisions about what you’ve done, you as a filmmaker have to decide whether what you have created speaks to what you witnessed as the truth. And I think within that there is latitude as it relates to Herzog’s approach; there’s latitude to do things that aren’t precisely true if they speak to a greater truth that is perceived. I think to pick up what Errol Morris might be saying, although I haven’t read what he had to say about it, is that it’s a slippery slope, and it can become too easy to rationalise a lot of cheats and lies that might in fact undermine the credibility of the film and the truth as it was perceived. I learnt long ago that the truth I perceive when I’m making a film is not necessarily the truth that another filmmaker would perceive. It’s not even necessarily the truth that the people I’m making the film on perceive completely. Ultimately a filmmaker has to be true to what they witnessed as to be the truth, but they also can’t be so narrow minded as to not listen and really try to take in perceptions of others.

AB: Not everyone can pull off ecstatic truth.

SJ: No not everyone can do it. I also think in this day and age, too, the lines between fiction and documentary are blurring as they never have before. They have been experiments in blurring documentary and fiction going back decades, but it’s become a much more mainstream thing as the documentary form has expanded to include all kinds of approaches that go beyond what we have traditionally defined as documentary. Whether it’s animation, or creating re-enactments, which Errol Morris does as good as anybody. These lines are being blurred, and I think it’s a healthy thing because I don’t hold hard and fast. I don’t think that anything is truly sacred, but I think that the sacredness has to be that the film has to feel and hold up to a scrutiny to say, does this film feel honest and truthful? Even if it’s a point of view I don’t agree with, does it feel honestly arrived at, and truthful and complicated, or does it feel like I’m being sold a bill of goods?


AB: It’s not a hagiography, you capture Roger Ebert’s flesh and blood nature. There’s that extraordinary moment where he emails that it’s important for you to include the tough stuff, even difficult things he and Chaz really don’t want to see in there.

SJ: Absolutely, and that spoke to him as a man and as a film critic understanding that if this film was going to have merit, it can’t be hagiography, it’s got to really capture the truth. When Roger would email a colleague, like when I wanted to interview people that knew Roger for years, old friends and such, and I reached out to them to interview them, they would not have consented to be interviewed in the film without his approval. And he knew that, so he emailed them, and Chaz would email them in some cases, and they would basically say to them “please cooperate and be a part of this, and please be candid.” They were very explicit about that. It speaks to Roger the film critic, and also Roger the man that that was important to him.

AB: There’s an indelibly moving scene at the end where he says “I’ve had a beautiful life, you must let me go.”

SJ: That interview with Chaz and that description of that last day, for me personally as a filmmaker—and I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years and I’ve been moved many times over the years—that is right up there among the most moving moments I’ve ever had. I mean, Dana, who I mentioned, my shooter, who’s kind of a tough nut, she’s standing behind me, because I’m sitting in front of her for the interview, and in the midst of it I hear this sniffling going on. At first I just thought she had some sinuses or something it was a little distracting, then I realised, no she’s crying back there. And I was tearful, but she was crying. It was such an amazing moment, we all felt privileged to have borne witness to it. I mean, that’s the wonderful thing about doing documentaries, is that the way in which people sort of take you in and share with you these things in such honest and beautiful ways, it’s why you do it.

AB: Exactly. What was your biggest surprise making the documentary?

SJ: I think the biggest surprise—and it started with reading the memoir—was the way in which Roger faced down death. In those last months, as it turned out to be, his sense of humour was intact, his work ethic was still intact, his stubbornness was still intact [laughs]. He was the same guy, yet he was facing the end. I knew he was a brave guy from the way he had handled six to seven years of travails medically, but when you know you’re near the end and you’re that way, I think that’s a pretty remarkable thing. But then to also find out through Chaz that there was a time when he said “Kill me.” Where he did not think he had the will to go on, that was a surprise because we have this impression of Roger that he never got to that point. But he did, and I really appreciated Chaz sharing that with us, because I think it’s the kind of thing that can speak to a lot of people. Because we can all imagine, especially if we’ve endured any kind of real medical hardship, getting to that place, and knowing Roger got to that place and was able to get beyond that place with Chaz’s help is pretty damn inspiring.

AB: It’s really inspirational, that love that he had for Chaz and his writing, keeping him going. You evoke his polymath form, passionate about politics and liberalism and race, right back to his early days as a student journalist. He was sharp and unapologetic about these vital issues.

SJ: Absolutely, and it informed his film criticism, made him distinctive. When you read him, certain films would inspire him to go off on a tangent about something much more political or about the world we live in apart from the movie. How did it make him feel? Part of that was what did it conjure up in him about the world we live in, not just the world of the film itself.

AB: He managed that deft trick of being populist in what is, after all, a popular medium, but being serious, intellectual, literary. His review of Hoop Dreams , 20 years later time has slipped through our fingers like a long silk scarf, but those reviews still hold up.

SJ: Oh yeah. His great reviews are really a delight to read.

AB: Are you hopeful about a good future for good criticism as a professional career, rather than a barely glorified hobby?

SJ: That’s a tough one. I think there’s more criticism being done than ever, just like there’s more films being made than ever. It doesn’t mean that everybody that’s making films and writing criticism can make a living at it though. There used to be a bottleneck in both filmmaking and film criticism that prevented people who just wanted to write criticism from really having a way to disseminate it, or make films to disseminate them. But because the means of production in film have become much more affordable and because of the Internet, the means to reach an audience have been made completely accessible. It’s healthy to have all these films being made, and it’s healthy for there not to be gatekeepers who prevent people from writing film criticism. But it is a double-edged sword, because if we don’t have film critics that can make a living at it, then when have a problem.

Roger Ebert is a perfect example. That kind of longevity and the insight and power that came to Roger Ebert, you have to be able to make a career of it. That’s the double-edge, we need people to be able to be in it for the long haul, because they will become much better and more influential critics.

AB: I’m pleased to see the All Blacks playing in Chicago in November. With your past in sports, is that something that interests you?

SJ: Interestingly enough, I did a film called Head Games after The Interrupters and I did an initial version, and then we just did this updated version which I should probably bring with me to New Zealand. But we really dive in to rugby and the whole concussion crisis around that sport, which has become much more front page news of late, particularly in Europe, and I assume down there as well. So, I saw my first rugby game in the course of shooting that film, it was one of the Six Nations games between Wales and Scotland, and it’s a pretty amazing atmosphere and an incredibly crazy sport. And if I didn’t have this heightened awareness about the dangers of concussions I probably could have enjoyed it more, but those guys are huge. It’s amazing. I’m told by people who know way more about rugby than me is that it is a relatively recent development, the size of players getting bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger. It’s incredible to see the size of those guys slamming in to each other without pads, without helmets.

AB: Another South-sider, Barack Obama, said he would most strenuously discourage his son from playing American football.

SJ: Right, you’ll find a lot of NFL players are now saying that about their own kids. Yes, they do have helmets and all, but the argument about why the NFL continues to be a very dangerous sport is because guys slam into each other with complete impunity because of the padding. They launch themselves like missiles at each other, and the helmets make them feel like they’re safe. While the helmet can protect you from traumatic brain injury, it does nothing to help prevent concussions [laughs]. So it’s a crazy sport, it’s not nearly as crazy as it was 10 years ago, though. They have made some strides, but I’ve talked to NFL players who basically say they won’t let their kid play. They don’t regret that they’ve played. The ones I’ve talked to, they will say, “I have no regrets about having played even if I’m going to suffer from it.” But they’ll then go on to say, “I’m not going to let my kid do it,” [laughs] which tells you something.

AB: There are so many good stories to tell, particularly living in a dynamic place like Chicago, aren’t there?

SJ: Yes there are, there are many, many stories to tell. I love this city, I love it with all its flaws. It has many. But it is a vibrant place with a lot of incredible people and a lot of people trying to do great things, and a lot of people trying to do bad things, and I can’t think of a better city to live in.

ILLUSTRATION © Hikalu Clarke 2014. All Rights Reserved.

‘Life Itself’ has its Australasian premiere at the Documentary Edge Festival in Auckland on May 29. It also screens at the Sydney Film Festival in June. This conversation has been edited. Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh (and Alix Chapman) for transcription assistance on this article.
Alexander Bisley is attending the Sydney Film Festival courtesy of Destination New South Wales and QANTAS.