Intimate Storytelling; Steve James On His Personal Doc "Stevie"
by Patricia Thomson
Shortly after director Steve James finished the award-winning basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams" in 1995, he renewed contact with Stephen Dale Fielding. The filmmaker had once been Stevie's Big Brother, and he was curious how the shy, awkward youth had fared in life. The answer was a troubling one, sending James on a documentary endeavor that lasted more than four years. The result is "Stevie," a powerful portrait of a troubled soul who winds up facing child molestation charges. Winner of the cinematography award at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, the feature-length film opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles today and will be released nationwide through April and May by Lions Gate Films. In this interview, the director talked about the evolution of "Stevie," his own role as a character in the film, and the challenges of having a personal relationship with his subject.
indieWIRE: The final form of "Stevie" is quite different from your original idea. Can you describe that initial concept for the film?
Steve James: When I set out, I imagined a fairly modest portrait study. I'd been looking back through some old journals and saw I'd written quite extensively about the experience of being a Big Brother. In the wake of "Hoop Dreams," I headed down to southern Illinois for various functions and renewed contact with Stevie. In the course of talking to him on the phone, I thought it would be interesting to do a film about what happened to him in the intervening years. When I went down there for the initial shooting, it was with this notion that it would be a portrait study of him using my journal entries to sketch in his past and the experience of being a Big Brother. I'd be asking, "Where is he now and what's become of him?" And that was it! Believe it or not, I thought it would be a half-hour film.
That's how "Hoop Dreams" started, too -- as a half-hour documentary on sidewalk basketball. I know. I'm little guilty of underestimating things [laughs]. That's one of the reasons we shot "Stevie" on super 16mm. Given its modesty and given the beauty of the area, I though it would be fun to shoot on film, since I'd studied film in college and had always wanted to shoot a documentary on film.
But I wasn't so sure after the initial shoot what kind of film I'd end up making. I naively thought that maybe Stevie would have gotten his life together, but I realized on that first trip he definitely did not.
iW: You wound up changing your own role in the film, as well.
James: Initially I didn't intend to be in it. We filmed my first interactions with Stevie because I knew people would be curious about me, since it was going to be this personal view of him. But I figured that would be the extent of my on-camera presence.
I'm not a big fan of diary films. I'm surprised, frankly, that I made a film where I am so present. It just seemed like it was the most honest way to deal with the film. It's a tricky thing, because some filmmakers are too ready to put themselves in films. I'm like, "I don't really care about you; I'm more interested in your subject, so stay out of it! Just make the film." No doubt, some people are going to feel that way about "Stevie." Others have said, "No, no, thank God you are a character, because otherwise I don't know if I'd want to spend this much time with this subject." A lot of people have very mixed feelings about him, but they also feel for him, and for them the film becomes a powerful and eye-opening experience.
But some viewers don't like me. I could have been made more sympathetic, believe me. I'm giving them ammunition, like in the scene in the Chicago nightclub [when Stevie drinks too much and spins out of control] ... If I was a friend or Big Brother first in that situation, I would have said "Fine, you can go to the club but you can't drink." That scene in particular turns certain people off to me. In the end, I'm a character like any other.
iW: What caused you to rethink the decision to put yourself in the film? Was it the turn of events, or were your peers encouraging you to go in this direction?
James: I didn't want the film to sidestep the fact of my involvement [in helping Stevie after his arrest]. So once that decision had been made, the questions were more about being as honest as we could -- and treating me as a subject as honestly as we could. But also finding the balance. I didn't want my relationship and issues about the filmmaking process to overwhelm the heart of the story, which is Stevie, his family, and his fiancée, and what they go through.
That's where executive producer Gordon Quinn, producer Adam Singer, and editor Bill Haugse were indispensable. They helped me look at myself as a character. It's hard when you're editing yourself. Sometimes you can have a failure of will [laughs]. There were times when they told me I was being to hard on myself. But then there were other times I let myself off easy, like with the Aryan Brotherhood. My version of that scene left out a lot of the most awkward stuff with me, where I look completely undone by this guy. He's evil, and one likes to think of oneself as strong in those moments. But I don't feel like I am at all. In my cut, I conveniently left out those parts and focused more on what he had to say to Stevie, not to me. Then Bill got his hands on it, and when I first saw Bill's cut of it, I thought, "Well, of course, it's got to be in there."
iW: You had to weigh different responsibilities in your role as director to the film and as friend to your subject. Were there instances where one ruled the other out and you had to make a choice?
James: There's that moment in the film where he calls me up and says, 'I need a hundred dollars to get out of jail.' I wanted to help, and also I realized there's not going to be much that happens in this film if he's in jail the whole time. So I'm sure that was part of what made me readily agree, and the fact that it was so little money. You hear my reluctance, but I agreed. It was when I got off the phone and my wife said, "No you're not." She brought me back to my senses. Film or no film, do you want that on your conscience if he's out and he does that to somebody else while he's out?
iW: You ask Stevie on-camera whether he feels like you've stabbed him in the back. In the end, does this film make you feel more guilty or proud?
James: I think this film is going to hard for him to watch. So I do feel some guilt about having made the film.
On the other hand, there are all kinds of arguments one can make -- and I have made to myself and to others -- about why we make documentary films and why we follow intimately people's lives and expose their triumphs as well as their tragedies. There are all those arguments that say, "If we don't give viewers a window into people's lives -- like the people in 'Hoop Dreams' or in 'Stevie' -- a lot of folks out there will never understand what they go through or who they are and what needs to be changed." There's a very good and honest and real social purpose, not just dramatic purpose, to telling these stories. In a film like "Hoop Dreams," I can take comfort in that. In a film like "Stevie," it's harder to take as much comfort because of my history with him and where he ends up. For me, it's the most complicated film I've made, and perhaps will ever make.