James was born in Waco, TX and grew up in South Carolina, where he graduated from Mayo High School for Math, Science & Technology. He went to Clemson University and earned a degree in audio engineering. James came to Athens in 2013 after looking at a list of top music towns in the United States. He started a production company and shot thousands of live shows, sharpening his video and editing skills along the way before transitioning to documentary films. His documentary films, Athens Rising: The Sicyon Project and Athens Rising: Transmittance, showcase creativity in Athens, from backyard comedy shows and hip hop house parties to the nonprofits and businesses that support the creative community here. He has worked as an independent documentary filmmaker, cinematographer and film editor on a wide variety of projects. James lives in the West Hancock Corridor with his fiancé, Chase, who teaches yoga at M3 Yoga, and their dog, Rigby.
What do you love most about your career?
To me the best part about what I get to do is being able to sit down with people. Whether it is doing the interviews or covering events, if it is paid work or passion projects, just getting in the room and picking people’s brains and learning why people do what they do. Or going to an event where you really get to be embedded in something you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Like, I am a vegetarian but I filmed an elk hunt in New Mexico. And it was amazing! I just love meeting new people and what they are working on and what drives them. And it’s also a great excuse to talk to all kinds of awesome people.
When you are not working, what are some of your favorite things to do in Athens?
We have so many awesome pop-up food events now, whether it is The Side Hustle or The Plate Sale, our food scene is really interesting. And also house shows, who knows after the pandemic, but whether it’s a backyard comedy show like Krakin Jokes or what Murder House used to be with Volumes Hip Hop. The big tent stuff is fun too, but when you go to these [smaller] things and you are like, oh, The Side Hustle is the souxs from Seabear – you kind of see how they fit into the scene and where they are getting their inspirations.
If you could see any band, musician or show anywhere, who or what would you see and where?
The first thing that came to my mind, and in talking to my fiancé, I would love to see the Broadway version of Hedwig and The Angry Inch. That sounds amazing.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Honestly, a lot of my early career–and I did a bunch of different stuff–I failed at everything. But one of the reasons why I failed is because I was trying to make work check all the boxes in my life. It needed to give me passion, give me worth and value, pay the bills, and maybe touch on helping me spiritually. And I’m much more comfortable knowing that that is too much pressure to put on one project and nothing is going to check all of those boxes. One thing I have gotten better at, I hope, is being okay with doing a project that I learn new skills on, but I am not like crying into the keyboard. Which is what happens with a lot of my favorite projects I work on, I find myself crying or laughing while I’m editing. You’re listening to people tell these incredible stories, so….
Do you have a favorite book, or have a book that you find yourself referencing, rereading or gifting most often?
As soon as you said gifting I thought, man I am obnoxious with this one, but In the Blink of An Eye by Walter Murch. He was an editor who did The English Patient and worked on a lot of big movies. It’s about the philosophy of editing and it’s just fascinating once you start thinking about the purpose of editing and how it’s all about the juxtaposition of images. He has these loose ways of organizing your thoughts around the importance of editing, how you use it, and what the craft is – and it’s just fascinating. At 100 pages, it’s a super quick read and every time I read it, I find something new.
Do you have a favorite movie or a favorite documentary?
I have several for you at the moment. For narratives, I think about the ones that stick with me and kind of grab me in a fun or sometimes crushing way. They are all from writer/directors so someone who you can tell had a real vision that they followed through and they’re all, in a way, bombastic movies that if you tried to explain in two sentences to somebody, they sound terrible. But, they pull it off in some crazy way. Recently, Sorry to Bother You, by Boots Riley is just bananas and I love the subversiveness of it. Similarly over the top but more so in its structure, there’s Mr. Nobody, by Jaco Van Dormael. Then Incendies, by Denis Villeneuve is more of a traditional narrative, but the story is intimate and crazy in the way he makes you actually believe it at the end, and the reveals are just incredible. On the documentary side, I love Won’t You Be My Neighbor. It is so good. It is all about using media for good. Then, on the more impressionistic side, there is Hale County This Morning, This Evening, which came out a couple of years ago. There is no narrative and no interviews, I don’t know if any text even pops up on screen, like a bunch of vignettes where this young filmmaker grew up and it is heartbreaking but beautiful. So, I gave you five – sorry!
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
To me, whenever that question comes up it’s always Chile. Just going up the coast or anywhere in the world where there are mountains right next to the sea just because we don’t have a lot of that here. It seems like the food would be fascinating and the wine, and I would just love to be able to spend two weeks in Chile.
What is something interesting about you that most people might not know?
I really like to cook, and I’ve found that cooking is what keeps me sane. It’s a small creative goal I can do every day because sometimes you are in the middle of a project that is a year or however long and you do a twelve hour day editing and you feel like you have accomplished nothing, you just feel lost in it; but, cooking something…I can run to the store and get what I need, cook something and I have one hundred percent control over the outcome. It is my fault that it is good or that it is bad. It’s these little achievable goals that I can do in the middle of a big amorphous project that keep me sane.
If you could have lunch with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and where?
That is a hard one, but I would say honestly I can’t stop thinking of the movie Nomadland. Chloé Zhao did that and not only did she write and direct it, but she edited it – and that is not how it normally works. It is also a movie that a lot of the process had doc elements to it so it is very much a merging of those forms. I would love to pick her brain just to learn more about her philosophy and what she finds interesting in the confluence of narrative and doc. Maybe we’d eat lunch at The Grit.
If you could put any message on a billboard, what would it be?
I would do this because I find myself in times of crisis repeating this to myself sometimes, but Patanjali had the Four Locks and Four Keys, and it is basically: when you meet somebody who is happy react to them with friendliness; when you meet someone who is unhappy react to them with compassion; when you interact with someone who is virtuous be overjoyed for them; and if you interact with someone who is wicked you just disregard. So, just sharing those four keys to deal with life – and man that disregard one is good.
What three words or phrases come to mind when you think of the word “home?”
Cuddles, food and balance (because I work from home).