Needless to say, I could have gone on for hours talking about LIFE ITSELF, the rich and moving documentary about Chicago-based film critic Roger Ebert, with its director Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, THE INTERRUPTERS) and Ebert’s wife, Chaz, who is publisher of Ebert Digital, president of Ebert Productions, and vice president of The Ebert Company. The film, like Ebert’s 2011 memoir, is filled with rich and revealing details about Ebert as a youngster, stalwart college newspaper editor, man of many vices, award-winning film critic, and influential, internationally known shaper of opinions on all things.
James was presented with the idea of turning Ebert’s memoir into a film by noted writer and director Steve Zallian, who serves as a producer on the LIFE ITSELF. And after reading it for the first time, James thought the material was well suited for a documentary. Despite some popular opinions, James was not a friend of the Eberts, although they certainly knew each other, both being based in Chicago. It was Roger Ebert’s review of James’ HOOP DREAMS that saved that film from obscurity and launched James’ career, but James was careful to keep a professional distance from Ebert, assuming that the boundaries between filmmaker and critic were somehow sacred. It was only after beginning to piece together the film that James realized that Ebert often made a point of not just championing, but befriending, filmmakers (as is shown in the film).
I’ve only met James once at an awards function three years ago, and I’ve never had the chance to actually interview him. Chaz Ebert, on the other hand, I've known almost as long as I had known Roger. She frequently accompanied her husband to screenings, and is one of the kindest, most sensitive and resilient people I’ve ever known. So actually sitting down to interview her was a bit strange and weirdly formal for me, but we turned that into a positive.
To say that Roger Ebert was an influence on me doesn’t really begin to explain it. I live in Chicago today because, growing up on the East Coast, watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on television, I assumed that Chicago was the epicenter of serious film discussion in the country. Naturally, that’s where I had to be.
Enough preamble. I’ll end by saying that in a recent bout of spring cleaning, I stumbled upon a couple of mementos of an event I attended years ago that Ebert and Richard Roeper organized, and I presented one of them to Chaz for her archives. I had a great time talking to Chaz and Steve James, and I hope you enjoy reading the interview…
Chaz Ebert: Hey, Steve. How are you?
Capone: Good. Back from your travels, I see. I wanted to show you something. I was cleaning out my closets a couple of weeks ago and I found this [a small spiral-bound notebook with the “Ebert & Roeper At the Movies” logo on the front and the title “Film Lover’s Journal.”] I don’t know if you have any recollection of these.
CE: Oh my god. It’s a “Film Lover’s Journal.” Is it from Ebertfest?
Capone: No, it came from Disney Film Festival at Sea cruises.
CE: Did you go on one of those?
Capone: I went on the second one, yeah.
Steve James: Wow, very cool.
Capone: I actually have two of them if you want to keep that.
CE: Thank you. I would love to have this one. I don’t have one. I didn’t even remember this. I know that they have some things from those cruises that I have, but I don’t have one of these, so thank you. I appreciate it.
Capone: Of course. So I’ve read a tremendous number of interviews leading up to this, and I’ll try not to repeat the questions you’ve been asked a million times.
SJ: [laughs] Thank you.
Capone: But the unanswerable question seems to be, what was it that Roger had that people connected with? What was it about his voice, spoken or otherwise? And he used that voice not just talking about movies, but he used it talking about alcoholism, he used it talking about his illness. It was something that made the most complicated, emotional things very understandable and relatable. In his film reviews, even the most complicated, complex films, he was able to talk about them in a way that wasn’t talking down to people, that made them say, “Now I have to see this, because I think I’ll be made smarter.” Have you sort of formulated an idea at this point about what that quality was?
CE: I will take a stab at it, and then I hope that Steve does too. What I think it is is one of the things why I was so attracted to him, because I think he sincerely wanted to connect with people. He had a curiosity about people. He wanted to know who you were, what are your thoughts and dreams and aspirations, what makes you tick. What makes you feel like you’re a part of this human race. He talked about empathy; I think that his ability to empathize with other people was as a connector and a communicator. And because Roger also was deeply, deeply passionate and deeply, deeply romantic, his feelings were bigger somehow. I think there’s a whole lot rolled up into it, but I think that’s part of it.
SJ: I think you’ve both made great points, actually. What you said I think is absolutely true too. I remember, I didn't put this in the movie, but there’s this one passage in the memoir where he says, “My favorite films are films about good people.” Do you remember that passage? He says that in the memoir. And he’s not that nothing happens to them, not that they don’t have flaws, not that there’s not drama, because it’s just about a good person, but that they are about people trying to be good. Those were his favorite films, and I think he lived that creed himself, and that quality, that innate goodness of Roger came through in the way in which he wrote about films, it came through in the way he lived his life, and especially it became more foregrounded in the later years with the way in which he struggled and the obstacles he faced, and it came through of course in the way in which he wrote about politics and all these other things. He was always trying to find that goodness. Now, when he didn’t find it, he could rip you a new one. He could do that [laughs].
CE: Yeah, but before you go there, this is so important, that’s a very simple four-letter word—the “G” word, good. Some people think that that’s a reductionist word, and it’s not. Roger and I bonded over the goodness. We both admitted what made us cry in a movie, what made us feel something, was not when something was sad but when people were good. Goodness just got to both of us, so we looked for it in other people, we tried to develop it in ourselves. We were no saints, but that was something that meant a lot to us, goodness.
Capone: Steve, when you were first presented with this project, you were given the memoir, and you read it…
SJ: Thank you for not asking the other question.
Capone: Which one?
SJ: About how I came to it.
CE: No, you did your homework. He always does his homework [laughs].
Capone: What was it about the memoir that made you think “I can work with this, I can do something with this,” and got you thinking about the structure? What were some of those early thoughts?
CE: Good question.
SJ: Yeah, well I wish I could take credit for the structure of the movie as being all my work and work with my co-editor, David Simpson.
Capone: I accept the fact that the structure you thought of initially might not be the structure that ended up in the final film.
SJ: Well, it is and it isn’t. Actually, the moment-to-moment structure, you never know going in. But the overall idea of the structure did remain pretty similar, but here’s the thing—I lifted it from the memoir. Because when you read that memoir, it is a man looking back, and he says it from the very first line about the flood of memories or the very first chapter anyway, about the flood of memories as he looks back over his life, and he’s looking back over his life from this vantage point of someone later in life who has been through a lot, and he comes back to that at different points in the story, just like he comes back to Chaz at different points. Chaz has her own chapter, and I think that was a contractual requirement, wasn’t it?
SJ: No. But Chaz has her own chapter, but she’s is all over the book. And so it’s his present life as he looks back. So that’s the structure that I loved about the book and wanted to mimic in a way in the telling of the story, which is why I wanted to follow his life in the present and use that as a spring board to the past. There are so many things we didn’t know about Roger that captivated me to make me want to do the movie, but again on this more overview tact, I just appreciated the candor and honesty of the memoir, because he’s writing it, yet it’s very revealing and beautiful, and it has all those qualities of a great story—it has adventure, it has humor, it has pathos, it has failures around alcohol, and then triumph over that, and then, of course, all that he went through over the last six or seven years of his life.
Capone: I’ve seen the film a few times now, and I look for spots that might have been different if Roger were still alive today, and it occurred to me that you shot this originally thinking there was a very good chance he would have a chance to see it finished.
SJ: Oh, absolutely. Fully expecting that.
Capone: I used to wonder how different it would have been if he were still alive today, but I don't think it would have been that different.
SJ: I think you’re right. There would be different things. The tenor of some of the stuff in the present wouldn’t be the same. You watch this movie, and if you didn’t know it coming to the movie, I tell you at the very beginning that he’s not going to be with us by the end, that these were the last months of his life. So you know that, and I think you watch all of those scenes in the present with that understanding, but I think you forget about it at times too, because he’s engaged, he’s funny, the Christmas celebration is great. There are lots of ways in which you can forget about that, and then there are other moments where you get reminded of it, where he’s struggling with rehab and things like that.
But I think you’re right in one sense that some things would have been the same. The thing about the memoir is that where the memoir ends—and it’s suffused throughout the whole book—is with a guy who’s prepared to die, basically. That last chapter is really about him coming to a place of peace about the inevitable, and this movie, if he had lived, I think we would have wanted to bring you to that place, but you would have had this joy knowing that he’s going to be with us for a good deal longer, that he’s not going anywhere, but he’s ready. Because of the way it transpired, you get to see that in fact he doesn’t just think he’s ready, he was ready, and there’s potentially a big difference there.
Capone: I don’t want people to think that this is a maudlin film. There is so much humor all the way though it. In the context under which this film was built, do you perhaps want to emphasize the lighter moment a bit more? I’ll be the first to admit, I was not expecting to see that much energy and spirit and humor under those circumstances.
CE: The twinkle in his eye in the movie. He’s in the hospital, and you saw how difficult it was in the beginning with some of his rehabilitation and learning to walk again after he fractured his hip. Yet he’s still, every day, even on the very last day, he had a big smile on his face, and he was a joy to live with, he really was. He could be stubborn and willful, because that was Roger, but that actually served to keep him going. You could see the joy right up to the end.
SJ: I have to say, I started editing the film right after Roger passed away. We weren’t done with all the interviews. We’d done at least two thirds of them, maybe even a few more. But I felt like I needed to start trying to structure the film, and when I first sat down to do it, because I hadn’t reviewed the footage—I had been there all for it all of course, but I hadn’t reviewed it—I had this fear, which may surprise you given the film that has resulted, that I didn’t get enough of his sense of humor. Or is this going to be too depressing and sad?
CE: I remember you saying that.
SJ: That was my worry, because it’s easy, in the wake of someone dying, to be so overwhelmed with the loss, and “God, all we did was film him in the hospital and in rehab and only two measly days at home,” that I really was worried. And then I started looking at the footage as I started to structure the film, and I was relieved. In fact, there’s humor that I left on the cutting room floor, and I never would have thought that. There’s a couple of funny things that I wish in a way I’d put in. There was enough there that I could even leave some out and still feel like you got it.
CE: I want to see those scenes [laughs]. One of the funniest parts in the movie, of course all the stuff with Roger and Gene is really funny, and all of his friends in the bar, but one of the funniest scenes in the movie to me is when the nurse wants to clear his airways, and he insists he wants to set up his music. And I didn’t know at first what he wanted to do or why. I said, “Roger, can we wait?” because I didn’t know they were going to film that. I was just like, “Okay, let’s wait for the nurse to come in and do this procedure.” But when Roger had an idea in his head, he just has total 100 percent focus. He doesn’t let anybody stop him from doing anything, and he’s pulling the speakers. It’s just so funny to me, because that is quintessential Roger. Roger with an idea, you cannot veer away from that until he gets it.
SJ: This is not a funny moment per se, but it strikes me every time I see it from the day we filmed it to last night’s screening, which is you and he are basically tag teaming it to tell the story of leaving the hospital and the Leonard Cohen song [Roger insisted on listening to Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” before leaving the hospital after one of his many stays, but before they leave the grounds, he had another major incident; his belief is that if they had not listened to the song, he would have been too far from the hospital to have survived]. He’s playing on his computer a response where he says, and the shot is on his face, and he says [via computer] “If I had left that hospital before, I would be dead.”
CE: And he’s smiling. He’s smiling!
SJ: And he smiles and kind of waves, and goes,“I’d be dead.” And then we pan to you, and you’re in tears about the thought of it.
CE: And Roger was always like that when he talked about death. It was like something funny.
SJ: It was like, “Oh well. Isn’t that interesting irony? We were listening to the song. If had been shorter, I’d be dead.”
Capone: You mentioned material you had to cut. Obviously there’s a lot. What do you think you’ll include on the DVD release? You’ve gone long in movies before, and this could have gone four hours, and I would have been fine with it.
SJ: I know, I know. You’re kind to say that. Not everyone shares that view. I don’t know. [To a publicist in the room] When do we have to come up with the DVD extras?
Publicist: There’s not a due date per se.
CE: But there will be stuff. There will be extras.
SJ: There’ll be good stuff. There’s some scenes that went away, like the segment on Ebertfest. We took Ebertfest out of the movie.
Capone: And I missed seeing the footage, because I came down later in the day at Ebertfest this year, so I didn’t see what you played there before the film. I heard I’m in it somewhere—my face makes an appearance in a crowd shot.
SJ: Yeah, that will be an extra. There’s this really great story that Roger Simon tells. He’s quoting Roger’s telling of the story, this shaggy dog bar story that between John McHugh and him about whether Roger could order two Johnnie Walker Blacks anywhere in the world, but McHugh took that bet up, said “I don’t believe that’s true.” It’s literally a 10-minute story, but it’s hilarious, but I couldn’t put it in a movie. There’ll be some great stuff in there.
Capone: I’m curious how you selected which written film reviews to highlight, with film clips.
SJ: It’s an impossible job, just like it’s an impossible job selecting clips from their show. There’s so much to choose from, so you just have to wade in. So what I did was start reviewing reviews of his at different points in his career, and just picking some of the ones like BONNIE AND CLYDE and CRIES AND WHISPERS, both of those were early ones that were part of what was submitted by the paper for his Pulitzer, so I wanted to pick from those, because they were great reviews, and they were also part of what made them decide to give him a Pulitzer, so that was a little easier. And then with TREE OF LIFE, that was just one of my favorite really late reviews of his, not only about the movie but also because it was so autobiographical as a review about his sort of looking back on his life.
Capone: Some of his best writing were his Malick reviews.
SJ: Yeah, he loved Malick,.
Capone: The one he wrote about DAYS OF HEAVEN is so beautiful.
SJ: DAYS OF HEAVEN is a great review, BADLANDS is a great review. I love Malick’s work, and it’s always a pleasure to read a great critic on filmmakers that you love, I find. that’s what’s great about the Great Movie’s books is you can go back and revel in his writing about a movie you love.