If the Maysles Brothers are considered the grandfathers of the American documentary, Steve James could be thought of as the dad, carrying the torch of his predecessors into the modern era and setting a path for those who would follow. Unlike the strictly observational documentaries of his elders, James’ work takes a personal, intimate approach that brings viewers right into the lives of his subjects, providing front-row access.
James’ most well-known and highly acclaimed works include one of the most popular docs of all time: Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), The Interrupters (2011), and Life Itself (2014), about the life of film critic Roger Ebert.
At TIFF 2016 for the premiere of his latest film, ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail, James sat down with TIFF’s documentary programmer, Thom Powers, to pass on some of the main lessons that he’s learned through his time in the documentary trenches. Below, we've culled five of the most useful.
1. Give your subjects some control
Powers asked James what he does when faced with a common documentarian dilemma: How do you respond when people you’re following are going through something tough, and maybe they don’t want you to have access to their lives at that particular moment?
James said that he hasn’t actually had situations where people wanted him to stop filming, although he has had moments where "it felt like too much and I could sense that, and I might pull back some," he said. "Or they might say, ‘Can you give me some space?’ and we’d absolutely pull back." He admitted that he has been fortunate to film "with a pretty free hand in some difficult situations."
He has found that one of the keys to his success has been letting his subjects participate in the process. “The more control your subjects feel they have,” he explained, “the more they let you do what they want to do. I give them the sense that we’re doing this together and they can say no and I will respect that. I may try to change their mind, but I will respect their decision.”
James used The Interrupters as an example. The film—about a group of former gang members in Chicago who now work to physically “interrupt” and prevent street violence—captures some pretty volatile moments. James told the audience, “We agreed that we would step away from any situation where our presence would make it harder for them to do their jobs, and they felt in control of that.”
James also insisted that part of trust-building is letting your subjects know that they can see the film before the public does. “I will not give them editorial control,” he said, “but I will take seriously what they have to say about the film.” While James knows that many filmmakers disagree with this practice, he feels strongly that it’s the right way to go.
“If you’re a narrative filmmaker, being a complete asshole might serve you well.”
2. It helps to be liked
James’ presentation was full of quippy moments. One that got the biggest crowd reaction? "If you’re a narrative filmmaker, being a complete asshole might serve you well." He contrasted this with making documentaries where "unless you’re doing fly-on-the-wall and being as unobtrusive as possible, it helps to have your subjects like you."
This is important, James feels, because "they will think of reasons not to have you around. It’s already hard in a way for them to have this alien thing happening. It may be wonderful, but it’s different." He again used The Interrupters as an example: "Filming was difficult and serious, but we had a lot of laughs because we enjoyed being around each other."
3. Seize opportunities to ask questions
In terms of preparing questions for his subjects, James recounted that he will occasionally write them down in advance, and advises doing so simply because the act of writing them down will organize your thoughts. However, he usually just writes topics and not actual questions, and often goes into interviews without having even done that, depending on how familiar he already is with the subject at hand.
He described two types of interviews: more formal, sit-down affairs that are set up in advance, versus questions that happen on the fly or in the moment. He said, “Some of the best of that kind have happened in the midst of another scene. There are oftentimes lulls when things aren’t really happening and I’ll seize that opportunity.”
“What I love about documentary: real life is always more complex and interesting than fiction.”
4. Orchestrating scenes is fine…but you need to draw a line
When Powers asked if James ever “nudges things to happen,” the director responded that "it’s not really a dirty little secret among us. We occasionally try to orchestrate things.” However, he warned, “It’s a tricky line. There are things that are over the line and we decide where that line is. There are other things that I think are entirely appropriate.”
For example, when they found out that the matriarch of the main family followed in ABACUS watches It’s a Wonderful Life during the holidays every year, they asked the family to watch it together so they could film their reactions, and, according to James, “it prompted all kinds of great things.”
5. Start editing while you shoot
Unlike many filmmakers, James edits his own films. "I like starting the editing during shooting," he said, "once I’ve gotten well into it." If he has a co-editor, they will start to roughly cut scenes and he will watch, as it’s virtually impossible to edit after long shoot days. However, as soon as they wrap, he’ll jump in on the cutting himself.
"I think it’s important in general to get editing started as soon as you reasonably can," James told the audience, "because it will inform the shooting in terms of things you need to get that you thought you got." It can also be a way to instruct your DP about types of shots you need or how you’d like them captured, and it can ultimately inform the story in many ways.
One thing that became clear from James’ presentation is that no matter what advice you follow—or not—your passion for telling true stories can carry you far. "What I love about documentary," he revealed, "is that real life is always more complex and interesting than fiction."
Featured image: Vera Sung, Jill Sung and Thomas Sung of the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank, as seen in 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, directed by Steve James.' Image credit: Photo credit: Sean Lyness. Photo courtesy of Abacus LLC