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Interview: Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz

From left to right: violence interrupter Ameena Matthews, Producer/Director Steve James, Producer Alex Kotlowitz, and Co-Producer/Sound Recordist Zak Piper. [Photo: Cinema Guild]

Interview: Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz

It's hard to imagine a better pairing of talent and material than Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz, and the street-savvy, impassioned antiviolence crusaders of The Interrupters. The documentary addresses a problem that couldn't be more serious (the violence that literally plagues the streets of Chicago and other American cities), but talking to its open, unpretentious filmmakers was a lot of fun. That's partly because James likes to tease Kotlowitz, noodging his longtime friend out of the somber sincerity that seems to be his fallback position. It was also nice to hear that Kotlowitz had fond memories of my husband, who hired him in the '80s to write copy to accompany a photo essay on children living in Chicago's Henry Horner housing project for Chicago Magazine (Kotlowitz parlayed that assignment into his excellent book on the subject, There Are No Children Here.)

Slant: So, Alex got this started with your New York Times article. How did you initially find this group?

Alex Kotlowitz: It goes back to your husband, in some ways. I say that because, working on There Are No Children Here was about following these two boys over the course of two years, but in many ways it was about the violence that affects their lives, and that was pretty overwhelming. I remember being pretty depressed in the midst of that, and subsequent to the book coming out, three of the kids I befriended were murdered. It haunts you.

I've been trying to figure out a way, as a storyteller and as somebody who cares about these issues, to figure out a way to grapple with it. And then this guy that worked with them who I play basketball with convinced me to go spend some time with CeaseFire, and I came away impressed.

I think there are two things that really most impressed me. One, that it offered a different way to look at the violence. Gary Slutkin, who founded CeaseFire, is an epidemiologist who looks at violence as an infectious disease. That takes the moral judgment out of the equation, so it's not about good and bad people, and I think that's really important. And the other thing is that I began to spend time at that Wednesday meeting where the interrupters gather every week, and after that first meeting I was hooked. You look at the faces of all of these men, and there are a couple of women there, and you just think, my God, there's just a bundle of stories there.

Slant: And 500 years of prison time.

AK: [laughs] Right. So I ended up doing a story for the magazine about it, and it was one of those rare experiences as a writer where I felt, boy, if you could get the kind of access you need, this would be a great film. I knew the access would be tough. One of the things that eluded me in working on the magazine piece was getting at the personal stories of the interrupters. It was one of the things that really intrigued me.

Slant: Well, you sure got it. I often found myself watching a scene and thinking: "Damn, there was a camera in here?" You get into the middle of some pretty deep stuff, and you obviously had to develop real trust to get that kind of access.

AK: The access question was not so much a question of trust. Partly, but it was really a question of whether you were going to compromise their situations—

Steve James: Whether they'd let us close with a camera. These are delicate negotiations, some of them, and there are legal issues involved.

Slant: Did you start with the individual interrupters you wanted and then follow them, or did you look for dramatic mediations and then follow whoever happened to be involved?

SJ: We knew from the get-go that we wanted to follow interrupters, but we didn't know which ones or how many, except that we knew we didn't want too many. We knew Ameena was one, and then the process became one of filming the meetings they had every Wednesday. That helped with getting our finger on the pulse of what was going on week to week and getting them comfortable with us. That was also our way into getting to know more of the people around the table.

Tio Hardiman, who created the program, would tell these guys about us every week. He'd say, "They're here, they're trying to make this film; it's important to us that we do this film. I want you guys to step up and get them into some mediations." Cobe was the guy who really took it to heart and started calling us. We didn't even notice him at the table until he started calling us. He wasn't a guy that took over the room. He's a gregarious and wonderful and funny guy, but not a guy that just kind of jumps out at you in a meeting.

Slant: Like China Joe.

AK: Yeah, China Joe!

SJ: China Joe was one of the guys we were interested in, but it just never happened with him.

Slant: Looking around that table at those meetings, it's striking how charismatic most of these former gangbangers are—so good looking and smart and personally powerful. It makes you wonder if some of the best and the brightest people in that neighborhood became gangsters.

AK: Well, they were the leaders. Each of them, in their own right, were leaders when they were in the gangs. People would listen to them, just as they do now. One of the things Steve and I talked about is, the easy thing to say would be that they've changed, but in many ways I think they've figured out who they were all along, using all the same skills and tools and assets that they had back then, just for something very different. So you're absolutely right. There's no question. When Cobe was running the streets, that affability, that humor, that disarming nature—it got him places.

SJ: He wasn't that threatening leader. He's the best kind of leader. He's the guy you want to do right by because he's a good guy and he's a fair guy and he's a man of his word. And Ameena, of course, you can see that powerful charisma that would make her a good force. It's almost like she took her dad's power and charisma. [Ameena's father, Jeff Fort, was one of the most famous and powerful gang leaders of his time.] And now look what she's doing with it.

AK: You had asked whether certain people jumped out at us. We pursued Ameena, in fact, Steve and I would joke early on about how it reminded us of high school, chasing some beautiful girl. She would sometimes return your call and sometimes she wouldn't—

SJ: I was calling her for a while and then she wouldn't call me back, so I said, Alex, you call her, since she wouldn't recognize the number. That worked once. [laughs]

AK: With Eddie, we knew we wanted a Latino. And Eddie, of course, is this incredibly thoughtful guy, who's still wrestling with—

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