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INTERVIEW | Greg Jacobs on His Award-Winning High School Poetry Slam Doc

INTERVIEW | Greg Jacobs on His Award-Winning High School Poetry Slam Doc

Filmmakers Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel set out to make a film about the Chicago-area high school poetry-slam teams ahead of their competition in the specialty’s largest competition. The film has won awards at the Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, Palm Springs, Philadelphia, Portland, St. Louis, Virginia and Woods Hole film festivals. It opens on May 18th at New York City’s IFC Center. It is also scheduled to air on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network in the near future. Greg Jacobs agreed to answer a number of questions via email.

Every year, more than six hundred teenagers from over sixty Chicago area schools gather for the world’s largest youth poetry slam, a competition known as “Louder Than a Bomb.” Founded in 2001, Louder Than a Bomb is the only event of its kind in the country—a youth poetry slam built from the beginning around teams. Rather than emphasize individual poets and performances, the structure of Louder Than a Bomb demands that kids work collaboratively with their peers, presenting, critiquing, and rewriting their pieces. To succeed, teams have to create an environment of mutual trust and support. For many kids, being a part of such an environment—in an academic context—is life-changing.

“Louder Than a Bomb” chronicles the stereotype-confounding stories of four teams as they prepare for and compete in the 2008 event. By turns hopeful and heartbreaking, the film captures the tempestuous lives of these unforgettable kids, exploring the ways writing shapes their world, and vice versa. This is not “high school poetry” as we often think of it. This is language as a joyful release, irrepressibly talented teenagers obsessed with making words dance. How and why they do it—and the community they create along the way—is the story at the heart of this inspiring film. [Synopsis courtesy of Siskel/Jakobs Productions]

Responses courtesy of co-director Greg Jacobs

It all began with a lamp, a traffic cone and a Betamax…

When I was in junior high, I used to make short films with my family’s Betamax home movie camera. The most ambitious of these projects involved a traffic cone, a lamp, and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (it ended with the cone about to catch fire and an abrupt cut to black). So I suppose in some way, I always wanted to make movies.

But the path from Cone to “Louder Than a Bomb,” which is our first feature documentary, is one that only makes sense in retrospect. I was always compelled to want to tell stories, which took me from journalism to academia to radio, and eventually to television documentaries, which is what brought Jon and me together.

Over the course of our careers, the two of us have worked on hundreds of TV docs, in one capacity or another. But when we started thinking about “Louder Than a Bomb,” we knew that the topic was just not one the networks would be interested in, and decided that it would only work as a feature doc. So in a sense, we became filmmakers not by choice, but by a combination of accident and necessity—it just happened to be the best way to tell the story we wanted to tell.

They were all there to see poetry. For fun…

One night, in the spring of 2005, I was driving with my wife down Clark Street in Chicago, near Wrigley Field. As we passed The Metro, a legendary Chicago rock club, I looked up at the marquee and saw that it said “Louder Than a Bomb High School Poetry Slam Finals Tonight”. Stretching down the block was a line of teenagers of all shapes and sizes and colors.

Chicago is a highly segregated city, so it was strange to see such a diverse crowd of kids on the north side on a Saturday night. Stranger still was the fact that they were all there to see poetry…for fun…which is something I definitely don’t remember doing in high school. And that also meant there were kids who were getting up on stage and reading their poems in front of their peers, something that I couldn’t have fathomed doing when I was that age and writing occasional, horrible poems that mercifully never saw the light of day. That Monday, I mentioned all of this to Jon, and he said it sounded interesting, and maybe we should look into it. So that’s how the whole thing got started.

From there, we got in touch with Kevin Coval, the co-founder of Louder Than a Bomb, and he became our tour guide through the community, directing us toward schools with active slam programs, introducing us to the poets and the coaches, and so on. It took us about a year and a half to get to know the world, and to narrow the focus to the four teams we ended up following, and then another year to shoot what became the film.

Setting out to make “a good movie”…

From the beginning, our goal was to make an entertaining film, one that would send people out of the theater thinking not “that was a worthwhile documentary”, but rather, “that was a really good movie!”. We didn’t set out to make an issue documentary, or a political documentary, or even a documentary “about” slam poetry. We just wanted to introduce as many people as possible to the stories of these amazing kids, and to the extraordinary community that did so much to shape them.

What we couldn’t anticipate, of course, was how the story would turn out—how it would end up so powerfully reinforcing the message of the event itself, in ways that are complicated, sometimes heartbreaking, and ultimately inspiring.

On the challenges of structuring a story…

Without a doubt, the biggest non-funding-related challenge was figuring out how to structure the story. First of all, we had a puzzle that didn’t fit together all that neatly: three individual character profiles plus one really amazing, dramatically compelling team. Weaving their stories together in a way that allowed the audience to get to know them sufficiently, while still maintaining the overall dramatic arc, proved to be a two-year challenge.

Second, the poems themselves were two to three minutes long, and such electrifying performances that they demanded to be heard in their entirety. But every minute we devoted to the performances meant less time we could spend on the incredibly rich, complex lives of the kids themselves. So there were a lot of trade-offs that had to be made, and some wonderful material sacrificed, to get it down to a reasonable running time.

And finally, we thought that because we had worked on so many tv documentaries before, we would have no trouble figuring out how to construct the story. But as we soon discovered, tv docs and feature docs involve two totally different sets of muscles. We were like sprinters who say, “I can run a marathon…I mean, running is running, right?” So we essentially had to retrain ourselves in order to understand how to make a documentary function as a film. Studying some of the obvious antecedents—”Spellbound,” “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Murderball,” “Wordplay,” even “King of Kong” —definitely helped. But the real heavy lifting was done by our brilliant and infinitely patient editor, John Farbrother. While he may still prefer the six and a half hour cut, he did a remarkable job paring 350 hours of material down to such a dynamic and emotionally potent 99 minutes. 

Stories from the set…

Well, we can’t really tell our favorite production story, since it’ll give away the ending of the movie. So instead, we’ll go with one from the past year, as the film has been making its way around the festival circuit.

We finished the film on a Tuesday in late March of 2010. The first-ever public screening was two days later, at the Cleveland International Film Festival, for an audience of several hundred teenagers from the Cleveland Public Schools. Afterwards, during the Q&A, one kid stood up and said, “I’d just like to say, on behalf of everyone in this theater, that that was the best ‘true story movie’ we’ve ever seen!”, after which the whole place burst into applause. 

It was wonderful moment, and our first indication that the film would connect equally powerfully to teenagers and adults, cutting across lines of race and class in the process. It also was a sign that we might just have succeeded in capturing and translating the spirit of the event itself, and maybe even made an entertaining movie along the way. So it was a hugely gratifying response, one that thankfully keeps getting repeated everywhere we go. 

Up next…

Throughout the time we’ve been working on “Louder Than a Bomb,” we’ve also been doing television documentaries, so we will continue to do those projects as we get them. But as far as the next film project goes, we haven’t yet hit on the perfect idea. In part, that’s because we have had very little time to develop new ideas—we’re a small operation, so getting LTAB made and out in the world is a full-time job. But also, we’re having such a wonderful time with it, and the response has been so positive, that it’s hard to let go! I always explain it this way: when you’re in a great relationship, you’re not sitting there thinking, ‘this is great…who else can I hook up with?’ And so far, knock on wood, this has been a great relationship.

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