Last year, Elgin James premiered his first film at the Sundance Film Festival. Three months later, he was in a maximum-security prison.
James wrote and directed Little Birds, a film loosely based on his life about two teen girls from the economically decimated Salton Sea in California, who run away to Los Angeles to escape the suffocation of poverty and rural living. Little Birds premiered as an official entry at Sundance last year, and opened last weekend in theaters.
It’s James’s first feature, and his journey to seeing it play on screen has been a dramatic one. He grew up outside Boston in rural New England, adopted by white parents, and was one of the only brown-skinned kids in the area. He got into punk rock and moved to Boston as a young teen, where he lived on the streets and in abandoned buildings.
He went on to found the gang FSU, which stands for Friends Stand United (it originally stood for Fuck Shit Up). It was a group of guys, he tells The Daily Beast, for whom “being a man meant one thing: causing damage to the world and people, and being OK with that.” Like vigilante “Robin Hoods,” as he describes the gang, they would rob drug dealers and even give some of the money to charity; using shocking violence was the means to their ends.
He eventually ended up driving out to L.A. with his girlfriend at the time—now his wife—where he wrote the script for Little Birds in 2008. He worked with the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs and Robert Redford on the project, landed breakout star Juno Temple (Atonement, The Dark Knight Rises) as the lead, and, just as he was about to begin production, was arrested by the FBI on charges of attempted extortion stemming back to his days with FSU.
In the year between his arrest in 2009 and his sentencing in March 2011, he shot Little Birds. It debuted at Sundance in January 2011. Three months later, James was on his way to a maximum-security prison to serve a one-year sentence for his arrest. He was released last March, just in time to see Little Birds finally hit theaters. To see it all finally happen, he admits, is both exhilarating and terrifying.
“I feel like I just went skydiving or something,” he says. “It’s just like I feel so alive. It’s such a rush.”
James’s life story not only sounds like its own Hollywood movie, it nearly was. After James and FSU were subjects of a Rolling Stone feature and History Channel’s Gangland series, Hollywood execs hustled to make a movie out of the story. “An A-list actor was going to play me and an A-list director was going to shoot me,” James says, but he walked away after getting turned off by their intentions to glamorize gang violence and take creative license with his life story.
“They were like, ‘At the end of Act II, Elgin’s mother is going to die while he is holding her hand,” he says. “Executives were like, ‘Aww.’ And I was like, ‘That’s my life. Like, fuck you.’”
Despite never having read a script or picked up a camera, he decided to write his own screenplay. While driving back from the Joshua Tree Musical Festival, he saw a girl, no more than 15 years old, on the back of her boyfriend’s bike, defiant with a cigarette pack underneath her sleeve. “You could just tell that she was on fire and she was never going to get out of there,” James says. Struck by that image, he decided to have two teen girls stand in for him as the lead characters in the film. There’s Lily, whose burning, reckless desire to leave her life behind mirrors James’s teen years, and Alison, whose realization of what she left and how much she wishes she could get it back signifies James’s adult awakening.
How the film got made is the plot of another story seemingly lifted right out of a Hollywood picture. Producer Jamie Patricof (Half Nelson, Blue Valentine) had scheduled a meeting with James about the life-story project. When James instead forwarded him his script for Little Birds, Patricof was immediately dismissive, not wanting to “make another $500,000 movie,” says James. But his assistant took the script home, read it, fell in love with it, and eventually wore down her boss. Little Birds was a go.
Feisty British rising star Juno Temple plays Lily, a girl so discontent with her impoverished life with her single mom—played by Knocked Up star Leslie Mann in a complete departure from type—that she convinces her best friend, Alison, to steal her surrogate father’s truck and drive them out to Los Angeles. What Alison sees as the slums and grunge of the City of Angels’s poorest neighborhood when they arrive, Lily sees an Emerald City rife with the opportunity to be impulsive and live life to the fullest.
They shack up in an abandoned motel with three feral teen boys, one of whom Lily develops a romantic relationship with. She’s impressed by the boys’ upstart crime schemes—after brutally mugging a pedestrian of his laptop, they set up Craigslist stings to lure perverts to the motel. Lily would pose as an underage girl interested in a hookup. When the men arrive, the boys would rob them. Warning bells ring loudly with Alison, who insists the two head home, and, as expected, one of the Craigslist setups goes disturbingly awry.
The performances are excellent and nuanced across the board, but it’s Juno Temple, with her petite frame and an unruly mane that barely conceals the brokenness in her eyes, who truly impresses. When she auditioned, “I said it must have been like when you meet Mick Jagger,” James says. “She’s just, like, a star.” He gave her her choice of roles, and sent scripts to Mann and Kate Bosworth, who plays Lily’s aunt. Both signed on the strength of the script, though with reservations about starring in such a small movie. “Who sees this thing?” James recalls Mann asking him.
That the film had the endorsement of Sundance and Robert Redford—it was incubated in the Sundance labs—must have been some reassurance. Redford’s mentorship didn’t just transform the film, James says, it saved his life.
“I still hadn’t let go of the violence,” he says. “He was like, ‘You know what, that’s all bullshit. All you’re doing is taking your own wreckage inside you, demonizing other people, and throwing it out into the world. Where does that get you?’”
“I came home and was like, Great! I'm a pacifist! And then I was arrested by the FBI.”
The film could easily have been scrapped then and there. But Redford stood by James and the project. Patricof stood by him. Temple stood by him. When James showed up in court the next morning, Patricof was standing in the corner next to his wife. At the Sundance premiere, when Temple’s agents encouraged her to dissociate with a man about to go to prison, she stood next to James, holding his hand.
If James’s life really is like a movie, now that he’s out of prison and able to attend screenings of his debut film in New York, the movie is getting its happy ending.
“Obviously it’s Hollywood so everything everyone thinks exists in Hollywood definitely does,” he says. “But there’s also so much greatness and humility and real faith there, too. You just have to get through the other stuff to find it.”