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Behind the Making of Louder Than a Bomb

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The fact that Greg Jacobs and partner Jon Siskel wound up making Louder Than a Bomb, the documentary that opened in limited release to solid reviews last week, was a fluke -- and a happy one at that, Jacobs says.

"I was driving down the street with my wife, past this legendary rock club in Chicago called the Metro -- and the marquee said, 'Louder Than a Bomb Finals Tonight'," Jacobs recalls. "There was a line of kids down the block -- black, white, everything else. And that seemed so strange to see such a diverse crowd in Chicago, which is a pretty segregated city in a lot of ways -- on Saturday night.

"When we checked into what it was, it turned out they were doing poetry -- for fun. That meant these kids were performing for their peers -- something I couldn't have imagined. In five seconds, I was intrigued."

Jacobs and Siskel (nephew of late film critic Gene Siskel) had a background in TV, having done over 100 TV documentaries for the National Geographic channel and other outlets. But Louder Than a Bomb would be their first feature doc -- so they knew they needed compelling, charismatic teens around whom they could build their story.

They began with the 2007 "Louder Than a Bomb" finals and found three to follow, including Nate Marshall, an upbeat young man who was a natural leader: "It was like recruiting for basketball -- and when we saw Nate perform, he was like the Michael Jordan of that world," Jacobs says.

Marshall was then a senior in high school at Whitney Young Magnet High School, and is now a junior at Vanderbilt University. The product of parents who were addicts, he chose poetry over basketball and became one of the stars of the annual Chicago contest -- and the film itself.

"I had heard rumblings about a Louder Than a Bomb movie so I knew the idea was out there," he says. "But when they approached me, I was a little trepidatious. I talked to the mentors for our group and other teachers and they seemed to think it would be cool. So I said, 'Sure, you can follow me.'"

He was surprised, however, at just how seriously they took that idea. To attend high school, he had to get up around 5 a.m. and take buses and commuter trains to get to school on time. And, on occasion, Siskel and Jacobs would be at his house in time to film him getting out of bed, then follow him to school.

"After a while, they became part of the scenery," he says. "Then it didn't phase me and my team. What was weird was when we'd be outside going somewhere -- and we'd have cameras following us."

Still, Jacobs says, the making of most documentaries involves a series of crossroads: "You're always looking for a reason not to make the film, because you know it will be such a long, arduous process. What surprised me as we developed this was that we never had that moment. Everything that happened confirmed that we needed to make a movie about this amazing community."

And it was that community -- not the poetry and not the contest -- that Jacobs and Siskel wanted to chronicle. They found that each of the teams at the four high schools they filmed developed its own sense of commitment to each other that went beyond being poets or teammates.

"We didn't come in to make a movie about a poetry slam," Jacobs says. "And we were able to avoid the trap of making a movie celebrating slams or giving the history of slam poetry. We were open to other possibilities. It was about these guys and about falling in love with slam in the process."

If Marshall had a worry, it was "that the movie would be wack. So often with something to do with youth, if you're coming in from outside and interrogating the culture, it's easy to paint it with a broad brush. I was worried they wouldn't understand, that it would be corny. But they became part of the community. I can even have nerdy conversations about poetry with these guys."

And when he saw the film?

"I really liked it," says Marshall, who is majoring in English and African-American studies at Vanderbilt and has published quite a bit of poetry since leaving for college. "It was weird watching it because there were things I had forgotten and other things I didn't know happened. Jon (Siskel) was sitting behind me at the screening and someone said to me, 'This is like a real movie.'

"When I saw it, I thought, 'This is like a legitimate movie.' A lot of documentaries are boring but this is actually entertaining. It's about real things. I'd recommend it to other people."

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