By Ray Pride
“We’re not going to give up real estate for luxurious credit sequences,” Steve James tells his cutting crew in a compact editing room at Kartemquin Films’ headquarters early on a February morning as they review the state of episode seven of “America To Me,” slated for broadcast later in 2018. (The title is drawn from Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America Be America Again”:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!)
A week or so earlier, the STARZ network announced from Sundance that it had bought the ten-hour series (originally plotted as four-to-six segments) from Kartemquin’s co-producer Participant Media, covering a year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, for a reported $5 million. Over the first weekend of Sundance, “Minding the Gap,” a brilliant, dreamily fluid, memorably sorrowful longitudinal skateboarder doc shot in Rockford by debut feature director Bing Liu (also a story director and cinematographer on “America To Me”) debuted, and then on Monday night, the briskly-paced first three hours of the series played to universal acclaim as well. Early-early Tuesday morning, two hours before the debut of episodes four and five in Park City, Steve James’ decades-long Oscar nomination drought, since the highly visible success of “Hoop Dreams” in 1994, was broken as “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail” landed in the final five, and Laura Checkoway’s half-hour “Edith + Eddie” was nominated as well. Kartemquin closed Sundance with a U.S. Documentary Competition Jury Award for Breakthrough Filmmaking for “Minding the Gap.”
It was a good week. Right now, 10am on a North Side side street, five of us look toward a flatscreen monitor with a frozen shot of doors about to open with a cascade of students, white, black, Latino, Asian. Economy and density are goals as the team works to fashion each episode into a one-hour format. James watches co-editor Alanna Schmelter at the desk from a rolling office chair, while editors Leslie Simmer (“The Homestretch,” “Raising Bertie”) and David E. Simpson (“Life Itself,” “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”) are draped onto a love-seat-sized couch. Associate editor Rubin Daniels, Jr. will show up later, as will technical supervisor Ryan Gleeson. (The shoot worked with a similar team/relay process, with segment producers assigned to different characters.) The floor is clear but for an errant black dry-erase marker and eraser. Behind James’ head, only the sun reflects a blank whiteboard: goals have yet to be made, let alone met.
A raft of goals accomplished, however, lay behind that marvelous week, as well as the months of work ahead. A stirring 2017 included a theatrical release and PBS debut for “Raising Bertie,” from a female director, and a mixed-race producer who was a former KTQ intern, both first-timers; “All the Queen’s Horses,” released in theaters, from a first-time black female director and graduate of the group’s Diverse Voices in Docs program; the female-helmed “Edith+Eddie”; and the completion of Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn’s decades-in-the-works “‘63 Boycott,” with two female first-time filmmakers as his producers, one African-American, one a former intern, and slated for PBS in 2018.
The base of operations might be located in Roscoe Village or “West Lakeview”; no one knows for sure. Kartemquin has been rooted here since 1975, certainly before any eager young realtor was born. The bold red street-level entry door has a recently taped cookie fortune: “You will attend a party where strange customs prevail.”
A staff of fifteen treads clean but weathered wooden floors with intermittent occasional rugs. Memorabilia and awards are quiet décor, melting into the rooms’ hushed, steady activity. Sixteen rooms, two bathrooms, and a notoriously scary basement, embracing about thirty desks or workspaces. That includes five edit rooms, with three more desks that can be used for editing and post-production management, and a couple more spaces beyond that for color correction and working with analogue media and archival materials.
Brutal flu has quieted the place in the week after the burst of victories. There’s hardly a hum of activity, some fingerstrokes on keyboards, director of communications and distribution Tim Horsburgh on the phone monitoring a component of the publicity for the newly nominated “Abacus.”
Up the stairway to the second floor, a disused bulletin board greets visitors, now flanked by fresh one-sheet posters for “Edith+Eddie” and “Abacus.” Ursula Le Guin died a few days before, and taped to the French doors leading to today’s editing room is another of the scattered handwritten notes around the place, almost as if the house posts reminders to itself: “Resistance and change often begin in art.”
The morning sun is strong and winter-bright. Two yellow plastic film cores, which once held 16mm film, dangle from the ceiling fan as pulls. Simpson and Simmer slouch on a couch. Schmelter sits in front of three screens and multiple keyboards. Slim silver laptops rest in laps, a longhand-filled yellow legal pad in Simmer’s. Observing a few hours of give-and-take on this patch of “America To Me” is gratifying, the edit team moves along, moves on, with pointed observations but no ill will: the episode, and three more, and fine cuts of all ten, must move on.
In a week, James will attend the annual Oscar nominees luncheon, along with the Sung family from his film, as well as a barrage of screenings and Q and As. A delivery date for “America To Me” is to be determined, but at the very least, the ten episodes won’t have the luxury of longitudinal lingering lavished on a production like “Hoop Dreams” or “The Interrupters.” Oscar, ironically, is fucking up Steve James’ life. He’ll be editing bits of “America To Me” on the plane on the way and in his hotel room between events. (Be careful of what you never wished for.)
On another day, around an enormous wooden meeting table on the ground floor, other Kartemquin collaborators gather: James, artistic director and Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn, Mark Mitten (who co-produced “Abacus” with Julie Goldman), executive director Betsy Steinberg, Bing Liu and his producer, Diane Moy Quon, and director of communications and distribution Tim Horsburgh, all at least for the moment impervious to the flu flurries. (The seventy-five-year-old Quinn intends to show “’63 Boycott” the next day in Boston.) “This is where we have our meetings, but I don’t think we’ve ever had this many people at a meeting. Everyone all at once,” Horsburgh says.
“We were all at Sundance together,” James says. “All these people plus… I mean, how many tickets did we need [for showings of ‘Minding the Gap’]?” Horsburgh asks Quon. “Fifty-five? I wound up with almost seventy, it’s crazy,” she says. Quinn says, smiling, “Travel with the tribe. It’s best.”
We talk for a couple of hours about minutiae of the operation, the post-production of “America To Me,” the distribution hopes for “Minding the Gap” and the Oscar double play, but woven into every response and reflection are echoes of the goals of social engagement and nonfiction artistry contained in fifty-two years and sixty-five productions, with eleven more officially in development or production.
The observation that most directors say films aren’t finished, they’re released, gets a knowing laugh around the table. “Bing’s film was very much a longitudinal study,” Steinberg says. “I don’t know that he set out for it to be, but it was. It had a good, healthy, lengthy edit. That’s one of our most exciting challenges, frankly. How to move and keep pace with what’s going on with shorter pieces of media and media that’s so topical it needs to be turned around quickly while also honoring the important principle of not racing through something, massaging it, having the right story, the vital nuances that something needs. Letting it unfold in its own time.”
“What you see in ‘Minding the Gap’ is one of our core values,” Quinn says. “When Bing had the original concept of traveling around the country and talking to all these skateboarders about their relationship with their fathers it was like, immediately, okay, there’s something here. He doesn’t quite know what it is, we don’t quite know what it is, but we see the talent, we see that potential and we will stick with it. We have gotten involved in many, many projects where other people took a pass, or projects that went away with another studio and then came back here after a couple of years because it still hadn’t happened. The key is, it’s in your gut, you sense there’s something happening here, he’s in it for the long haul. We knew right from the start Bing wasn’t going to get bored with this and walk away. It just took him a while to find the story and the through line and then get to the finish line. The other thing that’s important is that we’re in the Midwest here, we’re in Chicago. So Bing is making a film in Rockford, he’s not commuting from L.A. He’s in the community where he’s making the film. He’s committed. The diversity we look for, it’s not gender and race, it’s also diversity of location, that we’re part of the country.”
And socioeconomic concerns, political elements, are automatically implicit when you’re specific about where you are. “It’s time, too,” Horsburgh says. “One of the things with Bing’s film that struck me since I saw the rough cut around the time he submitted it to Sundance, it was the spending of that extra time… You had a rough cut eighteen months ago? You could have been like, ‘I’ll spend a couple more months on this and I’m done,’ but you spent this extra time to become braver and braver. It’s what makes this such a good film. And the collaborations over time, with Diane, his producer, his editor, two or three years into the project, but still taking it to another level. How can Kartemquin give people a base, a home, some standing? We’re a launchpad. But Bing’s done all the work. I dread to think how many rough cuts he made over the course of four years. Bing took our model and took it on the road. We do a lot of feedback screenings and editorial consulting with Gordon. Bing got really brave and showed the film to a lot of people in 2017, and not like he was swayed unduly by feedback, but it sweetened the film.”
“You run out of eyes at a certain point, too,” Liu says. “By the time 2017 came around, it was like, ahh, I’ve already seen that. Is anyone going to come to another Kartemquin screening?”
“Your joke about films are never finished, only released, the ultimate practitioner of that is Steve James!” Quinn says with a sly smile. “‘Abacus’ is probably one of his few films that did get finished in a timely manner!”
“But Steve edited right up until its Toronto premiere, the absolute latest. And right after it premiered, edited some more,” Horsburgh says.
“Which is his classic m.o.!” Quinn says. “There’s four or five different versions of ‘Hoop Dreams,’ after it played at Sundance. There’s just a constant—because you see stuff! An audience also reshapes what you think ought to happen. Making it better. Ultimately.”
“While staying true to artistic vision,” Mitten adds. “You can always get feedback from the audience, but you have to trust your gut with regards to what you want to say and how you want to express it. Even if it’s provocative and the audience doesn’t agree, you still want to provide a point of view.”
“That is another core value around here,” Quinn says. “It’s one of the things I say to people going into—I’m sure that Bing heard it at some point—going into a feedback session, the real skill is to understand what to take in and what to ignore. Hear what everybody says, but you don’t want that to take you away from your vision of where you’re going.”
“There’s one scene in ‘Abacus,’ I kept saying to Steve, take it out,” Mitten says. “He left it in! I think he left it in just to irk me! For him, it did matter, it’s a scene near the very end, where an older white man is carrying chairs into the celebration at the bank. I said, do we really need that? And he said, it shows diversity, it shows humanity, it’s beyond just being a Chinese-American bank. Yeah, I said, but we could cut it and have a few extra seconds. But to him? It was part of the fabric and the tapestry.”
“Which is the nature,” Quinn says. “There’s an edit in ‘Hoop Dreams’ that I actually teach with, and Steve and I could have an argument even today. I laid out why, but it was his choice.”
“At the end of the day, you trust your director,” Mitten says. “As a producer, we’re here to facilitate, and if he says he wants it in, and we debate it, if he thinks it stays in, it stays in.”
While Quinn describes a “dialectical working process” with James and other directors, Liu says of working as a segment director and cinematographer on “America To Me,” “I was surprised by how hands-off he was. Even the first time we met, it was like, ‘Ahhh! Steve James is here to help me!’ and we went out for coffee, we talked about what it was like growing up, just got to know each other. We didn’t talk about work. And then at the very end, he was like, this series is not about capturing everything, you’re not going to get everything, but I just want you to tell the story of what it’s like to be a high school student in this year. We did exactly that. I found out later, though, he was using [location sound recordist] Zak Piper to spy on me! Zak was like, early on, Steve was asking me, how’s Bing doing? Steve’s basement was the hub of activity, that’s where we kept the cameras and the gear, three blocks away from the high school. I’d go there six o’clock in the morning, get the camera for my shoot. We kept in contact with our three students [we were following] just to find out what they’re doing, and figured out early on, this guy’s going to be spoken word, that’s a major arc, this guy’s a filmmaker, we’ll capture that, this guy’s just a cute freshman who’s trying to find his way. But I’d go there at six in the morning to prep the camera, Steve comes down in his pajamas, and he’s like, ‘What’s up!’ And I can tell he just wants to get into it. We would screen footage once or twice a month, but he’s really good at building a team, letting everybody give input. Doing ‘Minding the Gap’ at the same time, it was crazy. That was the year that things got really heavy for one of the characters, they ran away, out of town, and I was going to Denver in the middle… Other people had to capture Christmas break stuff [for ‘America’]. It was a wild time.”
“There are a lot of films about the financial meltdown,” Quinn says, returning to the subject of their Oscar-nominated feature. “‘Abacus’ could have become one of those films, but in fact, it’s a film about a family. That’s important to us. People don’t represent problems, people are complicated, contradictory, funny, they are full-blown human beings and if you tell that story you’ve also incorporated that social issue into it. I use ‘Abacus’ now when people ask me about objectivity and telling both sides and blah-blah-blah. This comes up, I’m dealing with filmmakers, they’re like, ‘I’ve gotta tell both sides.’ Yes, but you have to know where you stand. And ‘Abacus’ is a wonderful example of a film where we know where we stand. There’s never any ambiguity. We stand with that family.”
“That doesn’t let them off the hook,” James interjects.
“That doesn’t let them off the hook, and we went to enormous lengths to get the other side included, but it means that you understand where you’re standing. You also build relationships with a character, building trust. It extends into the editing and into what’s going to be in the film. We show our films to our characters before we release them, before they’re done, when we can still make a change. We tell people, look, if there’s something you can’t live with, you’re going to be listened to. We’re basically saying, if we can’t convince you it needs to be in the film, we’ll take it out. The point being, the whole process is one that’s built on a kind of trust, rather than the kind of interview where you let the character hang themselves.”
James is wry about Kartemquin’s dual Oscar nominations. “That kind of fucked up my whole thing, I’ve gotten a lot of love from being snubbed, I’m not sure I’m gonna like it. When we finished ‘Abacus,’ I could not have predicted this would happen. I love the film, and I remember Mark was, early on, bullish on this. I was like, ‘Y’know, if we get to the shortlist [of fifteen films] that would be a real accomplishment, and we’d be happy. One-hundred-seventy films qualified this year, the most ever, and if we make the shortlist, we’re good. I’m fine, man. Down to the last few days [before the mid-Sundance nominee announcement], I did start to feel… the thing about our title is, if we are the first name announced, we are not nominated. Three or four years ago with ‘Life Itself,’ as soon as they passed the Ls, I said to my wife, we’re not nominated. ‘No, it’s over.’ I was planning not to wake up for it this year, just look at my phone when I woke up, then I’d know. But I was up, and I went ahead and watched. It was announced, I didn’t do like a big shout or anything, Judy gave me a kiss, then she said, okay, I’m going back to bed. Then my phone started blowing up, and I talked to [my team] on the phone, and it was great. After a little time to reflect on it, I thought about just how lucky and privileged I do feel to have had this long of a career—so far!” James raps the table, “—and to have had such great opportunities over the years to get to know amazing people. Many of them really inspirational, frankly. Some more difficult, but still, nonetheless, thankful for. I don’t know. It did feel like this was—whether people voted for me just for the merits of the film, or voted for me, hopefully for the merits of the film and something more—it did feel like a nomination that was for all the films, in a way, taking nothing away from the film itself or the Sung family, for me it felt more like it was for Arthur and William [from ‘Hoop Dreams’] and Carroll Pickett [“At the Death House Door”] and Ameena [Matthews, from ‘The Interrupters’], on and on.”
The group gets back to everyday stuff, these banter-bickering co-workers and colleagues in an everyday struggle to carve out heart-wrenching, swoon-graced art, yes, about American justice, about humanity, about socioeconomic forces at play, but also voluptuous yet measured cinema: this is consistently transformative nonfiction at its finest.
In their work, there is hope.
And there are also deadlines.
“America To Me” is scheduled to debut on STARZ in fall 2018. “Minding the Gap” will be simultaneously released theatrically and on Hulu on August 17. “Edith+Eddie” played as part of the Oscars shorts compilations in theaters across the country. “Abacus: Small Enough To Jail” premiered on Frontline in September 2017 after a theatrical run. The ninetieth Oscars are Sunday night, March 4.