Interviewing Jon Siskel: Director of “Louder Than A Bomb”

Directors Jon Siskel (l) and Greg Jacobs

The documentary film Louder Than A Bomb recently opened in select theaters and, at the time of this posting, still has a most impressive 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film, directed by Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs, explores the Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam competition in Chicago – the world’s largest of its kind with over 60 area high schools competing. The film provides us with an inside view to the competition, following four schools in particular. Students Nate, Nova, Adam and the kids from Steinmetz High School are examined throughout. An entertaining and inspiring film, the film is proving to be a darling of the Festival circuit as well, garnering many awards on the way. The movie has also been selected for the “OWN Documentary Club,” a monthly documentary showcase on the new Oprah Winfrey Network. This is the first feature film that Emmy Award-winner Jon Siskel has directed. I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. Siskel last week to talk about his film, its impact so far, the students examined, and his legendary uncle.

PETER: Jon, I stated in my review that after seeing so many documentaries showing us what is wrong with our schools and the world in general, it was refreshing to see one showing us what was right with the schools…

JON: Amen…

PETER: …and the film is very inspiring. Was that the goal when you and Greg [co-director] started out with this project?

JON: [chuckling] No, it wasn’t. We were thrilled that that’s what has happened, but really we were just captivated by what we were seeing on stage. It was really the interaction between the poet on stage and the audience…that energy in the room was so exciting to us that we really thought The Slam would make a great idea [for a film]. We liked the competition genre for documentaries and felt like this would be a great vehicle for telling a story about that community which was something we didn’t know much about. Even being from Chicago where The Slam started, I was just not in tune with The Slam scene. So that’s what interested us and along the way, once we got into the classrooms and saw the work that was being done and the dedication and commitment of the teachers, it became clear to us that there was something really amazing happening there.

PETER: You mentioned the teachers and coaches…I must tell you, before this I was an English and theatre teacher for 9 years. And a couple of things caught my attention from that perspective and working directly with students. One was — and it comes across in the film — seeing the passion that these students have for the competition and the art of poetry in general. Did you get a chance to speak with the coaches and find out what their secret was in getting their students so amped up about poetry because that’s really not the easiest thing to get kids excited about?

JON: Right. You know, it’s interesting. I think the coaches probably didn’t have to do a lot to get the kids amped about it. The kids are already so excited and each one comes to it from different angles, different perspectives and different things draw them into it. If anything, I think the coaches just have to put the reins on them more. It’s really just managing the kids’ energy more than anything. They’re just incredibly dedicated to the students and to what The Slam is doing in their schools and for the kids.

PETER: Is it catching on? Are other cities and states conducting their own high school poetry slam competitions?

JON: There are slam communities all over the country. And D.C. has a great, thriving Slam scene. There’s a huge movement around the country, but I think what makes Chicago’s Slam and Louder Than A Bomb unique is that it starts in the classroom with this teamwork…this team building part of it. That’s not the way it’s done in other cities. In San Francisco, individuals slam and they do their pieces and then there’s a national slam called “Brave New Voices” that kind of push four or five of the best poets together, they make a team and then they go to do the Slam together. But in Chicago, from the very beginning, it’s all about that teamwork and collaborative writing. And we’re using the film now to help Kevin [Coval, co-founder of LTAB] and Louder Than A Bomb to expand in the city, which it has. When we started filming there were 40 teams. This year’s slam there were 75, I think. And there will probably be another 10 or so added to that next year. But even beyond the city, we have the first Louder Than A Bomb outside of Chicago. We started Louder Than A Bomb Tulsa with 4 teams about four months ago and next year they already have 10 teams lined up so we really want to help use the film to spread this around the country and in the classroom.

PETER: Is there a supplementary DVD that teachers can use as a tool to help their own students in putting their own words on paper?

JON: We have an educational DVD and Kevin [Coval], the founder, is building a curriculum around the poems in the film so that teachers can use this in the classroom. It’s been great getting it in front of high school students. The first questions they ask afterwards is, “How do I do this in my school?” “How can I write like that? “I want that in my school.” That’s what we’re going to be able to give them with this.

PETER: And I would think that students, when they see the type of poetry being written, that it’s not what they initially had in mind. I mean Nova and Nate and Adam…these are kids that are speaking right from the heart. I think that might turn some students on, who perhaps initially thought that they might have to write something like Tennyson or Byron or Keats.

JON: Exactly. I remember a teacher telling me…because we do bring the movie to a lot of schools…she said that her kids said, “Oh God! We have to go see this movie about poetry…and it’s documentary!” It was like a double whammy.

PETER: Thank God it wasn’t subtitled too!

JON: [laughter] Right. But then the kids after the film were saying that they were blown away. They had no idea that poetry was like that. Now they like documentaries. It’s been great for them.

PETER: The second thing that caught my attention as an English teacher was that, when given the opportunity, children are very capable of doing some pretty amazing things. And you have some students here writing some great work. Were you shocked by the talents of these kids?

JON: Yeah, I was. For me, I’m shocked just by, not even the talented kids, but the kids who we call the “brave poets” – kids who get up in front of the mic with paper shaking and pour their hearts out. They may not do it as artfully as Nova, but I find that kid just as impressive. But to your question about the talent…we spent a year on development finding our poets and our characters… because at that time there were about 40 teams participating and we said to Kevin [Coval] that we want the best poets. We thought that if you are going to make a film about poetry and poetry slams, the poetry should be really good. Again, it’s great that there are these “brave poets,” but if an audience is going to watch, we want to dazzle them. So Kevin helped us narrow it down to about a dozen schools and so over the course of that year, we went out to those schools. We didn’t even bring cameras. It was just observing, talking to the poets, talking to the coaches, going home with some of the kids who we thought were interesting and narrowed it down to those four.

PETER: And the Steinmetz school probably being the obvious choice, simply because they were defending their crown as champions.

JON: Exactly. And we did film that year’s competition. That’s where it really became solidified and crystallized for us…that we wanted Steinmetz, we wanted the returning champion – and they were amazing poets. And we wanted Nate who had done his Lebron James piece, which just blew our minds…and Nova was incredible and we wanted to have a suburban school too. Beyond the great poets, we were looking for them to reflect the diversity that is in Louder Than A Bomb and a geographic diversity. So all of that went into picking those four. It’s interesting because some people in the Q&A’s have asked if there were other teams because I think some filmmakers will follow six story lines and drop a few – but we never did that. We only picked these 4 and were committed to them from the beginning.

PETER: Well, you got lucky then…because each story arc is so compelling to watch.

JON: Yeah, we did. We really did.

PETER: Do you know how much footage overall that you and Greg actually shot?

JON: Yeah, we’ve been using the number 350…something around that. Somewhere between 300 and 350 hours. So there was a lot on the cutting room floor.

PETER: So I can look forward to seeing all of that on the uncut director’s DVD edition?

JON: Yeah, in the extras. For the educational DVD, we’ve included one extra poem from Nate, but then the film was picked up by OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. And hopefully, when we put out the DVD with them I will be able to put in some extras because there’s just a lot of great stuff, a lot of great poems. And also, the Steinmenots [students from Steinmetz H.S.] are so funny…there’s just all this great stuff of them too.

PETER: Just to give my readers an idea of some of the students that the film focuses on…can you speak about Nova? She was fascinating to watch. Her upbringing with her challenged younger brother and certainly the relationship with her father and the work that is coming out of her. She seemed very mature and came across as being 17 going on 30.

JON: Yeah. And she talks about that in the film…having all of this responsibility thrust on her. She welcomed it and she is glad that she is older than her age, in a way. She’s an incredible person. At first, very steely and kind of impenetrable. But once we really started talking to her and getting into the interviews, she really opened up to us.  She is a great writer. She’s so articulate about what she’s writing about — her family and about her father. The interviews were very revealing. Nova’s a great example, but I think it’s true of all of them — the beauty of the film is to be able to see how the writing reflects their world and they reflect the world in their writing. And Nova…she talks about the writing. How it’s kind of therapeutic for her. It really allowed her to open up and wrestle openly with the stuff she kept bottled up for so long.

PETER: I actually even enjoyed watching her reaction when she doesn’t make the team her freshman year. And seeing her passionate reaction…

JON: Yes…

PETER: …which is typical Nova once you get to know her a bit during the course of the film. You see that fire inside of her. The second student I’d like you to speak to…what a pleasure to watch Adam Gottlieb.

JON: Isn’t it?

PETER: What a great young man. I would love to have this kid in my classroom every day! Can you speak about Adam for us?

JON: I think audiences, when they first see him, you know, there’s a little laughter…the kid with the long hair, clearly kind of “nerdy” or whatever…but you meet him and his parents and he’s wearing the “Keeping it Kosher” T-shirt. But then he gets up on stage and he starts to do “Poet Breathe Now” and he just grabs the audience by the throat. What I love about Adam is that he’s the sweetest, most gentle, most real kid I have ever met. I think I’m actually quoting what Kevin Coval said about him in the film. He’s wonderful – and it’s been great taking this film out with these guys. We’ve been able to bring Adam out on the road with us – and to see him interact with audiences is a lot of fun. I would encourage your readers to get out and see it because there’s nothing like seeing this film in a theater with other people…that communal experience and seeing this film in particular, I think is very special.

PETER: The second poem Adam recites shows us his incredible range. Some students, I would think, may fall into the same trap of rehashing the very same themes…

JON: Exactly…

PETER: …and Nova does it also. She went the other way and did something very loving rather than something where she is venting her anger and frustration.

JON: Yes, exactly.

Greg Jacobs (l) and Jon Siskel at Chicago Film Festival

PETER: Now, obviously, you are the nephew of the celebrated film critic Gene Siskel. I’m sure you get asked this a lot. As a film buff, I always looked up to him and his work. Having that connection with him as your uncle, did you know from an early age that you wanted to be a part of films and direct?

JON: No. [laughter] I wish I could say that was true. He definitely gave me an appreciation of films. I grew up going to movies with him all the time. Sometimes seeing two or three movies a day. But I was an English Lit major and really wanted to write short stories and did some writing out of college for newspapers and magazines. But then I slowly made my way out to Los Angeles and got into TV and film. Once that door kind of opened up, it was a real “A-ha” kind of moment…that marriage of words and picture really worked for me – and I had always been a fan of documentaries. I just never thought about it for myself. Then I just immersed myself…following cameramen, and sitting in the edits, observing every part of it.

PETER: Last question. I think the goal of many documentary filmmakers is to somehow get their audience to take action in some shape or form. What do you want the people that go to see Louder Than A Bomb to walk away with?

JON: That’s a great question. There are a lot of answers to that. I just want as many people to see it as possible. But the thing that I really want people to walk away with is that they made a connection with these individuals…with Adam and Nate and Nova and Lamar and the Steinmenots. That these are real kids, real people with amazing stories to tell and it’s that personal connection to the kids that I hope people walk away with. We wanted to make an entertaining film and it being brought into the classroom is wonderful. But more than anything else, it’s that personal connection to the individuals. I love when people come up to me after the film and talk about Nova by name and Nate by name – not “the black kid” and not “the Jewish Kid” – but rather, “I’m so glad I got to meet Adam.” That’s what I am most moved by and want people to connect with.

PETER: Yes, I think that all of the students are relatable in one way or another. And, it’s interesting, you didn’t seem to fall into the easy trap of preaching about the socio-economic backgrounds that some of the kids come from. The film doesn’t preach to us. It lets the competition and the students and the work speak for itself.

JON: Exactly. We didn’t want to make a kind of hammering-over-the-head, political or dogmatic kind of film. We knew that in reflecting the kids’ work, the teachers work in the classroom, and The Slam…that all of that other stuff would come bubbling up and you would walk away being moved and inspired by all of these kids.

PETER: Well, Jon I want to thank you for speaking with me. I appreciate you taking the time out. Again, great film. And hopefully you get a great turnout.

JON: Yes, thanks very much Peter. I really appreciate it.

This interview was first published on the DC-based online entertainment website Brightest Young Things.

Film Review: Louder Than A Bomb

With the recent “wake-up call”-style documentaries showing us all that is wrong with America’s schools, it is refreshing to see one showing us what is indeed right – even if it is just an itsy-bitsy piece of the puzzle in what is the grand scheme of our educational system. Louder Than A Bomb, produced and directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel (yes, Gene’s nephew), gets its title from the youth poetry slam competition held in Chicago since its inception in 2001.  With over 60 local schools competing, it is the world’s largest of its kind. In this inspiring and affecting film, Jacobs and Siskel focus on four schools and a handful of student slam-poets as they make their way to February’s heated competition.

In selecting the schools and students they would follow, Jacobs and Siskel chose very well, with much of the focus spent on the team from South Side’s Steinmetz High School, who won last year’s contest in their very first year of competition. Now trying to repeat, coach James Sloan must rally his troops and apply much patience and counsel to the few team members who have been acting out of line. The scene where he and his co-instructor confront three unruly students, threatening to kick them off the team illustrates just how much this poetry slam competition – and being a part of a team – means to them. When one of the kids starts crying, we are reminded of the hard fact that, no matter how tough and mature they appear to be, they are still children.

Like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom before it, Louder Than A Bomb reminds us that children, no matter what their socio-economic background may be, when given the opportunity, are capable of achieving great things. The student-poets and their talents really get to shine here, especially when on stage in front of a supportive audience and a mic. Seventeen year-old Nova from Oak Park/River Forest High School writes with passion about her special-needs younger brother and the father she hasn’t spoken to since she was twelve. Her composition is raw; her delivery poised and moving. Nate from Whitney Young Magnet High School is the veteran of the competition, on the cusp of graduating and moving on to bigger things. Nate is a mentor and coach to his younger peers and his advanced writing skills and flair with the pen are clearly on display. He may come off as a bit too confident and cocky, but that’s a miniscule nitpick judging from where he came from (his parents were both drug addicts when he was young) and more importantly, where he may be headed for. The standout here is the immensely likable Adam Gottlieb from Northside College Prep. His poem celebrating all that is poetry is an exceptional blend of writing and performance that brings the house down and makes us aware of a major talent on the rise. Later, Adam performs a piece commemorating his Jewish heritage – a completely different piece, with a different style and register that shows off his impressive discipline and range. Near the end of the film, the group poetry piece performed by four students of Steinmartz is also a stand-out in a film full of passionate, honest, and stirring performances.

One of the mantras of the competition is “The point is not the points…The point is the poetry.” This, a reference to the judges who grade each performance on a scale of 1-10 for scoring purposes is brought to fruition when we see a student from Steinmartz at the end of the film explain what the competition and the art of poetry means to him. It makes for a moving scene and provides us with a tremendous sense of hope. Kevin Coval, co-founder of the Louder Than A Bomb competition, freely admits that “grading” or scoring each piece is not the ideal method for judging a teenager’s efforts and should not even be done, but for the sake of having winners and losers, is inevitable.

Jacobs and Siskel could have explored the tough backgrounds that many of these students seem to come from. Instead, they (perhaps wisely) choose to focus on the competition, and the work itself. Certain aspects are mentioned here and there, but not in a way that detracts from the film’s pacing and scope. In a society that can’t get enough of the reality shows, here we are given a contest with incredible meaning and purpose – and more entertaining and impressive than anything you will see on prime time. Youth poetry slams would make for a wonderful new reality show, but I am afraid that most of the television-viewing public would be dismissive of the art form of the written word. Louder Than A Bomb is an enriching reminder of what students can accomplish with a little hard work and some leadership – one hopes that other states and districts will take a page from the people behind this poetry contest and follow suit.


Rating:
Director: Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel
Year:       2011

This review was previously published for the D.C.-based online entertainment site Brightest Young Things.

My interview with director Jon Siskel will be posted on The Lantern this week.

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