Though Roger Ebert was a born-and-bred newspaperman, for the majority of his life, his voice was what brought him attention. Whether he was holding court at his favorite bars in Chicago during his drinking days, or serving as half of the celebrated TV show At The Movies (and its various incarnations under different names) with fellow Chicago critic Gene Siskel, his film knowledge and passionate opinions made him a legend. But the things he did after losing the ability to speak, following cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands, were what made him an inspiration.
The documentary Life Itself (now out in theaters and on VOD) was born from Ebert’s memoir of the same name, but thanks to the compassion and virtuosity of director Steve James, the film is much more than a talking-heads retelling of a film critic’s life. Filmed as Ebert was nearing his death, James’ film provides the major career highlights, but the way he pulls back the curtain of Ebert’s private life is much more compelling. Ebert’s humor and pride, and the tenacity of his wife Chaz in keeping him positive even in the darkest moments, give viewers a clearer picture of the man and his lust for life. These parts of Life Itself are tailor-made for James, who’s made a career of capturing his subjects’ most intimate moments. Whether it’s Arthur Agee’s concern as his dad walks across the playground to buy drugs in Hoop Dreams, or Ameena Matthews singlehandedly halting a Chicago gang from carrying out retribution in The Interrupters, James knows when to pull in and capture the raw human element that only real life offers.
This has been a landmark year for James. In January at the Sundance Film Festival, while premièring Life Itself to rave reviews, he also celebrated the 20th anniversary of his debut feature, Hoop Dreams, which has become a landmark work in the documentary field. As much as Life Itself shows James’ evolution as a filmmaker, he’s still reminded of the past during his recent triumph. He’s grown accustomed to that, but as he recently told The Dissolve, he feels he’s finally escaped Hoop Dreams’ grasp.
The Dissolve: Did you have a personal relationship with Roger Ebert going into filming?
Steve James: No, there wasn’t one, really. I probably could add up the number of times I encountered him over the 20 years I first met him in the wake of Hoop Dreams, it was certainly under 10 times that I saw him in person. And it was always friendly, and a lot of times it was with Chaz. It would be at some event, and I would go up to him and say hello. And I would email him when I’d have a movie coming out. This whole idea of him being a film critic and I a filmmaker, I took that very, very seriously. In fact, Chaz says they thought it was kind of funny the way I would say hello and be friendly, and then quickly dart away. It’s not like they were looking to be buddies with me, but they thought it was kind of funny that I was so quick to get away. So there wasn’t really a relationship, but he was so supportive of my work. Even up through The Interrupters, he banged the drum, starting at Sundance, and all the way through it getting snubbed for the short list for the Oscars.
But I think it helped that we weren’t buddies. First, it allowed me to discover him over the course of the movie, which was, I think, the best way to do that. And I didn’t have personal baggage with him. I wouldn’t have done the film if I didn’t admire him. If I read his memoir and thought, “God, this guy is a jerk,” I wouldn’t have done the film.
The Dissolve: If you knew him more intimately, would you have done the film?
James: I think I might have been willing to do it, but then it would have been a different film, because I would have had this personal connection with him. Who knows? But I was relieved after reading the memoir that I still admired him, and even admired him more, because I know I got the full sweep of his life and saw a much more interesting story than just the story of an important film critic—the most important film critic.
The Dissolve: Did the project start with a call from him and Chaz?
James: No. They didn’t solicit a documentary being made. [Executive producer] Steve Zaillian and [producer] Garrett Basch, they read the memoir, and they’re the ones who brought it to my attention. I read that the memoir was out, and I thought, “Oh, I should read that,” but I hadn’t. So they said, “Do you know the book?” And I said, “Yeah, but I haven’t read it.” And they said, “Well, we think it might make for a great documentary, are you interested?” And I said sure, and I read the book. At the same time they were making overtures to the Eberts, there were others out there being made as well. So Roger and Chaz had to decide, first and foremost, did they even want to have a documentary made. And Roger wasn’t sure. I started emailing with him, just saying I’d really like to do this, and I said, “I can tell you why I want to do it.” And he said, “Please.” So there was emailing back and forth, and it eventually led to a meeting with him and Chaz at their townhouse, where I laid out why I wanted to do it, and what I had in mind for it. And at that point, he agreed to go forward and do it.
The Dissolve: Do you welcome people coming to you with ideas for movies, or do you prefer coming up with them on your own?
James: [Leans close to the microphone.] People, come to me with good ideas. [Laughs.] I mean, I have a lot of ideas, and most of them have originated that way, but not all of them, and this is probably the best example of that. I never in a million years thought I’d do a biography on Roger Ebert. I admired him as a writer, he’d done a lot for me in my career. I even wrote to him a few years ago, one of these emails he never responded to, and knowing Roger now, I understand why he didn’t respond. I just said, “I want to say to you that you had such a profound impact on my career.” And I remember at the time thinking, “Gee, would have been nice to get an email back,” but I realize now, for all of his hubris—and you see that with his relationship with Gene—he was essentially a very modest and humble guy. So he wasn’t going to respond to that email, because what would he reply with? “You’re welcome.” I’m sure he appreciated it, but that was that. So I wanted to make the movie because of his life, and the way in which his life had formed his criticism.
The Dissolve: How does the structure of making a documentary change when there’s source material, such as a memoir, in this case?
James: At The Death House Door is the closest I’ve come, because [Carroll] Pickett had written a book that was very informative to that movie, but we didn’t use the book in that way, we didn’t use passages from the book as we do here. I think with this one, the reason why it made sense was that it’s a beautifully written book, and I love the way it was structured as a book. He’s writing about his life in the past from the vantage point of the present, where he can no longer speak or eat, so he comes back to that in subtle ways throughout the book, and he talks about this being memories, that this is a memoir of his memories. And I loved that it was largely chronological, but not exclusively, so he didn’t feel bound to it. That became an inspiration, and I decided I was going to do the film equivalent of that, with some notable departures. He does not really dig into what the show was, both the nitty-gritty of his relationship with Gene, and what the show meant to the larger culture. And that again, I think, was out of humility. And then the other departure is, we capture the end of his life.
The Dissolve: There’s the automated voice we hear of Ebert when he’s typing, but then you use a voiceover for the excerpts from his memoir or reviews. It sounds very close to his voice.
James: It’s this voice actor Stephen Stanton, and we discovered him through Chaz. Chaz was looking for someone to read some of Roger’s great reviews, to commit them to audio, and they discovered this guy. If you go to his website, he can do anybody. There’s a hilarious section of his website where he’s doing all these famous people’s voices, and you cannot believe how good this guy is. So they went to him to do Roger, and he was amazing, and they knew we were looking for someone that sounded like Roger, but you’d never be convinced or confused that it is him. I wanted either one of two reactions: One is to completely not even get it and think it’s Roger, because it’s his words. Or a momentary “Wha? Huh?” and then go on and forget about it. For a little while there, we thought, “Should it be a guy like this that can do a voice similar to Roger’s, or should it be someone completely different?” And we decided, “Let’s go for it.” When I was editing, we used Ed Herrmann, he did the audio version of the book, and when we looked at it and showed people at Kartemquin, it always pulled you out of the movie. Even though it was Roger’s words, it was like, “It’s not Roger, who is that guy?” It always pulled you out of the movie. Once we recorded Stephen, we had you.
The Dissolve: Optimism is high through most of the movie about Roger’s health. When did you get a sense that things weren’t looking good?
James: When he says that the cancer has returned and he probably won’t be alive when the film comes out, that was an indication. But when the doctor said six to 16 months, for Chaz that meant two years. It wasn’t going to be six months, if she had anything to say about it, and given her track record on getting him through it, you’d be unwise to bet against her on that. But it was an indication that the end was in sight with this cancer. When he went back to the hospital with pneumonia, that’s the kind of thing that can be the beginning of the end. So as those last weeks progressed, it became increasingly clear. In the film, some of the longest emails I got from him were in that time. And you can look at that in one of two ways: He wanted to get a lot out because he saw the end coming, but also the failing health started to become crystal-clear. And even talking to Chaz, she’d say, “He’s so depressed right now, I need to get him out of here, because it will raise his spirits.”
But even then, we had a plan that we were going to film him leaving rehab and go to hospice care, and Chaz’s hope was once she got him out of there, he would have a brief stint in hospice care, go home, and be back on his feet. That was her hope. So we were supposed to film him leaving rehab that day, and I was texting back and forth with Chaz, “Just let me know when to come down,” so I was standing by ready to go. Then I go home from the gym and put on the radio while eating lunch, and I’m listening to the local NPR station, and they break in, “We have an important announcement: Roger Ebert has passed away.” And I’m like, “That’s not possible.” I thought someone hoaxed them. So then immediately, I got a text from Chaz saying, “Come down to the rehab center, Roger has passed away.” I think it was partly, Roger was like, “I’m done. I don’t want to go to hospice care, I’m done.”
The Dissolve: How did the film change for you at that point?
James: We were always hoping to finish the film in the timeline that we did finish it, because there was the hope of going to Sundance with it. But there was no guarantee, and I wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t ready. But the plan was, as I say in the beginning of the movie, we were going to go see Roger review movies and sit with other critics. Roger and Chaz had a home in Michigan where they would have dinner parties—I was dying to film that, because even though he no longer could speak, he loved having people around. So when he did pass away, it changed things, clearly. One, I think it’s a film about, how do you die, and how do you do it with grace and a sense of humor and fearlessness? Because in his last days, he’s preparing Chaz that he’s going. “I’ve had a great life, you must let me go.” So it deepens the film. And then two, those nine pages of questions for him, I barely got a page answered, really, so I had to figure out a way to tell that story. The email relationship I had with him suddenly loomed more important. A big part of my relationship with him was through email, and so I wanted to find a way to help that tell the story, especially given the way it ended.
The Dissolve: This isn’t your first movie about someone in the film industry. In 2005, you released Reel Paradise, which looked at John Pierson and his family as they spent a year running a remote movie theater in Fiji. What did you learn from Reel Paradise that prepared you to make this movie?
James: After Reel Paradise, I think I was probably like, “You know, there’s a reason why I don’t want to do film about people of prominence.” Back then, John Pierson was this iconic figure in independent film—not on the level of Roger, but he was a guy who knew movies. So out of that, I realized there’s a reason why I don’t do films on film people, mostly because I like telling stories about people you don’t know anything about, you’ve never heard of, that I reveal them to you. So with Roger, there was some trepidation, probably because of the Reel Paradise experience. And I assumed I would have to engage Roger as I did the Piersons when the film was done. I had no idea what I would be in store for with that. It turned out that didn’t happen because he passed away, although I engaged Chaz on that level, but it’s not engaging Roger. I kind of put it aside enough to do the film, obviously in part because I was so struck by Roger’s life story, and knowing how revealing his memoir was, that I was going to come away with a lot of admiration for this guy, even though I was going to show some warts. And he was comfortable with the warts in a way that was harder for John. It just was.
The Dissolve: The moment that speaks to this in Life Itself is when Roger emails you, “This is not just your film.” Is that that was the same kind of line you got from the Piersons?
James: That’s right. When I filmed the suction [of Ebert’s G-tube], that was something Chaz did not want filmed. We had this meeting right before production began—literally days before he was complaining about his hip hurting him—and suddenly Chaz could see he needed suction, and I didn’t even know what that was at that point. She said, “Could you all leave the room? We need to do a procedure with Roger.” And Roger was like [“c’mon” motion with his arms up in the air]. And she was like, “I know Roger, I know, I know, but I feel some things are private.” She was protecting him. So we left, but the way their townhouse is set up, we can see what’s going on, and I was like, “We do need to film this, this is part of his life.” So the very first day we filmed, Chaz wasn’t there, she was out of town, and they went to do the suction, and I was shooting that day, and I would get really close to him with the camera, and he didn’t even blink about it. The level of candor he was ready and willing to share was of a different order than the Piersons. He knew more going in what was involved than the Piersons did, despite their sophistication. Roger knew, “If I’m signing up for this, this is what it’s going to be,” and I think that made a big difference.
The Dissolve: It’s interesting hearing filmmakers’ reactions toward Roger’s reviews of their films. How have you handled reviews of your films over the years?
James: I was fortunate Roger never gave me a low review. But critics in general, here’s the truth, and I think it’s like this for most filmmakers: You remember the negative reviews; you don’t remember the positive ones. You can even quote the negative reviews. And over the years, I’ve read criticism of my work that was negative and I thought was stupid. Like, “You clearly tuned out early and didn’t even watch this movie.” With Reel Paradise, that was probably the documentary of mine that got the most negative critical response. Most of it, I rejected because people didn’t like the film because they didn’t like some of the Piersons. I’m like, “Okay, is that how you’re supposed to judge a movie, because you didn’t like the subject? Is that part of the requirement?” A lot of the reviews said I was attempting to do a hagiography about the Piersons, and I don’t get it. They see it in the movie, but I’m clueless.
I love those reviews. But when I did the film Prefontaine [a biopic on Steve Prefontaine starring Jared Leto], one review was like, “The film is a mess, but it has a heart.” That was the first film I’d done after Hoop Dreams, and I’d had the glory of everyone loving me, and then with Prefontaine, no. And it got some positive reviews, but it got plenty of negative ones, and it was painful. I read so many painful reviews. Every time I heard my fax machine, I knew another one was coming, and I’m a glutton for punishment, so I was going to read them. But that review came in, and I was like, “He’s right, and he’s charitable,” as Scorsese says in [Life Itself] about Roger’s review of The Color Of Money. He’s pointing out all the flaws, but he also gets what’s inherently the good thing that’s going on in the movie, and he’s acknowledging that, and that’s negative criticism I appreciate. And I’ve gotten positive criticism that’s been stupid. I mean, I’ll take it, I’ll take a positive review that’s not very smart, but I read it all. Filmmakers that say, “I don’t read my reviews,” I don’t believe them. I don’t believe a single one of them. I read them because I can’t help it.
The Dissolve: But do any of those negative ones change your filmmaking at all?
James: Yes. I can’t point out a detailed example—someone wrote this, so I decided on the next film not to do that—but I think negative reviews and criticism in general, they help you understand what you were trying to get at in ways you didn’t put together. For instance, a negative review of Stevie, a critic said something like, “This is from the freak-show school of documentary filmmaking.” I couldn’t disagree with that more. And what it said to me was, he really hated Stevie, he did not want to see a film about that guy. And J. Hoberman gave me a bad review in The Village Voice. And with both of those reviews, I took away that I can’t begrudge anyone for bringing up the question, “Did he exploit this kid?” Because I had questions about doing the film or not. But the things they wrote, I didn’t agree with, because Stevie is not about a freak. Whatever its faults as a movie, it humanizes someone that you want to view as a freak, and you’re wrong about that. It really reinforced something about me, in that when I make a film about somebody, I want to do my best to have you not be able to easily make judgments. I want to capture the fullness when I’m putting a film together. In the making, but especially in the editing, I’m thinking, “What’s the judgment that someone is going to attach here, and how can I counteract it in a way to keep you from easily making that judgment?”
The Dissolve: On top of Life Itself, this year also marks the 20th anniversary of Hoop Dreams. What’s been going through your mind this year as you promote one film as another is being celebrated?
James: I don’t think a lot about these types of things until the film is done, but when we were going to Sundance for Life Itself, I was thinking, “Oh shit, what are people going to think of this movie?” And then I thought, “There may be other films made about Roger, but this will be the only one he was a part of,” so I felt this incredible responsibility. Then our publicist told me that Todd McCarthy was going to review the film, and I knew Todd McCarthy met Roger when Todd was 18 years old in Chicago and Roger was a young critic at the Sun-Times, and they befriended one another. And all these other critics knew Roger or admired him. So then it came back to me, “That’s why you don’t do films about people of prominence.” [Laughs.] So I got this real panic. It has all worked out, obviously, so far. Seeing the film with audiences the past few months has been more gratifying. I saw it at Ebertfest, and you will never get a more wonderful response than that. The love people have for this man, and what he’s meant to so many people, I didn’t realize it.
The Dissolve: But you’re being modest. This is a big year for you.
James: Yes. I’ve gotten a lot of love, too. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard. I didn’t know when I started this film that it would happen to this degree. It has been unexpected, but I think partly the reason I keep coming back to Roger is, I feel very good about the movie. I feel I made—we made—a really good movie, and that it isn’t just a biography, I feel it has heart. The qualities that Roger had in life, the movie has it too. I feel really good about it as a filmmaker.
The Dissolve: At this point in your life, are you thinking about your legacy? Are you thinking about how many more films you want to do?
James: I feel like I’ve had a great career, but I am by no means ready to stop. But I do feel like I want to do a narrative again. I mean, I’ll continue to do docs, but I feel I’m in a different place in my career now. Hoop Dreams created a big shadow over my career, a good shadow in a lot of ways, but a shadow nonetheless. One guy said to me not long ago, it was priceless, “I’m a big fan of your work, have you made anything since Hoop Dreams?” That film, for all it’s done for me, did cast a rather large shadow over what I would subsequently do. I feel, honestly, that I only started to escape the shadow after I did The Interrupters. And then with this film, maybe I’ve stepped out of the shadow of Hoop Dreams in the eyes of other people. For me personally, I feel really good about the work I’ve done. I do want to do one more longitudinal film before the end, so I want to find that and do that one more time, but I’d like to try narrative again, too, because I don’t feel like I’ve done what I can do there. I want at least one more shot at it, because I just feel creatively in a different place now.
The Dissolve: Do you have a script together?
James: Nothing I can talk about, but I’m being active in that realm and trying to find the right thing to do. I’m more mature now. Back then, I feel like I was trying to prove I could do it. Now I feel better about doing it.