King LeBron's Heat toss up bricks. The gridiron comes down to the homestretch. The baseball hot stove heats up. There are plenty of sports stories currently playing out on ESPN, but arguably the most captivating moments have already happened. That's the sense one gets when watching the network's acclaimed "30 for 30" documentary series, which is now available on DVD.
This week, ESPN Films' released a gift set -- vol. 1 -- of the "30 for 30" series featuring the first 15 films which cover diverse stories ranging from Ali to Reggie Miller and each directed by a different, noted filmmaker. Barry Levinson, Peter Berg, Ice Cube, and Steve James are just some of those at the helm. Speaking of James, the director, producer and co-editor of the infamous documentary Hoop Dreams, lends a film in the series entitled No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. In that film, the filmmaker looks back at the basketball superstar's 1993 arrest which occurred following a racially-motivated brawl at a Hampton, VA bowling alley. In the film, James returns to the town, and shows us how the arrest (Iverson was 17 at the time) still fuels controversy today. I spoke with James recently about the film, his involvement in the ESPN series, and why his films tend to focus on the sports world.
Aside from Hoop Dreams, which won numerous awards including the Peabody and the Directors Guild of America, James has been known for his work in documentaries and narrative films. His credits include The War Tapes, At the Death House Door, and Prefontaine.
How did you become involved with the 30 for 30 series?
I was approached by ESPN about participating in the series fairly early on. They were fans of Hoop Dreams. I loved the concept so I went in and pitched them the Iverson story. They really liked the angle I wanted to take to tell the story and I was off.
Is there a particular film aside from your own in the series that you enjoyed
Across the board, I think its been a pretty stellar collection of films. I've really liked several, and I have yet to see some that I expect I will love like The Two Escobars. Of the ones I've seen, I've particularly enjoyed The Band That Wouldn't Die, Winning Time, and Once Brothers.
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to make documentaries?
No. From a young age I wanted to play in the NBA. Oh well ... It was when I was a senior in college that I fell for film, but even then it wasn't documentaries. It wasn't until I ended up in graduate school at Southern Illinois University that I really discovered documentaries and thought that maybe that would be my calling.
Is it a coincidence that a majority of your films are sports-centric?
First off, the majority of my films aren't sports-centric. Well, maybe its a 50/50 split at this point. It was no accident that I made Hoop Dreams because it concerned a sport that I loved and hoped would be my dream, however far-fetched that turned out to be. Because of the success of that film, Hollywood pigeonholed me as a sports biopic guy which lead to Prefontaine and two cable sports films. But for me, it's not really the sports part of any of these films which is the driving motivation. It's usually human drama that carries with it issues of race or class that attracts me. That was certainly the case with No Crossover.
Do you prefer making documentaries vs. making narrative films?
In general, yes, because I am able to make the kinds of documentaries I want to make and can do them on an intimate scale that is very appealing. In the narrative world, I'm much more beholding to other people's decisions about what I can and can't do. Nonetheless, I definitely want to return to narrative filmmaking in the near future because I have yet to feel like I've made one that I really think is good. And I love the challenge of them.
Lastly, Hoop Dreams was notoriously snubbed by the Academy -- each year it seems they snub an acclaimed documentary. For example, this year Joan Rivers' film got the shaft. What do you make of the selection process?
In general, the process has gotten much better over the years. The formalizing of the short list has led to a lot of good films getting selected in that round at least. Its when you move to making the final five selections that it will always get trickier. This is due in part, I think, to the fact that there is just a lot more strong, interesting work being done year in and year out in documentary, compared to narrative. Ironically, they went to ten nominees in narrative at a time when I find it harder every year to come up with five I think are worthy. But in documentary, you could put ten deserving films up every year. So, somebody worthy is always going to get snubbed. It's a great time for documentary filmmaking in this country and around the world.