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Steve James Creates Incredible Character-Driven Documentaries by Building On-Camera Relationships – Toolkit Podcast

How the legendary director of "Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters" and this year's Oscar-nominated "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail" gets ordinary people to be themselves on screen.

Steve James directing the Oscar Nominated "Abacus: Small Enough To Jail"

Steve James directing the Oscar Nominated “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail”


Ever since changing the documentary landscape with “Hoop Dreams” in 1994, Steve James has introduced audiences to some of nonfiction film’s most memorable characters. On his latest film, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” – James’ first Oscar nomination – the filmmaker invites the viewer to experience the story of an ordinary family up against powerful institutions through his subjects’ eyes and emotions. According to James, the only way to create this type of intimate character-driven film is for non-professional performers to be themselves when the camera starts to roll.

“A big part of what most narrative directors are doing with actors – if they are doing a more realistic kind of film – is they are trying to help the actor find something authentic in that character to play,” said James, when he was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “In a documentary it’s not that different, but what you are trying to do is get that person to a place where they can be their authentic selves.”

Once James has people he wants to film he instantly starts rolling the camera. “I know filmmakers who will spend weeks, even months, without filming just to build a comfort level,” said James. “I build relationships with characters, but I do it during the course of making the film. I have this belief, I don’t want the filmmaking process to seem at all special or scary, I don’t want to spend a bunch of time with subject and go, ‘Okay, I’m going to bring the camera now,’ as if somehow we’ve graduated.”

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James makes the analogy to when someone invites a crush over for dinner and the effort that goes into picking the right outfit, cleaning the apartment and preparing the best meal possible. He’s found that with documentary subjects there is the same need to make a good impression and live up to what they assume are James’ expectations in having picked them to be in his movie.

“I’m aiming for [the] twentieth time you’ve invited me over your house,” said James. “Where [the subject says] ‘I don’t care what I wear, the house is a mess and you go in the fridge and get whatever you want to eat because I’m not cooking.’ You have to start [filming] early to get to that place. A lot of times in the early filming I’ll find the subjects bending over backwards to do my job even, they will be out in the neighborhood – like in the ‘The Interrupters’ for example – and they will be interacting with people they’ve known for years as if they are interviewing them for me and I’ll pull them aside and say, ‘you don’t have to do this, this is a lot harder than if you just talk to them.'”

The director has come to believe documentary subjects are ultimately looking for permission to be themselves and the key is get to that point as organically and quickly as possible. James – who says he is for too social a person to ever be a fly-on-the-wall – likes to talk with subjects while filming. It’s for this reason he works with a cameraperson – avoiding operating the camera himself whenever possible – so that he is free to interact with his characters. He’s also discovered that a sense of humor can be an invaluable tool.

“I tell young documentary filmmakers, if you are going to do this type of filmmaking with someone, basically, don’t be an asshole, because people don’t want to be around assholes and even if someone has agreed to be in your film, if they don’t like being around you, they will find reasons to not be around you,” said James. “Humor is, I think, a big part of that. On a film like ‘The Interrupters’ we had more laughs on that film with our subjects. It was a joy in profound way, and in other ways – given what we were filming – it was devastating and emotionally draining for everyone. But if we had not had that type of foundation of a camaraderie and humor, I don’t think we could have done it.”

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is one of five feature films nominated for Best Documentary at the 90th Academy Awards. 

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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