Editor's Note: Louder Than a Bomb airs January 5 on OWN. Here is an interview with filmmakers Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, when their film appeared in the 2010 DocuWeeks TM Theatrical Documentary Showcase.
Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks TM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, directors/producers of Louder Than a Bomb.
Synopsis: Louder Than a Bomb tells the story of four Chicago high school poetry teams as they prepare for and compete in the world's largest youth slam. By turns hopeful and heartbreaking, the film captures the tempestuous lives of these unforgettable kids, exploring the ways writing shapes their world, and vice versa. Louder Than a Bomb is about language as a joyful release, irrepressibly talented teenagers obsessed with making words dance, and the communities they create along the way. While the topics they tackle are often deeply personal, what they put into their poems, and what they get out of them, is universal: the defining work of finding one's voice.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel: We both started out in the late '90s, making television documentaries for two different Chicago companies. Between us, we've worked on more than 200 shows, for networks like History, Discovery, A&E and National Geographic, and our last show--102 Minutes That Changed America--won three Primetime Emmys, including Outstanding Nonfiction Special.
So when we started Louder Than a Bomb, which is our first feature documentary, we figured it'd be no different from the work we'd been doing for the previous decade. Of course, we found out the hard way that TV docs and feature docs involve very different muscles, and much of the last three years has been spent unlearning old habits and learning new ones.
IDA: What inspired you to make Louder Than a Bomb?
GJ & JS: Driving by the Metro, a legendary Chicago rock club, on a Saturday night in March 2005, and seeing "Louder Than a Bomb High School Poetry Slam Finals" on the marquee, with a line of kids of all shapes, sizes and colors stretching down the block. It's unusual enough to see such a radically diverse group of kids on the north side of Chicago, but for poetry? And on a Saturday night!? It definitely seemed like a world worth exploring.
As filmmakers--and realists--we're always looking for reasons not to keep going with a project. Those reasons never materialized with LTAB. Every team we visited, every practice we attended, every event we went to seemed to confirm that there was something special about these kids and this community. And the better we got to know the specific kids we followed, the more inspired we became, until at certain point, a interesting project became an inevitable one.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
GJ & JS: Other than fundraising?
The main challenge was a narrative one. Essentially, we had one great team story (the saga of the Steinmenauts), and three great character profiles (Nate, Nova and Adam). It probably would've been much easier to pick one direction or the other, but we just couldn't bring ourselves to lose any of the kids.
It took us two years to get the balance right, and our incredibly talented and eternally patient editor, John Farbrother, may still prefer the nine-hour cut. But in the end, the decision to keep all four stories turned out to be a crucial one. The film is very much about community, and each of the stories reflects something vital about the power of the community Louder Than a Bomb creates.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
GJ & JS: Well, we certainly couldn't have planned for the ending. And we envisioned a more significant role for graphics, which turned out not to be necessary. But by and large, what's onscreen is a pretty accurate representation of what we had set out to do from the start: Make an entertaining film; capture the spirit of the event; and tell the kids' stories with enough richness and complexity that when people leave the theater, they remember the characters by name, and not by type.
IDA: As you've screened Louder Than a Bomb--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
GJ & JS: Because we do TV documentaries, we never get to see our audience. So sitting (or pacing) in a darkened theater, watching our work with a group of strangers and trying to
gauge their reactions, is a new and nerve-wracking experience for us. But in that experience, two things have really stood out.
First, there's the participatory nature of the audience's response to the film as they're watching it. It usually starts with someone clapping, almost involuntarily, after one of the kids' early performances. Once that happens, the ice is broken, and the rest of the audience realizes they can react, too. By the second half of the film, people are cheering after each piece, and the line between the audience in the theater and the audiences in the film pretty much dissolves.
The second surprising thing has been the intensity of the audience's reaction to the film. On a number of occasions, people have approached us after a screening, started telling us about how the movie made them cry, and then started crying just talking about it. Age, race, class--it really hasn't mattered. People in general just seem amazed, energized and inspired by the kids in the film--which is incredibly gratifying, because we feel lucky to know them, and we want everyone else to meet them as well.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
GJ & JS: Obviously, as Chicagoans, Hoop Dreams is a big inspiration, and
we're really grateful to the folks at Kartemquin, who have been supportive of the film all along. And while we're not about to compare our film to that one, we have found that it really helps people understand the film when we tell them, "Louder Than a Bomb is about poetry slam the same way Hoop Dreams is about basketball."
Other inspirations include some of the really entertaining subculture/competition films of the last decade--Murderball, Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, King of Kong, etc.--as well as Errol Morris and Albert Maysles. Then again, at this point, we're pretty much inspired by anyone who manages to get a feature documentary funded, made and distributed.
Louder Than a Bomb will be screening July 30 through August 5 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 6 through 12 at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles.
To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.
To purchase tickets for Louder Than a Bomb in Los Angeles, click here.
To purchase tickets for Louder Than a Bomb in New York, click here.