Q&A: Steve James

Aaron Wickenden/Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Steve James' The Interrupters is about Chicago's CeaseFire, a group of activists who step in to stop street violence -- one trigger-happy hothead at a time -- by talking with them before they kill. The documentary topped Indiewire's 100-critic poll in June and is up for a Gotham Award on Nov. 28. 

The Interrupters played so well at Sundance, pundit David Poland pronounced it the surefire Oscar winner.

Yeah, that was something. Especially since it was only January. And it was three-and-a-half hours long. It was sort of a madhouse because we submitted it really late in the game. Now it plays leaner and meaner at 125 minutes, and it's better for audiences. There's a difference between a festival audience and a theatrical audience.

Hoop Dreams, your 1995 Oscar front-runner about inner-city basketball players, changed Oscar history by getting screwed. Although it received the highest number of perfect Oscar scores, a few voters gamed the system, rated it low and prevented its nomination.

Apparently like about a dozen voters did it.

The scandal caused the most brilliant, popular Oscar rule reform in years -- and wiser doc noms ever since.

The process is much improved, in part because they recruited a lot of documentary filmmakers in the branch now. It used to be older members of the Academy, not all documentary makers, and skewed toward retirees, because they were the ones who had the time to look at all the films under consideration.

And now the Cinema Guild film is the favorite. But is it as much a slam dunk as Hoop Dreams? Street violence is more melancholy than sports triumph. Will this one be a harder sell?

I don't think we're a slam dunk, and that's not false modesty. This is a different film than Hoop Dreams, where we follow two young guys and their families, so there's a strong narrative. This is centered around us being in the streets with these three pretty amazing individuals, and over the course of a year, you get to know a lot more people. It's more episodic. Also, there are so many good documentaries with extraordinary reviews. Hoop Dreams came at a time when documentaries weren't really in theaters much, and now it's not that much of a big deal, so there was a certain phenomenon that's harder to happen these days. A film about urban violence is tougher for an audience. And so no one's more surprised than me by the response. The only ads for this movie were what was required by the Academy, in July. We couldn't afford any more. In New York, we played seven weeks. It's entirely due to reviews, blogging, word-of-mouth. What has caused the film to play well is that we're following these inspirational people.

Also, the "violence interrupters" Cobe and Eddie have charisma, and Ameena, a major gangster's daughter, has movie-star beauty and presence.

Ameena's a force of nature.

The people they help are volatile, like the capricious Capricia.

Apt name. Right, and there can't be a more perfect name than Flamo [a gun-toting convict helped by the Interrupters].

While you were filming, one of the Interrupters got shot and a fight erupted. Did you feel you were in danger?

There were some tense moments, but I always felt safe in the hands of the Interrupters. They're so respected.

Does your camera affect the intense emotional encounters you record?

Yeah, I mean, that's the $64,000 question in documentary. I don't think it does. When we first met Flamo, he was drinking, he threw his phone in the snow, looked at me and said, "Who the f-- are you again?" He was so angry, we were just a blip to him. But when you do a documentary, you're essentially saying their life matters, and it encourages them to think about it. My favorite moment in the film is when he says later, "I don't want to be just another story, I want to be the one telling the story." Such a poetic moment, an insightful moment. I don't think we caused the change, we were just there. Had the camera not been there, would he have said it? I don't know. He spoke it instead of just looking out the window and thinking it. If that's the change a documentary causes, I'll take that any day.

When I saw critic Glenn Kenny at Sundance a few years ago, he said, "Documentaries are kicking fiction films' ass." Why are good docs so common?

It's really hard to make great fiction -- I've tried. You have to create lightning in a bottle. In docs, if you've picked a great topic, there are all kinds of ways to fail, but you're at least starting with something. The people are less predictable. The most interesting American fiction films for the past 10 years have attempted to adopt a documentary-style approach to storytelling: some of Paul Greengrass' work. The Wrestler. The Fighter looked, walked and talked much like a documentary, in the way in which dialogue was written, or delivered, or improvisationally arrived at. Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves was very much in that style. Prominent fiction filmmakers are gravitating to the documentary form as a stylistic choice to try to give their films more of a sense of authenticity and urgency and truth. When the Academy changed to 10 nominees for best picture, they really should've changed to 10 nominees for best documentary. Because year in, year out, you can make a much stronger case for 10 really strong documentaries than 10 fiction films.