Hot Docs ’16: Steve James’ sustainability tips for doc makers

Ahead of receiving this year's Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award, Life Itself and The Interrupters director Steve James (pictured) reflects on his films and shares his thoughts on sustaining a successful career in documentary.
April 29, 2016

Steve James, director of the critically acclaimed Hoop Dreams (1994), The Interrupters (2011) and Life Itself (2014) half-jokingly laments that his career is going backwards.

While some filmmakers 30 years into feature doc-making might step back from shooting films themselves, he says he’s spending more hours behind the camera. The Interrupters (2011) was filmed over 13 months, and James shot all 350 hours himself, while also serving as a producer and editor – as he does on most projects.

Steve James (right) and Sean Farnel (left) at a DOC Toronto masterclass. Photo by Ramya Jegatheesan

Steve James at a DOC Toronto masterclass in 2014

At the moment, he’s spending the bulk of his time at a local Chicago high school filming a doc series examining race, achievement and the disparities in between. The MacArthur Foundation supported the production with a US$200,000 grant back in January, and James expects to have shot about 800 hours by the end of May.”I’m supposed to be doing less, but I seem to be doing more. I enjoy it,” the director tells realscreen. “I’m a very hands-on filmmaker and I don’t like to juggle a bunch of films at once, even if I could.”

But for someone whose career is “going backwards,” James has always been forward looking with his output. He is, after all, this year’s recipient of the Hot Docs Outstanding Achievement Award, whose past honorees include Albert Maysles (1999), Errol Morris (2005), Alanis Obomsawin (2009) and Kim Longinotto (2010), among others.

The 61-year-old director was first at Hot Docs in 1994, where he pitched the doc series The New Americans at the Forum. Though his feature doc Hoop Dreams didn’t play the festival that year, the film about two inner-city Chicago youth aspiring to become professional basketball players had won the Sundance Audience Award in January and was garnering critical praise, particularly from the likes of late critic Roger Ebert.

The following year, the film became part of cinematic lore when its failure to earn an Academy Award nomination in the feature doc category (it was only nominated for editing), led to a public outcry resulting in a revision of the nominations process for docs.

Hoop Dreams is among six of James’ films playing in a retrospective throughout this year’s festival. Others include Stevie (2002), At the Death House Door (2008), No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010), The Interrupters and Life Itself.

The work, he says, is diverse in subject matter but there are clear parallels and themes that winds through it.

“Not every film I’ve done deals with race, but a lot of them do in some fashion. Class and race combined,” he remarks. “I’m very interested in people who are often on the fringes of society – disenfranchised in some fashion – and following their lives and seeing what they try to make of them.”

James adds that he is more interested in the complexity and gray areas around social inequality. It figures, given that many of his films are inextricably linked to the production company Kartemquin. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Chicago-based outfit known for a strong social justice platform has worked with James – or as the director puts it, “taken him under their wing” – since 1986. Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn has served as an EP on just about all of James’ feature docs, beginning with Hoop Dreams.

Filming Stevie

Filming Stevie

“One of the things Kartemquin provides is it’s truly a community of filmmakers,” notes James. “And I think filmmakers at any stage of their career – but it’s especially crucial when you’re starting out – [need] a community there that can support you, guide you, give you honest feedback and challenge you to be better.”

But James also has advice for those going it alone, which myriad filmmakers do, especially in today’s healthy but saturated market for docs.

“Someone said to me, once you get your film into Sundance and you feel like you’ve made it – because Sundance is considered making it in the indie film world, both narrative and docs – what you really need to look at is if [you] get that second film made,” says James.

“Because a lot of people will go to Sundance and through blood, sweat and tears, they’ve gotten a film made and gotten it to Sundance and then that’s it. They think that they’ve made it, and now it’s going to be easy. And you know what? It should be easier, but it’s not. ”

James’ second feature doc after Hoop Dreams was Stevie, a portrait of Stevie Fielding, a Little Brother from Southern Illinois he once mentored.

“Everyone wanted to see the demo, like, ‘Oh, you got a new doc? Yeah, send it!’ but as soon as I sent it, they were like, ‘Uh no, we’re not interested in this story.’ We didn’t get a single U.S. broadcaster,” says James, noting that the subject matter simply didn’t resonate with many funders.

The doc received some funding from Canadian broadcaster CBC and UK pubcaster BBC, but James self-financed the rest of the doc until a private investor boarded the project. Stevie went on to win the Cinematography Award at Sundance and also earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Documentary.

Steve James with Ameena Matthews of The Interrupters

Steve James with Ameena Matthews of The Interrupters

“If your goal in life is to direct films, direct documentaries, it’s good if you have another craft within the field that you master enough that people hire you to do it, whether it’s to shoot or edit or do sound, or produce for other people,” advises James.

“Have other skills that people will hire you [for], because that can be part of both growing you as a filmmaker, but also [will] help sustain you while you pursue projects that people may not be willing to give you money for,” he imparts.

On balance, James says he feels positively about the present climate for docs. Most people keen on making a documentary can access the means to do so even if they can’t necessarily get paid to do it, he reasons. The trick, of course, is fostering a sustainable career.

“When I started out, coming out of school, if you’d said to someone, ‘I want to make documentaries for a living’, people would have said, ‘What? That’s not a very practical goal.’ It just wasn’t possible to want to work in this field and conceivably make a living at it – not completely, anyway.

“That’s all changed. There’s a lot of non-fiction work going on. It might not be exactly what people want to be doing all the time – it might be work-for-hire, they might be shooting something that’s a TV reality series, and some are more agreeable than others –  but there’s a ton of work and platforms and opportunities.”

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.