Steve James moved to Oak Park in 1985 after earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from Southern Illinois University. He came to the Chicago area to start work on an idea for a sports documentary about promising high school basketball players from the inner city. The film, Hoop Dreams (1994), made him an “overnight” success (it took seven years to make the film). 

One of the reasons for the film’s success was that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, the popular dueling critics from the Sun-Times and Tribune respectively, who matched wits and thumbs on their groundbreaking TV show At the Movies, championed the film.

James’ latest film, then, comes full circle as Life Itself is based on the memoir of Roger Ebert, a man who helped launch his career.

Since that first film, James has directed and edited nine other documentaries, including Stevie (2002) and The Interrupters (2011, with Alex Kotlowitz). He’salso made three feature films, including Prefontaine in 1997, starring Jared Leto (Oscar nominee for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club).

James received an Oscar nomination for Hoop Dreams (Editing), but none of his documentaries have been nominated for Best Documentary, which caused enough controversy to help change the way the documentary chapter of the Academy conducts its nominating process.

He and his wife, Judy, raised three children in Oak Park. The youngest, Jackson, graduated from Columbia College in Chicago last May and already has a film credit. He was second camera during the shooting of Life Itself, which will be shown twice today (Sept. 17), 1 and 7 p.m. at the Lake Theatre. James will be on hand to introduce the film and answer questions after.

The interview took place at the kitchen island, where he does some of his work. He also has a basement “hovel” where he edits his films, accompanied by his devoted Portuguese water dog, Dodger. They had recently returned from their vacation home in Oregon and a trip to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, where they screened Life Itself.

We began by talking about his best known feature film, Prefontaine, which was set in Oregon.

Is your second home in Oregon because of the film you did about Steve Prefontaine?

No, I’m from Virginia originally, but Judy grew up primarily on the West Coast so she lived in California, Oregon and Washington, but she thinks of Oregon as home. Even though she got into serious running for fitness, she didn’t have any connection with Steve Prefontaine. I didn’t either. I like sports in general. I knew who Prefontaine was, but the reason I did that film was because there was an opportunity to make it. And I thought the story was interesting. There was an original script written, I read it, and thought, “That’s an interesting story, but the script’s no good.” I ended up rewriting the script, which shows how willing they were to let me do what I wanted. Back then, I didn’t realize how rare that was.

I had no screenwriting credits. I’ve come to realize in the years since how rare it is out there for that kind of thing to just happen. But it was all due to Hoop Dreams. Prefontaine came out in ’97. It’s the one with Jared Leto. The other one stars Billy Crudup. Robert Towne wrote and directed it. They were competing projects. The original partners split over Robert Towne. Two wanted him to do it; two were against. I don’t know why. So one ended up at Warner Bros. and the one I was involved with ended up at Disney under Hollywood Pictures, their adult division. They were both made at the same time. Warner Bros. and Disney were very competitive, like Pepsi and Coke. When I was writing it down there in that little basement office, I knew that in LA, right then, Robert Towne of Chinatown fame was also writing the same story. So that was a little intimidating.

Neither of them ended up being successful. I guess you could say ours was less of a failure because they spent four or five times as much on that film, and they did about the same at the box office. Not that many people were that interested in Steve Prefontaine. They were saying, “Why are there two films on this guy?”

Jared Leto was a heartthrob for 13-year-old girls because of My So-Called Life. We met with the Disney PR people before the film was to come out, while we were still editing. We forced them to have a meeting with us and said, “Look, there are 7 million people who jog or run regularly in this country, so that’s one audience. A lot of them know who Prefontaine is. If they ran track at all, he’s a hero to them. And then 13-year-old girls.” [Leto] has his shirt off a lot in the movie. He looks fantastic. He’s 24 years old at the time.

The PR people said, “It’s going to sound unconventional, but because it’s not a big blockbuster film, we want to release it on Super Bowl weekend.” They said the only day that’s a problem is Sunday. But every blockbuster will stay away from that weekend because of that. So it made some sense. It’s unconventional and Hoop Dreams was so unconventional, so we said sure. Flash forward many weeks and we go in for our official PR meeting where they have everybody in the room and all the charts up on what they’re going to do. And the very same woman is up there doing a presentation and she says, “We’re opening the weekend of Jan. 27, which thank God is not Super Bowl weekend because that is the most God-awful weekend to release a movie.” So I say, “That is Super Bowl weekend.” And everyone in the room just went silent. I reminded her of the lie she told us, and she said, “Yes, yes, yes, exactly.”

We walked out of that meeting knowing it was over. They didn’t care. They had so little money invested in it. It was a low budget film, especially by Hollywood standards.

That was my only feature film, but I did two cable movies too, all three of them bio-pics – sports bio-pics because that’s what they would let me do. One was Passing Glory with Andre Brauer, Rip Torn and Ruby Dee. It had some good people in it. It was about the first interracial basketball game played in New Orleans. They wouldn’t let us shoot in New Orleans, though, because it would cost $330,000 more, so we had to shoot it in Atlanta. Have you ever seen anything in Atlanta that looks anything like New Orleans? No. New Orleans is one of the most unique places in America. But they wouldn’t let us do it. They let us go to Savannah [Georgia] for a day as an option. We said, great, let’s do Savannah. But they did the math and said, “No that would be $200,000 more. We can’t do that.” So why did we even go? We shot it in Atlanta. It turned out OK. Then I did one called Joe and Max about the boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmelling for Starz, and that was shot almost entirely in Berlin. If you were going to shoot in one place for that story, you’d want it to be Berlin. You didn’t want to try to find someplace here that could double for Berlin. And Germany is so westernized, we were able to make that work. 

Do you prefer documentaries or features?

Documentaries. That’s what I do best, for sure. But I fell in love with movies. I didn’t fall in love with documentaries, so I always wanted to do a movie, and I still do. I’m hoping I’m not done in that realm. I still have an interest in it and I feel like I got better at it with each one. But I don’t feel like I’ve made one yet where I’d say, OK, I’m proud of that. Partly my own growth that I need to do in that kind of filmmaking, which is different, and partly because of the different circumstances of the kinds of stories I was telling. It’s just a different model of filmmaking. [With features] there are a lot more cooks in the kitchen, a lot more things that are out of your control. In a doc, I feel like no matter how long the credits may be at the end, you really make the film with three or four people. In feature films, it’s like a military campaign. Even with the ones I was doing, which weren’t tiny crews. But compared with some Hollywood movies, those certainly weren’t big. But you’ve still got 80 people on a crew. 

Was Hoop Dreams your first documentary?

First outside of school. While I was making Hoop Dreams for Kartemquin [Films], which I’ve been affiliated with, I also made a film for the MacArthur Foundation. It was a half-hour sponsored doc about community organizing in Chicago. The best thing about it is that it led to the MacArthur Foundation giving money for Hoop Dreams. From the start when I got that job at Kartemquin, I said to my colleagues, “The master strategy here is to get them to give us money for Hoop Dreams. So I made sure I did as good a job as I could. And I started to interest [the main contact] in Hoop Dreams as we were working on this, and he got promoted to being in charge of the group that funds documentaries, and he gave us the money that really made that film possible.

How many films have you made?

Ten documentaries, plus the three features in 20 some years. Considering that Hoop Dreams took seven years to make, I’ve been keeping busy. Some of those were parallel projects. Stevie also took seven years to make. The New Americans, this mini-series we did at Kartemquin, was my brainchild, but I involved other filmmakers. That took 6.5 years to make. So I’ve done some longer-term projects that other things have kind of straddled. Generally speaking, though, I like to focus on one thing at a time if I can, and maybe have something in the offing which, as soon as this is done, I’m going to move over to that. Otherwise, I don’t have any income. But I try to carve it out so I’m totally focused on one thing for a time because it’s too crazy working on multiple projects. 

How long did Life Itself take?

It took a little more than a year, which is a really short one for me. We started in December of 2012, and it played at Sundance in January of 2014. Ebert died in April of 2013, about four months into making the film.

Did you know that was going to happen?

No. We did start it because his health was failing and there was this sense of urgency. I would run into him over the years at events. Since all the surgeries, I could see that things were gradually declining in terms of his ability to really be out and move around as easily as he once did. You could see the decline, but he wasn’t on his deathbed or anything.

We started because the memoir came out and Steve Zaillion the screenwriter, who has done a lot of big films – he wrote Schindler’s List, Moneyball – and directs, too. He and his business partner, Garrett Basch, read the memoir and really liked it and thought it would make a great basis for a documentary. They’re the ones who approached me. They first approached the Eberts to see if they were at all interested. And they said, “Maybe.” Then they asked me and I read the memoir and decided to do it. It’s a good memoir.

So we had a plan right before we started filming: We were going to film him going to movies and throwing a dinner party. Even though he couldn’t talk anymore, he still loved to host dinner parties with some of his friends. Then literally right before we were going to film, [Roger’s wife] Chaz contacted me and said, “We’ve had to take Roger to the hospital. He’s fractured his hip. It shouldn’t be any big deal, just a hairline fracture. We don’t know how he got it, but it shouldn’t be long.”

Then I thought, well, if he’s in the hospital, I should certainly film that because part of the story was going to be all of the days he spent in the hospital and what he had done to overcome it. The whole idea was to document his life in the present, so if he’s in the hospital, then I should document it. The hope was that he would be in the hospital for a few weeks and back home and then we’d resume with our original plans. And that just never happened. He never got out of the hospital. Well, he did go to the Rehab Institute and we filmed quite a bit there. Then he eventually came home for two days and then came down with pneumonia and had to go back to the hospital and never came home after that. So we filmed those two days at home. 

That really threw the proverbial wrench in the works.

Every documentary goes in a different direction. If all you did was go out and get what you thought you were going to get, then it wouldn’t be very interesting. Inevitably, they all go where they’re going to go, some more than others. With this one, the original idea was to show just how vibrant and active he was despite all he struggled with. And you still see that in the movie. It’s just you also know he’s going to die at some point before this movie’s over. You see, in the face of what becomes increasingly clear, that he knows he’s going to die sooner than later. That makes the film more poignant, I think. But it also shows his courage and determination in a very profound way. He maintained a sense of humor. He was very much in a place where he was ready to accept [death].

Yes, in the memoir he goes into that and sounded at peace.

Exactly. We showed the film at Cannes, and we added a sequence about the film festival because we just thought they would enjoy it. Roger loved Cannes so much. He wrote a book on Cannes. It was one of those sections that had just fallen out of the film so we did more work on it and put it back in. I’m glad we did. It’s a nice section of the film and it also yields further insight into him. 

It was surprising in some ways, the intensity of the outpouring when he died. I knew he was popular, but I didn’t know he was that popular. Were you surprised by it?

Yes, I felt the same way. I knew he had a lot of followers. On social media he had over 800,000, which is a lot. I don’t think any film critic or any kind of critic has ever come close to that and maybe never will. So I knew he was popular and beloved by a lot of people, but it was surprising. It was like a head of state had died.

He turned into quite a blogger. It went beyond movies. He wrote about spirituality and personal issues.

You see that in the film. Roger came out of a strongly journalistic background. He fell into movie criticism. He loved movies, but he fell into it. I think his plan was always to write for a newspaper, then eventually become an op-ed columnist. He told his best friend from college that when he charted out his life, eventually he wanted to move on to New York and become a novelist because he loved fiction so much. When you look at his blogging in later years, you see that op-ed guy. He finally got to that place where he had that forum. He really blossomed in that realm in later years. Then he turned to more personal writing about his own life and feelings, AA, cancer. All this is in the film. A lot of what was in the memoir was born in the blogosphere, chapters that made their way into his memoir.


You must have been happy to be asked to work on this project. Ebert was a big part of the popularity of Hoop Dreams, and your career taking off, right?

Huge. He and Gene Siskel with the show [At the Movies]. They reviewed the film when it was at Sundance. There was no distributor. There was no place to see the film but Sundance, and they went on their show and reviewed it, which was an extraordinary boost. They championed it for a solid year and a half, then they championed it for awards, and when it didn’t get nominated, they devoted a segment to how outraged they were. Who knows what would have happened to that film or my career had they not done what they did? I think it would have been regarded as a good film, but it might have been this obscure “Believe it or not, there’s this three-hour doc about kids who want to play basketball. Have you ever seen it?” “No, I never heard of that.” “It’s good.” It could have been one of those movies very easily.

But after Hoop Dreams, Roger reviewed my films. He never gave me a bad review. Some were better than others, but he remained very supportive of my career. He championed The Interrupters in a big way, starting with its premiere at Sundance. Right before it appeared at Sundance, he tweeted about it, how he thought this film was Oscar-worthy. That just flew around everywhere. And when Interrupters didn’t even get short-listed, he wrote about how unhappy he was about that and at the end of the year, he said it was his favorite documentary of the year, so he continued to be incredibly supportive of my work.

Did you feel like you were coming full circle by doing this film?

I did. When I was told about it, I didn’t think, Oh, I can repay Roger for all his support. That wasn’t my thought at all. Well, I thought about it, but my thought was, It could be an interesting story. But if I’d read the memoir and didn’t think it was that interesting, I would have wished him well and wished someone else well doing it. But I didn’t feel an obligation to make a film on him because of what he’d done for me. 

He seemed to be a pretty generous guy in that way, supporting up-and-coming artists.

He was. But one of the things we tried to show in the movie is that he had many sides. I think he was always, inherently, a very generous person, but he could also cut you a new one. We spend more time in the film than he does in the memoir on the TV show and Gene Siskel and their relationship. We kind of dig into it much more honestly. He goes pretty easy on it in the memoir and remembers it very fondly. It’s all through rose-colored glasses looking back on a relationship, not remembering what it felt like, and we get to what it felt like. I never got to really ask him about that beyond what he’d written, but we have other people who were producers on the show. Gene Siskel’s widow, Marlene had always refused to be interviewed about any of this, but she’s a major voice in the film and she’s very candid about how Gene felt about Roger and how she felt about Roger. And it wasn’t all flattering. Not at all.

So you get to see the other sides of him. He was this very interesting guy, and he was quite generous, but he also had a substantial ego, too. And some people ran into that side of him.

That was my impression of him originally – prickly, with a big ego. When he started showing his other side, I was surprised and impressed. It was nice to see.

Yes, and I think Chaz was a big part of that. That’s in the movie too. Chaz is really a co-star of this film. It’s Roger’s story, but it’s also her story and her life with Roger, and you see what a profound impact she had on him. She was part of softening him in some serious ways.

And he certainly gave a lot of credit to her in the memoir. How was she after he died? Was she supportive and a partner in the project?

Oh yeah. When you see it, I think you’ll be struck by the candid access that we got, considering his health situation. Roger was very public about what he was going through, but when he would go out in public, yes, he was disfigured by the surgeries, but he always wore a black turtleneck and a sport coat. He always looked pretty dapper. Well, in this film, you see him in the hospital, you see him without the turtleneck but with the white bandage, which means when he opens his mouth you can see right straight through to the bandage.

Roger wanted this to reach a level of candor that he had not shown the public before. I certainly wanted that too, and he knew that. He was a film reviewer and a brilliant guy and a journalist. He knew you can’t go halfway. He was willing to have it be the kind of film that he would want to see even though it was about him. That’s not typical, especially for famous people. I think the level of candor he shows in this film is very rare for someone of his stature.

Chaz was very protective of him and you see that in the movie, but she eventually came to be more open. We couldn’t have made the film without her support, and she’s been very supportive of the film since it was completed. She’s dutifully gone to film festivals and done lots of interviews.

Were you there when she saw it for the first time? Were you nervous about her reaction?

I always show films to the main subjects before they’re done. I feel it’s an obligation. I make it clear that I’m not obligated to change anything. That’s been a very interesting and largely positive process. And the films have benefitted from it. I’ve had to say no a number of times. “I hear you but I think that’s right for the movie.” But I make changes, too, because people point out things. Oh, I misunderstood or Oh, that’s more interesting. She saw a version of it before it was done and she had a very muted response at first. She said, “I have some questions about things that aren’t in there.” A lot of times it’s hard for subjects because it’s their lives and they can’t help but watch it, scrutinizing themselves very closely or, like in her case, thinking about all the things we could have put in the movie that we didn’t.

A lot of our discussion was about that kind of thing. You know, Roger went on two dates with Oprah and was on Oprah’s show with Gene many, many times over the years. Chaz said, “I think you should interview Oprah.” I thought about it, but then I thought Oprah was never serious about him. He was interested. She wasn’t. So I didn’t think there would be a whole lot there.

But I said to Chaz, “I know this may sound weird, but you’re our Oprah. You are the woman he married. You are the woman who changed his life. Oprah means nothing in this story. You mean everything.”

And she said, “What about Spike Lee? Roger championed Do the Right Thing.” I had a number of filmmakers in the movie. The filmmakers I chose were not just the ones Roger championed, but the ones he actually had a friendship with, which was unusual for a film critic. All the filmmakers in the film, there’s something unique about their relationship to Roger. That’s why they’re in there, not just because he championed their work.

Then when she saw it at Sundance, she still really didn’t see it. I don’t think she fully watched it, took it in, until we showed it at Ebertfest in April. That’s when I first saw how moved she was. She really let herself watch the movie – 1,200 people at the Virginia Theater down in Champaign, all huge fans of Roger and the festival, which he started. It was an extraordinary screening. Afterward, when we came up to do a Q&A, she couldn’t talk for a while. She just sat there. Fortunately, Bill Knack, a great writer for Sports Illustrated for many years and Roger’s best friend going back to college. He’s a prominent voice in the film. So he and I talked for a while. Then she kind of gathered herself and contributed to the session.

She’s probably sat and watched it with audiences like seven or eight times now. After each, she would say to me, “I saw something different” or “I took it in a different way.” She used to get really, really sad about the ending. In the film, she tells this extraordinary account of the last day, when Roger passed. I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years for the films I’ve done, but this was one of the most moving things anyone’s ever said to me. And we let it play out. It’s just her talking. You don’t see anything but her just telling it. And she used to get really sad when she’d see that in the movie.

Then at one point she told me, “I didn’t get sad this time. I actually got inspired by Roger and the way in which he dealt with it. That’s what I took away.” She said, “I no longer fear death now because of the way Roger dealt with it. Whenever I’d think of death, I used to get very fearful, but now I don’t because of him.” She didn’t get to that realization till probably the sixth screening of the movie. And what she’s responding to is herself and her account of Roger. 

Is it a better movie because of the way things turned out or is that impossible to assess?

In the largest sense, what I set out to accomplish was following Roger’s life in the present. It’s all still there. Had he not died, I think you would still have come away from this movie thinking, hopefully, “Wow, what a courageous individual, the way he perseveres, the way he embraces life, even the hard parts.” All these things I think the movie’s very much about. And it goes beyond his life story, which is pretty damn interesting. It’s like the bigger-picture notion, why he called his memoir Life Itself, the way in which he lived his life. All that would have still been there. We weren’t at his bedside, I didn’t have any interest in that and no one had any interest in us being there for that, but you see the way he approaches that time and deals with it. That just makes it all the more remarkable – and more poignant because he died.

Of course, if he had lived, how wonderful would it have been, not just because he would still be in the world writing and people reading him, but even more selfishly, it would be so amazing to be going places, if he could physically do it, and have him participate. It would have been such a gas to be out there with him and Chaz. 

Do you like the unpredictability of doing documentaries, that they take on a life of their own?

Oh yeah. That’s the reason to do them, I think. There are a lot of reasons to do them. But one of the reasons is because you don’t know. You’re going on this journey and that’s what you want to do, no matter how good your ideas are about what you’re setting out to do. You can’t just start out with no ideas. The better your ideas, the more grounded you are and the better your chances of making a good film, but it should also allow you to really go where the film leads and be willing to jettison some of your strongly-held ideas of what it should be if need be.

I’ve seen films where it seemed like the filmmaker had a rigid idea of what the film should be and by God that’s what they made. Sometimes you can see within the film itself that there’s another film in there and a better film than the one I’m watching. That’s what you don’t want to have happen.

With The Interrupters, we didn’t have a strong narrative story to follow. That was a little unsettling at first, but we looked at what we were getting and well, let’s just say what we’re doing is spending a year in the streets of Chicago. We’re going to follow these three interrupters around. We’ll see what work they do and along the way we’ll find out more about who they are and how they came to do this work and what they leave behind and what caused them to change. That’s what the film is but we didn’t know what the pieces were going to be. We just had to go out and get it and come back and shape it into something that hopefully wrapped you up and pulled you along. As someone who edits my film, it’s always great to have a great story, of course. But it’s also great to do something where you don’t have that and it presents a different kind of challenge. There’s a freedom in that. I’m not a slave to the story. I really enjoyed The Interrupters for that. 

That happened in Hoop Dreams, right, when Arthur transferred to Marshall?

Yes, that changed. In the early part of that film when we were trying to raise money and cut together a demo of some sort featuring the two guys, people would look at it and they would have trouble keeping them straight even though they don’t look alike. Their circumstances were the same. They would say, “Why are you following two guys?” And we said, “Well, we don’t know what’s going to happen with these kids and we figure one of them is who we’ll finally focus on. We’re just trying to hedge our bets a little bit here.”

William Gates seemed clearly on a track to be a star. Arthur Agee was like, I don’t know. We weren’t thinking the contrast between the two would be great. None of that. We thought, we don’t have any money. We can follow these two guys. There’s nobody else. Let’s just see what happens. But once Arthur left St. Joe’s, oh, this is a whole different story. And a much more interesting story. 

Do you have another idea for a project already or are you working off a list of ideas?

I’m interested again in doing something in the feature realm. I’m more actively pursuing that than I have in a long time. It started with The Interrupters. More people saw it out there and were interested in it, and Life Itself has sparked more interest too. So now hopefully there will be more of an opportunity to try this again – which I’d like to do. I’m going to continue to do docs, but I feel now’s the time if I’m going to do a feature again. I have some doc ideas too. But for the last few years, I’ve gone from one film right into another because I made sure I had something to go to.

There is this project called Generation Food, looking at food from an economic and political standpoint; that was supposed to be the next film. We’re still doing the project, but we’ve changed the concept. We’re going to make it a transmedia project, which means it will live on the Web and have more interactive kinds of things. It will just be a different animal. I was having trouble figuring out how to make it one film. There were just too many things going on.

Your career covers that interesting era beginning with the Internet and moving into social media. A lot has changed in the last 25 years.

It sure has. When our kids were younger, really up to right before their teenage years, their lives were not that different from my life growing up. Yes, they had more TV shows, more TV channels, but it was still an effort trying to find anything worth watching. They didn’t have cellphones. We were late adopting that technology. The video games were very crude. You couldn’t play them too long because they just weren’t that interesting. I remember thinking at one point before it all changed, like big-time changed: You know, their lives aren’t that different really. Then it seemed just like overnight. Video games became sophisticated. The Internet exploded. Cable exploded. It became like, you’ve got to give your kids a phone. If you don’t, you’re an irresponsible parent. You won’t know where your kids are. I wish it wasn’t that way. 

Is it less expensive now to make a doc because of the technology? You hear so much about the DSLRs and the gorgeous cinematic quality of the files.

When I was starting out, in order to get Hoop Dreams made, we had a very small Illinois Arts Council grant, so I had to find someone who had a broadcast quality video camera. We wanted originally to shoot film but we didn’t have the money to even conceive of that, so let’s get broadcast quality video. Well, those cameras were hard to find outside of TV stations. Only successful freelance cameramen had them and those cameras cost, with the lenses – this was in the mid-80s – they were like $40,000-50,000. In mid-’80s prices! So not many people had them, and if they had them, they sure didn’t want to film with you for nothing. So we had to get lucky and find a guy who was a total basketball junkie, who was willing to get involved with no money to begin with. And I found a great guy who became a partner on the film, and a friend, someone I’ve worked with on several projects, Peter Gilbert.

And then Kartemquin had a very simple VHS offline edit system, which was not frame accurate. It was linear editing, not non-linear editing. But you had to know someone who had all that, who could either rent it to you for virtually nothing or give it to you.

So to make these films, just to get access to the gear, was hard, and then the expense of it on top of that.

That’s all changed. Now I bought my son, Jackson, who just graduated from Columbia last May in film cinematography, a DSLR, the Mark III, and he uses it constantly. You can edit on a laptop now if you want. I edit on my home computer. So all that’s changed. It’s much easier for people to make films. At the higher end of doc filmmaking, films are still expensive because what people are doing is more sophisticated, the time put in for shooting and editing, the music, getting a composer, all these things still cost money. But people can and do go out and make a doc for a lot less money because they can get their own camera, edit it at home on their own system and just do it by hook or crook.

Of course, if you talk to film critics, they’ll say, “I wish it wasn’t so easy” because there are so many more films out there. It used to be that everyone had a screenplay in their desk drawer. Now everybody’s making a film.

There seems to be an explosion of sports docs.

Hoop Dreams helped launch that genre of doc filmmaking, the sports film. It wasn’t the first, but it helped popularize it. Then the 30 for 30 series on ESPN came along a few years ago. I did a film for that series. It’s an extraordinary collection of work, by and large. Some are better than others. So that has really added to the explosion.

So it’s that much harder to get nominated for an Oscar. I remember Ebert’s criticism of the Academy back when Hoop Dreams wasn’t nominated. Has the situation changed much?

Hoop Dreams caused them to change the rules. It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back. In previous years, Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s film, had not been nominated. Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ film had not been nominated. All these films had reached a significant status and had gotten real theatrical release and people had been seeing them and reading all about them, and they didn’t get nominated. So when Hoop Dreams didn’t get nominated it was: OK, enough. We have to fix this. We’ve got a real problem here, clearly.

They did two things: They recruited real, active doc filmmakers for the branch. Up until then, it was mostly old retired people, many of whom had never made docs but just volunteered to serve on the documentary committee because they had a lot of free time to watch movies. So the Academy made a big push to expand the branch and get new blood in, which they’ve done. The branch is now an impressive group of people. And they decided to have a larger committee so no one person could control it. That was one of the problems. They created the short list, which is like 12-15 films.

That was in place until The Interrupters and another film that got a lot of attention that year, Senna, about the race car driver, terrific documentary. When those two films didn’t get shortlisted, there was another wave of outrage. How could this happen? So they changed the rules again. There were so many docs now that qualified. Back when Hoop Dreams was up, there were maybe 30 or 40 films tops that had to be looked at. Now there’s like 150 every year. So the committee would split up. You’d watch 15 and I’d watch 15. So for any one film there were only three or four people seeing it and deciding its fate. If one of them didn’t like it, it was over. Now every member of the branch gets every doc. So I get 150 docs sent to me every year. I don’t watch 150 docs but I get them. It’s become much more like the features side, which is that the films people hear about are the ones you’re going to look at. It democratizes the process, but it privileges the films that get more profile.

So I feel like I’ve had an impact on the Academy by not getting nominated. 

That means you must have to spend a lot of time on the promotional side.

You do if you want people to see your movie. There are so many films out there competing for people’s attention. It’s like music. When I was a kid it felt manageable. With my kids, they can’t begin to keep up with everything that comes out. And you can’t begin to keep up with all the films. You can’t begin to keep up with all the TV shows that are out. So if you don’t go out and really push what you have, it will disappear, unless you’re Guardians of the Galaxy,lucky enough to have a huge studio spending hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re not in that position.

What’s life in Oak Park like for you these days?

Our oldest son just left for Seattle with his girlfriend to move out there. Jackson our youngest is in Chicago. And our daughter is in Senegal in the Peace Corps. We came here back in ’85 because of bargaining. We had been in Southern Illinois in graduate school. She had too. Then it was like, we need to move someplace where I can have a career. You can’t do it down there. So I said, “What about New York? She said, “No way.” L.A.? She had grown up there a little bit. She said, “I don’t want to go back to L.A.” And I had had this idea for Hoop Dreams. OK, Chicago then. I know some people there. And I know it would be a great place to pursue this idea. She said, “OK, but I don’t want to live in the city proper.” And I wanted to live in the city. So we talked to people we knew up here and they said, “Well, if you’re not going to live in the city, you should only live in one of two places, Oak Park or Evanston.” We didn’t care but because Judy loves the water so much, we probably would have leaned toward Evanston. Then she got a job in the Loop for Women’s Services. Then she got a second job, because it wasn’t enough, out in Bolingbrook. So Oak Park was perfect.

We came here and we thought it was pretty. We loved the progressiveness of the community. We thought it was great when we came here to look for apartments, that they had the Housing Center, which encouraged integration. We loved that whole idea.

I remember thinking initially and still think it’s kind of true about Oak Park, but we’ve gotten used to it: This place has an awful lot of rules. A lot of do’s and don’ts. You know that slogan Oak Park: Step Out of Line that was so controversial for a while? I used to make fun of that. It should be Oak Park: Step Out of Line, Pay the Fine.

On the other hand, it is a unique place to live. I always thought it would be interesting to do a film about race in Oak Park. I even thought about doing a film about the high school, but I figured I couldn’t possibly do it while my kids were there, and I haven’t pursued it since. But I’ve often felt the struggle around race in this community is the kind of story I haven’t seen told. Usually when people tell stories of race, they are dealing with besieged communities like on the West Side. 

Or Ferguson, Missouri.

Hopefully someone will do a film. That would be interesting. But it hasn’t been done in a place like this, which is a liberal community that takes great pride in trying to face racial issues. If you really want to find out how hard it is to deal with race, go someplace that’s really trying and see how hard it is as opposed to a place where there’s a tremendous amount of insensitivity to the issue. I know that gets headlines, but in a place like Oak Park, you see people still trying to dance around issues because they want to be sensitive, which is appreciated. But it also keeps them from talking about what people are really thinking and feeling. So under the guise of sensitivity, it creates its own kind of censorship and unwillingness to dig in.

It’s like that incident with Henry Louis Gates and the state trooper, when Gates was trying to get in his house and the guy arrested him. Obama held the “beer summit” with them alone across the field, and the press was way over there. When that happened, I was thinking, No, you’re getting it wrong. We need to be hearing that conversation. That’s the conversation we need to hear. 

Are you still in touch with William Gates and Arthur Agee from Hoop Dreams?

I am, William moved to San Antonio. He was living on the West Side and wanted to get his kids out of the city and go someplace new. His oldest son is a sophomore this year and was a star freshman on the basketball team. His middle son is probably going to be a big-time recruit. His youngest son will probably be something too. They all love basketball.

Arthur still lives in the area. He used to live in Berwyn. He’s still around trying to operate his role model foundation that he started with his dad. His dad was murdered, as was William’s older brother, Curtis. Both families have had their share.

Ever think of a sequel?

We’ve thought about it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. It would be a hell of a sequel though.

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