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Director Steve James On Capturing Roger Ebert For The Doc, “Life Itself”

“I really wanted to get my arms around his whole life because I felt like his life truly informed his criticism,” the director says.

Director Steve James On Capturing Roger Ebert For The Doc, “Life Itself”
[Photo by Kevin Horan, Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures]

Steve James, a director known for films ranging from 1994’s Hoop Dreams to 2011’s The Interrupters, was looking forward to spending a lot of time with Roger Ebert when he began production on Life Itself, a documentary inspired by Ebert’s memoir of the same name.

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But the documentarian would spend just five months filming Ebert. The film critic, who had lost his lower jaw as well as the ability to eat or speak due to cancer a few years before, was hospitalized with a fractured hip just days before James was to begin shooting the documentary in late 2012. His cancer had returned, and he died in April 2013.

Steve James

While James had only a few months with Ebert, who was confined to a hospital and rehabilitation facility for all but a couple days of the shoot, he was still able to craft a thorough, honest (one of Ebert’s friends interviewed for the film lovingly cracks, “He is a nice guy, but he’s not that nice”) and moving documentary that earned three-and-a-half stars out of four stars in a review written by Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com.

Life Itself chronicles a life centered on a love of film. The likes of Martin Scorsese (one of the executive producers of Life Itself), Werner Herzog and A.O. Scott share their appreciation for Ebert, and some of the most interesting and amusing parts of the film depict the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic’s rivalry with the late film critic Gene Siskel–it could get ridiculously nasty as we see in some funny outtakes from promo shoots for their show At the Movies.

The documentary pulls back the curtain on Ebert’s private life, too, revealing his struggle with alcoholism. He got himself together with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and actually met his wife Chaz Ebert at an AA meeting in the early ’90s.

And we also get an unvarnished look at Ebert’s last months. It’s not always comfortable, but Ebert wanted the audience to witness the reality of his situation.

Chaz and Roger Ebert

Co.Create spoke to James about the impact Ebert had on his career, the challenges he faced in making Life Itself and what he took from the experience.

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Co.Create: I looked up the review Roger wrote of your film Hoop Dreams back in 1994. He called it “one of the greatest movie making experiences of his lifetime.” How did you react to getting that kind of rave review from someone of Roger’s stature at that point in your career as a filmmaker?

James: God, I remember it well. I was speechless, kind of like I am now thinking about it because I read Roger regularly, and I watched [At the Movies], and I had a great deal of respect and admiration for him as a film critic. And to read that–at that point, he’d only been reviewing movies for a little under 30 years!–I was just like . . . I mean, what can you say?

Did you get to know Roger after that? Did you become friends?

No, I did not form a friendship with him. I did meet him some months later. The film premiered at Sundance, and so it was in October, or September rather, at Toronto right before the film’s theatrical launch that it had played at the Toronto Film Festival, and they had a dinner that he attended along with some other people.

So I got to meet him then, but I didn’t sit next to him, and I didn’t get to hang with him. I was a little intimidated by the whole thing, frankly, and over the years I would see Roger because we were both in Chicago. I would see him, but I was always very careful to just kind of be friendly and courteous and then move on because I was maybe a little bit intimidated.

But as the years went on, it was less about that and just more like, he’s a film critic, and I’m a filmmaker, and you don’t buddy up to them. They don’t appreciate that. They don’t want you to do that.

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It really wasn’t until I read his memoir that I realized that Roger actually had friendships with a few filmmakers, and I remember my first thought was, gosh, why not me? I’m right here in Chicago, and none of them are Chicago-based. It would have been easy!

But maybe it was for the best that you didn’t become friends because I assume you want some distance from your subject when making a film.

Yeah, I’m glad in a way that it didn’t happen–at least as it relates to doing this film. When I read his memoir, it was all so new to me, and I felt like the whole making of this film would be a great sort of act of discovery of who this guy was beyond just being a film critic.

I really wanted to get my arms around his whole life because I felt like his life truly informed his criticism. That common touch, that populist touch, that ability to relate to everyday people and bring film criticism to everyday people was grounded in this sort of incredible life experience he had that he brought to bear in his writing.

Think about this: This is a film critic whose life itself–not to try to make too much of a pun here–but whose life itself was worthy of a film, apart from him being a film critic because of all that he had done, and all that he had been through, and all that he had overcome. That’s really what ultimately hooked me and made me want to tell the story.

How did it come to be that you were the director who did tell Roger’s story?

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I was initially contacted with the idea by Steve Zaillian and his partner Garrett Basch. Garrett ended up being a producer. Steve’s an executive producer who’d read the memoir and thought it would make a great basis for a documentary.

They reached out to Roger through his literary agent, floated the idea, and the literary agent was receptive but made no commitments. And then they reached out to me and said, what do you think? I read the memoir and I said, I think we should do it.

It’s one thing to write about movies. It’s another thing to be the subject of a movie. Was Roger into it from the start?

Eventually, after some back and forth with Roger via email and a meeting where we talked about what the film could be, he then agreed to let us go forward and make it.

Gene Siskel and Roger EbertPhoto by Kevin Horan, Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Did you treat Roger like you would the subject of any documentary? I am wondering: Do you make a movie about Roger Ebert, or do you make a movie with Roger Ebert?

I think you make a film with him in a sense, but you know what? With all the films I’ve done, I’ve felt that way, particularly the ones where I’m spending any significant time with a subject. A film like Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters or Stevie or even At the Death House Door, these are all films where we spend a significant amount of time with the main subjects. It’s something I like to do. It’s been a feature of my filmmaking.

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And I really do think of them in a very collaborative way. Not collaborative in that they’re directing the movie with me and not collaborative in that they have any kind of editorial control. But I think the more people feel a part of it, that they’re doing it with you, the more ownership they feel, the more comfortable they feel, the more free they feel to reveal themselves, really, and to trust you.

With Roger that process had to happen quicker than it’s happened on other films because I wasn’t living at the hospital and rehab with him. I couldn’t put that strain on him by being around all the time. We were around a significant time, but not all the time.

The other reason it got accelerated was simply because Roger understood something about what was required form the get-go. What he prized in movies, what he loved about documentaries but also narrative film–but I’ll just speak about documentaries–what he loved about documentaries was their ability to take us inside people’s lives in an intimate and complicated and interesting and revealing way.

So he knew that once he decided to go forward with this, that the same would be required of him and, in fact, he embraced it, encouraged it.

As you noted, you had to be careful not to put too much strain on Roger given his condition yet you also needed time with him.

Absolutely, yeah. We had to be sensitive to the fact that he was trying to recover and that there were complications. And even before he told me that the cancer had returned, I knew something was up. There were times when I would be there, and the doctor would come in to speak with he and Chaz, and Chaz would ask me to leave.

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I didn’t think the cancer had returned, but I knew something was up because he was staying in the hospital longer than anyone anticipated, and things were going much slower. And so, yes, I knew that, even before I knew all the reasons why, that there were some limits to what we could do and ask of him.

And that’s always true. I mean, it was more dramatic here because of the health concerns, but it’s always true in any film. You have to give your subjects some space and room, too, especially when you’re in it for the long haul. You don’t want them to think about you coming to spend time with them and have them feeling dread or trepidation because they feel like you never leave them alone.

The more sensitive you can be and trusting, the more they will allow you in. That’s the way it works.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel

You had a lot of information and material to incorporate into the film relating to everything from his early life before he became a famous film critic, his initially contentious relationship with his At the Movies co-star Gene Siskel, his family life with Chaz and so on. Can you talk about how you pieced the puzzle together?

I looked on this creatively, for me just simply as a filmmaker, as a really interesting challenge to try and get my arms around his life story that would include a kind of critical biography of him as a film critic but at the same time not give short shrift to his rich and rewarding personal life. I like to say, instead of the classic three-act structure, his life had more like seven acts.

And then I knew there would be a ton of photographs and archival footage from [At the Movies] and from appearances on television and all that–there would be lots to choose from. It’s the kind of thing that can be overwhelming, frankly.

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The memoir was very helpful to me in particular because it did provide some areas of focus in terms of who I’d want to talk to and who I wanted to focus on and the aspects of his life that stood out to me as most meaningful.

And then they say writing is rewriting. I think filmmaking is reediting, especially documentary filmmaking. It’s always a process of refinement and change. I knew I wanted to use his present-day life as a springboard and a spine for the past, and that’s basically what we did.

I see your name in the credits as one of the editors. Do you take part in the edit of all of your films?

I do. With the exception of one, I’ve edited all my documentaries, but on most of them I haven’t been the exclusive editor. I usually have some help, and that’s for a couple of reasons. One is so that they don’t take forever to finish because I really put a lot of energy into the edit. I think that’s really, in documentaries, where the films are ultimately made, although you can’t do it without good material.

The other reason is, is it’s good to have other eyes on the material, too, besides mine, especially as someone who is directing the movie. You can really benefit from those other perspectives. So with this film I edited for about four months alone to sort of carve out the structure of the movie and then brought in a really terrific collaborator in David Simpson who I’ve worked with on a couple of other films, and we sort of tag-teamed it at that point through the end of the editing process.

Did Roger ever get to see the film?

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No, he only got to see a few little select interview moments because he died so early. I literally didn’t start cutting until soon after he died.

But he got to see a little. We were trying to raise his spirits, and I was talking to Chaz towards the end, and she was saying, he seems depressed, and I think he’s giving up. And so I said, what if I send him some kind of nice little moments from interviews we’ve done with people that I think might make him happy? And she thought that was a good idea, so I put together a few such things and sent them to him, and I know that he appreciated them. He sent back a note or two of appreciation.

Of course, I had to send him [the clip with] his friend Rick Kogan’s comment, “Fuck Pauline Kael.” That’s in the movie. Roger was a huge fan of Pauline Kael. He wouldn’t have agreed with that sentiment, but he would have thought that was funny. So he got to see that and a few other moments I just hoped he would derive some pleasure from.

What did you take away from spending so much time with Roger? Did you learn anything about life, death, filmmaking?

On every film, I learn. I feel like on every film I’ve been blessed to take something significant away from it. I think from this I took a couple of things that are related, but in some ways kind of opposite, too. One was that Roger had such a zest for life. I think most of his life was like a ribald adventure–not that he didn’t do his share of suffering. He clearly did, especially in the later years, but he had such a curiosity about life, and he loved interesting people, and he collected them throughout his life, and he just lived it to the fullest. To say that about . . . that’s kind of an odd sentence, a film critic who lived life to the fullest. It’s kind of an oxymoron. I mean, I’m stereotyping a little bit, but that was something I took away from him–his full embrace and love of life.

And then, of course, what’s related to that is that as it turned out, and it wasn’t our intent, but as it turned out, we were basically also doing a film about how to face death, and the way in which he faced that with good cheer and acceptance and insight and grace–I feel like I learned quite a bit about that.

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I would likely never be able to match what he did when that time comes. Not many of us will, but the way he did it is a truly inspiring thing and makes you think about that, and it makes me think about death in a very different way.

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About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com

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