Steve James

In 1986, Steve James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx started shooting a documentary about two Chicago basketball prodigies, Arthur Agee and William Gates, both of whom had been given scholarships at the prestigious Illinois private school St. Joseph's, where Isiah Thomas had once been a star. James and company weren't entirely sure what to do with the footage they were getting, so they kept shooting when they had spare time and money, following Agee and Gates through their tumultuous high-school careers and beyond. In 1994, they assembled their footage into the nearly three-hour feature Hoop Dreams, which impressed fellow Chicagoans Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel so much that they reviewed it on their nationally syndicated TV show before the film had been screened publicly. Hoop Dreams went on to become the talk of the Sundance film festival, and then a mini-sensation on the arthouse circuit.

Shortly after completing Hoop Dreams, James and Gilbert made the indifferently received dramatic feature Prefontaine, about legendary long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine; they then re-teamed for the acclaimed documentary Stevie, about a troubled young man that James tried to help first as part of the Big Brother program, and then later as a peer. James' latest documentary is the as-yet-unreleased Reel Paradise, about indie film producer John Pierson, who attempted to run a movie theater on a remote Fijian island for a year.

To mark the 10th anniversary of Hoop Dreams' release, The Criterion Collection has given the film its DVD debut, in a sparkling edition that includes a commentary track by Agee and Gates, a commentary track by the filmmakers, and generous samples of Ebert and Siskel's extensive stumping for the film. Steve James spoke with The A.V. Club about the Hoop Dreams legacy and the filmmaking philosophies that have gone into his subsequent films.

The Onion: Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and Reel Paradise cover a broad range of subject matter, but they all have to do with what benefactors owe to the people they help. What draws you to that question?

Steve James: You know, when I look at those three films, I think there's all kinds of ways they connect. The theme that's always stood out most strongly to me is family. I'm endlessly fascinated with the ways families work and the ways they don't. In Hoop Dreams, you see the Gates family, who appear to be on very solid footing. Yes, the father's not in the home, and that's unfortunate, but the family has adapted, and at the time we arrived, they'd been handling that for years and had become a very close-knit family. The Agee family was equally close-knit in their own way, and of course a portion of the film is devoted to what happens when Arthur's dad leaves. In Stevie, obviously that's a very troubled family that's struggling, and in Reel Paradise, I think they're a more typical middle-class American family going through what families often go through when they have teenage kids as strong-willed as the Piersons' kids are.

Anyway, that's one of the connections I see. The benefactor thing is interesting. Obviously Stevie is the most overt, in my stumbling, fumbling role as a former Big Brother coming back into his life in some fashion. In Hoop Dreams, I guess you could say Coach [Gene] Pingatore plays that role, or sees himself as playing that role, as a coach who works with inner-city athletes. He sees himself as a father figure, like many coaches do, but on the other hand, he's trying to win basketball games. And then I guess in Reel Paradise, you've got John [Pierson], who sort of sees himself as the proselytizer for film. He's a missionary for film sort of like the Catholic missionaries on the island. So if that's what you're referring to, I certainly see that. But I hadn't personally made that connection. [Laughs.]

O: It comes through strongest in Reel Paradise, which starts off as a sort of fun family adventure, and then about halfway through more serious issues pop up, like whether the films Pierson shows are appropriate for the younger audiences that come to the screenings, and whether his daughter Georgia is making promises to the natives that she won't be able to keep.

SJ: Well, when someone tries to be a benefactor and do what they perceive to be the right thing, oftentimes the results are far more complicated and less clear than the intention. In the case of some of the people portrayed in Hoop Dreams, in the case of me in Stevie, and in the case of John to some degree in Reel Paradise, there are things that all of us told ourselves we were trying to do, but they didn't always go according to plan.

O: You were only with the Piersons for the last month of their year on the island, correct?

SJ: Yes. It never was possible or practical to think I might document their whole experience. As John has said, I think that would've ruined their experience, if I had been there from the start. It would've signaled to the islanders, "This is purely a film." [Laughs.] By the time I was able to pull everything together, it looked like the best way to organize the film was to go for the last month and sort of document the final month in Fiji, but in the course of that, try to look back over the year and sketch in what it had been like.

O: Your subjects in all of your films seem very relaxed and open in front of the camera. Do you use any special method to achieve that comfort level?

SJ: I pay handsomely. [Laughs.] No, you know, if you'd asked me this question right after Hoop Dreams, I would say the key is longevity, and building trust over a period of years. There were certain watershed moments for the boys, growing up, and we were there for them in a lot of ways that we didn't put in the movie. But in the case of Stevie and even with Reel Paradise, I think that maybe a bigger reason for getting that intimacy has to do with a fundamental level of confidence. I, and my fellow Hoop Dreams filmmakers Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, we're just really straight with people from the get-go about what it is we're trying to do. And we've always tried to communicate a certain affection and genuine interest. Basically, what we're saying to people is, "I find what you say about your life to be significant. It's something that people should hear."

You kind of form a bond with your subjects, in a way. You're in it together. To a degree that people don't realize, documentary films–or at least the kind of documentary films I'm interested in–are a collaborative undertaking with the subjects. We don't go in there and promise people that they're going to have editorial control, but what we do say to people is, "We're not here to do an exposé. Our interests lie elsewhere. And before this film is done, you'll get a chance to look at it and weigh in on it. And if there are things that really bother you, we'll talk about them with you. We can't promise you we're going to take them out, but we promise that we're going to take what you feel very seriously." And we do.

There are a lot of documentary filmmakers that don't do that, that consider it verboten. Their subjects only see the film when it's done, and may not see it until they see it at a film festival. Me, I can't imagine doing that. I can't imagine springing a film on your subjects that way. At Kartemquin Films, where I've done a lot of this work–Reel Paradise wasn't a Kartemquin, but the others were–our philosophy has always been to share the film before it's completed. And we've never been burned by that so far, knock wood. And the films have gotten better, and they've gotten fairer, and people felt like they've been heard.

O: With Hoop Dreams, you ended up sharing some of the profits with the Gates and Agee families, correct?

SJ: Yes. And with the success of documentaries, that's a question that's coming up everywhere with subjects. They want to know, "If this makes any money, what's going to happen?" With Hoop Dreams, given at that time what the world of documentary was, we basically said to the families, "Yes, if this ever makes money... ha ha... we promise that we'll sit down with you at the appropriate time and try and work out something that's fair and equitable." But I give this speech every time now when I do a documentary, and I go on to say, "Don't do this because you think it's going to make money." Because most documentaries do not make money, and at the time we were doing Hoop Dreams, we could say, "It's exceedingly rare that a documentary ever makes any money."

That just goes back to what I was saying a moment ago. I think when people go into something for the right reasons, you're going to get a better film, you're going to get more intimacy, and a stronger foundation of trust. If it's about money, or it's about fame, well, we say, "We don't know what's going to happen to this film. This film could play in some festivals and that could be the end of it, or it could end up on TV, or end up in theaters. So don't do it if you think you're going to get famous." One of the differences between real documentaries and reality television, besides the artificial construct of reality television, is that the people who are recruited to be on those shows, and the people who are interested in going on those shows, basically want to be famous. Or maybe they can win a million dollars or something. Which is one of the reasons why those people are never interesting. [Laughs.]

O: How did you all earn a living during the eight years it took to make Hoop Dreams?

SJ: We didn't get any significant funding on Hoop Dreams until after almost three years of shooting. And even once we got that, it wasn't like we could drop everything else we were doing and just work on Hoop Dreams. Prior to that, Hoop Dreams was made purely as a labor of love by the filmmakers–and by Kartemquin, which helped sustain us and guide us.

Peter was a cinematographer–still is, but he also now has a career as a director–and he would shoot films for other people, make his money that way. Frederick, I think, did some editing on other projects, but also worked, as I did for the first few years of Hoop Dreams, as a production assistant on TV commercials. Hoop Dreams was just this little pet project, although it mushroomed as time went on. It was always this thing we did on the side. I'd work a few weeks as a production assistant, later a production manager, make pretty good money, and then I could afford to spend a few weeks working on Hoop Dreams.

O: The reception of Hoop Dreams at its Sundance première and afterward was due in some part to the early Siskel and Ebert review. How did that come about? Did you just send in a screener tape, unsolicited?

SJ: That was actually the brainchild of John Iltis and his public-relations firm in Chicago, who we'd hired to help sell the film. His company handles movies that come to town, so he's had a personal and professional relationship with Roger Ebert for many years, and Gene Siskel, when Siskel was alive. John sent the film to Siskel and Ebert and basically called in a favor. He said, "I think this is something. It's going to Sundance. They don't have theatrical distribution. I know this is an unusual request, but I really think this is a special film. It was done here in Chicago. Would you please come to a screening?"

And Iltis did something very smart. He knew that Ebert wasn't a big sports fan... or at least that's what he tells me. He worried that because it was about sports, Ebert might not be inclined to come. So John told Ebert that he really thought he should see the movie, and he asked Ebert to bring his wife, who's an African-American lawyer, telling him that he really thought she would enjoy it. Now, Siskel was a huge basketball fan. He had season tickets to the Bulls for many years. So he was an easier sell. [Laughs.] But I think John was able to intrigue Ebert enough that they all showed up for the screening.

John's partner Dave Sikich set up the screening, and as you know, filmmakers don't show up to those. [Laughs.] We were dying to hear what they thought of the film. We were just completely anxiety-ridden. I remember talking to Dave after the screening and pumping him with questions. "Did they like it? Could you tell?" "Well, they didn't say anything." "Did they look like they liked it?" "Well, they were pretty stone-faced." But as they were approaching the steps of the theater to leave, Dave heard Roger go, "You know, one thing that was interesting about the film..." And then the door closed. [Laughs.] I was dying.

But then it wasn't too long after that we heard they were going to review it, and we knew it had to be positive. Because they wouldn't, you know... [Laughs.] There might be some critics out there who would, but we knew they weren't going to go after our little film. They reviewed it while we were on our way to Sundance. At that time at Sundance–which seems unheard-of now, given the way it's evolved–if you were a filmmaker with a film at Sundance, they told you that you could come for the first half of the festival or for the second half. You could come for the whole thing, but they'd only put you up for the first half or the second half. Most filmmakers chose the second half, because if you're in competition, you might win a prize. We chose the second half, so by the time we arrived at Sundance, the review had aired and there was a significant amount of buzz.

O: Hoop Dreams was one of the first really successful theatrical releases to be shot on video, which is now a common practice. Are you comfortable with that legacy?

SJ: When Hoop Dreams came out, it had so many strikes against it in terms of getting a theatrical release. It was three hours long. It was about sports. And it was about inner-city kids. Its only real hope for theatrical distribution was on the arthouse circuit, and only maybe one or two documentaries a year got that kind of release. The fact that it was shot on video was kind of the final nail in the coffin. Forget about it. Maybe there was another film or two prior to ours that was shot on video and transferred and had a very limited release in a handful of cities, but by and large, it was an unheard-of thing. And the process of blowing it up to 35mm... You know, there were labs that did that sort of thing, but they didn't do much of it. The lab we ended up using in L.A., we spent a significant amount of time just working with them to try and figure out all the technical enhancements we could do to make it look the best it could possibly look. It was a real trial-and-error procedure. We shot on Betacam video, which was the professional format at that time, but it's not nearly as compatible as hi-def or Digibeta or things like that today.

I think we take some pride in the fact that Hoop Dreams helped to break down that barrier. Because I think our feeling has always been that in documentary, and in fiction too, it's really, "Do you have a story to tell? Do you have something that's going to engage and provoke and hook people?" Ultimately, people don't care how pretty the pictures look, if you've got those other things going.

O: Are you sure? Some cineastes still curse Hoop Dreams for turning film festivals into video festivals.

SJ: Yeah, well... sorry. [Laughs.] There are certain films... I mean, I wouldn't want to see Lawrence Of Arabia shot on video. And even that film about the Inuit, the fast runner, Atanarjuat? I love that film, but I remember I was initially deflated when I saw that it was on video, because I thought, given its locale, it would've looked great on beautiful, pristine film. But you know what? I got over it. [Laughs.] Because the story is so strong, it ultimately didn't matter.

I love film. I'm one of those guys who, when I go to the movie theater, I'm not the projectionist's best friend. If I see something that's off, I'm up out of my chair. I love the beauty of film, and that's why shooting Stevie on film was such a pleasure. But is it essential? There are so many films that people have come to love and prize that originated on video and never would've happened if they couldn't have been done on video. And Hoop Dreams is one of them. We all came out of film school and wanted to shoot film, and we originally tried to budget it as film, but we realized it would be impossible.

O: You and Frederick Marx have flowed back and forth between making documentaries on your own, making them together, and making dramatic features. What was the transition like for you, going from Hoop Dreams to Prefontaine?

SJ: My initial love affair with film was with narrative film, not documentary. I fell in love with movies. Movie movies. I just kind of found my way to documentary because the program I went to was strong in that, and I'd always had a journalistic bent. The opportunity to move into a dramatic film like Prefontaine was very appealing. I made a lot of mistakes. I'd never done it before. I've done two other cable movies since then, too, so I've done three of these films–all true stories set in the world of sports, because that's what people are willing to hire me to do. But even though they're biopics, which I think are the hardest kind of dramatic films to do, they've been great experiences because they're still stories. My interest has always been in stories, be it in documentary or drama. I'm not an issue-oriented filmmaker. I'm politically aware, and I like to think that the work is infused with that, but it really always starts with the story.

On Prefontaine, one of the things I learned on the job is that directing a documentary and directing a narrative film have some similarities. You're trying your best to create, in front of the camera, some approximation of the real world. It's easier, of course, to capture the real world in documentaries, because you're shooting it, but to represent the complexity of the world is something you have to work at. The other thing that was interesting was the relationship between myself and the subjects in both documentary and in dramatic films. At the foundation of good "performance" is that trust and connection that you forge with your subjects or with your actors. What you're trying to do in both cases is to get people to reach a little deeper into themselves, to give you something that's unexpected and true. That's what actors are always trying to get to, and I think that's what you're trying to do when you make documentaries.

There's an artificial construct in place when you're making a documentary. There is a camera, and there is a crew. I don't think people forget about the camera, but you get to a place with them where they feel a level of comfort and it's no longer an issue. So they're able to give you something that's more real, more who they are, without worrying about appearances. It's like the difference between when you have someone over to your house that you don't know very well, and when you become really good friends with them and they continue to come to your house. The difference between the first time they arrive and later can be quite significant. When we come to some people's houses, it's almost like they've invited us to dinner, in a way. And it's a lot harder for people to maintain appearances. It's a lot more work. What they really want to do is to be able to relax around you, like a good close dinner guest. When you get to that place with people, that's when you get the real them.

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