Despite how prepared you think you are to undertake a documentary project, as any filmmaker can tell you, things never go according to plan. But often these mishaps and detours end up being silver linings in the final film, according to award-winning director Steve James (“Life Itself,” “Hoop Dreams”), during his masterclass at Oregon Doc Camp on May 29 in Sublimity, Oregon.
“When things don’t go like you planned, and in my experience, that has happened on every single film and in a way, I’m thankful for that because anytime I’ve had an idea for a film and then had the good fortune to make it, my ideas about what it was going to be, what came out at the end was better than I could have imagined,” he told the audience of filmmakers.
In fact, James suggested that “if all you get is what you expected to get, then it wouldn’t be that enriching an experience to make the film and it probably wouldn’t be that enriching film….You typically don’t know as much as you think you know going in. The process itself is enriching.”
James detailed some of the problems he encountered during three productions and explained how he turned them into silver linings.
“No Crossover: The Trial of Alan Iverson” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” (2010)
James had a hard time getting anyone to talk on camera about an incident where star basketball player Allen Iverson was arrested after a racial brawl in a bowling alley in Hampton, Virginia, the small town where James grew up. Not only did Iverson refuse to be interviewed, but “many of the white people in the community especially those who had been in the bowling alley the night of the brawl refused to speak,” according to James. And the African-Americans in the community were also reticent about participating since they were concerned about how a white director might approach the issue.
But there were other unexpected moments that helped take the film in another direction — one that made it a much more personal project for James. At one point, James’ African-American cameraman Keith Walker, asked him “did you ever wish you were black?”
“I didn’t expect that question from a camera man,” said James. “Those kinds of moments were not expected but it came to feel absolutely important.”
James ended up being on camera in the film as part of the story, something he had never intended to do.
“I was not planning to be in much at all, mostly narrating…But those are the kinds of things when you’re making your film you look at what the film is at its essence and you react to it. Even though I didn’t get to interview white people who were in the bowling alley, I felt like I was able to represent what went on in the community.”
James initially started out thinking of “Stevie” as a short film, which was also how “Hoop Dreams” began. “I I like to delude myself into thinking it’s going to be a short film and then it’s three hours long,” said James, who added that this was a difficult film to get funding for — even after the mega-success of “Hoop Dreams.”
As with “No Crossover,” James had no plans to insert himself into the story, but things didn’t go according to plan.
The film was initially going to be a short profile of Stevie Fielding, a man whom, a decade earlier, James had mentored as a Big Brother. “My collaborators said, ‘You haven’t seen him in ten years, you should film yourself a little bit with him. I was like ‘I’m not going to be in this.’ I never wanted to be in any of my films, but they said, ‘You don’t have to put it into the movie but you should just have it.’ I said ‘Okay, but it’s never going in the movie.’ I was very sure about that.” Needless to say, James ended up playing a major role in the documentary.
“I felt like the only honest way to proceed with making this film… was to put myself in the film because I wasn’t just going to film him, I was going to be a big brother as well,” said James. “I felt I needed to be in the film and treat myself like I would treat anybody else in the film, to put an honest lens on myself… that led to a very interesting challenge as a filmmaker.”
It was a big shift in perspective because James said he had “always looked with great skepticism on personal documentaries. I was always very skeptical about the whole enterprise. It seemed like an ego thing.”
The project also took a major detour when Fielding was accused (and eventually convicted) of child molestation.
“It was going to be a fairly harmless short film and then life is not so simple and pat to begin with,” said James. “What’s the silver lining? I don’t know if there is a silver lining in this film, but it made a very different film than what I set out to make. It ends up being a film about a sex offender where part of the goal of the film was not to whitewash his life or his crime.”
The film turned out to be a much more ambitious and difficult project than he initially anticipated. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made, without question and I hope it remains so. But it’s also the deepest film I’ve made.”
If there is a silver lining, James said, it’s that “I did end up making this film and I’m proud of this film now and even though it’s a long and tortuous film.”
“Life Itself” (2014)
When James set out to film Roger Ebert’s autobiography, “we started while he was alive and there was no expectation he was going to die during the making of it,” he said. But, when Ebert died about four months into the production, “the concept of the film changed. It didn’t start out that it was going to be a eulogy of Roger as well as a biography.”
While James had counted on being able to interview Ebert, he ended up having to craft e-mail questions for him while he was in the hospital with what seemed to be a minor hip injury, but turned out to be much more serious. “I was planning this big massive sit-down interview when he gets out of the hospital,” said James. “Then he died without many of my questions being answered. I wasn’t able to film him the last two weeks of his life because the doctors didn’t want us around.”
As a result, James ended up making a creative decision to weave his e-mail exchanges with Ebert throughout the film. “I think it ends up adding a very poignant and interesting element to the film that never was intended… I would have loved for Roger to live and to see the film… Roger also had a sense of drama. He didn’t purposely die, but he was completely aware of the ramifications of what would happen if he died during this film.”