Alex Kotlowitz

The Interrupters producer and journalist on the film, his writing, and Chicago’s worst neighborhoods

Alex Kotlowitz is an old-school journalist in a new-school world. Focusing on hard-hitting stories about urban blight, poverty, and every day life, the New York Times contributor spends weeks and months crafting impeccably written tales while the online media (including this very site from time to time) jams out story after story about the Real Housewives or Pippa Middleton’s butt.

One such story about the epidemic of violence in poor neighborhoods landed in the New York Times Magazine in 2008, and has subsequently been turned into an excellent new documentary, The Interrupters, by Kotlowitz himself, along with Hoop Dreams director Steve James. It’s screening now at the Gene Siskel Film Center, having won numerous film festival awards over the past few months. The A.V. Club caught up with the writer, producer, and man about town to talk about The Interrupters, the Cease Fire program that inspired the movie, and the common threads in his work. 

The A.V. Club: How did you get involved with the violence interrupters you feature in the movie and the Cease Fire program they work under?

Alex Kotlowitz: My first book, There Are No Children Here, was about so much violence in the lives of two brothers living in the housing projects. Over the course of the two years I spent with them, there were all these forces bearing down on them. During the course of that book, they lost three friends in very violent ways, and since the book was published, four of the guys I knew and two others have gone to jail. I’d been grappling with the issue and trying to figure out a way to make it make sense, and then I heard about this Cease Fire program. Their bumper stickers are ubiquitous, but there was a time they even had these billboards talking about gang intervention.

One guy I play basketball with works for Cease Fire. Rather, he told me he did after one of our games, and I gave him an earful about what I thought about the program. I later apologized, and he said, “Why don’t you come by and visit?” I came away from that visit really impressed. They offered a different prism to look at violence through. They see it as an infectious disease and take moral judgment out of the equation. Then I went to spend an afternoon with the interrupters at one of their gatherings, and it was like being with The Justice League. They have an incredible window onto the city. 

AVC: One of the things I found really striking in the movie is that the city seems so foreign at points. Some of the worst neighborhoods are just a couple of miles from our homes or offices, but it seems like another world.

AK: That’s true. These communities are so physically isolated, and more than anything, they’re spiritually isolated. They’re so close and yet so far. A lot of Chicagoans might not spend any time there, and what contact they do have is through what they see in the news, which is a little unsettling.

AVC: What are some of the most powerful moments in the movie for you?

AK: There are a couple things that, working on the film during the 14 months of filming, really got me thinking. There’s a moment in the film, an iconic moment, when [one of the interrupters] Cobe goes to visit someone he knew from jail, Flamo, who’s about to exact revenge for these guys who turned his brother in to the police. He’s been drinking and he’s in a rage. We went to visit Flamo, and you just think, “This guy’s a lost cause,” like it’s a lost interruption, and this is a guy who kind of fits every stereotype we have of young men in these communities who are filled with anger. We spent some time with him over the following months, though, and it became clear to me that anger is not a permanent state of mind.

Secondly, I think that most people—and this works in the Flamo example—would rather not resort to violence. It’s not something that comes naturally. Flamo reached out to Cobe at a sober moment, and by the time we got there, he’d been drinking and he was in this rage. 

That story also brought home for me, like so many of the stories did, just how in some ways, on some level—and this is so self-evident and oversimplifying—but that some people just need someone to listen and believe. That was the case with Flamo. It’s something I’ve known, but boy did I need to be reminded.

AVC: You produced this movie, but you were also there during filming, and you wrote the original story. What was your role, really, during this whole process?

AK: When I think producer, I think it’s someone raising money, and I’m about as inept doing that as anyone. Steve [James] and I were creative partners on the movie. Because of my time working on the story, I knew the Cease Fire brass and had built up some trust. Most of the shoots were just me, Steve, co-producer Zak Piper, and a sound person. I would take the lead in most of the interviews, but they’d usually become lively three-way conversations in the end.

I was deeply involved in the whole thing. Steve and I had each had personal relationships with the interrupters. They’d call us when something happened.

In terms of the narrative structure and story, though, it was nice that Steve and I had very similar sensibilities. I’d done TV documentary work before, but it was one of those things that was so different to me. Filmmaking is this collaborative process, and the writing life is so solitary. I had two years where I was working with others, and I admire those others. I was hanging out with [interrupters] Ameena, Eddie, and Cobe.

AVC: Do you keep in touch with the interrupters?

AK: Eddie, Ameena, and Cobe are all good friends. I see them socially, and they’ve been coming to the film festivals, taking turns coming. We’ve had a great time traveling together.

AVC: We’ve got a relatively new mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Do you know what he thinks about the interrupters or Cease Fire in general?

AK: I don’t know that Rahm has paid much attention to or had much interaction with Cease Fire. It’s so early in his administration. Not much has changed for them since Daley, though. The program’s funding is a constant struggle more than anything.

The good news is that Lil Mikey, who’s in the movie getting out of jail, is now the youngest outreach worker ever hired by Cease Fire. He got married, too. Flamo’s still working. Caprysha graduated high school. She got her diploma while she was incarcerated. She’s still struggling, though. Cobe is now a national trainer, which means he doesn’t work in the streets. Eddie’s no longer at Cease Fire. He’s in social work school. He wants to get his degree and then get his Master’s.

AVC: In the article from 2008, you say the interrupters made around $15 an hour, plus benefits. That seems a little low.

AK: It’s not a lot, but for these guys, it’s the best, if not the only thing, they can get coming out of prison. It’s income and stability, and they get a tuition discount at UIC.

You know, I worked on that magazine piece in 2008 and a lot of the guys around the table at that time are still there.

AVC: It just seems like low pay for such a dangerous job. One of the interrupters even gets shot during the movie.  

AK: There’s no question that it’s dangerous. Actually, during the filming, two interrupters got shot, but you just see one in the movie. I think more than that, the job’s 24 hours. You’re on call all the time. You can’t ever let down your guard. That’s not for safety reasons, but more that there’s just always stuff going on in these neighborhoods and there are always disputes simmering. That was the hardest part for me, and we just experienced it as filmmakers. We had to keep our cell phones by the bed and make snap judgments on whether we’d go out and film. 

What they’re doing out there is heroic, though, and they should be getting paid more.

AVC: What’s next for you?  

AK: The movie release has been a very new experience. With my books, it’s a different process. We premièred the movie at Sundance, which was a hoot. It was exhilarating and exhausting, but doing the festival circuit puts this public vitality to the film community. There’s a public vibrancy you don’t see in writers and readers. If someone reads a book and doesn’t like it, you don’t hear from them. If they do like it, maybe you hear from them. At a film, you get to experience it with an audience. There’s a part of me that gets anxious, but it’s just pretty exhilarating.

Anyway, we just premièred it in New York, and there’s a slow national rollout. The film will air on Frontline sometime early next year. We’re also trying to put out a fairly ambitious outreach campaign where we get the film into communities like Englewood, places around the country that are grappling with violence. We just showed it to 80 young people from different youth media projects in the city, and they said after the film that they saw their own lives in the lives of the people in the film. They thought it was a really honest portrayal of their communities, and that can make you feel less alone. That’s one of the powers of storytelling. Anyway, we’re going to run it in theaters like the Chatham in Lawndale, and I’ll definitely be there for some of those.

I am chomping at the bit to get back to writing, though. I loved working on the film, but I missed writing. It makes me feel alive. One of the things I found frustrating was when we were editing, we’d go into this room and I’d be looking at a scene, and I’d have to be reminded what preceded and what followed. With writing, it would all be there. I just couldn’t hold it all, and that drove me crazy after a while. It’s the way I’m wired, or because I’ve just done it in writing for so long that that’s how I’ve come to think. So, I took part of the summer to finish up a screenplay and now I’m in the midst of working on a magazine piece. That’s the most immediate way for me to get back to my writing.

AVC: It seems like there’s a common thread—reporting about poverty and the underserved—that runs through your work. Why do you think that is? What draws you there?

AK: I tend to write about people. I look at things from the bottom up and from the perspective of outsiders. A part of me just identifies with them. It’s my messed up internal nature that I always feel like an outsider. It’s just my nature. At these film festivals, I was an outsider for sure, but I always felt like one as well. I have that feeling at parties, too. I don’t belong there.

One way to take a measure of society’s social compact is by looking at things from the bottom up. There’s something exhilarating about telling stories that haven’t been shared before and haven’t been told publicly before. The last thing I want to be doing is telling stories other people have already told. That’s not to say that there isn’t important work out there about people in positions of power, but I know my strength. Even when I was at the Wall Street Journal 10 years ago, this is what I wrote about.