Alumni Profiles

Alumni Profile: Elgin James, screenwriter

By July 18, 2016 No Comments

If you’re a hardcore kid, you almost certainly know the name Elgin James. The story of his past as a member FSU has been told many times in the pages of Rolling Stone, shows like Gangland and countless forum threads.

But I’m not interested in rehashing that story, because it’s a lot less interesting to me than what he’s done since then. I’ll admit that when I heard he left Boston to pursue a career as a filmmaker, I was skeptical: “The FSU guy?? What does he know about making movies? How’s he gonna pull THAT off?” But he proved me and everybody else very wrong, carving out a spot for himself as a legit Hollywood director and screenwriter by sheer force of will.

When I say “legit,” I mean that he’s worked with SHOWTIME, HBO, Sundance channel,  Universal, Blumhouse and Imagine, released a feature film called “Little Birds,” and is currently working with Kurt Sutter (creator of Sons Of Anarchy”) on the new SOA sequel called “Mayans MC,” as well as creating a new series with a New Yorker Magazine journalist named Sarah Stallman called SPARROW and probably a bunch of other cool shit I’m forgetting– check his IMDB for full details. Not too bad for a guy who just a few years ago was locked up in federal prison, right?

But the real point of this story isn’t even Elgin himself. The real story here is YOU. The point is to show that no matter how many mistakes you’ve made in the past, there’s always hope– that YOU and ONLY YOU have the power to control your own destiny.

I wanted to talk to Elgin because (with all due respect to him), he’s fucked up about as badly as someone can without dying. I mean, going to prison is about as bad as it gets, right? But his story is proof that it’s never, ever too late to turn your life around as long as you believe in yourself and you’re willing to make big, sometimes painful changes.

If you’re reading this and you think of yourself as an outsider, a loser, or a fuckup who’s doomed by bad decisions in the past, I want you to take inspiration from Elgin’s story and refuse to accept that fate. His story is proof that you CAN make it– as he says, if he can pull this off then anyone can– YOU can.

I think it’s a really fucking cool story, and I want to thank Elgin for taking the time out of his busy schedule working on the THREE (!) shows he’s recently sold.

Your history in punk/hardcore/etc has been told many times (usually focusing on the sensationalist stuff) so I don’t want to rehash it too much. But what is YOUR version of it in a nutshell? What are the highlights that you’d want a hardcore kid who aspires to be an artist or entrepreneur to pay attention to?

I’ve recently been referred to as a Latino Filmmaker. I’m no more a Latino filmmaker than a black filmmaker, white filmmaker or Native American filmmaker. Those ethnicities may show up in my DNA chain, but they are not my culture. My culture is punk rock.

I always felt like an outsider. I grew up getting called nigger and spic in a small rural town where I was the only brown skinned kid for miles. My home was full of violence and drugs and alcohol so the animals on our farm became my only trusted friends. Especially the pigs, who are a smarter and more emotionally intelligent animal than even dogs. Then when I was seven years old the pigs were all rounded up, panicked and squealing, and slaughtered. To me it was the final proof that I wasn’t meant for the world. Everyone seemed to have this capacity for cruelty that I didn’t. I felt like a sheared nerve, terrified all the time, and ashamed of being different. Couldn’t laugh at their jokes because I’d been the brunt of them. Couldn’t even eat the same fucking food as everyone else because I knew where it came from and the horror it involved.

Elgin’s old band 454 Big Block

Then, when I was around twelve or so, I discovered two records that changed my life forever. The first was Black Flag Damaged. Which made me realize I wasn’t the only one with so much noise and chaos in my head. And later, it was Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, which taught me I wasn’t the only one in so much fucking pain. For the first time I didn’t feel alone.

I quickly went on to discover other bands like Crass, Conflict and Millions of Dead Cops, who had the same values and beliefs I had, particularly around animal rights, but that I hadn’t known to put a name to before.

Then when I was locked up at age fourteen I read THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X. And he describes how drugs and alcohol are just the system’s way of continuing the cycle of poverty and abuse. I stopped drinking and doing drugs. And punk had a name for that too, Straight Edge. Though I rarely had much in common with my straight edge peers. They were usually nice, white kids who just wanted to have fun. I was trying to break a cycle of despair in my family. Neither one is wrong, just a different sense of urgency. I am still straight edge today.

Back to my point, when you grow up mixed race, the math somehow turns out to being “no race.” You’re too light, too dark, don’t speak Spanish etc… Any time I interacted with the supposed cultures of my blood, they rejected me. Punk was the only culture to embrace me. The only place I ever felt at home. And just the way people feel “valued” by their family, is how I felt when i listened to those first handful of records. And just the way people are moved by a church or temple service, is how I felt seeing Uniform Choice, Cro Mags or Agnostic Front. And just how people learn their ethics and value systems from their community or “culture,” I learned mine from lyric sheets and $5 matinee shows.

So I am a punk rock filmmaker. That is the only culture that defines me.

mayans

How fucking cool is that headline?? One of our boys made it to the big time!

I think a lot of people know that you’ve been involved with film, but may not know a lot of details. Can you give us an overview of what you’ve done in film, and in particular how you got hooked up with the Mayans MC project?

I came out to Los Angeles from Boston to make movies. I’d always daydreamed about making movies, but I may as well have daydreamed about going to fucking mars. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. I didn’t have any contacts or know anyone working in the industry. But I knew I was gonna die trying.

Books and film were always my escape. My home was a dangerous place when I was a kid and I developed nervous tics. The only time I didn’t suffer from the tics though, was when I read a book or watched a movie. Losing myself in the pages or in the screen.

As I grew up I lost the tics by trying to become worse than what I was scared of. But even as I went down darker and darker paths, books and film always stayed my solace. Sneaking off from my friends to watch art-house films at the Coolidge Corner theater or spending hours alone in the Boston Public library. Spending all my money on books and then hiding them under my bed because I was ashamed of the comfort I found in them.

Another of Elgin’s bands, Righteous Jams — one of the best of the 2000s Boston hardcore bands that newer kids should definitely check out

And then I blinked and fifteen years had gone by. I’d left home to escape the violence and misery I’d grown up with only to be swallowed up by it tenfold. Time has a way of pouring cement around you. The world starts to believe you’re only one thing, then everyone around you starts to believe you’re only one thing. And then finally, you start to believe it yourself. I was a gang member, and a loser. And now I was sitting next to my mother, who was dying in a hospice, apologizing to her for never having done anything she could be proud of.
When we’re kids we all think we’re going to achieve greatness when we grow up. But my expiration date had long passed and I had nothing to show for having been in the world.

So I packed everything I had in a van, and myself, my girlfriend and my dog, Myra, drove three thousand miles to Los Angeles.

When I got out here though, it hit hard. “How the fuck do you make a movie?” I had no idea. I slammed my head against every door I could. After a couple years a door I hadn’t expected suddenly opened. A major studio wanted to make a film about my life story. There were two writers attached, and then an A-list director, and then an A-list actor to play me.

I wasn’t going to write or direct it, I was just the dumb gang guy they shuffled into the room to give it “authenticity.”

“Little Birds” trailer

As the story started to be mapped out, I worried they were glamorizing the violence I was just starting to come to terms with. The darkness was being replaced with a feel good, “Robin Hood” theme. The deaths of people I loved became reduced to act breaks, and they decided to make it PG-13 for the lead actor’s fan base. I’d come home sick to my stomach after every meeting. My girlfriend had taken a huge chance coming out here with me though, and I wanted to make right by her. We were broke and they were talking about what seemed like extravagant amounts of money. The last straw though, was when they wanted to make my character white. I politely disentangled myself from them all, and decided fuck it, I’m going to do it myself. I had gotten representation at a top agency when the project first came about, and when I told them the “great news” that I was going to write the film myself, I was no longer repped by that agency or anyone other. Everyone, rightfully so, told me I was making the biggest mistake of my life. But my girlfriend believed in me and proved it by becoming my wife. And then I wrote my first script, Little Birds. To not glamorize the violence I turned the story of me and my best friend leaving our small New England towns and joining a gang in Boston, into two fifteen year old girls running away from their small desert town to Los Angeles.

Something funny happens when a gang member writes a screenplay about two fifteen year old girls. No one gives a shit.

No one would read it for months. Until finally someone did. And they happened to be the producer of one of my favorite films, Half Nelson. They gave it to Robert Redford and Michelle Satter of the Sundance institute and those two people, and the institute itself, changed my life forever. They gave me the tools to express myself with something other than violence. Pushing me to get past my anger to the hurt and the loss underneath. The script became more about my own crossroads at that moment. Like the character Lily, I grew up suffocating in a small town, wanting to get out into the world. And when I did, the world ate me up and spat me out. And like the other main character, Alison, all I wanted now was to go back to that small town and hear my mother’s voice calling me in for dinner. My life ahead of me, instead of behind me in flames.

All the hard work and the seemingly ridiculous gamble of leaving everything I knew to move to Hollywood seemed to finally be paying off. Little Birds was cast and we had a start date. And late one night my Producer called to tell me he’d raised 1.5 Million dollars to make the film. It was really happening.

prison

The next day I was arrested by FBI agents on an old gang charge. I was going to prison.

I bonded out and all I cared about was staying out long enough to get Little Birds made. I didn’t know how long I’d be going away for and just wanted to make sure I got to make my mark on the world, in case I never got the chance again. Because of the arrest, we lost our financing, but scrabbled together a few hundred grand and shot the film in 17 and a half days. We premiered at the Sundance film festival in January, and I was sentenced to prison in March.

Prison is the darkest, most hopeless place I’ve ever been. Humans are awful. If there were a God, we would surely be the worst of his creatures. We cover it up in polite society with distractions and possessions, but when you’re stripped of comforts and personal space and crammed into violent overcrowded conditions, you realize we are truly more bad than good. Prisoner, guard and warden.

But it gave me time to sit in a cell and think about the weaknesses of Little Birds. Weaknesses I had as a filmmaker and how to strengthen them. I read a hundred and one books to learn more about storytelling. And I fought that fucking self pitying urge, that victimization of “I tried, and look what happened, may as well just give up.” I’d felt like a victim my entire life, and that caused me to waste my life. All the suffering I’d inflicted on the world as an adult, I’d rationalized by having been the victim of suffering as a child. As far as I was concerned, the world had it fucking coming. I’m not sure it didn’t, but sitting in a cell I was sure I was never going to give into self pity again. I wasn’t going to waste another fucking minute. I read, wrote a screenplay that Universal is releasing this year, worked out and did everything I could to get better at my craft.

Prison is a great reminder that the world stops for no one. We will all be forgotten eventually. It’s like being at your own funeral, like Tom sawyer and Huck Finn, except no one gives a fuck. The letters stop if they ever even started, the commissary money dries up, and people get back to their lives. You’re a memory or an anecdote. When I got out and got back to work, I wasn’t starting from zero, I was starting from below zero. I was old news. I’d had my shot, been “hot” for a minute and I’d chosen to make a slow art film about the end of two teenage girls friendship instead of the gritty, gang story everyone wanted. And then I’d disappeared and gone to prison. Good riddance. No one cared. So I wrote. And I wrote. And I wrote.

Mayans MC came about from not picking my head up for the last couple years, just keeping driving on. Not celebrating wins or lamenting losses, just failing, and learning to fail better.

Great conversation with Elgin and the leads of “Little Birds” on their relationship and the process of making the movie

Most importantly, what did you learn from your time spent in DIY culture that’s helped you as a writer/filmmaker/artist?

To follow your gut. I didn’t go to film school. I don’t have an education. I knew nothing about cinematography or working with actors or even what a grip or Best Boy were. But I had a mentor tell me that “because you grew up punk rock, you know ‘truth,’ and you know when something rings false. That will be your tool as a filmmaker.” So everything I have as an artist I owe to punk rock.

And most importantly I learned to just fucking do it. Don’t wait to ask for permission. Just fucking do it and allow yourself to fail. Failing is good. Fall on your face and get back up and do it again, better. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Get the fuck up, and get back after it.

Were there any aspects of punk culture that may have held you back? Times where punk values clash with the values of Hollywood/film/whatever?

What’s held me back is hatred and distrust of the mainstream. It’s what I struggle with professionally all the time: how to make something for the masses, which is the goal of the studios and networks that hire me, and have it still feel honest and personal, which is my only goal.

Little Birds played in art house theaters for only about three weeks, and I’d often hear “It’s a shame more people didn’t get to see it.” And for a long time I was lazy and agreed. But when I really thought about it I realized I was lying. It is not for everyone. Actually, it’s not for most people. Just like the albums and films and books I love are not for everyone, and I would have rejected them if they were. I used to say Little Birds was a combination of mine and Juno Temple’s diaries on screen. It was a flash of our souls up there, and that may sound flaky, but I don’t mean the “light” part of our souls, I’m talking about the ugly shadow.

One of my favorite moments of my life was at a screening in San Diego, where a 15 year old girl raised her hand during the Q&A and asked me about shame. She asked how to deal with feeling so much shame in her life, and how to not let it cripple her. And it set off the most amazing conversation. That never would have happened in a multiplex. Art is a cry in the darkness to see if anyone else is out there. Usually no one answers back. That girl saw herself in Juno’s character, Lily, on screen, and she answered the cry. That’s a moment I wouldn’t trade for anything in this world.

Is it possible to achieve that on a mass level? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that I want to tell stories about the disaffected, for the disaffected. If the world answers back, fine. But until then, I’m proud to have it just be a small group of us, each broken and fucked up.

Elgin on leaving his past behind — I want you to watch this and understand how absolutely critically important it is for you to surround yourself with the right people. Although moving won’t solve your problems by itself, sometimes you have to physically get yourself out of a toxic situation, like he did when left Boston

You’ve been in the film world for quite a while, in the indie world and now at the mainstream network level working with some household names. What have you learned about the film business, or the “business of art” in general? Anything you wish you could have told yourself 10 years ago?

What I’ve learned is the same thing I would tell myself a decade ago. Work. Put your head down and fucking work. People in this town may be smarter than me, they are surely mostly all better educated than I am. They are probably even more talented than I am. I can’t control that. The only thing I can control is whether I let anyone work harder than me. I go to bed each night thinking “Did I do everything I possibly could today to achieve what I want.” And more often than I’d like to admit, I’m getting out of bed and getting back after it. Don’t let anyone ever work harder than you.

A lot of kids/people who have made some mistakes in their life (drugs, cops, or just being a fuckup in general) kind of accept their fate, self-identify as losers and keep going down the path of self-destruction even though they don’t have to. What words or advice would you have for someone whose made a couple mistakes and feels like they’ll never be able to turn it around?

My advice to fellow fuck ups is the thing you’re most ashamed of is what’s going to be the secret of your success. It’s what you have that your competition doesn’t . What we have, the damaged, the broken, is priceless, It’s a life lived.

When the girl at the San Diego Q&A asked me how I dealt with shame I told her I use it as fuel. I feel so much fucking shame and I fucking put it in the fire to make me work harder. To make sure I never let myself take the easy way out. I’ve done terrible things in my life, fucking good. That is exactly what fuels me now to leave a different mark on the world. The world is changed by the damaged. By the fuck ups. Let the status quo stay just that. Let them sit back and judge and criticize and attack us in the comments sections on the internet. Soon they will be buying the priceless thing only we can offer the world.

And the most important advice I can say is this, if I can do this. Anyone fucking can.

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