Q&A: Filmmaker Steve James on Making “The Interrupters”

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Award-winning director, producer, and co-editor of the critically acclaimed Hoop Dreams, Steve James reflects on making the The Interrupters, what he’s learned through the experience and what he hopes viewers will take away from the film.

You’ve said Alex Kotlowitz’s 2008 profile of CeaseFire in The New York Times was what sparked your interest in making this film. What was it about that article that struck you so much and how did you begin the project?

“I want people to realize that there’s a bigger thing that need to be accomplished to save these communities than stopping violence, but that the power of the individual to effect change can be profound.”

Alex and I are good friends; we’ve known each other for years. I was aware of the project, but when I finally saw the published article I was struck by just how innovative the concept [of CeaseFire] was, of trying to look at violence in a different way, to take the good and bad out of the equation, the moralizing.

Of course, I was really struck by the work of the interrupters he featured in his article, and I was really struck by the kind of people that were doing that work, the kind of stories their lives had to tell. I’d read the articles in the newspapers about the violence over the years, and it had always really distressed me and it had particularly distressed me in the wake of seeing two people I’d known quite well murdered: from Hoop Dreams, William Gates’ brother Curtis [who was shot in Chicago in September 2001] and Arthur Agee’s dad Bo [who was killed in 2004]. Both of them were people who were very prominent in the film and I’d come to know quite well. To see both of them murdered in an utterly senseless way and to see the devastating impact that that had on both Williams and Arthur and their families was just something. It’s as close to losing a loved one that I’ve come in that way. It’s totally not the same, but it certainly hit me hard nonetheless.

I remember saying to Alex, “Your article is really great and it’s in a prominent place, The New York Times Magazine, but maybe we could do a film that really tries to push this issue front and center in an even bigger way,” because films have that ability to reach wider, I think, than great articles unfortunately. We were both conscious that this presented an opportunity to try and push an issue that has seemed forgotten about in some ways, at least in the media. I remember when the film first came out there were some reviews that said something like, “A film about dealing with urban violence. You may think that that was dealt with decades ago, or everything’s been said that could be said about it.” But fortunately the reviews went on to say you’d be mistaken.

I think it did really help to do that in it’s own modest way. We’ve seen a tremendous impact in communities around the country that have embraced the film and want to use the film in a number of ways.

In one of the early scenes in the film, Ameena is in the middle of a violent fight in Englewood, where there are people threatening others with knives and cement blocks. What it was like to walk into a fight like that and film it?

… I’ve never really been in those kinds of situations before, that kind of tense situation. I think the fact that I was shooting, which I don’t do often on my documentaries, I think it was a help for me because I had something to do and there is a little bit of a false sense of security from having a camera in front of your face. You’re seeing it through the camera and not completely firsthand. But I think the other thing you learn is to keep your distance in situations and there are other situations where you feel like you can get closer.

A perfect example is the scene where Ameena was at the vigil and the guys started to gather down the block who wanted to retaliate for Corey’s murder and she boldly went down to talk to them. When she first went down there I asked, “Can we go with you?” And she said, “No. I’ll call you if it’s OK.” But I know that would never happen. I knew that once she got down there, whatever the situation, the last thing she would do, understandably, is say, “Hold on guys, I have to call the film crew to come down.” She went down there and we could see that something was really going on. Zak Piper, the co-producer who also did the sound, and I slowly inched our way towards the group because it seemed too important not to try to capture this. I figured that if it was a real problem, Ameena would just say, “Go away,” or we would get the vibe from the guys that this was not cool and we would step away. But we just stayed on the edge of the group for a while, and as it seemed OK, we got a bit more bold but we never got in the middle of it. There were certain guys who I went to get a shot of, to get cutaways of the guys listening, where the guys backed up or looked at me and shook their head no and I just said, “OK, cool.”

A lot of it is being careful and being aware of your situation, but I think that the single most important part was that we were there with people who carried great respect in those communities. …

You spent a year filming the interrupters and the people they were working with. How did you get such access to these characters, far beyond their professional lives, and deep into their family lives? And why was that so important for you to do?

The key is putting in the time and developing an honest and friendly relationship with your main subjects. They have to enjoy your company. Because if they don’t — who wants to hang out with someone you don’t enjoy being around? Especially for the time we want to be with you and the commitment. It’s important to have a bond; it’s important to have trust; it’s important that they understand what you’re really trying to do trust and feel like you’re always being straight with them and honest about your intentions. It takes time.

Cobe was immediately embracing of the idea of us filming; he’s a very friendly, teddy bear sort of guy. He loved having us hang around with him in his car and drive around the neighborhood. But he didn’t really let us in, in terms of his own his own life and what he’d done, until partway through the process. It was so clear when you compared the first interview to the subsequent interviews how much more honest they were.

There were things we know about Cobe and Ameena and Eddie that we didn’t put in the film either because we didn’t feel it was the audience’s need or right to know everything. We purposely chose to reveal certain details about their pasts and leave others out. I think that’s part of the respect you build with your subjects because we’re not just there to get everything we can get and once you give it to us, that’s it. The way it works the more people trust you and feel some sense of control over what you’re doing and what they’re doing, the more they’re willing to share. It seems paradoxical, but it makes perfect sense. They don’t feel that if they say something to you and have second thoughts you’d say, “Sorry, you said it.”

That happened with all our principle characters. It happened with Tio, who told us stories that he had second thoughts and said, “We hear you.” That doesn’t mean you do everything your subjects want, but that honest exchange is the foundation for that kind of intimacy.

At first Ameena tended to look at us like just another film crew, like a TV news crew who wanted to interview her and get a little of the work she did. She wasn’t so sure that always served the interest of her community and the issue. It wasn’t until we got deeper into it with her that she recognized that what we were trying to do was fundamentally different than that. She also had to make a decision to share her personal life, which was not easy. She’s really outgoing, extroverted person, but she’s also a very private person when it comes to her own personal history. That’s something that people don’t realize. It’s not just the shy people that don’t want to talk about their past, it can also be the extroverts.

I was really struck by something Ameena said during the Fresh Air interview you both did with Terry Gross. In reflecting on the film and what it meant for her to open up to the public, Ameena said, “Some people don’t look at my life — as far as my dad being who he is and my journey and where I’ve come from — as being a nice thing. And it was hard for me to let that guard down and let them in so that some people could understand that here is someone who’s come from the south side of Chicago that has been raised under bricks and a flower has grown from up under the bricks.” That the film let her show that to the world, it seemed to me like it was something she’d been waiting for all her life.

Yeah, that was beautiful.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years — and with this film it was absolutely the case — is that when a film goes well for the subjects — and that doesn’t mean goes well in the sense of a happy ending where it’s all rosy and beautiful — but when the experience is meaningful and full of trust, they come out of it more willing to share more about themselves with others than they were going into it.

Ameena is much more open about her life now than she was when we started this film. She’s willing to share those things because she had this positive experience.

Eddie, speaking to The Guardian, responded to a reporter who suggested that in person he didn’t seem like the tortured soul he came off as in the film that the film helped him change that. He said he spent a lot of time thinking about these things and talking about these things through the course of making this film, and said it helped him come to terms with all that.

[Editor's Note: "The film was therapeutic for me," Eddie told the paper. "Sometimes I thought 'Wow, I really put myself out there', but it has helped me. I still carry some dead weight but I also recognize I'm shedding some of this."]

I can’t think of a better thing for a film to do than not just capture someone’s life, but be a part of them growing, because we certainly grow from the experience and it’s great the subjects feel the same way.

How did you shoot the film? How larger was your crew?  Did you approach filming any differently?

It was similar to Hoop Dreams. Typically I don’t shoot. I have shot off and on the years on projects depending on needs, but usually it’s just me, the shooter and the sound person; three of us. Sometimes I would do sound and there would just be two of us.

On this project — it was really Alex’s idea before we started, he said, “If I’m going to be involved, how would were we going to manage it, because we don’t want a bigger crew.” He suggested I shoot it and that ended up being the right decision because it allowed us to stay small, so that there were never more than three of us. Sometimes there was just two of us when Zak and I would go out. There was a couple of times when it was just Alex and I, and Alex would do sound. He took the trouble to learn to do that task so that in a pinch he could do it. We kept the crew really small because that’s the way I find it always works best.

It ended up being a virtue for me to shoot it simply because of the nature of the film. We kept our phones near our beds at night and were on call in the same way the interrupters were. If something was happening and they thought we could come along they would give us a call and we had to leap into action much like they do. It would have been impractical for me to deal with finding with camera people at 11 o’clock at night. I kept the gear at my house and when the call came we mounted up and left.

How did this experience, this project that you’ve now spent several years working on, change the way you think about violence? What else did it change for you?

I think I went in feeling like — and this is before I read the article– a sense of “have we done everything we can do about urban violence, besides fundamental changes in the way in which we treat people who grew up in poverty.” I felt a certain sense of helplessness. [I thought] people must have given up in these most troubled communities. … They’re very numb about it. There’s been so much loss of life. When we’re out filming, it was amazing to me that everyone we’d met in the course of making this film had lost somebody. They’d either lost a family member, they’d lost a close friend, and they’d sometimes lost both. It was astounding that we didn’t run into a single person [who hadn't lost someone].

What was unexpected in making of the film was to realize how people haven’t given up hope in these communities. They’re angry; they really want these things to change. In addition to CeaseFire there are other groups out in the communities that are trying to grapple with violence. You see it in the film: When people lose loved ones, it’s devastating. But it doesn’t matter if they’ve lost anybody before, you never get used to losing people who are close to you. In a way, as sad as all that is and as tragic as all that is, this also means there’s still, as Ameena says about Englewood [in the film] at that point when she’s distributing flyers, people still have hope in these communities.

What was really inspiring was seeing people like Ameena, Cobe and Eddie, who work in these communities, who are from these communities. Despite the fact that we may debate until the cows come home — What do we do about poor communities? What do we do about the inner city? What do we do about schools, jobs and lack of opportunity? — which are all important issues, way too important in these communities, [the interrupters] are at least out there trying to make a difference day in and day out. They’re not waiting around to change the world before they try to save people’s lives.

I found that to be really inspiring, and they’re very much aware that bigger change is needed and if you hear Eddie, Cobe and Ameena speak to this when they go out and talk to  different groups, they’re very aware of the bigger picture.

Ameena told me that Caprysha, the 19-year-old she took under her wing in the film, saw the film for the first time recently. What was her reaction?

Ameena and Alex were out of town, so I went out to the correctional center and showed her the film. It’s funny because she sat there and watched it very intently, and I saw her wipe away at her eyes at several points. She laughed at Flamo and said he was a crazy guy and couldn’t believe some of his antics. She was moved by Lil Mikey. And she was really struck, I think, to see the kind of commitment and love that Ameena had for her in the film. It’s not that she didn’t know it, but there was something about seeing it in that context. In fact at the end when she walks off, when she leaves the park bench, when she just struts off and Ameena calls her twice on her cell phone, Caprysha said, “She called me?” Somehow she missed it and I said, “Yes she called you.” She was like, “Wow.”

She was very touched and moved. At the end she said, “I didn’t cry.” At that point her counselor was there and we’d both seen the same thing. She said, “Caprysha, I saw you wiping away your tears.” She kind of laughed.

Caprysha is a really intelligent young woman who knows what she needs to do at this point in her life. She’s known for some time now. She knows the right things to say; she knows what she needs to do. It’s always just a question of will she finally get to do it. Ameena’s going to help her when she gets out this next time. She’s going to help her get into a different living situation because that’s part of the problem because she keeps going back to that awful place.

Eddie told me he hopes that people watching the film walk away more willing to give people a second, or even a first chance. What do you want viewers to take away from the film?

I think that’s great, what Eddie said.

I think some of what I want people to take away is what surprised me and what I learned. These are communities that are besieged, in some respects they’re worse off than they’ve ever been. Even though murders are down in Chicago, they’re down about half like they are in a lot of major cities from the peak in mid-90s when the crack epidemic was at its peak. In some respects there’s great success going on in reducing violence and that’s great and should be recognized. On the other hand, there’s way more foreclosed properties, abandoned lots, and people struggling to find work. The violence has become concentrated in fewer communities, which is good, but still it’s still very intense in those communities.

Despite all of that there is a pulse of life in these communities and a desire to have a better life. On the one hand I want people to realize that there’s a bigger things that need to be accomplished to save these communities than stopping violence, but that the power of the individual to effect change can be profound. You see that in the work of Kobe, Ameena, Eddie and the other interrupters that you glimpse in the film.

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