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Gang Leader-Turned-Filmmaker Elgin James On How He Went From Robbing Drug Dealers to Directing A-List Actresses

little-birds-ELGIN_JAMES_rgb.jpgTalking to buoyant Little Birds director Elgin James, you might not guess that only months ago, he was released from a maximum security prison, where he was serving a one-year sentence after being convicted of extortion, stemming from an incident that occurred when he was the leader of an "anti-racist punk rock gang" called FSU (or Friends Stand United).  It's a past that he's happily put behind him in real life but one that still informs his filmmaking.

James felt strongly that the best way to tell his story was by depicting themes central to his life -- the push-pull between wanting to grow up versus the safety of remaining a kid; the allure of peer pressure; the desire to find a family and security among your peers -- through the vulnerable lens of female adolescents.  And that's not to say there aren't some direct parallels in his debut film. Little Birds centers on two teenage girls growing up in the desolate California town of Salton Sea (played by Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker) and who run away to L.A. after meeting a group of street punks. Watching the girls quickly get caught up in their new friends' dangerous lives, one can't help but wonder the extent to which some of the more harrowing scenes were lifted from James's own experiences as a homeless youth in Boston.  

In this way, James manages to tell his own tale while creating an entirely new story, touching on themes of friendship, growing up and feeling lost, in the process. And, with the New York release of the film this week, James chatted with us about his life, his movie and what's next for him as a director. Read on.

Tell me about your background.

I grew up on a farm in rural New England, outside of Boston. My parents adopted me and they were civil rights activists and they marched with Martin Luther King Jr.  They were freedom riders. They were both white but they put their money where their mouths were and they were adopting mixed race and black children at the time. I was like the only brown-skinned kid for miles and I grew up getting called n***** all the time [by others in the town]. I never assumed what that meant.  It wasn't until I was about 11 years old that I finally found punk rock and I was just like, "This is why I'm different. Everyone hates me because I have a mohawk, not because I have brown skin." And growing up, I always felt so bad for my mom that she had to walk around with this brown-skinned kid -- I felt almost embarrassed for her but it's obvious she didn't feel that at all.

All I wanted to do was get out into the world. I moved to Boston and I was homeless with my friend at the time.

Were you just sleeping on the streets?

We were crashing on the streets. We'd find abandoned buildings and stuff. This was the time when there was a recession so there'd be empty apartments that we'd break into and start squatting in.

Did your parents know what you were up to?

My dad had his own issues. My father was a pacifist but that was something he only afforded to people outside of the family. He had his own disappointments and things that he expected to happen, especially with a lot of activism and none of that came true. And he had his own demons with chemicals.

So I just got lost [in Boston]. This was when the neo-Nazi skinhead thing was around the country and [my friends and I] were total fodder for them and we had the Latin Kings, so there were angry Puerto Rican kids [against us] and so our only uniting thing was punk rock.   A bunch of these tiny, skinny kids started our own thing and we became a 'family.' [James would go on to found a gang called FSU.] Before that, I felt like the world always kicked me and the world had its foot on my neck. So I started to kick back twice as hard and it stopped. You know, just fighting against bullies. We would rob drug dealers. But I was still such a mama's boy -- and my mom was a Quaker and she instilled in me [a sense of] community -- so I was like, "We have to give half this money to charity."

Like Robin Hood...

Like Robin Hood, exactly. And that's what I was trying to hold on to but basically it was a lie.  When my mom got sick, I got to spend the last few weeks with her and she was like, "You know, it's not too late for a second chance."  I made all these promises to her that I was going to change and once I lost her, I ended up leaving Boston with my girlfriend at the time -- who's now my wife -- and put everything I had in a van and drove across the country. We knew no one in Los Angeles but I was like, "I want to make movies, I want to do something." And so I went to L.A. and it was still hard for me. Our gang [FSU] had spread out across the country at that point.  Lives were lost in the name of what we had started fifteen years ago. It kind of grew into something else -- something more serious.

[In L.A.] I met some people that wanted to do a story about my life and I wasn't going to write or direct it. [We were in the studio offices] and I was just there as window dressing to chime in. I would be like, "Yeah so then I hit him with a bat and then I did this," and then all of a sudden [the execs would be] like, "And then at the end of Act II, Elgin's mother dies." And everyone goes, "Aw."  It was like, "This is my fucking life."I would come home sick to my stomach and my wife was like, "You need to do your own thing." And so I did.  Everyone was like, "You're making the biggest mistake of your life -- you're an idiot." My wife was the only one who believed in it at the time.

When you sat down to write the script yourself, why did you decide to make the protagonists female when it was a story inspired by your own life?

I was so worried because at first it was a project about my life story and [I was worried] it would glorify it and glamorize it.  When I was going to try to write it myself, I thought that 15-year-old girls and women in general are so much more interesting than men because they're so much more complicated. It became a story about people needing things and not being able to verbalize them and these missed connections throughout. [Writing a script about young female protagonists] let me go to a more vulnerable place than if I had wrote about myself or even if it was about guys, who are more guarded and protective. Lily -- who Juno [Temple] plays -- is me wanting to get the hell out of this little town in New England; Alison is the part of me that's older and who would give anything to go back to that town when my mom was still alive and would call me in for dinner.

little-birds-10_LITTLE-BIRDS_Courtesy-of-Millennium-Entertainment_rgb.jpgJuno Temple and Kay Panabaker in Little Birds

And how did you choose to set the film in Salton Sea rather than New England?

My wife and I had gone to Joshua Tree [National Park] and on the way back we decided to go to Salton Sea and once we got there, we saw this little girl riding around on the back of her boyfriend's BMX bike with a cigarette pack in her sleeve. I was like, "Oh man. That's the movie and that's how I am going to tell the story."  It was the perfect setting for how I felt and also the people there. It was also really important to me how we were showing poverty.  [Salton Sea residents have] a kind of dignity.

Can you talk about how issues of race came into play in the movie and as a director, what your intentions were in shooting some of those racially-charged scenes?

For me, having grown up as mixed race and passing on either side and not fitting in on either side, you find out how people really talk and the things that they really say.  To me, there's the situation with JR Bourne's character at the end who comes in and turns our whole movie upside down. You have him coming into a situation where we know what he's walking into and we empathize with him but I always want to keep people on their toes.  You're empathizing with him on ne level and then you hear him say the worst thing you could say, "Your n***** boyfriend."   When he says that, he's feeling powerless and he's trying to regain his power by putting someone else down. And his biggest fear is that of a "big, black guy" and he'll call him a n***** because he wants to take back that control.

The way you portrayed violence was also distinct, choosing to depict it from the victim's point of view with camera angles etc. 

It was scary because once I was changing my life around and becoming committed to non-violence, I thought, "Violence is a part of story-telling. How do we do it without making it gratuitous?"  We decided to show it through the victim's viewpoint so even when the kid gets hit with the skateboard, it's really Kay's reaction you remember. Violence isn't satisfactory or entertaining when you're the victim of it. [We also wanted] to show it in daylight. People always talk about how graphic that last scene in the film is -- that it's so sexually graphic -- but there's no nudity. There's nothing shown.

You've set it up so that viewers squirm because they can predict what will happen next.

We put it right out there, in the open. Even with the fights, the way we showed them, we worked really hard on cutting them. We'd show it with the Hollywood-type sound effects and we'd say, "How come this doesn't feel real?"  And then what we actually ended up doing was taking away sound effects and all of a sudden, people cringe every time we show [those scenes] because it feels very human.

And since we're on the topic of violence, I know you're quite candid about your own violent past catching up with you while you were making this movie.  

In 2009, I had done the script and had been to the [Sundance] labs and then I got arrested by a dozen FBI agents on a five-year-old charge.  I went from getting my movie fully-financed to being in prison, not knowing what was going to happen. I had no idea that there was this case.

little-birds-6_LITTLE-BIRDS_Courtesy-of-Millennium-Entertainment_rgb.jpgKate Bosworth and Leslie Mann in Little Birds

So if this was in 2009, when did you actually make the movie? Did you not serve your sentence until after the movie was shot?

Yeah, exactly. We shot in 2010 and then edited it and it premiered at Sundance in 2011 and then I got sentenced in March of 2011. 

You've mentioned having a fear of slipping back to your former lifestyle and negative thoughts and feelings.  Did any of those feelings resurface while you were serving your prison term?

All the time. At first I was like, "This is such a great challenge to not tap into this" and then a couple months later it was like a drunk in a liquor store. That was the hardest thing I've ever done.  I read 101 books and I tried to not think about that crap.  Also, Imagine Entertainment and Brian Grazer were so incredible and supportive and loyal to me [during that time]. They set up this deal that I would have when I got out to write a screenplay for them. Working on that gave me fuel and that's how I made it through that year.

What can you share about that project?

It's a script about kids growing up in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles and about a kid trying to find his own release through art.  [Another project I'm working on is] with Juno about these hobo, train-hopping kids. Juno's psyched because she won't have to bathe or shave for months.

Given your own background, it's natural that you'd focus on films with darker, dramatic themes but do you ever see yourself expanding to something like comedy?

[There's a project with] Pharrell and we're talking about doing a musical. I don't like musicals but there's something in there and collaboration is very important to me.  And if I'm going to do a musical, I'll definitely do a comedy.

Little Birds, starring Juno Temple, Kay Panabaker, Kate Bosworth and Leslie Mann, is out now in select New York City theaters, expanding to theaters around the country soon.  For more information, visit their website.

Photos courtesy of Millennium Entertainment

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