‘Little Birds’ Filmmaker Elgin James Reflects on His Personal and Artistic Transformation

Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker star in Elgin James’s Sundance film ‘Little Birds.’

Elgin James

Elgin James is the writer and director of ‘Little Birds,’ a 2009 Sundance Institute Screenwriters and Directors Lab project and an Official Selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Below, James details his personal transformation since participating at the Labs and chronicles the journey to completing his film, which opens in New York on August 29/

I’ve been out of prison for a few months now, and the first question people ask is “How scary was it?” Going to the Sundance Labs was scarier. Prison operated on a language I understood and had once been fluent in. But the Labs were fueled by the very thing I’d spent my life trying to deny and bury: vulnerability. To be successful in the Labs I was going to have to tear down the walls I’d built and learn to express myself with something besides violence.

Going in I knew so little about filmmaking that I had to ask artistic director Gyula Gazdag what a “gaffer” was. After he answered, I raised my hand again and asked “What about a ‘grip’?” He and the other Advisors taught me to utilize what I did know. That growing up punk rock would help me sense when a scene was feeling too neat, too clean. To tap into my gut to know when something was inauthentic. They gave me a new language to express myself and I learned that using art to articulate the wreckage I felt inside was more honest than rage, because it allowed me to get to the hurt and loss underneath.

But the Labs were scary. It felt like being lovingly wrapped in soft cotton and then thrown off a cliff. You’re pushed past your limits and forced to confront your weaknesses. And for me that meant more than filmmaking. Sitting with Robert Redford in the meal tent after everyone else had left, he helped me take a look at my lifelong relationship with violence. He broke down that everything positive in my life stemmed from letting down my guard and being open. That the good things in my life all stemmed from love. And that the violence and negativity I was still too stubborn to reject had only caused me more misery.

That afternoon I took a vow of non-violence. I swore to never raise my fist or my voice to another human being. I’d gone to the Labs as a child, and I came out an artist.

Every film that’s ever made it to the screen has had its obstacles. Little Birds is no different. After I came home from the Labs, a dozen FBI agents arrested me outside my home on a five-year-old gang related charge.

I’d helped build the gang as a teenager because I was looking for a sense of family. Ironically, it took leaving the gang to truly find my tribe. When I was brought into my arraignment in handcuffs and leg irons, my Little Birds producers were sitting in the courtroom. When I was released on bond the first people I contacted were Michelle Satter, Ilyse McKimmie, Anne Lai, and Cullen Conly from the Sundance Feature Film program.

Robert Redford, and a number of my Sundance advisors rallied on my behalf. And when it seemed Little Birds would never get made now, my advisor, Catherine Hardwicke invited me to Venice, where we sat down with a calendar and nailed down when I’d most likely go to prison. Then we worked backward to figure out when I’d need to shoot, how long I’d get to edit, and hopefully, fingers crossed, if I might stay out long enough to make the Sundance film Festival.

We went into production on Little Birds, and while that adventure could be it’s own dozen blog entries, suffice to say I realized filmmaking is putting words on paper trying to clumsily express yourself in scene headings and dialogue, and then beautiful, brilliant people come and add their own blood and sweat. Turning your idea into flesh and fabric, and beautiful 2:35 framing, and electricity, and sound, and rough cuts, and even the food to fuel us all, each part of the machine equally as important as the others. Suddenly the words you once typed belong to all of you and are lifted and elevated into art.

Your only job as the director is to lead the charge. And I could only do so because of what I’d learned at the Labs. On the set I kept a huge binder with me at all times. Inside the binder was everything my Advisors Joan Darling, Ed Harris, Catherine Hardwicke, Keith Gordon, and Joan Tewksbury had ever said to me. And when in trouble, if I couldn’t find an answer in their words, I did exactly what they had taught me—I listened to my gut.

Little Birds premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance in January 2011, and I got to be there. It felt like coming home. The Sundance Feature Film Program had changed my life, and all I wanted was to reward their faith in me and show that they had backed the right horse. After the Festival I was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and began serving my sentence. Little Birds was sold when I was incarcerated, and Millennium Entertainment have graciously waited until I was paroled to release it.

Which means Little Birds comes out this August 29. It’s the story of two 15-year-old girls and the last few days of their friendship. And my two leads give incredibly fearless performances. Directing Juno Temple felt like holding your best friend’s hand while they lean out over a ledge. Her performance so dangerous that I felt if I didn’t hold on tight enough she would dive right off. While Juno and I had worked for nearly two years together and the film was built around her, Kay Panabaker was cast only a week before we started shooting. But she immediately staked her ground, opened her soul, and gave such a brave, beautiful performance—the cool, quiet waters beneath Juno’s flame.

The film became as much their DNA as my own, along with the rest of the actors and crew who sacrificed so much to make this little film for no money but a lot of sweat. It’s scary to be about to let Little Birds out into the world. But overcoming fear has blessed me with finding my place in the world, learning a new language to express myself, and most importantly, finally finding my tribe.

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