EXCLUSIVE: Elgin James has been set to direct Come Sundown, a drama scripted by Justin Marks that will shoot in the fall. Jamie Patricof and Lynette Howell of Electric City Entertainment are producing the thriller about a family taken hostage by desperate fugitives determined to get across the border. It becomes a struggle between a father trying to protect his family while hanging onto his humanity, and a hardened criminal with nothing to lose.
It will be the first project for James after spending almost a year in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center (he spent eight months behind bars, and another three in a halfway house). If you recall, James grew up on the rough streets around Boston and after getting thumped plenty, helped form the rough street gang FSU that battled skinheads and other ethnic gangs, and robbed drug dealers for money and gave half the proceeds to charity. James came to Hollywood with a film deal to tell his story, but after he made a vow to his girlfriend (now his wife) that he would swear off violence and embrace pacifism, he blew off that deal because he was embarrassed by his past actions and knew they would be glamorized in a Robin Hood-like story. Instead, he wrote the script Little Birds, found an advocate in Blue Valentine producer Patricof, and then got accepted into the Sundance Labs program. He made his directing debut on Little Birds, which made the 2011 Sundance Festival (and subsequently got acquired by Millennium Entertainment). He found an agent at WME, and got his first studio job writing Low Riders for Imagine.
Then, just like that, his violent past reared back to bite him. A Chicago judge ordered James to spend a year in jail for attempted extortion. I met James at Sundance on the day Little Birds premiered, as he awaited the judge’s decision. At the time, it struck me that while so many filmmakers in Park City made gritty films that depicted violence they could only imagine, James had lived plenty of that and went out of his way to de-glamorize the violence in his own film.
I spoke with James today, and he confirms that doing time is at least as bad as you might think. “I’d call it the crappiest writing sabbatical ever,” he joked. It was worse than that. “Because it was an administrative facility and high security, I never stepped outside,” he said. “No fresh air, no sunlight for eight months. I tried to use the time positively, with the idea that since I was losing a year just when things started happening, I could figure out my strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker. I also set a goal to read 100 books, and I read 101.”
James exposed himself to classics like Gone With the Wind, and the fiction of writers like Pat Conroy. His big challenge was not slipping back into a pattern of settling disputes with violence, and keeping to the vow of pacifism that he feels has turned his life around. “It was one thing to embrace non-violence when you’re living in Silverlake, sipping smoothies with Kate Bosworth and Juno Temple, and meeting with all the intelligent beautiful people who inspired me. It’s another thing when you’re thrown into the darkest, most violent place, the general population of the U.S. Federal prison system. Every day I was challenged, especially at the beginning because some people knew who I was, and they knew about my past. I learned that like being an alcoholic, rage does not just go away because you say you won’t act on it. Every day was like the first day of school, times 1000. Not to sound arrogant, but fear of the unknown goes away quickly, and the bigger issue is handling anger. Here I had spent years fighting against drug dealers, bullies and racists and I was surrounded by them. And I was the only guilty person in prison. Everybody else was fighting their case, while I’d said, yes, I did it. I owned up to it, and was serving my time.”
James won his personal battle with rage, walking away from confrontation and surrounded himself with seasoned cons who had seen enough trouble not to look for more. He would make acquaintances with men who seemed nice enough, only to discover they were there because they’d done ghastly things. And he had to stop himself from getting defensive when former Boston kingpin Whitey Bulger took residence in protective custody. To his fellow inmates, Bulger was a rat. While James was growing up on the rough streets around Boston, Bulger was the man.
It was during that struggle that Patricof sent him Come Sundown. The script had been titled Borderline when Rod Lurie was going to direct it. In prison, James was precluded from writing scripts–he has turned in Low Riders, but if he did any scribbling behind bars, he wasn’t telling me–but he read everything sent to him and found a kinship to the protagonist’s dilemma.
“There is this clash of the lower self against the higher self,” James said. “The kidnapped man is a doctor who is a pacifist, and he has to decide whether to put ideals and principles above protecting his family against the ex-con who personified the lower self. I wouldn’t have thought of doing the project beforehand, it was just a violent action thriller when I first read it. But the idea of exploring where that line should be drawn, when the doctor’s insistence on being a pacifist becomes an excuse for cowardice or self-righteousness at the expense of his family, that intrigued me.”
James recalled seeing footage of himself just before he entered the Sundance Labs, the brashness and rage still in him before the Labs humbled him and changed his life, he said. “Once I had a positive light coming out of myself, I didn’t recognize the old me. I thought, what a fucking asshole I was.” That adherence to pacifism kept him out of trouble in prison. The question of how far it would carry his protagonist got James to commit to the film. James worked with Marks to strip away the violence and cliches that felt exploitative, until he and Marks wound up with a real study of contrasting characters.
“The funny while we worked on it was how Justin related to the ex-con,” James said. “Ironically, I was the ex-con, and I related to the doctor determined to be pacifist. I felt his principles were his weapons, his strength.”
Only time will tell if James can follow those principles and become a positive force in Hollywood. Millennium waited for him to open Little Birds, which bows August 17 in New York and Los Angeles. James, on parole, has to walk the straight and narrow to be able to promote the film and travel to shoot his future films where he wants to. Things other filmmakers take for granted.