Twenty Years in 20/20

There isn’t much left to be said about Hoop Dreams. In 1994, the iconic film became a benchmark for documentary filmmaking and the godfather of the sports doc genre. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the film is undergoing a digital restoration, which will see it screen in theaters across the US in addition to a Criterion blu-ray with the new version and extras in early 2015.

SLAM spoke with acclaimed director and filmmaker Steve James about the film after 20 years.

SLAM: Are you surprised of the cultural significance of this film 20 years later?

Steve James: Yeah, I am. I’ve been surprised throughout the entire process. Once the film came out, back when we were making it, we were completely obsessed with doing it. I played ball and my colleagues Peter Gilbert, Frederick Marx both played ball, so we cared about this topic deeply for very personal reasons and we weren’t sure that other people would share that passion. Then when the film came out, it took off in a way for a film that was three hours long, about two guys you had never heard of essentially, it was remarkable. If you’d asked me then, would we be celebrating 20 years, I would’ve thought that would be pretty ridiculous.

SLAM: What is different in the digitally restored version of Hoop Dreams?

SJ: It’s the same exact film, the difference is that the folks at UCLA who did the restoration, have some new fangled technology that allowed them to take the original film in Beta SP, which was the state of the art of video back then, and turn it into something that blows all of us away in terms of how great it looks. It will look a little different, but the visual quality of it is astonishing. It’s just amazing and I find it makes it a much more engrossing experience in the theater now, because we’re so used to seeing whether film or video look spectacular, you’re not fighting that when you watch the movie.

SLAM: Originally Hoop Dreams was to be a 30-minute short, how did it evolve into a three-hour film?

SJ: This was our first film out of school and the idea was to do something less ambitious and shorter that was going to be focused on a single playground. You may know a film that came out a few years after us called Sole In the Hole? That film really did in essence what I originally had in mind to do; meet some dreamers and some guys that are washed up and maybe a pro that came off of that court, and so the focus was going to be very narrow. Once we met Arthur and William and once the girl starts recruiting Arthur after St. Joe’s, it was just a fascinating thing to witness. The idea of where would these guys be in four years, would they be on the way to a major basketball career, would they go to college? All these questions kind of came up pretty immediately, and we started to fantasize about this idea that maybe we could follow a story over time.

SLAM: Is there anything you would tweak, change or add to the film after all this time?

SJ: There’s one omission from the day we finished it to today, I feel like I wish we put it in, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why we didn’t. It will be an outtake scene on the Criterion blu-ray version that will come out some time next year and we will include some others there.

This particular scene, at one point when Arthur was a sophomore after he had been kicked out of St. Joe’s and returned to Marshall, a production company came to town to shoot the Mary Thomas story, which was the story of Isiah Thomas’ mother. In Chicago lore, if nowhere else, Mary Thomas was this famous strong-willed “ghetto mom” who defended Isiah against gang bangers and kept him on the straight and narrow. So they put out a citywide casting call for someone to play the young Isiah and wanted to see if they could discover someone. Arthur along with a lot of other kids in Chicago went in and we had the footage of the audition, and he was pretty good! But he didn’t get the part, and we created a really cool theme out of the whole thing starting with Arthur’s auditioning to play Isiah Thomas, his hero.

In a story that of course, his own story had moved in a completely different direction, being kicked out of St. Joe’s. So for the life of me I don’t know why we didn’t find a place for that in the movie. It makes it a great extra at least. I have to say overall, I feel good about the choices we made, I don’t feel there were any bad decisions or omissions.

SLAM: Did you have any idea that Hoop Dreams would spark a sports documentary genre?

SJ: It’s funny cause when we were trying to raise money for Hoop Dreams, we were having no luck, and it took us almost three years to get any decent money toward making the film. I think one of the primary reasons was the usual funding forces didn’t view this story that we were trying to tell was serious enough. Documentaries were always about big serious social issues, about homelessness or hunger that was a worthy subject of a documentary. But to follow kids that wanted to use basketball to make their dreams come true and escape poverty, for whatever reason didn’t strike people as serious. I think that’s all changed. Sport’s place in our culture is so central and can be such an incredible microcosm of the culture at large and capitalism at large if you will. The idea of viewing the lives and the world through this prism of sports took hold more, and I think Hoop Dreams certainly played a role in that and I think that’s a good thing.

SLAM: Over the last 20 years with regards to Hoop Dreams, what memory stands out the most?

SJ: There’s so many, but I would say in terms of once the film was complete, it clearly was when the film played in New York as part of the New York Film Festival. The opening night film was Pulp Fiction and we were the closing night film. So there we were in Alice Tully Hall with 2,500 people and they put you up in this box along the side of the theater. We brought Arthur and William’s families to New York, and we had this extraordinary screening and they were watching the audience as much as they were watching the movie and were sort of marveling at the whole experience. At the end, this is tradition, they shine a light on the box and of course everyone gave the families a standing ovation, and it was just one of those magical evenings. This was a film that none of us had these expectations for it. All those days when you’re riding around in my rusted Mazda GLC hatchback, that Peter dubbed the “Mazd-erati,” shooting this with no money and we didn’t know what the hell we really doing. It was such an extraordinary ride and that was the most magical moment of all.

Hoop Dreams 20th Anniversary screenings:
UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Friday December 5
Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, Saturday December 13
North West Film Forum, Seattle, December 19, 20, 21

For more on Hoop Dreams, visit Kartemquin Films.