The movies saved Elgin James. Growing up in an abusive household, he found solace in watching films. When he was a homeless kid in Boston, he’d frequent the area’s arthouses (Coolidge Corner, the Brattle) to escape his violent life.

“The only time I had peace was in a movie theater,” says James, who famously founded the antiracist street gang FSU (nicknamed “Fuck Shit Up”). “People like us don’t usually get to be filmmakers,” he adds.

In 2006, James left his tumultuous past behind and made a surprisingly easy segue way into Hollywood with the development of a film based on his own life. At one point, Justin Timberlake and Nick Cassavetes were attached. But James didn’t want to be the “dumb gang guy” on the sidelines, and he didn’t want to “romanticize the violence” in his life, so he came up with another project, “Little Birds,” the story of two aimless 15-year-old girls that he claims “is more autobiographical than any biopic could ever be.” Developed at the Sundance Lab, the film premieres in the fest’s dramatic competition.

As a longtime fan of punk music (he sang for the band Wrecking Crew, among others), James says music informed his style, in part. “It’s about tempo and dynamics, when to have it crash and when to have it simmer,” he says.

“Little Birds” producer Jamie Patricof (“Blue Valentine”) was impressed with James’ strong point of view: “He knows what he wants his movies to look like, but most importantly, he is an amazing leader and he is able to inspire people to get the best out of them.”

With “Little Birds” complete, James is working with “Birds” co-star Juno Temple on a follow-up. “If this one was ‘Badlands,’?” he says, “the next one will be more of a modern version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’?”

But James will first have to beat an attempted extortion rap. Charged by the FBI in 2009, James will soon face sentencing in Chicago federal court. But the ongoing drama only seems to add mystique to the former bad boy. “He went from homeless to gang member to the Sundance labs,” says Patricof. “He’s one of a kind.”

Age: “I’ve started my life now.”
Homebase: Silverlake, Ca.
Inspired by: “Visually, Terrence Malick and early Peter Bogdanovich.” Also, John Ford, George Stevens and Sam Fuller — “how they portrayed violence after WWII.”
Agents: Sarah Self (WME), Brad Petrigala (Brillstein), Tara Kole (Gang, Tyre, Ramer & Brown)

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Richard Ayoade | Daniel Espinosa | Ed Gass-Donnelly | Elgin James | Patrick Lussier | Baran Bo Odar | Andre Ovredal | Denis Villeneuve | Juanita Wilson | Jason Winer