INTERVIEW: Oscar Nominee Steve James Talks Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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Steve James stopped by Cultured Vultures to discuss the Oscar-nominated documentary feature Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Thanks for joining Cultured Vultures today.  How are things treating you?
Everything’s good. No complaints. You’re welcome. Glad to join!

Abacus: Small Enough To Jail got you your first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Can you talk about what type of honor it is?
It’s a really nice honor to get a nomination after all these years of making films. I’m especially happy for the film and for the Sung family at the center of the film because I think it’s a testament to their story and the power of their story that so many members of the documentary branch voted for it for the nomination.

How did the Sung family and the Abacus bank get onto your radar?
It got onto my radar through Mark Mitten, who was one of the producers of the film. He has been friends with the family for over a decade now. He was hearing about this imminent case coming along and as the trial drew closer, he just thought nobody in the mainstream media seems to be covering this and it seems like it’s an important story. He reached out to me and told me about it. Based on his description of it, I decided to go to New York with him for an initial shoot. Just a couple days into the shooting, I decided to tell the story.

How long did it take to make the film?
Altogether, it probably took about a year and a half. We filmed intensively for the five month trial but we also did a number of interviews in particular after the trial you know to fill out the story and we finally got the DA’s office and jurors to participate. Filming took place over the course of a year and overall, it took about a year and a half.

If I recall, Abacus is being adapted into a feature film. What is the status on that?
That’s the hope. Justin Lin is pursuing that. It’s not guaranteed to happen as is the way of the world in Hollywood but he’s certainly very serious about trying to do it, yes.

Have you ever considered directing a narrative feature or is documentary filmmaking your preference?
I’m mainly a documentary filmmaker but I did one feature that came out in 1997 called Prefontaine, about the runner Steve Prefontaine, that starred Jared Leto. I also did a number of cable movies as well. All three of the narrative films I did were biopics and based on true sports stories. That was in part due to Hoop Dreams—because of that film’s success, people were interested in me as a director of sports biopics.

Do you find it hard to believe that Hoop Dreams will be turning 25 years old next year?
Yeah. It is hard to believe. I never would have thought when we made that it would still be talked about but here it is.

What inspired you to get into documentary filmmaking?
I fell in love with movies and so when I did go and study film at Southern Illinois University in graduate school, my initial desire was to do narrative cinema. But down there, there was a very influential professor named Mike Covell, who loved documentary and really kind of turned me onto documentary films in the very first production class I took. Before I pursued film, I thought I might go into journalism so I think ultimately documentary combined my love of telling stories in film with journalism interests as well to end up doing documentaries.

How did you get involved with telling Roger Ebert’s story on film?
That was one that was also brought to me. The producer on the film, Garrett Basch—he and Steve Zallian, who he worked, had read Roger’s memoir and thought it would be a really great basis for a documentary. So Garrett reached out to me and wondered if I would be interested in that. At the time, I hadn’t read Roger’s memoir. I knew it was out but I hadn’t read it. I read it and just thought it was terrific. I had my own history with Roger with the way he championed Hoop Dreams and championed other films I had done as well. I was inclined to be interested in doing it if I liked the memoir and I really liked the memoir and thought this would be a really great story to tell so I did it.

Is there advice that you would offer to the first-time filmmaker looking to make a documentary?
Well, typically a lot of first-time documentary filmmakers are kind of doing it on their own. They frequently don’t have much funding—sometimes, they don’t have any funding. I guess the advice I would give is you have to stay committed and you have to put in the time. Generally speaking, the first documentaries that people make that really stand out are often, not always, the films where the filmmaker has sort of dedicated themselves to the story over a period of time. Nothing helps you accumulate a better story in my view and a deeper, more resonant story than putting in the time with your subjects. If the story lends itself to following it over time, then you’ve got to do it. Putting in time, I think, is key because the more you’re there, the more you film, in my experience, the better the material gets as it goes along.

Thanks again for your time and best of luck on Oscar Sunday.
Thank you. Appreciate your interest.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is currently available on Digital HD. The Oscars will air on Sunday, March 4, 2018.