"I've always been a character-driven documentary filmmaker," says Steve James. "I'm interested in people and stories with larger things to say, but my entry point is always people. All of these films I picked are great character studies of people."
The filmmaker's work includes the seminal 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, about two inner-city Chicago boys, Arthur Agee and William Gates, following their dream of playing professional basketball in the NBA, and 2016's Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, about the only U.S. bank prosecuted in relation to the 2008 financial crisis. The former earned James an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing, the latter for Best Documentary Feature.
"It certainly doesn't hurt to have gotten the nominations. It can help with pursuing new projects and getting access. It can help people believe that you know what you're doing and that they're in good hands by letting you tell their stories," James reflects. "It's like my reputation preceded me."
His latest project is A Compassionate Spy, which explores the life and work of Manhattan Project physicist Ted Hall and the reasoning behind his decision to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. For James, Hall's story was important because it was one that "most people, including myself, knew nothing about." It was also a great character study.
"When I met his wife and widow, Joan," he explains, "I was so taken with her recall of that time, of her love for Ted, of her brilliance in her own right, and her ability to tell the stories. I just thought, 'Well, this is a story we have to tell.'"
Below, James shares with A.frame five films, all character studies, that are "full of life," "spirit," "humanity," and "tragedy" and that represent "a capturing of life in all its surprises" for the filmmaker.
Directed by: Jean Renoir | Written by: Jean Renoir and Carl Koch
When I was falling in love with film, I took a film appreciation class in college — not with the idea that I was going to be a filmmaker, but I liked movies and I heard it was a fun class. We watched a number of Renoir's films, including The Rules of the Game, arguably his greatest masterpiece. It's either that or The Grand Illusion. I was blown away by the sheer life on the screen and multiple levels of action, and the different attentiveness and nuance to class between the wealthy guests, the chalet owner, and the support staff. It's such a beautifully human story, told with great artlessness. It's not a show-offy film like Citizen Kane, but it is a remarkable achievement of cinema.
Written and Directed by: Terrence Malick
I think it was the first Terrence Malick film I saw, but I didn't see it when it came out. Again, I saw it when I was starting to fall in love with film, and I was struck by how authentic, quirky, and real it was. It told this story of these everyday people in one way, but extraordinary people in another way. It's a very deliberately paced film, which was beautifully done. The use of voiceover became a signature for him, and it has an element of almost feeling like a documentary. It has elements of feeling like I'm seeing into the heart and soul of these two individuals who are on the run. It's an interesting companion piece to Bonnie and Clyde. There are many similarities, but they they couldn't be more different in terms of how their stories are told.
After I made my list, I thought of another film that I could've swapped in for Badlands, and that was Nashville. It's another film that almost felt like a documentary. It interwove something like 24 storylines, had 24 characters, and unfolded in this completely unconventional Hollywood way. It felt like an observational documentary about a time and a place. I've seen it relatively recently, and it holds up beautifully as this incredible American film.
Directed by: Barbara Kopple
When I saw Harlan County, I was studying film, but I wasn't necessarily at all committed to wanting to make documentaries. It blew me away how Barbara Koppel embedded herself in that mining community for several years, a place she was not from at all. She was a young New York woman who went down there and won their trust. Her ability to speak to people on both sides of that labor strike, to connect with them, but also to tell this very human, poignant, and at times extremely painful story through cinéma vérité was like, 'Oh my God! I feel like I've been given access to something that I would never have known otherwise.' I think that became the hook of documentary filmmaking for me.
Directed by: Michael Apted
28 Up was the first one that I saw [in the Up series]. This notion that he had been going back every seven years to literally watch people grow up and to see how people changed or didn't change during that period was astounding to me. It clearly had a profound influence on me when I began Hoop Dreams. We didn't do what Michael Apted did and go back every seven years. Still, we made this commitment over an extended period of time, and wanted to watch people grow up during these very formative years. So, 28 Up was very much in my mind when we were making Hoop Dreams, as was Harlan County, USA. In some ways, Hoop Dreams combines what I love about both those films into one.
Directed by: Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme | Written by: Chris Marker and Catherine Varlin
Chris Marker made a number of amazing films, and he was an amazing poet of cinema. When I watched Le Joli Mai, one of the things that was so amazing to me was that you realize you can do anything you want in a documentary. This is a film where at times, Chris Marker is talking to people, and you see him on the edge of the frame. There are other times where it's cinéma vérité portraiture. And there are other times where it's like [Henri] Cartier-Bresson photographs of the city of Paris. It's funny, poignant, and structured like a stream of consciousness.
He goes out and lets whatever he captures lead him to the next thing. The structure of the film is amazing in that way. Le Joli Mai was made in the early '60s, and you look at that and can see almost every kind of filmmaking imaginable at the time in one film. And it works! It ended up being this incredibly moving and original portrait of Paris, and it inspired me to do the docuseries I did a couple of years ago called City So Real, about my hometown, Chicago.