Acclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive producers Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian are bringing the documentary Life Itself to audiences to celebrate the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert. Based on his best-selling memoir of the same name, Roger Ebert’s story is personal, funny, unflinching and very human, whether it’s in his work or in his family life.
During a roundtable at the film’s press day, filmmaker Steve James talked about working with Roger Ebert’s words on a cinematic level, while Roger’s widow, Chaz Ebert, who is by his side through much of the film, talked about what she learned about Roger through this process, what she loved most about him, what being a part of this project means to her, the relationship between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and what she’s been learning about the way the world feels about her husband. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
CHAZ EBERT: I learned something that confirmed what I thought I knew about him. It was the scene when they were talking about what Roger wrote when those poor little girls were killed in the bombing of a Birmingham church. His words were so powerful and he was so young that I wondered where he came from. With the presence of mind like that, a sensitivity and such an interest in social justice, he was able to respond like that. I had never read that article that he wrote before. I had never even heard anybody talk about it. And in all the years I knew him, he had never talked about it. So, I was surprised when I saw that in the film. Surprised, but very impressed with him. I knew he was a precocious, smart kid. He started a newspaper in his neighborhood when he was eight years old. But still, I just thought that was very beautiful, when I saw that. I was quite moved by it.
What did you love most about Roger?
EBERT: There are several things. I loved how much he loved me. I loved how deeply he loved me. I love that he wasn’t afraid or ashamed to show his feelings. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and that was okay with him. I loved that. We both are very passionate about a lot of things, and he wasn’t afraid to show that. I also loved how generous he was with his fellow film critics. He fought for the right to have online critics. At one time, online critics weren’t allowed at movie screenings. Roger went head-to-head with the movie studios and said, “This is the future. Look it in the eye. You have to let the online critics in.” Now today, can you even imagine having a screening without online critics in it. Newspapers are going out of business. So, I loved his generosity. He had a healthy ego, and yet he had a good sense of himself. He didn’t have to be afraid to be generous with fellow film critics.
And I also loved that he was such a good grandfather. People didn’t know how much of a family life we had. We used to love to travel with our grandchildren and take them places. I was so moved, in the film, by our granddaughter talking about what she learned from him. We would take them places and rent a villa, and they would put on little plays for us. They would read to us, and we would read to them. If we were on the road and they weren’t with us, we wrote letters, so they could get actual mail in an envelope with a stamp. There were so many things. The other thing I loved about him was that he was so curious about everything. I remember once when he was in the hospital, I said, “Roger, what would you miss, if it all ended today?” He said, “I would miss knowing what the headline is on the paper tomorrow morning.”
STEVE JAMES: When I read the memoir, I was blown away by it, on any number of levels. One was just the revelation of it. I didn’t know this extraordinary life he had, that included movies, but was, by no means, limited to the movies. The other thing that blew me away was just the quality of the writing and how beautiful the prose was. It was still very Midwestern with spare use of those adjectives, but just eloquently written. So, when it came time to do the film, I wanted to lean on the memoir, for a number of reasons. I loved the structure of it. I loved the way it looked at his past through the prism of his present life, since the surgeries and since the loss of his ability to speak and eat. So, I borrowed a lot from that memoir, in a lot of ways. I wanted to feature his writing, and I wanted him to narrate the story, in a sense. He does narrate this film, really, because it’s his words and it’s his writing. In order to complete the effect of it, we needed to find an actor that could impersonate Roger, but do it in a heartfelt way. That voice of Roger that’s the memoir voice is not Roger because Roger couldn’t speak by the time he’d written the memoir. I was originally hoping to find someone who just kind of sounded like Roger, but this guy did all this preparation and just did an extraordinary job. I think it makes it so much more personal and puts you there.
Chaz, do you have a sense of what this project meant to Roger, and what has it meant to you?
EBERT: I didn’t know what a gift it would be to be able to hang out with Roger for two hours on the screen. Because it is an unflinching portrait, some of it is a little painful to watch, but I love just being with him again, that way. Especially in this society, where we turn away from anything having to do with a disability, illness or death, our human psyche just won’t allow us to consider it, unless it hits us individually. So, it’s such a gift to be able to have someone of his stature show us what it’s like, with the brutality of going through that. People knew, especially after the Esquire article in 2010, that Roger was still writing and still doing things, and they knew it was difficult. But until you see this film, you don’t know how difficult it was for him, every day. Just to get out of bed was difficult for him, and he did it cheerfully and with a smile on his face. To see that kind of resilience of the human spirit moves me to tears. His spirit is just transcendent in the film.
What can you say about the journey that Roger Ebert took with Gene Siskel?
EBERT: The first six years of their relationship, they really didn’t speak to each other, except in the screening room or when they had to do the TV show together. They really were not friends, in the beginning. They took that rivalry seriously. The rivalry between the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune was fierce, at one time. They both were these young warriors who were hired at 24, 25 or 26 years old. They both wanted to be #1, and they felt their newspaper was superior. Roger worked for the Sun Times, which was more the working man’s newspaper, and Gene worked for the more elitist Tribune. It’s not like that now. Every newspaper wishes they had more money and more resources now, but back then, they had all the resources. So, they took that rivalry to the television show, and they had a chemistry that you really can’t buy. When they put them together, no one thought the show would be that much of a hit, and they didn’t either because that first six years, they didn’t even want to work with each other. Roger said, “I’m a one-stop critic. Why do I need to have him on this show with me?” Gene realized, early on, that the chemistry was a synergy between them. Gene knew that he couldn’t do it alone. For a long time, Roger thought he could.
JAMES: And that’s probably true. Roger was a much more versatile and prolific writer, and Gene would say so. I interviewed three producers who worked on the show, at different phases, and I spoke to another one on the phone, and interestingly, all four of them said, independently from each other, “I felt like I saw these guys go from hating each other to finally loving each other.” That told me that, even though there was a progression, it was always a roller coaster. It was still volatile. It was never the Hollywood version, where they started out as enemies, and then they were pals. It was always complicated. It was always up and down. In one moment, they could be laughing together, and in the next moment, they could be at each other’s throats, and then they could be laughing together again.
Chaz, as different audiences see this film, what are you learning about the way the world feels about Roger?
EBERT: If I thought about that question a lot, it would make me cry. As we go across the country, talking about the film and doing screenings, everybody has a story. And that makes me wonder how many different Rogers there were. Everybody has a story of having either written something to him and having him write back, when he was still on a typewriter, and then on a computer. So many people had a saved email or a typewritten letter. Or people have stories of Roger saying, “I sent him something to review, and he either passed it along to someone,” or “I had a movie at a film festival and he actually came and looked at my movie.” People who are writers will say, “He wrote me back and gave me advice on what to study in school, in order to become a film critic.” Everybody has some story. I knew he was a communicator and I knew he liked reaching out to people and I knew he was generous, but I didn’t know the depth of his generosity.
JAMES: I’ve encountered so many of these people, too. A woman who’s not a filmmaker or a film critic, but who just goes to movies, bumped into Roger at a film festival and they spent the next 15 minutes about what movies he’d seen at the festival that he’d liked, and he wanted to know what films she’d seen that she liked. And even earlier today, a male reporter said something that really touched me. He said that he used to watch the show with his parents, and it was the first time they ever treated him as an adult and respected his intelligence, when they would talk about the movies that they showed. I thought that was amazing, and that’s not even meeting Roger. That’s just the impact that Roger had.
Life Itself opens in theaters and is available on VOD on July 4th.