It took over 300 hours of video filmed over the course of a year to produce The Interrupters, Steve James‘ latest documentary study of urban America. While James’ celebrated Hoop Dreams captures the rise of inner-city kids to college basketball fame, his latest flick studies the pervasive violence that plagues Chicago. Together with journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz, James looks at violence in a new way—as an infectious disease.
Kotlowitz and James document with fervor the bold approach of one organization to combat the problem: Take ex-cons, former addicts and reformed gangsters into the streets to mediate conflict and stop the cycle of retribution. This team is aptly called “The Interrupters.” I had the opportunity to chat with James and Kotlowitz about how they selected their three characters, the access they had on the streets, and why this story deserves nearly two and a half hours of screen time.
Here’s what they had to say:
WCP: How did you find this story. How did it find you?
AK: Both of us have been haunted by violence. Two of the characters in Hoop Dreams have since been murdered. Three of the kids I’ve been with through my book have since been killed. I kind of threw my hands up trying to figure out a way to wrangle with it. I learned about CeaseFire through a guy I played basketball with… Steve and I for a long time have been looking for something to collaborate on, and I’d been telling him the piece I’d been working on, and it was one of those rare instances for me that I felt that this magazine piece was going to do justice to the men and women around the [Interrupters] table.
SJ: I feel that way about every magazine piece [laughs]
AK: Steve read the piece and felt the same way I did and we felt if we could get the kind of access we did, it could make for a really important film.
WCP: Tell me about your decision behind a 2:24 film.
SJ: Well I have a history of making long films. Hoop Dreams is almost 3 hours. Stevie, another film I did, was about the same length. When we were starting to talk about length, what I first said to you [Kotlowitz] this could be a longer film, you were like, wait a second…. He was rightfully worried, and I was too, that you are immediately setting yourself up for a film that would have a smaller audience and less reach. I feel like a long film works when it’s a somewhat immersive experience; it pushes the audience beyond just having a film experience where you come out saying, “Oh that was good, where do you want to go for dinner.” It makes it a more substantial experience.
WCP: As a filmmaker, you are able to create such intimacy with your characters. And you pick good characters. How do you go about that process?
SJ: I find that if you’re really curious about somebody, your audience is going to be really curious about them too. Like in Alex’s article, there were people that he zeroed in on that were really great characters, some of which we thought would be really great characters for our film. But because they were more camera shy or because we were there on the streets, it would compromise the mediation—which is totally reasonable—they didn’t want to be the focus of the film. And so a lot of times with this film and with any film, it’s a serendipitous process. Ameena was somebody that we wanted to focus on. You’d have to be blind to not see what a potentially great character she is… Cobe emerged by just being a guy who… kept calling us to say, “Hey I’ve got a mediation that you can come shoot,” and we would go shoot it and say, “Wow, that was pretty amazing, who is this guy?” And then we got to know him and thought, “What an interesting guy, what an interesting background.”
AK: Eddie, there’s something really soulful about his story. His story is rather internal; trying to wrestle and grapple with this act he committed when he was 18. He kind of added something to the film; we didn’t want to replicate what Cobe and Ameena offered. It was also important that we included a Latino in the film. The other thing is you work on a project for two years, you want to find people that you enjoy spending time with… If you enjoy spending time with them, you can have the faith that the audience is going to enjoy spending time with them.
SJ: I also think that the best characters in film are ones that you are very curious about; that there are things about them that you are still trying to figure out. So like Ameena—how does someone whose the daughter of Jeff Fort [an imprisoned gangster] of all people, end up doing this work. You want to understand how she got from there to here. And there’s Eddie. Here’s this mild-mannered sweet very sensitive soul. How did he ever commit murder and what impact did that have on his life? Because people are complicated. And the longer you can spend with anybody, the more interesting they become.
AK: And with each of them, too, I’ll say that they didn’t reveal themselves to us right away. So for us it was a real sense of discovery to begin to peel back the layers.
SJ: A lot of times you think they’re opening up and then you interview them six months later and you’ve really gotten to know them, and you say, “Wait a second, this is the real interview.”
WCP: How involved were the characters in connecting you with the action on the street?
AK: Working on the film was incredibly collaborative because in some ways we were completely dependent. Cobe, Eddie and Ameena were our guides out there and we made it clear to them that, you know, “Here’s what we needed, if something came up, call us,” which they did, and we would go out and we had this understanding that if we go out and it felt dangerous or somehow compromising their situation, or people didn’t want to be filmed, that we would, in the end, walk away. And we did on occasion. That happened. But there’s no question, you can see the kind of access we had in some of those scenes and that access is really because of Cobe and Ameena; they would go out there and set the tone. Cobe would go out there—he’s this really affable guy—he would go out there and tell people, “This is my film crew,” and keep on going about his business.
WCP: What is the takeaway or your conclusions, if you have any, about violence and the epidemic of violence?
AK: What’s cool about Cease Fire is that they take away the moral judgement. People aren’t bad people… They empathize and partly because of their own experience. You see that with Cobe on the bench with one of the brothers saying, “I know what it’s like to not have a father around.” Ceasefire is onto something there. They’re also onto something looking at violence as infectious disease. I think that there’s also a lot of factors and we see that in the film. I think if anything, for me, there’s a sense of hope and I will say going into this film and going into this article, I didn’t feel that.
SJ: There’s so many big problems to be solved in this country. And as it relates to people’s lives in this city, these are problems that have been there for decades and decades. And it can be completely impossible to think, especially in the economy and the world we are living in now, when are those things going to really get fixed if ever. It’s great to know what a difference an individual can make. They’re not going to fix all those problems and they need to fix all those problems but it’s amazing to look at Cobe and Eddie and see what individuals can do.