08/29/2012 10:14 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Elgin James, 'Little Birds' Director, Out Of Prison And Back To Life

On Tuesday Elgin James sat in a plush room in his publicist's office, filled with Nintendo Wii systems, controllers and a Kirby pillow. It seemed like an odd place to interview this writer/director, whose new film "Little Birds" initially splashed into the indie landscape at 2011's Sundance Film Festival.

Probably because only a few months earlier, he was sitting in a maximum-security prison, serving a year for extortion.

"It's weird when you get famous, you get all this free stuff," he said. "I mean, I'm not famous. When I went to Sundance, no joke, I got a scarf and a paperweight. But they were trying to give Kate Bosworth a car."

Before the world saw what he was capable of as a filmmaker, James was best known for his unique and troubled past. As a kid, he bounced around orphanages and foster homes and juvenile hall, before eventually settling on a farm in the Northeast, playing in punk bands and then trying his hand at liberal arts college.

But he eventually dropped out and became the leader of FSU (formerly 'F*ck Shit Up,' later rebranded as 'Friends Stand United'), a group of Boston men who wanted to rid the hardcore punk scene of skinheads and neo-Nazis by beating the crap out of them. They would also rob drug dealers and give the money to charities or other groups they deemed worthy.

And though their goals seemed noble at first, they eventually went astray and James left to move with his girlfriend (now his wife) to Los Angeles in 2006, hoping to try his hand at making movies.

One of the only "connected" people he knew then was Davey Holmes, the former keyboardist for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who had become a screenwriter. Holmes set up a project that would basically be a film adaptation of James' real life story.

"Justin Timberlake was going to play me and Nick Cassavetes was going to direct; and that was really great, it was really cool," he said. "But for me, personally, it got tough. I was still the 'dumb gang guy.' One of my friends dying alone on his kitchen floor became this part for everyone to go, 'awwww,' you know, and my mom dying while she held my hand -- that was 'the end of the second act.' It was surreal."

He took his wife's advice to follow his heart and he abandoned the project, choosing to focus on his own original work. Driving along the Salton Sea in California one day, he saw a girl on the back of her boyfriend's bike with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in her shirtsleeve. He decided he wanted to make a film about her, instead. He wanted to filter his own experiences through the life of two teenage girls who decide to run away from home.

That idea developed into his screenplay for "Little Birds," which eventually fell into the hands of Jamie Patricof, a producer of "Half Nelson" and "Blue Valentine." Patricof led James to the Sundance Lab, where he fell in with another crew -- this one led by Robert Redford.

It was this move, James said, which completely changed the course of his career, and made him reflect on his own life's choices.

"My friend Bob Redford -- it sounds so silly to drop that name," James laughed. "But he said 'pacifism' is weak. You need to think of [a nonviolent life] as an active choice. It's a place of strength to make that choice. It's hard, it's meat, it's bristle, it's tough."

Even as James was trying to put his past behind him, it has a funny way of catching up. In 2011 he was sentenced to a year in prison for sanctioning an attack on a member of a punk rock group that supposedly had white supremacy-group ties back in 2005.

Before delivering his final decision, the judge on the case received more than 60 letters on James' behalf, from the likes of Redford and actor Ed Harris, who had argued that James was a changed man who was beneficial to society. It was like Huck Finn watching his own funeral, James said, hearing these incredible things from his mentors in a context like this.

Still, James was sentenced to spend a year in a federal prison located only a couple of miles from his home in Los Angeles. He saw his wife once a week and never set foot outside. He couldn't get online or follow his career trajectory. He was stuck. So he decided to devote his time in prison to thinking about the kind of filmmaker he wanted to be and the kind of projects he wanted to work on.

"It was almost better this way. I owed a debt to society, and now I'm just paying it off completely," he said. "As supposed to hanging out in a camp somewhere with dudes from Enron, getting stock tips. This let me get it all out, sweat it all out, like a sauna … a really shitty sauna."

In prison he read 101 books, he said, and filled up pounds of notebooks, writing up to 16 hours a day. When other inmates were hiding drugs from the cell checks, he was hiding books, because he was only allowed to keep ten at a time. But it was hard, he admitted, not to revert back to his former self, not to tap into the well of anger inside him.

"You're trapped in and these people here are bullies and cowards and racists, and how do you not to tap into that?" he said. "That's the language I grew up with. Movies have such an exciting language, but then this language, where I walk by, a guy doesn't move his feet, and I want to smack him in the face, but I don't."

Now James gets to pick up where he left off, in a way. He's back promoting "Little Birds," his critically acclaimed film, which will finally open -- two years after production began -- in theaters this weekend. It features a standout performance from Juno Temple, with whom James developed a close friendship over the course of filming. And he's working on developing multiple projects with producer Brian Grazer and Imagine Entertainment.

His goal now is to avoid being forever the victim. He doesn't want to be "that guy in the gang" or "that kid from the broken homes," and he doesn't want to make a prison film after being in prison. Instead, he's writing a new film with Temple.

"I'd been gone for a year," he said. "And the first time we see each other, I'm like, 'We're gonna die and we've got to do whatever we can to leave our footprint on the world.'"

Watch the trailer for 'Little Birds' below: