Director Steve James
Director Steve James (right) with his title

subject, Stevie Fielding

Though Steve James’ new documentary, Stevie, is

being touted as the “long awaited follow-up” to his 1994 film, Hoop

Dreams, the past nine years have not been idle ones. After the

triumphant success of Hoop Dreams, he went on to direct three

feature films—all athlete biopics—Passing Glory, Prefontaine and Joe & Max. This spring he makes his return to

the documentary genre with the very personal Stevie. Returning

to the rural Southern Illinois landscape James knew as a college

student, the film originated as a short feature on how the life

of 20-something Stevie Fielding had changed in the years since James

served as his Big Brother.

Premiering at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, Stevie went on to win the Best Documentary Cinematography award at

Sundance, and which will be released by Lions Gate on March 28th.

Here, James speaks about the differences between documentary and

feature filmmaking, the personal nature of his stories and the balancing

act he had to perform in making Stevie.

Jennifer Wood (MM): Even in the feature

films you’ve made, you’ve chosen to concentrate on biopics. Why

does non-fiction hold such an interest for you as a moviemaker?

Steve James (SJ): It’s

true that I’ve always been attracted to true stories. It probably

goes back to my undergraduate days as a radio reporter for the university

NPR station. The old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction” seems

to get more true with each passing day, to the point where satire—much

less fiction—is nearly obsolete.

But I haven’t chosen to concentrate on biopics; it’s

been chosen for me. Hollywood tends to pigeonhole filmmakers and

so, because of my documentary background, I get offered biopics

with a sports theme. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been very passionate

about the features I’ve done, but biopics are extremely hard to

make. I think they’re the hardest genre to pull off because it’s

hard to resist the temptation to try and tell a subject’s whole

life. But to tell a whole life in two hours is nearly impossible.

Maybe that’s why my documentaries are, shall we say, epic in scope.

The added length and scope gives me the chance at capturing lives

in a fuller and deeper way.

And really, that’s at the heart of my passion for

true stories. I love trying to figure out people, trying to understand

them, trying to tell their story. My feature biopics have all been

about famous people. My documentaries have all been about unknown,

everyday people. I ultimately get the most satisfaction from telling

the stories of people viewers never thought they’d care about, and

trying to make them care deeply.

MM: How can you ever be reasonably sure

you’ve found a story that will have wide audience appeal?

SJ: Maybe I’m some kind of knee-jerk humanist,

but I believe that if you spend enough time with a subject and you

really are, as a filmmaker, genuinely interested in them, you will

make a film that has wide appeal. I’m not talking blockbuster appeal,

but if people come into the theater to see the film, they’ll be

hooked until the end.

Usually, during the making of a documentary, I have

some kind of personal “epiphany” where I realize what the film is

really about. And those epiphanies have to do with universal themes

that everyone can relate to. On Hoop Dreams, it was realizing

that the film wasn’t about basketball, but really about the American

Dream for African American families in the inner city and how they

want the same things for their children parents everywhere want.

On Stevie, it was realizing that Stevie’s family, despite

profound troubles, never gives up trying to be a family. They may

(and often do) fail, but they never give up. Just like most every

other family in the world.

MM: Had you ever envisioned making a film

in which you (and your family) would play such an integral—and visible—part

of the story?

SJ: Frankly, no. I expected to be in the film

briefly myself at the beginning and then step aside and be a personal

but decidedly off-screen presence for the rest of the film.

All that changed when Stevie was charged with the crime and I got

caught in the middle of the turmoil within his family. It was then

that I realized that I didn’t want to maintain a pretense of being

an observer in his life; that I needed to try and help. But if I

was going to help and continue to make this film, then I

had to deal with myself (and my family) as honestly as I could within

the film.

I’ve never been a fan of the diary film form where

the filmmaker is subject. But in this case, it felt like the only

honest way to make the film. Still, I didn’t want my presence to

overwhelm the story of Stevie and his family. It became a delicate

balancing act.

MM: How do you maintain the role of “moviemaker”—or

“outside observer”—when dealing with such a personal topic? Particularly

with moments like the scene in the post office, when you learned

how much Stevie would look forward to any correspondence from you?

SJ: As I said before, I gave up trying to pretend

to be an outside observer. In none of the films I’ve made have I

ever truly been an outside observer. You can’t gain people’s trust

over years of filming without committing yourself to them as more

than just a filmmaker/observer. But there were moments—like the

one in the post office—where it became powerfully clear how important

I was to Stevie as a person, not as a filmmaker.

Though he was flattered by my making a film, he really

didn’t care much about the film compared to his memories of our

time together when he was younger. In a way, that’s what the gift

of making the film was for me: it helped me realize how cherished

that time we had together was for him. While I wrestled with how

good a Big Brother I was and whether any of it mattered, he saw

somebody come into his life and do things with him that he wanted

to do. That was plenty good for him.

MM: How is your preparation been different

on a documentary like Hoop Dreams or Stevie from a

feature like Prefontaine?

SJ: Put most simply—perhaps too simply—features

are about creating a story that’s been preplanned and scripted in

advance. Documentaries like Hoop Dreams and Stevie are about discovering the story as it unfolds. You have to be willing

to let the story take you where it will and cast aside your preconceived

notions of who and what your characters (subjects) really are. On

a feature, much of that process of discovery must happen in advance.

Because Prefontainte is a biopic, I read everything

I could find on him and talked to everyone I could that knew him

before sitting down to write the script. And then, through the actors

on the set, I tried to make it richer and more complex in its realization.

In a documentary, I need to open my mind to the complexity that

all people possess within them and make them comfortable enough

to express it. Features are more like writing a novel. Documentaries

are more like living inside them. You finally write them in the


MM: Who do you feel are the most important

collaborators to have as a non-fiction moviemaker? Who were the

most important collaborators for you on Stevie, and what

did they contribute to the final film?

SJ: First and foremost, really, your subjects

are your collaborators. This kind of documentary filmmaking is a

collaboration between subjects and filmmakers. Without their courage,

honesty and heart—not to mention time—you’d have nothing. Beyond

that, the crew is absolutely crucial. Though Stevie is the

most personal film I have ever made, it could not have been made

without the creative input of producers Adam Singer and Gordon Quinn

(who served as cinematographer and sound recordist, respectively),

cinematographers Dana Kupper and Peter Gilbert, and co-editor Bill


And Kartemquin Films, where we made the film, is a

collaborator, too. Their tradition of documentary filmmaking going

back to 1967 informs everything I do.

All their collective contributions were especially

crucial because Stevie was so personal an experience for

me. They not only helped me capture the unfolding story, they also

helped me decide when I should be in the film or not, when I wasn’t

being honest with myself as well as when I was being too hard on

myself. In short, they provided perspective as well as doing the

important work of helping me make the film.

MM: I know that much of Stevie was

shot on 16mm. If you were to start shooting the film today, would

you opt for the same format? Digital seems to be the format of choice

for so many non-fiction moviemakers. Why was/is film the choice

for you?

SJ: Good question. We might have gone Hi Def

video if we had the option. We could have shot Stevie on

video like we did Hoop Dreams, but I wanted to capture something

of the beauty of the setting of rural Southern Illinois, contrasted

with the rather tortured story that was unfolding. And given that Stevie covers terrain and people that have most often been

relegated to TV talk show video, shooting on film lent some “aesthetic

nobility” and importance to the story. It was a subtle way of saying,

“These people’s lives deserve to be told on film just as much as

anybody else’s.”

MM: How is the editing process different

for you on a film like Stevie versus a feature film like Joe & Max? How do you work with your co-editor: do you

sit side by side the entire time, or do you take time to do a first

pass on all the footage?

SJ: First of all, on Joe & Max,

I wasn’t an editor at all. When I first started doing features,

I worried that it would be hard for me to work with an editor because

I’d always edited my own films. (I was a co-editor on Hoop Dreams.)

I feared that I would want to push the editor aside and take over.

Well, it took me about 10 minutes on Prefontaine to conclude

that I liked it just fine to sit in the back of the room with my

feet up and watch somebody else work.

I’ve been blessed with really fine editors on all

three features I’ve done. On Joe & Max, the editor Norman

Buckley was deservedly nominated for the ACE Eddy Award. He and

I worked very well together. I think we both have a good sense of

story and so it was easy for us to refine the film and find solutions.

On features, the hard part is having to find a new story structure

limited by the footage and scenes you’ve shot. On a documentary,

where you have lots of footage and many more scenes than you can

possibly include, it’s more about discovering the essential story

you want to tell within the footage.

On Stevie, I did about a year of editing on

the film before involving Bill Haugse, the co-editor. (On a feature,

you couldn’t possibly do that.) If “writing is rewriting,” in verite documentaries, “filmmaking is re-editing.” In all our Kartemquin

documentaries, we try and spend as much time as we can in the editing

room. Bill entered the process after I had a three-and-a-half hour

cut. The first thing he said to me was “I want to go back to the

dailies and see what choices you made.” I reluctantly agreed and

now I’m so glad I did. He made all kinds of discoveries—things I’d

overlooked or had a failure of will to include—and helped the film

take a big leap forward. Unlike on features, he would work alone

and then show me stuff. Then on weekends, I’d get my hands on it.

MM: Do you find that you discover more about

yourself in the process of making a film like Stevie, and

investing so much of your time in someone else’s life and struggles?

SJ: I absolutely discover more about myself.

My wife is a counselor who has great insight into people. I too

like thinking about what makes others do what they do. Any time

you focus on human psychology, which is at the heart of the storytelling

process, you learn something about yourself.

But focusing on others’ stories is also a great way

to get out of yourself, too. (I tend to be a self-reflective type.

Too much so at times.) So making documentaries is a great way to

open your eyes to the world around you. The legendary DP Bill Butler

has shot two of my features and I always marvel at how he has never

lost his ability to really look at the world around him. No matter

how familiar it may be, he really looks and that’s the secret to

his great eye for composition.

MM: What was the most important thing you

learned making Stevie?

SJ: Stevie taught me to try and see

people for just how complex they are, and to preserve as much of

that in the film as possible. I really like people, even people

that I don’t particularly agree with or whom others find unlikable.

The famous quote from Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game makes

for a great mission statement for documentary film: “Everyone has

their reasons.” When you get right down to it, that’s what making

documentaries is all about.