Steve James

This is going to sound simple and somewhat inane, but I love great Quazes. I know … I know—of course I love great Quazes. Hell, they’re on my website. What I mean is that, well, all Quazes are not created equal. Some of these interviews have been absolutely fantastic. Others, mmm, not so much. It’s a little bit hit or miss, depending on the subject and his/her willingness to devote some time.

Today’s Quaz kicks ass.

Steve James has a common name, which means you might mistakingly think he’s this guy or that guy. This Steve James, however, is one of America’s great documentarians. His films include two all-time classics, Hoop Dreams and Stevie. He also directed one of my personal favorite motion pictures, Prefontaine, on the life of American distance runner Steve Prefontaine. James’ newest film, Head Games, premieres this Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and will be immediately available via VOD (on iTunes). The documentary tackles (no pun intended) the silent concussion issue in American sports, combining heartbreaking interviews with jarring imagery. If James’ track record is any indicator, it will have an impact.

In today’s Quaz, Steve James talks about the country’s concussion issue. He looks back at the magic of Hoop Dreams and the pride and joy of his debut work, “Stop Substance Abuse.” James tells us the highs and lows of filmmaking; why he’s never felt scared in an airplane and his immediate remorse over agreeing to this interview. You can follow Steve’s new film here. Steve James, enter The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Steve, I’m gonna start with this: It strikes me that sports fans—and even athletes—talk a good game about concussions and head injuries, but generally stop at words. It’s sorta like climate change: “This is terrible … we need to do something!” while driving off in our Escalades, blasting our ACs, etc. Same here: “Man, the NFL needs to address concussions … holy shit! Did you see that hit Ed Reed put on Victor Cruz! That was awesome!” Do you think the nation is genuinely concerned—or do people merely talk the talk?

STEVE JAMES: I think both are true. Its hard to watch football as a fan and keep reminding yourself that the players on the field may be doing irreparable harm to themselves. I think all of us fans engage in willful ignorance or otherwise, we’d turn off the TV and go spend more time with loved ones. (Who wants to do that?) But in making this film, we found that the contradictions go deeper. We met parents who are genuinely concerned about their kids who play contact sports, who clearly want to make their sure they’re safe… And yet, despite repeated concussions they can’t bring themselves to bar their kids from playing these contact sports. I think it has to do with how ingrained these sports are in our culture and what we have come to believe are the great benefits of participation in them. And I think deep down, we all are hoping that the more we learn about concussions, that we’ll find that we’ve overreacted to this crisis. J.P.: “Head Games” addresses the concussion crisis in sports. Is it genuinely a crisis, or is it just a fact that, hey, you play sports, you might suffer a concussion? Are things getting worse, in your opinion, because of some increased physicality with youth sports? How big of a problem is this?

S.J.: I think it qualifies as a crisis because up until a few years ago, we paid virtually no attention to it and now its impossible not to. Most everyone connected to contact sports is legitimately scared because the research to date doesn’t give a lot of comfort. But on the other hand, we are barely off the starting block in terms of our knowledge and so its possible that we will look back on this time in ten years and say we overreacted. But we also might look back and say, how could we have been so naïve all those years? It’s as much about what we don’t know that requires us to not take this too lightly. J.P.: You’ve had a tremendous career in film. Your resume is loaded and thick and insanely impressive. Question: How did you get here? I mean, I know you attended Southern Illinois and, ahem, little else. What was your path from there to here?

S.J.: Mine was the path of a lot of filmmakers. You get out of school, you work shit jobs or grab on to the lowest rung on the film food chain (to mix a bunch of metaphors) and find a way to make a living while you pursue your own films. Films that no one – at least for a while – believes in enough to support. Making Hoop Dreams kept me sane all those years I was doing work as the oldest most educated production assistant in Chicago. Then I was lucky enough to have that film truly launch my career and now I just try not to fuck it up.

J.P.: According to Wikipedia, your first film was “Stop Substance Abuse in 1986.” A. Is this true? B. What the hell is “Stop Substance Abuse”?

S.J.: All these years and interviews and no one’s asked me that question! Finally, I get to sing its praises. Well, actually, I’ve been trying to expunge that from IMDB for years. It was a sponsored film from then Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan (now imprisoned) to have prominent pro athletes in Chicago speak out against the perils of drugs. Our featured star was then-Bull Orlando Woolridge, who two years later was arrested for cocaine abuse. But hey, it was a paycheck that also allowed me to interview Walter Payton and Michael Jordan. But it didn’t launch my career: a week after I finished it, I was back unloading an Ace Hardware film set on Water Street. J.P.: Your breakthrough was clearly “Hoop Dreams,” which blew up into a phenomenon. I’ve probably seen the film, oh, five times, and absolutely love it. I know you’ve been asked 8,001 “Hoop Dreams” questions—so let me ask 8,002. Namely, during the whole long process, weren’t you ever concerned that, fuck, this might not work out? I mean, to devote THAT much time and energy to a process … without a definable ending? And, along those lines, was there ever a point when you thought, “This is gonna be huge?” Or did you just not know until it happened?

S.J.: I did worry at a certain point whether other people would be as compelled (read: obsessed) by it. But because I (along with my partners Peter Gilbert And Frederick Marx) was such a hoop head who’d grown up playing the game, I don’t think I really cared. Every day we shot brought new revelation and surprise, like we were living inside a Dickens novel or something. But I would have been insane to think a three hour documentary on two young basketball players no ever heard of would ever be “huge.” Still, late in the post process, I do recall coming home at like 4 AM after a graveyard editing shift and just sitting in my car unexpectedly crying because I knew I’d been privileged to bear witness to something rare and wonderful.

J.P.: Back in the mid-2000s I was working on a biography on Barry Bonds when I learned that someone else was also working on a biography of Barry Bonds. My thought: Crap! You wrote “Prefontane,” the 1997 film about the life and death of the legendary runner, Steve Prefontane. At the same time, Warner Brothers was working on “Without Limits,” another Pre film. I’m wondering: How aware were you? How nervous were you? Was there a rush to get it out first? And is it strange to have your film compared with a rival picture?

S.J.: I knew all about the other film because they happened at the same time. So it definitely made me nervous to realize that at exactly the same time I was writing my film in my basement office, 2000 miles away in Hollywood, legendary screenwriter Robert Towne was his. Gulp. And from a budget standpoint our version was the PT Boat to their aircraft carrier. Because we were small we beat them coming out, but both films failed at the box office. For years when somebody said they liked my Pre movie, I dutifully quizzed them to make sure they were talking about mine (Jared Leto) and not theirs (Billy Crudup). Nowadays, I just say thank you very much.

J.P.: What are the great highs and the great lows that come with working in documentary film? I mean, it strikes me as a fascinating profession, but one that must surely bring immense frustration and uncertainty? Am I off here?

S.J.: The uncertainty about funding and piecing together making a living is a drag. But I’ve managed to be my own boss now for about 27 years, even though at times that’s like saying I’m “self-unemployed.” But the uncertainty of where a story takes you creatively is one of the most exciting things about making documentaries. Each one is an act of discovery.

J.P.: You did an ESPN 30 for 30 on Allen Iverson. A. Why? B. I’ve always found Iverson top be both a sympathetic and devilish character. Smart, but oft-unsympathetic; gritty, yet selfish. What’s your take on AI?

S.J.: My take is basically the same as yours, which I tried to show in the film. Here was a troubled kid, troubled background, who got into serious trouble as a teenager. He was both a victim and possibly a victimizer. And trouble has followed him since. I came to believe that AI is like a Rorschach on our complicated history and feelings about race in America. Its all in the film. Check it out!

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

S.J.: I’ve had many great moments for me personally. None better than watching Hoop Dreams at the New York Film Festival from the VIP box with the families we followed at Avery Fischer Hall with a sea of 2400 viewers below us. The worse had to be when the drunken owner of a dinky shooting stage in Chicago told me he had no reason to speak to me because I was just some guy who unloads sets for a living. At the time I believed he was right.

J.P.: I imagine working on The War Tapes must have absolutely infuriated you: RE: the role of government bullshit upon the war in Iraq; the use of patriotism as a weapon to get kids to sign up; etc. How did you maintain balance during the process; is it important for someone in your position to hold back from strong positions during the process; to let the material speak for itself?

S.J.: I’m a person with strong opinions about most things – just ask my poor wife. But I’ve never been a polemical filmmaker. So actually making The War Tapes was immensely satisfying because we were able to tell the stories of a pretty conservative soldier, a liberal one, and one who considered himself apolitical. By showing their experiences – by turns poignant, searing, and funny as hell – and hearing their own sometimes contradictory feelings and views, the film encourages the audience to reflect on their own views. I think the film is plainly critical of the war, but you don’t have to agree with me to enjoy and learn something from the film. For me, my favorite documentaries do that: express a point while embracing complexity, and not pulling punches. QUAZ EXPRESS WITH STEVE JAMES:

• Biggest career regret: Consenting to long internet interviews.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: Never have.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Arthur Agee, Gene Simmons, Moses Malone, Tampa, Bob Dole, oak tables, Amy Grant, Cosi’s bread, Morgan Freeman voice-overs, The Cable Guy, Eminem, candy apples, toenails, the toilets at minimarts: Seriously? I want to know how you came up with this list. Toenails and Toilets make me a little concerned about you.

• Five greatest actors of your lifetime: Sorry, my brain’s fading at this point. Can’t you tell?

• What happens when we die?: No one’s ever lived to tell the tale.

• How concerned you are, scale of 1 to 10, over what happens when we die: Okay, now I’m seriously worried about you. Do we need to send the police over to bust down your door?

• Best joke you know: The “existential joke”: A priest, a rabbi and a preacher walk into a bar.

• Is Michael Moore a great documentarian?: He’s one of our most ardent and passionate voices. I see him more as a kind of documentary essayist rather than a documentarian. And his impact on film and the public has been big.

• Celine Dion offers you $10 million to do a documentary about her left ear. You in?: Why not? I’ve got hungry mouths to feed and I’m sure there’s a story there. For $10 million, I’ll find a story.

• You have a really boring name. If you could change it to anything, what would you go with?: How about James Stevens? Seems classier somehow.