Interview: Steve James

*This interview was originally posted at The Film Experience.

With an unusually large number of high profile contenders and a recent overhaul in the branch’s voting system, the documentary category is sure to be one of the exciting races at the Oscars this year. There are a few films firmly in the conversation already, but I recently caught up with a contender that has curiously slipped under the radar despite the talent involved.

Head Games, the newest from Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) is based on a book by former WWE wrestler Chris Nowinski and takes on the issue of concussion in contact sports, a topic that is increasingly discussed among Football and Hockey enthusiasts in particular. James goes back to a more traditional structure in setting up his film with many talking head interviews and archival footage, but the end result is unexpectedly moving. Given the prevalence of these injuries in athletes, from kids who play Football or Soccer on a regular basis at school to the professionals of NFL and NHL, it’s a film that will be emotionally involving for a lot of people. I choked up a few times.

James’s history with the Oscars is well-known: despite universal critical acclaim, both aforementioned titles were snubbed by the Academy, not to mention his other powerful films. He was nominated in the editing category for Hoop Dreams, but it will be a big moment whenever he finally scores his first nomination for best documentary. On the occasion of the film’s qualifying release, I had the opportunity to chat with him about the film, his passion for sports, the Oscars, and the documentary branch’s new voting system.

Amir: I wanted to ask you about how you became involved with the project in the first place and what attracted you to it? Was it Chris’s book or did you hear about it elsewhere?

Steve: The producer had optioned the book and he thought it would be a great basis for a documentary. It’s an issue that I’d been paying attention to because I follow sports and I’m a great football fan here in Chicago. It was a topic that I cared about and had a lot of questions about myself. I saw this as a great opportunity to address concerns that many people had, especially parents and amateur athletes.

A: I was really moved by this film and I didn’t expect that reaction from myself to be honest. Some documentaries have an emotional impact on the audience by virtue of their subject matter and on paper, concussion in contact sports doesn’t sound like one of those topics but Head Games proves otherwise.

S: I’m glad it worked that way for you. I try to make films that matter to me or trouble me and I feel like if I get moved, hopefully the audience watching the film will do so as well. One of the things that documentaries can generally do better than written non-fiction is to move people. It’s the very nature of films with subjects that are quite powerful. I don’t set out to make the audience cry or any of that business but if they’re moving for me and I do my job right in directing and editing, they’ll be moving for the audience as well.

A: That personal connection with the material really comes through in Head Games. Although, this film has a more straightforward ‘interview/voiceover/action’ approach than, say, The Interrupters. I think many of your other previous films like Stevie and Hoop Dreams have been more about capturing the moment. This one also hits the audience when they don’t expect it, but in a different way. It seems more carefully constructed. Was that a deliberate decision from the get-go?

S: I had an early idea that I might follow the story of one pro football player who lived in Chicago and had killed himself. I wanted to dig deep into his and his family’s story early on. It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. The timing of the family’s cooperation didn’t work for us, but ultimately I’m happy it didn’t. When I set out to actually make the film, I felt like it was more important to make a film that was more informative on the topic and not quite so singularly focused. I felt like that was the best way to get to people, even though my general approach is usually in the other direction. I do like to challenge myself with these types of films too. Those three films you mentioned are of a certain kind but you can look at At the Death House Door, which relied heavily on archival material and it was mostly with a guy talking about the past, or The Trial of Allen Iverson, which was mostly archival footage and interviews. I do like to sit down before the film and figure out what’s the best way to achieve the story I wanna tell. I like mixing things up.

A: It’s been really effective here, on me at least. I’ve watched a Toronto Raptors game in the NBA and a Manchester United soccer game since watching the film. There have been hits to the head in both and your animated brain simulations immediately race to my mind.

S: [Laughs] I’m sorry. I’m getting in the way of your enjoyment of these events.

A: I really like the ending of your film, because you get to this point actually. These sports are woven into the fabric of our culture so strongly that it’s impossible to get them out no matter how dangerous they are. And you don’t pretend to distance yourself from people who treat sport like religion. I’m curious about the reaction of these organizations though. You talk about the measures they’re taking to prevent injuries, but did the NHL or NFL try to get in the way of making the film?

S: The NFL wasn’t cooperative at all. I tried to get an interview with someone high up in the office and that couldn’t happen. The only person the NFL was willing to let me speak to was one of the doctors who works on these types of injuries. In that regard the NHL was completely different. They let us speak to several of their high authorities including their primary enforcer. And they gave us access to NHL footage, but for NFL we had to use still photos. A lot of people fear the NFL, thinking that this major multi-billion dollar industry with a lot of legal help will come after them, but I haven’t heard anything from them since, and they haven’t taken issue with the film. I think the general approach is that since they know there will be more of these films in the future, it’s better for them to just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist rather engage with them.

A: There’s also a lot of footage from WWE in the film.

S: Yes. I give them a lot of credit for cooperating with us, but it was never something we wanted to get deep into since it has no major relevance at an amateur level. It’s entertainment, but a very dangerous one.

A: If you don’t mind, I wanna step away from the film and talk about the Oscars a little bit. You’ve got quite a famous history with them and I was one of the many people who criticized the branch’s voting procedure when The Interrupters was snubbed. What’s your opinion on the changes that the category has been through in the past couple of years? Do you see it as a step in the right direction?

S: I think they’re trying. What they’re trying to do, and Michael Moore is really spearheading this, is to make the branch more like the rest of the Academy and they’re succeeding. What that means is that films with more recognition and distribution are in a better position to be nominated, which is true of fiction films as well. Over 300 fiction films qualify for Academy awards and only about 20 have any serious hope of getting nominations. [Laughs] Documentary filmmakers by their nature are very inclusive. We want to give everybody equal chance because it’s always a struggle for us to get our films made. They’re trying to make a level playing field. All the branch members, including myself, have got about 130 doc films this year. I dare say not a single branch member is going to watch all of them. We’re all busy with our own projects.

A: [Laughs] But, going back to your point, that’s true of the Academy at large. No one watches all 300 films before voting in other categories.

S: True. No one pretends that they’ve seen everything, but we want to at least give that opportunity to make it as fair as possible. The intention is laudable but the practical reality is that it just won’t happen. It will be like the rest of the Academy where the voters watch what interests them. I get sent a lot of fiction films at the end of the year too but it’s only about 35 screeners that the distributors believe have any shot. No one gets the lousy action picture that opened in January.

A: That’s true. I feel like I can’t end the interview without talking about your future film. I’m super excited for it mainly because of the endless possibilities of exploration in the story but also because I’m already looking forward to reading Roger Ebert’s review of a film about his own life. Have you started production yet?

S: We’re gearing up! It’s an unusual situation for me. I can’t say much about it at this point, but it’s the first time I’m working on something that has been announced before I even start to make it. I much prefer it when people find out about the film when it’s ready. It’s better for me and for my subjects, but this is a unique situation. There are so many people who have followed him for years so I understand the interest. I’m just really excited to get started.


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