Out in Oak Park, Steve James has cultivated an unassuming life—one that reflects his approach to filmmaking.
Out in Oak Park, Steve James has cultivated an unassuming life—one that reflects his approach to filmmaking. Credit: John Sturdy

Steve James has directed two of the most lauded nonfiction films of the past 20 years (Hoop Dreams and the CeaseFire portrait The Interrupters); two formally ambitious masterworks (Stevie, about his ongoing relationship with an emotionally disturbed young man he met through the Big Brothers program; and the PBS series The New Americans, which chronicled several different immigrant families); and several exceptional documentaries on a range of subjects. His latest movie, Life Itself (which opens this week at Landmark’s Century Centre), is a biography of beloved Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. The film moves deftly between a rousing account of Ebert’s storied life and a sobering portrait of his final days, during which time he continued working even while being treated for cancer.

Apart from his little-seen Reel Paradise, Life Itself is the first James movie to address explicitly the nature of movies. That might sound like a change of pace, since James, in spite of his critical reputation, rarely gets discussed as a cineaste. The praise for his films tends to emphasize the social issues they confront, often at the expense of their narrative and psychological complexity. Moreover, James’s unassuming persona would seem to sanction this interpretation. “I don’t lose a lot of sleep over whether anybody thinks I’m an artist,” he told me when I interviewed him at his home last month. “I always want you to be plunged into the films.”

James’s lifestyle also reflects his modesty. For nearly 24 years, he’s lived in the same small house in Oak Park, where he and his wife, Judy, have raised three children. During our interview he was as happy to speak about marriage or parenting as he was about movies. (Many of his career decisions have been influenced by how they’d affect his family life, he was quick to note.) He did have plenty to say about his approach to filmmaking, his cinematic influences, and his relationship to Chicago-based production house Kartemquin Films (with which he’s made most of his films, including his current project, Generation Food, about various efforts to solve food crises in communities around the world). But before getting into any of that, we toured the garden that takes up most of his backyard.

Did you plant this garden?

No. I cut the grass—or as I like to say, the weeds. Judy, my wife, is the gardener.

She has a very interesting job. She works with sex offenders at a detention and treatment facility in Rushville, Illinois, which is about a four-hour drive from here. She goes down there during the week and comes back at the end of the week. She’s been doing that for about eight years.

Illinois is one of about 20 states where, if you’re a sex offender and you’ve served your time, a judge decides whether you are still a danger to society. If they determine that you are, then they send you to this place where my wife works. It’s after you’ve served your sentence; you become civilly committed. It’s probably unconstitutional, but it’s never been seriously challenged, maybe in part because no one wants to fight the fight for sex offenders. Generally speaking, the people who end up there are repeat offenders. It’s only something like 3 percent of sex offenders who end up there, but this facility has 500, 600 guys. Most of them will spend the rest of their lives there; they’ll never get out.

How long has your wife been in social services?

Since she got out of grad school. She was probably in the field by ’82. She wasn’t working with sex offenders then; she was working with at-risk juveniles. That’s how I ended up becoming a Big Brother and meeting Stevie.

I hope this doesn’t come off as pejorative, but your home looks more like the residence of a caseworker than a filmmaker.

Well, it is! [Laughs.] But you mean because I live in Oak Park and not in Chicago—

Or Los Angeles or New York.

My wife did not want to move to a big city. It’s not like she hadn’t lived in bigger cities, but she really fell in love with the lifestyle in southern Illinois, which is very laid-back. When I was ready to leave school and make movies, she was adamant about not living in New York or LA. She had lived in a suburb of LA when she was in grade school, and she didn’t want to go back there. But I already knew that I wanted to make Hoop Dreams, and I knew that Chicago would be a great place to make it. I offered up Chicago as a compromise, and she said, “OK, but I just ask one thing: I don’t want to live in the city proper, because I think it would be too overwhelming.” That’s a long way of saying I don’t take your comment pejoratively.

Were you ever tempted to leave?

At one point. After Hoop Dreams, there were opportunities to do stuff in Hollywood. I did one small [fiction] feature, Prefontaine

James's new film, <em>Life Itself</em>, is a biography of Roger Ebert.
James’s new film, Life Itself, is a biography of Roger Ebert.

And then a couple of narrative movies for TV, right?

You know, when I fell in love with movies, I fell in love with movies, not documentaries. I never stopped wanting to do [narrative films]; I just fell into documentary and found I had an affinity for it. Hoop Dreams gave me opportunities to do [fiction] movies. For a while, my life was like The Big Picture, the Christopher Guest movie. [Hoop Dreams cinematographer] Peter Gilbert and I were getting meetings in LA all the time, getting flown out first-class.

I ended up doing Prefontaine and those two cable movies, which was a great experience. I feel that I improved my skills by making those, even though I don’t feel like they were anything particularly great. But after Hoop Dreams I had no money and we had three kids, and those films made it possible to put money away for the first time in our lives. But after I made that third one, [boxing drama] Joe and Max, I was pretty determined to get back to documentaries—though I did make Stevie during that time. I was just missing so much time with my kids.

Documentary filmmaking gives you more time to spend with your family.

Yeah, because I control it more. Even though I’m gone plenty, it’s never like I’m gone for long blocks of time. When I did those three [fiction] films, from 1996 to 2001, I wasn’t here for a solid six or seven months each year. My family would come visit me for a week on location or I’d come home for a weekend. When I came back after Joe and Max, we had New Americans under way and I’d gotten some money to finish Stevie. That’s when I said to Judy, “I feel like I can make this work. I won’t make as much money, but I think we’ll get by.”

What inspired you to get a degree in filmmaking?

I took a class [on film] at James Madison University [in Virginia], where I did my undergraduate. I liked going to movies. I wasn’t a cinephile or anything, but I would see some challenging stuff. That semester, the class was on auteurs. We looked at four films each by Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, and Arthur Penn. I was just like, “This is what I want to do.”

It’s funny you cite that class as an inspiration, since it seems that, in your own career, you’ve resisted being labeled an auteur. On at least three of your films­­—Hoop Dreams, At the Death House Door, and The Interrupters—you share the “film by” credit with other people.

Sometimes I don’t take a “film by” credit at all. There’s something a little weird about it, in my view. The directing credit absolutely makes sense. You could even say I deserved the [sole] “film by” credit on Interrupters, since I shot it, edited it, and directed it. But it really was a collaboration with Alex [Kotlowitz], who’s a good friend of mine and a brilliant guy on all these issues [the film touches on]. His writing inspired the film, so it just felt right. The same was true of Hoop Dreams. The three of us [James, Gilbert, and editor Frederick Marx] were deep into [the project] for seven and a half years. We each poured a lot of ourselves into the film just to keep it afloat.

Don’t you think there are ramifications to not taking sole credit? For instance, Hoop Dreams was your first major work, yet by sharing credit with Gilbert and Marx, you seemed to be drawing attention away from yourself. The attention, for the most part, was on the movie.

You know, I hadn’t really thought about this before, but I think you’re right. Maybe it’s a changed a little bit, but to this day, if I go to a film festival, maybe there are some people who know me on sight and come up to say hi, but it’s not like I’m Errol Morris. If he shows up to a film festival, he’s mobbed.

Do you find that not being recognized gives you greater freedom in filming ordinary lives?

Yes. I like being able to start a project with someone and come in fresh. It’s not like I say, “Do you know my work?” Sometimes that’s valuable, though, because you can use your reputation to get access. But generally, my approach to filmmaking is to treat the film as no big deal, as a process. I make no promises [to the subjects] about what’s going to happen, because I have no idea. Even if I have money from public television, I can’t say conclusively that [the film] will air, because they can decide not to air it. So I try to treat it as a little thing that we’re doing together, no matter how long or ambitious the project is. I think that helps with the subjects, because everyone has an image of what being in a film is, but most often it’s grounded in Hollywood ideas—you know, that it is a big deal.

Would you say your colleagues at Kartemquin nurtured this attitude in you? Or did you enter into filmmaking with that mind-set already in place?

I first heard about Kartemquin when I was at Southern [Illinois University], because they started up this little festival down there—which is still going—called the Big Muddy Film Festival. That started when I was there, and the first year, [Kartemquin filmmaker] Jerry Blumenthal came down and presented some of their work. I liked what I saw and thought they were working from a cool concept. When I decided, towards the end of my academic career, to make Hoop Dreams, I decided to go to them to see if they were interested in the project, if they wanted to help foster it. I didn’t know much about them apart from the work I’d seen, but I liked what I saw. There was a social consciousness to it, and a clear-eyed view of the world that appealed to me.

In addition to their social consciousness, I think one of the distinctive qualities of your documentaries is that they have very clear narrative through lines. The emotional tenor rises and falls much like in narrative movies.

Like a lot of filmmakers, I gravitate towards what’s emotionally resonant for me. That’s not always true—I like to mix it up, in terms of the stories I tell. But I do tend to tell stories about people who are at crossroads in their lives, which is often an emotional time. Hoop Dreams was about a series of crossroads. Same with New Americans, because it told multiple stories of people making the journey to this country. The Interrupters is different. In some ways, it’s the least narrative-driven film I’ve done, which was actually liberating. Of course it’s great to have a good narrative to hang everything on, but it’s also exciting to be faced with a situation where you don’t have that. How do you pull people through the film? I feel like, with that one, the only thing confining me in terms of narrative was the changing seasons. If we maintained the general chronology, we could do anything we wanted. So, we found all those mininarratives about the different interrupters and the people they worked with, what their lives were like before and who they are now.

You seem to love counterpoint. You’re always cutting between stories. There’s never just one.The New Americans would seem to represent the pinnacle of your filmmaking in that regard. There, you juggle five major story lines, and there are multiple narratives even within those. You’re constantly subdividing, getting more and more specific.

The series was kind of my brainchild, and there were a couple of things that were important to me in making it. One was that I wanted to start [documenting the subjects] before they got here. The idea was that we’d get to know them before they were immigrants, understand what they’re leaving behind and what they hoped to find in the U.S. The other thing was that I didn’t want to tell these stories as a series of stand-alone documentaries. I wanted to interweave them.

James documented the experiences of several immigrant families in the PBS series <em>The New Americans</em>.
James documented the experiences of several immigrant families in the PBS series The New Americans.

To me, New Americans feels like “a film by Steve James.” It’s a great example of how a filmmaker can assert his authorial voice through editing. But again, your name is not especially prominent in the credits. You’re listed as one director out of seven. That’s another time you could have taken a “film by” credit, and yet no one gets that distinction.

Well, [Kartemquin cofounder] Gordon [Quinn] and I executive-produced it, we each directed episodes, and then I edited it with David [Simpson] and Leslie [Simmer]. I got plenty of credit for it. When it was written about, critics tended to seize on my name­—if anything, I feel a bit guilty about that. Yes, it was my vision in a way, but it was such an enormous undertaking.

I wonder, though, if you’re sometimes undervalued as a filmmaker. Often when documentaries address social issues, audiences will focus on the issues and not the storytelling or filmmaking style. A lot of critics do that too, myself included.

I’ve been treated well by the critics over the years. Not always—Stevie had some notable detractors, but I expected that would happen, given the subject matter and how I put myself in it. But you’re right. There’s a tendency in criticism of documentaries to write about the content and not the form. Even though many people were moved by the stories in The Interrupters, I didn’t read any articles that addressed the editing structure, which I was very proud of. This probably happens in the response to my work a lot more than someone like Errol Morris. His work, and I mean this in a positive way, is more self-consciously aestheticized. His approach calls attention to itself, and he’s brilliant at it. This gets to why I fell so in love with the work of Jean Renoir, to go back to that undergraduate class. Renoir had what he called an “artless” style. On first blush, you might not fully appreciate what he’s doing. In fact my teacher had to help me understand it.

James's mentorship of troubled youth Stephen Fielding is the subject of <em>Stevie</em>.
James’s mentorship of troubled youth Stephen Fielding is the subject of Stevie.

You can’t identify a “Renoir shot” the way you can identify, for instance, an Orson Welles shot.

The first time I watched The Rules of the Game, my professor set it up as “this is arguably the greatest narrative film ever made.” I had recently seen Citizen Kane, which is so self-consciously art, so the first thing I thought with the Renoir was, “Really? This?” But then I watched it again, and I watched it again. By the third time, I really started to see how Renoir was working with layers of action and just the deep pathos of his filmmaking. Also his sense of humor, his sense of irony, and his knowledge of the social reality. It’s all in there. Renoir was very much aware of class—not just the friction between classes, but the humor of class relations. I know my films aren’t considered comedies, but I’m always on the lookout for humor in people’s lives. I think it comes from wanting to capture the complexity of life.

Critics rarely write about the humor in your movies.

I’ve seen The Interrupters with audiences, and there’s always a lot of laughter. Same thing with Life Itself. But since, at the end, it’s not funny at all, people might come away thinking it’s a sad movie. But I’m like, “Remember that you laughed a lot too!”

Maybe that’s because laughter has the effect of bringing audiences closer to a subject, so when something tragic happens to him or her, viewers might feel more devastated than they would have otherwise.

For sure. But my hope with Life Itself is that it would reflect how Roger embraced every aspect of life. I wanted the film to get its arms around his spirit, because I couldn’t possibly show everything that happened to him in a two-hour film.

The movie isn’t so much about Ebert’s criticism, but what he was able to achieve through writing criticism and by being a public figure. The movie also could be described as a companion piece to At the Death House Door, since both films raise the question of what it means to die with dignity.

There’s definitely a relationship there; and, yes, the way Roger handled dying was just profound. But I think the movie is also about a guy who embraced, well, life itself. When he died, he was able to say, “I’ve had a great, adventurous life.” I don’t know how many critics will be able to say that on their deathbeds.

Your films often deal with heart-rending subject matter—Life Itself is no exception. Do you ever find yourself saying, “I can’t show this or that; it would come off as sentimental”?

I feel like I have a sense as to whether a moment feels real or sentimental. Of course all film is manipulation, but that’s not to say that all manipulations are created equally.

I ask because most of your movies feature scenes of people crying. I imagine it’s a challenge to present those moments without making them seem like direct appeals to the viewer’s emotions.

It might surprise you that I’ve left many scenes of people crying out of my movies. Some people are just more emotional than others, and you don’t want to do them a disservice as subjects—or would you say “characters”? There’s no good name for the people onscreen in documentaries, is there? Anyway, characters, subjects, whatever—they’re what drive my interest in doing a movie. I’m very much taken with people. I feel like the social value of the story comes out of that.

Because focusing on a few people encourages viewers to reconsider social issues on a human scale?

Yeah, but also I’m just really curious about other people. There are two fundamental approaches to shooting verite. One is that you don’t interact with your subjects at all. You try to be the fly on the wall, even though you can’t achieve that completely. The other approach, which is how I work, is to forge a relationship with the subjects. I’m going to spend a lot of time with them, so they feel comfortable with me. But then, doing that makes me more curious about them. I want to talk to them and interact with them.

That sounds a bit like working with actors on a fiction film.

There really is a connection between directing actors in drama and directing [subjects] in docs. You’re trying to get people to give you something real, and your job is to get them to that place. I know what I get out of that process—I get a film, and I get this remarkable experience of looking into other people’s lives. But I’m always asking, What do they get out of it? Well, when it goes well, I think they’re put in a position to think about their lives in ways that they normally don’t. They get to ruminate on their lives, either through interviews or just in thinking about why somebody is making a movie about them.

One of my favorite moments in The Interrupters is the second time you meet [ex-convict] Flame-O. Coby [one of the interrupters] is taking him to get some jerk chicken, and you see that Flame-O is acting different than the first time you saw him. He’s actually thinking about his life. That’s due to Coby having entered his life to try and help him, but because we’re there with the camera, Flame-O’s trying to put into words what he’s going through. I find that incredibly poetic, and it’s something that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t making a movie about him.