Inside the Sundance Labs: Elgin James, Gang Leader Turned Sundance Filmmaker

If you've got any notion of a "typical" Sundance filmmaker, Elgin James ain't it. Raised on a farm by Quakers, he eventually found himself drawn into gang violence, and after a fight that left him brain-damaged and homeless he founded the street gang FSU, which robbed drug dealers to finance straight-edge propaganda. Eventually, the film-crazy James ended up in Hollywood, and he's just finished a series of programs at the Sundance Labs where he workshopped the feature he's about to shoot, Goodnight Moon (starring Alia Shawkat and Juno Temple). Movieline talked to the filmmaker about becoming a Sundance fellow and what it taught him about flashy camera moves and, in his words, "being able to fucking do it."

You have such an eclectic backstory, but nothing about it suggests that you'd eventually become a Sundance filmmaker. How'd that happen?

I came out to LA a couple years ago. I loved film -- John Cassavetes and Terrence Malick were my heroes, and I didn't think that actually making films would be possible. I'd spent my life with a different lifestyle...the criminal lifestyle is more honest, maybe, then what I found in Hollywood. Once I got out there and met people, they were interested in some sort of biopic, but when I was dipping into that water, I realized that [filmmaking] is really something I wanted to do myself. So I started writing Goodnight Moon, which is in some ways more autobiographical than anything.

How so?

I grew up in this small town on a farm. I discovered punk rock when I was eleven, but I was stuck hanging out with pigs and sheep and cows. I just wanted to get out into the world, but by the time I got into the world at seventeen, I was homeless, and that world will chew you up and spit you out. So I decided to tell that story, randomly, through two fourteen-year-old girls who are stuck in the Salton Sea in California. In a way, it's the story of me and my best friend and our journey of being homeless kids and starting a street gang, but I wanted to tackle the idea from a different angle. To be honest, young females are more interesting and have more layers than young guys. If it was about fifteen-year-old boys, there'd be a lot of silences and a lot of "Fuck you!"

So how did your screenplay make its way to the Labs?

Because of my life, producers were interested in a biopic around town, but I wasn't that interested in that. Jamie Patricof, who produced Half Nelson, got word of Goodnight Moon...and it exploded into a whole thing and he came on board 100%. He contacted Sundance through that, and I met Michelle [Satter] and them. I had this idea that, being from the east coast, once I moved to Hollywood we'd all sit in cafes and talk about French cinema. Wow, was that wrong! Instead you're at a Starbucks and everybody's working on a screenplay and talking about Brett Ratner.

So, to go to Sundance was absolutely incredible. I didn't realize it was actually an interview for the Screenwriters Lab -- I thought it was a meet-and-greet -- and lo and behold, I got a call a few days later. I had just finished my biopic script, actually, two days before, and Michelle asked if she could read it. This was Michelle Satter! I would have given her a kidney. And then I was accepted into the Screenwriters Lab, both for Goodnight Moon and my biopic. As far as Michelle knew, I was the first person to come there with two projects.


What was your first take on things when you got to Utah for the Screenwriters Lab in January?

I felt like a complete fish out of water. I didn't go there thinking that I'd have much in common with anyone, but when I got there -- and this is such a compliment to Sundance -- I realized that everyone there is from different walks of life. Some of the fellows are international, one of the projects is in the Inuit wasn't like I was just the "weird gang street kid." There's not a typical Sundance filmmaker, which was really refreshing. Everyone around me was so much more brilliant than I was -- from the advisers, the Sundance staff, to the other fellows. You really have to up your game -- there's not a single moment that you can half-sleep through. I swear I got smarter in those five days [in January] than in however many years of my life.

What kind of advice did they give you that you could use?

Well, like with the biopic, I was just trying to get to the violence as fast as possible. "We're robbing drug dealers, we're smashing people in the face," things like that. And I kind of breezed past the part where I was growing up, and it took sitting down with Walter Mosley for him to say, "Wait a minute, your parents were pacifist Quakers and you started a violent street gang? How is that not the most interesting aspect of your story?" You have to go deeper.

And then you did the Directors Lab, where you got to shoot a few scenes from Goodnight Moon. What did you take away from that?

At the Directors Lab, I learned that it's all about serving the story. There may be these great scenes you come up with that you think are so clever, and they have all these shades and metaphors and meanings to you, and it could be the one you have to cut because it doesn't serve the story.

Did that happen with something you shot? You had to completely reconceive it?

I had this idea of how I wanted to film a scene, and all the advisers -- people much more brilliant than I am, like Joan Tewksbury, who wrote Nashville -- were explaining to me why this wouldn't work. So I went and shot it with my actresses, and it completely sucked. [Laughs] And I know that now, I know why it didn't work. I wanted it to be an emotional scene between the two girls -- it's the climax of the film where their friendship breaks apart, and I had this camera move I wanted to do where I would circle them 360 [degrees] while they were arguing.

And I did it, and it did look pretty cool, but the performances are so strong that you were completely distracted by the camera. We tried to time it, but the camera would be on the back of someone's head when they had a great reaction. I had to realize why it didn't work, so I shot it in a completely classic way next, like they had advised me to. And now, the performances are just as incredible and you can appreciate it, because you can actually see them. [Laughs]

I was coming from nowhere, not having gone to film school and knowing nothing about movies except that they'd changed my life and I wanted to change other people's lives. That was pretty much it. So it's been really good for me to learn. When you're hanging out with Caleb Deschanel, one of the greatest cinematographers alive, and he's telling you where you should put the camera, that's better than any other film school. And he'll wait patiently by me while I put the camera where I want to put it and then realize that he was right.


What other advisers made an impact on you?

Catherine Hardwicke was a cheerleader and inspired me and helped me work on my preparation so I realized that I can film a $500,000 film in eighteen days, because she did something really similar because she had even less time with Thirteen. You feel like you're part of history sitting down with Joan Darling, one of the first female directors, and learning about her struggles. When I came out here, I knew nothing about nothing, and it was like, "What kind of balls do I have that I think I can make a film?" But now, having talked to people like Joan Darling and Catherine, I realize that it just comes down to fucking doing it, and I'm not sure that I would have been able to fucking do it without Sundance.