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Director Steve James talks about The Interrupters and Filming Mediators Thwarting Street Violence in Chicago

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 4, 2011 7:00PM

Violence interrupter Ameena Matthews with Producer/Director Steve James, Producer Alex Kotlowitz, and Co-Producer/Sound Recordist Zak Piper. Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
After a spring and summer spent storming the festival circuit, Hoop Dreams auteur Steve James and There Are No Children Here scribe Alex Kotlowitz are at last bringing their much talked-about collaboration, The Interrupters, to the city which serves as its subject.
The story of a year in the life of three "violence interrupters" as they step into confrontations at the moment they are about to turn into violent altercations in Chicago's toughest neighborhoods, the film's thoughtful and jarringly intimate look at a new approach to dealing with the persistent violence has struck a chord with audiences everywhere it's been shown, and we expect this will shortly be the movie everybody's talking about here. We sat down with Steve James, who is also known for other documentaries such as Stevie and features such as Prefontaine in addition to the legendary Hoop Dreams, at the offices of Kartemquin Films on the north side last week. Our interview with Kotlowitz will run separately.

C: As I understand it, the idea for the film came from you reading Alex's article in 2008?
SJ: We get together all the time, socially and otherwise, and I'm always hearing what he's up to, when he's got a book idea or is working on a magazine article, or I'll tell him about what film I'm working on. One of the things we enjoy about our friendship is that we talk to each other about what we're up to. He told me about the CeaseFire thing, and said these guys are really fascinating. At one point he said it would make a good film, but that the problem is that it's so hard to get into those situations. It just kind of got tabled, he mentioned it in passing one day. Then the article came out, and I called him that Sunday and said "Wow, congrats on the great article, but I think you could make this into a film." In the article there's this one part, he's in the hospital after a shooting and the family is bent on revenge, and I said "I think we could have gotten that. Not every person, but if you're there and you handle it right, we could have gotten it. I said let's look into it because we don't need endless mediations. That's reality TV. What we want is three or four good ones, and that's enough for a movie. Cause you and me, Alex, we're not interested in just a bunch of mediations. We want to dig into this deeper if we're gonna do this as a movie." And he was like "hell, it will be fun." We went in and we had some meetings. No one promised us anything, but we got enough encouragement that we went and raised enough money to get it underway and just go for it.

C: What were the first things you did in terms of shooting? The meetings at UIC?
We decided, based on Alex's article, to talk to some interrupters first and make sure we could get access to the mediations, because that was the big question. And based on Alex's experience doing the article, where he was just a reporter alone with pen and paper, he'd had a hard time getting access to stuff in the streets, because they didn't want this white guy standing around like "Who the hell is he?" When you're a writer you can be several blocks away and then talk to them immediately afterwards and get a vivid sense of it and kind of recreate it as if you were standing right there. In film, you can interview people, but you can't make people think you were there when you weren't there. So that was the $64,000 question. We went in and we met with some people and felt confident enough to take the leap to do the film, and we started by going to the weekly meetings every Wednesday and getting people acclimated to us being there and the camera being there, and also to keep our finger on the pulse of what's going on. They report on what they did this week and what might be coming up. We also liked the meetings a lot. We thought they were interesting. There's not as much of the meetings in the movie any more as what we originally thought there would be.

C: How many hours did you end up shooting?
SJ: We shot over 300 over the course of 14 months. It was thrilling. I don't normally shoot on my films. It's usually me and a shooter and a sound person. It was Alex's suggestion before we got started, he said "I know how you typically work, which I think is great, to work small, but with me in the mix is it going to be four of us now? Have you thought about whether you could shoot it?" I said I guess I could. I mean I do shoot some, but not a lot. And I think that was a smart suggestion on his part, because that allowed us to still just be three people. It allowed us to stay small and was a lot of fun to shoot actually. And Zak, the co-producer, did all the sound. It was the three of us out there, day in and day out. He became Uncle Zak, because he had the credit card [laughs]. But he was such a key part of the movie.

C: And you were editing while you were filming?
SJ: I had Aaron Wickenden, who was my co-editor, come in early, and he started cutting scenes in the winter while we were out shooting. Which was great, because that gave us a serious leg up. When we stopped shooting in July of last year, then I could devote more time in the edit suite. We were both editing. I would be at home editing, and he would be editing scenes, and then I started to put the movie together. Then when I'd come to scenes that he hadn't cut, or that I didn't want him to cut because I wanted to cut them, I would cut those scenes and when I got to scenes he cut I'd put those in the film and tweak them and move on. It was a great process. Aaron's worked with me on the last five films or something, so we work well together. It came together very quickly for what it was but if we had done the typical Kartemquin treatment what you saw would probably be the only version that went out there, but because we didn't want to pass up sundance, it was great for the film. A film like this, having it play at Sundance can make all the difference in the world in terms of what happens to it. It was worth it.

C: The meetings are fascinating. It's like a real life Justice League of the street.
SJ: Yeah, when Cobe [Williams] brings Flamo back, it's like the Jedi council or something. The meetings are fascinating. At one point we thought they would be something of a spine. One thing that was clear going into this movie is that there wouldn't be this clear narrative that I'd been fortunate to have in other films. Like in Hoop Dreams or Stevie, where you're following a few people or one person and you know where it's kind of going (the kids are trying to get to college and play basketball, Stevie's trying to avoid going to prison...), but you have this narrative with very few people that you're following. We knew that wasn't going to be the case here. So we thought the weekly meetings would be something of a spine, and then we landed on this idea that we would just do a year in the life of the city through the eyes of these interrupters, and along the way we would find out their story. The meetings were especially important early on but then as we ventured out in the streets with Cobe, Ameena [Matthews] and Eddie [Bocanegra] we realized the heart of the movie was going to be in the streets. Which is what we wanted anyway, we just weren't sure we were going to get that.

C: I'm sure there was some trial and error to land on these three, but they are all charismatic individuals.
SJ: And different from one another. There were a couple of guys featured in Alex's article who we thought would make good film subjects, but in both cases they didn't like the idea of the cameras. It made sense, because Alex had had a enough of a hard time getting access to it as a reporter, so going to them now and saying "OK, and how about a camera! How about instead of one white guy, three white guys!" [Laughs] They didn't like that idea, which was totally understandable and so they declined. Ameena wasn't really featured in the article but immediately stood out as somebody we needed to try and get. And it was a little like courting the prom queen. I love Ameena, and I have a great relationship with her, but it took a while to get to that place because she wasn't sure about what we were doing. She wasn't sure how different we were from just a TV station wanting to do a little piece. She always felt about those like "You know, I understand you have to do that for the organization but I don't know that's what I want to be investing myself in." And so, it took a while to get her. She gave us an initial mediation and a great interview and figured "I'm done." It was like "No, no, Ameena. We're just getting started. We really want to see you do more mediations and we really want to talk to you more and we really want to see your family. And for all her openness as a person, in the movie, she's a very private individual. It took a while, but she eventually let us in in that way.

C: How did Cobe get in the picture?
Every week Tio would say to the table, "OK, these guys are filming. You see them here. We need mediations. They need to see the work you're doing on the streets, so if you've got one you think they can come to, call them, call Alex, call Steve." They all had our cards. Very few people did so, and Cobe was one of the people that did. He just had this knack of getting us into situations, and he would do it by being so casual about it. I didn't instruct him in this at all, but he has the same philosophy that I do about filming, which is you don't make a big deal out it. You just say "Yeah, I'm doing this little thing." He would tell people in advance, like "I'm going to show up with my film crew. They're doing this little film on the work I do." And that's about it. Then he would name-drop things like Hoop Dreams. At the time, this Allen Iverson film I had just done was out so some people had seen that, he'd name drop that, or he'd name drop Alex's book. But that worked. He was basically saying "These aren't cops, and they're serious." Of course we'd have this informal competition between Alex and me, who would recognize which. And Alex will tell you that in the streets, Hoop Dreams kind of won. But Alex had major props with the guys who spent time in prison. Those guys are like "Yeah I read that book. I heard I was in it."

C: And Eddie?
Alex originally went to lunch with Eddie, and came back and said "This guy's really interesting." We'd wanted a Latino interrupter and he's so quiet and he's thoughtful that it's hard to believe he committed murder. But he definitely talks about it and it's on his mind. He's only been out for a couple of years, and he's so different from the other two. They each have their different ways of doing what they do. Ameena's way of mediating is, she seizes control of the situation. Whether it's in your face, or sitting on a park bench, she does it in different ways. And Cobe is kind of like your best buddy going "But wait a second, if you and your brother both have guns then that means you have to sleep with one eye open? does that make any sense?" What we loved about Eddie is he's so sensitive and thoughtful, so wanting to find different ways to reach people, like through art. It's like if I can reach kids while they're young, and get them to open up and talk to me, that's what I want to do.

C: There's something so interesting about the interrupters having so much credibility within the troubled parts of their community while they're trying to get people to stop doing what they once did. They have this moral authority which other people who want the same end result aren't able to exert. It's interesting that this can only come from individuals who have made the mistakes themselves.
SJ: Yes, and they don't moralise, and that's the key. They don't sit there and say "You idiot, how dare you do that." First of all, for them to say that with people knowing their background would not fly. "Oh so now you're better than me?" would be the immediate first reaction. They would never even dream of going there. It's not that people don't judge themselves. Cobe judged himself. Ameena judged herself. Eddie clearly judged himself. But that's not how you get people to change, especially when they're in the throes of what they're dealing with, and that's what's so great about the work that they do. And it's not about good and bad people. Slutkin says it and the Interrupters live it in the streets, they're not there to separate good people from bad people. They're basically willing to look at everybody as essentially good, and appeal to their common sense and what's really in their interest. "Is it really in your interest to go back at that guy? Think about it."

C: The other thing that struck me was this process depends on a real message of hope, like real hope for your life and for your community. You don't have to think you're going to end up like the guys going to jail.
SJ: What could symbolize what is possible more than Cobe and Ameena and Eddie themselves, right? There's that one point in the film, around the National Guard thing, and they have the town hall meeting and there's a lot of anger and there's discussion about the larger social forces and ills and "they come here to talk about gangs, guns and drugs but what about jobs and opportunity?" and those things are essential. We wanted to have that debate in there, that chicken and egg that Eddie disagrees with [CeaseFire creater Gary] Slutkin over, do you fix the violence and that helps fix the community or do you have to fix the community which will help make the violeence less appealing? I think there's truth somewhere in the middle there. We wanted to have that in there for people to think about and hopefully walk away from the movie and debate. I think what was really appealing to us was to see that regardless of how we debate that and regardless of how daunting the task of fixing all that's wrong is, seeing these individuals make a difference, day in and day out, in a very individual way, is something you can't deny. And in that is something that's important to understand. We want people who see this movie to see not just Cobe, Ameena and Eddie but the people they are working with and see them as people that they can relate to. Like when I first meet Flamo, I'm like forget this guy. I mean he's funny but he's also dangerous. But by the end of the movie it's like wow, that guy, I could be passing him at the L station and say hello to him in the morning.

C: Has anyone thought of sending Ameena to D.C. to sit down with Obama and Boehner?
SJ: [Laughs] Well, we hope this film will get shown in the White House. It's really just now coming out. It's been on the festival circuit hot and heavy, which has been great for the film because it helped to make this all happen, frankly. If it hadn't been for the festival circuit, the theatrical run wouldn't have happened. All that's been great. But we're now at the beginning of the film going out in the world in a significant way. We've talked about trying to get a screening in the White House, we think that would be fantastic. I think he'd like seeing this movie. It's about his home town, it's about something that, when he was a community organizer, is not at all alien to him, and i think the hopefulness of it and the inspirational aspect would really touch him.

The Interrupters opens in Chicago next Friday, August 12 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Tickets are available online.