Director Steve James
By Ross Anthony

Steve James ("Hoop Dreams," "Stevie") shuffles unassumingly into the hotel room as if out of the film "Stevie." He's just as modest, but perhaps more willing to speak given the appropriateness of the situation. With six or seven journalists in the room, at one point a cassette recorder clicks at the end of the reel. Steve stops mid sentence, and waits for the journalist to reload the recorder before continuing. I guess old habits die-hard.

SJ: I never set out to be in the film. I expected I might be in it a little bit in the beginning. But then I expected to step off screen, but when this crime happened and he was charged. I really felt myself being drawn into it, forget the film, if I was down there and was going to be in his life Director Steve Jamesagain ... I got drawn into it. ... We tried to keep it as honest as we could which is uncomfortable and it also gives the audience ammunition to feel all kinds of conflicting feelings about me ... not just other subjects in the film. But that was a risk I think was important to take.

RA: You've got a lot of wonderful honesty that would be difficult for people to say in private and here they are saying in public. What was their motivation for opening up? Did they think that maybe this film in some way would help them out in their situation?

SJ: That kind of intimacy comes from trust. The subjects have to trust you as a filmmaker. They have to believe that you like them, that you have compassion for them. That you're not just there to vilify them. I believe that you don't make films about people that you just intend to vilify... I think also being in a film like this for the subject can be somewhat therapeutic, because you're expressing an interest in their lives.... People have some sense that what they've gone through in life has some relevance and importance. That's what you're telling them. So it can be a therapeutic experience for them. I'm always surprised at how courageous people are in documentaries like this because it does take (pause) and I got a first hand dose, by myself being in the film I know just how risky it feels to put yourself in that position. And I don't put myself in nearly the same ... you know.

PRESS: Has everyone seen the film at this point?

SJ: Everyone, but Stevie. He can't see it. They won't let him see it. They think it would be a special privilege that they're not willing to grant.... Strictly on bureaucratic grounds. ... I'm gonna try again,... even though there's a part of me that doesn't want him to see it, I mean you know, I feel I know it's going to be a tough experience and I'll offer to be there when he does see it, if he wants me too.

RA: What were the reactions of the others?

SJ: ... I've been very encouraged by the reaction. I mean it's a very difficult film for them. Because it's not the triumph of the human spirit story ... It's a very hard film. Bernice, Stevie's mother, we're on very good terms, but she has trouble talking to me about it. We still have not had a real conversation about it and I don't know if we ever will. Brenda, Stevie's sister, says that the film is very true and accurate and seems to be glad that she participated. ... At the end of the screening she was in tears. Tonya spent half the film crying she said. Wendy, the mother of the victim, was quite eloquent, which will come as no surprise, about the film. She talked the most about it and said that it had sensitively handled the situation and that she'd learned some things about Stevie.

PRESS: What did you shoot this on?

SJ: We actually shot the whole thing on super 16mm, which is odd because it was a mostly unfunded project. The BBC gave us money -- they were instrumental. We couldn't get an American broadcaster to give us money. We shot it on Super 16mm, because a filmmaker by training,I don't have an attitude about tape I shoot a lot of things on tape.... I miss not seeing documentaries on film. It used to be that's the way they all were. So I wanted to shoot this one on film because it was gonna be a real modest little portrait. And I thought I could get away with it economically. ... Now, when I sit in a theater and watch it, I think in a weird sort of subliminal way that these people, their lives are worthy of being a film. ... Actually, we lost some negatives at the beginning. So in the fifteen minutes... we had to take from dailies from betacam. It broke my heart. But that's what we had to do.

PRESS: Why did she allow him to baby-sit?

SJ: Yeah, it's something probably I should have included in the film, because I asked her that question. She says at the time she didn't know that history about him. She was unaware of his arrest record and when she found out ... she felt like a fool. But that's something of debate... debated in the family. Since I couldn't really say either way definitively, I just left it out. ...Well they're sisters, at the time we encountered them in the film they were close ... but that changed as a result of this.

PRESS: What kind of an impression do you think you made on Stevie in your previous relationship?

SJ: I didn't know. Which was one of the motivations about making the movie and going back because I felt unfinished about the whole thing. I left there thinking, 'Well, did I do any good?' or 'Shouldn't I feel better about what I just did?' So I didn't know. But I think I found out during the course of making the film from him that whatever my internal wrestling was -- he remembered it quite fondly. That moment in the car where he recounts how we used to walk the dogs and making pizza and all that stuff, you see that these are cherished memories for him. Someone spent time with him, did things with him, and that was a rare enough thing that it was meaningful for him.

PRESS: What do you hope he'll take away from the film.

SJ: What I pray, is he'd see there'd be two things: I might amend this later but off the cuff I would say there are two things that strike me that would be great. One is, to see just how many people in his life really cared about him. The foster parents, his sister, his mother... now, and Tonya, me and my wife. And the other would be to see this pattern of not wanting to let go of the past and wanting to hang on to his rage of the past and not break with that is so destructive. That he needs to do that.

RA: Is Tonya still waiting for Stevie?

SJ: No. She's moved on. She has another boyfriend. She went to him and told him, in classic Tonya, 'I'm not going to wait for you. I'm not saying that when you get out that I'll never see you again. But I'm going to move on. Pure and Simple.' That wasn't simple, but she came to some clarity on that and she has done that.

[Review of "Stevie"]  |  [More interviews]

Copyright © 2001. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 17-Mar-2004 15:36:48 PST