By Chuck Williamson
Steve James is the award-winning director and producer of ‘Hoop Dreams’, ‘Stevie’ and ‘The Interrupters’. James’ new film, a feature-length documentary based on Roger Ebert’s bestselling memoir ‘Life Itself’, is already being hailed as a profoundly moving tribute to the most beloved film critic of his generation, recounting his life, legacy and final days.
Throughout Life Itself, it seemed as if Roger Ebert’s unexpected passing dramatically reshaped the film’s narrative structure. It eventually splits its time between adapting Ebert’s memoirs and documenting the final days of his life. In what ways did Ebert’s waning health and eventual death determine the shape of the film?
His death was, needless to say, a development that couldn’t help but shape the film. It meant, at the beginning, I wanted to let the audience know that, before the end of this film, Roger would be gone. That this wasn’t a film that was made and completed before his death, that that was part of the story we were going to tell. Of course, I think that by alerting the audience to that — and of course, most people who would go to this movie know that Roger passed away, if not all of them — it does kind of hover over the film. Even the funny moments in the present of him in the hospital. I think — I hope — that people take great pleasure and joy from seeing the way Roger is handling those last months, but in the backdrop there’s this knowledge and understanding we are heading inevitably towards the end. I think that made a difference. Not to be callous about it, but it lent a narrative quality to those scenes that, when I started out, I had no intention of capturing. I was going to capture his day-to-day life simply to show how vibrant and alive and active he remained, despite all he’d been through. I think you see all of those qualities, but you also know that he’s going to die.
It also then changed the way in which I dealt with things like the emails with him, because the emailing during the course of the time when he was alive was purely a practical production thing for me, in order to plan for an actual sit-down interview. Practically speaking, Roger understandably has people send him questions so that he can type out answers in his own time, and then you get together with him and you film, and then he plays back the answers and you can ask follow-ups on the spot. So this started out to be just a practical thing: I would compose questions, send them to him periodically, he would bank his answers, and then we were going to get together and do, over the course of several days probably, a major sit-down interview. Of course, that didn’t happen. So some of those questions that he answered as we went along and that whole process of communicating with him that way loomed much larger and more important in the wake of his death, especially the email exchanges down toward the end.
What was your approach to adapting Ebert’s memoirs? What editorial choices did you have to make when sculpting his life into a coherent narrative?[laughs] Well, it’s not easy, because if you’ve read the memoir it is largely chronological, but not exclusively so. It’s also episodic or character-driven, meaning you’ll have chapters devoted to Martin Scorsese or Werner Herzog or Bill Nack and John McHugh, who are all in the movie. I wanted to mimic the structure of the memoir because I found it so beautifully put-together: the way in which he bounces from the present and the past and the way in which the memoir is clearly told from the vantage point of someone that’s in Roger’s present condition looking back over his life. I thought that was quite poetic. In many respects, this film duplicates that approach and, of course, uses his own words throughout to narrate the film, just as he narrates his own life in his memoir. These were all things I “borrowed” from the memoir, or were inspired by the memoir, even down to the subjects that I made sure to interview.
Of course, we deviate from the memoir in other ways, particularly in diving so deeply into the Siskel and Ebert show [At the Movies] and his relationship with Gene, which isn’t really dealt with in that degree of detail in the memoir.
Watching the film, I noticed that Ebert’s decades-long working relationship with Russ Meyer takes up very little real estate within the film. Was there an active effort to deemphasise this creative partnership? Was there a fear that it might pull focus away from his collaboration with Siskel?
I didn’t want to deemphasise it, but there’s just so many things to try to get into the movie. I love that part of it and frankly could have easily spent more time on it, but it’s a balancing act with a movie like this because he did so many different things. He had so many different chapters to his life and things that were important to him that I wanted to include, like Cannes and the Conference for World Affairs, which was a part of his life that was very, very important that few people know anything about. He went to this conference for 40 years and it was a big part of his intellectual experience. It’s also where he evolved this whole Cinema Interruptus frame analysis thing, which I found fascinating. There’s just so many things! I did not absolutely want to leave out Beyond the Valley of the Dolls at all — [laughs] — but I wasn’t able to dig deeply into his relationship with Russ. I just didn’t feel like I had the time to do it justice.
[laughs] And that could easily be a movie by itself.
In fact, there is someone in Hollywood [screenwriter Christopher Cluess] trying to make a film about Russ and Roger. So there you go. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but they’re trying.
In addition to family members and filmmakers, you also speak with some of the leading voices in American film criticism: Jonathan Rosenbaum, A.O. Scott, even Richard Corliss, who has that wonderfully awkward moment reciting some of his old criticisms of At the Movies. [laugh] What was it like discussing Ebert and his legacy with his peers?
It was great because I feel like all three of those guys both respect Roger as a film critic and even admire him in different ways, but they’re also very clear-eyed film critics. I felt like they really gave me all of that. They weren’t shy about voicing their concerns or criticisms, in the case of the Corless-Ebert debate or in the case of Jonathan Rosenbaum talking about his worries and concerns about the show as well. But it was also very clear to me that, despite those reservations at times, there was this profound respect and an ability to articulate what it was that made Roger special as a film critic. To have it come from those three guys was very meaningful for the film.
Life Itself is also full of these intimate and unflinching moments shot during Ebert’s recovery and hospital convalescence. What was it like shooting these scenes?
Well, it was not easy. It was far less easy for Roger to be going through it than for us to film it, but even filming it was not easy. It was at times quite difficult to watch and we felt so much for him. It was also very brave of him, I think, to allow us to film that and even encourage it. And he didn’t encourage it in an “oh, woe is me” way. One of the remarkable things about the way in which he dealt with his illness is that his openness about it always felt like it was about helping other people understand about cancer, about illness, about disability, because maybe they have to deal with it in their own lives. To me, it never felt selfish and pointed towards himself, to say, “Look how brave I am!” In fact, he often talked about it with humour. He talked about grappling with it honestly, and I think he did such a service to people. It’s one of the reasons why I think the movie moves people as much as it does, just like when he wrote about it.
So it was not easy. But I did hope that seeing Roger this candidly, especially with the disfigurement and loss of his jaw, that while it would be very hard to watch at first, that you would soon see past that and just see that it’s still Roger Ebert, it’s still “that guy.” I think that happens for a great many moviegoers. Maybe not everybody. Some people, I’m sure, wish we didn’t show all that. But I felt — and I know Roger felt — that it was important.
From what I’ve read, your relationship with Roger Ebert — beyond his advocacy of Hoop Dreams — was cordial if not particularly close. How did your relationship with Roger and Chaz change throughout the making of the film?
It changed dramatically. Frankly, had Roger not died four months into our filming it would have evolved quite a bit further, no doubt. I think that one of the wonderful things, for me, about making documentaries is that you forge relationships with subjects over the course of making that film, any film… or at least the films that I’ve done. To go well beyond what one might typically have had with them in any other context. So I think with Roger, it absolutely changed because we were doing this thing together. He felt that and I certainly felt that, and I was so impressed with his candor in the face of all that he was going through. I know he probably saw how impressed I was with that.
Yeah, it’s just that… that relationship was cut short, selfishly for me, by his death. And I think with Chaz, it was real evolution. Certainly, she was very happy that I was doing this film and that it was me doing it; she’s been a fan of my films over the years. But she was also in a much more protective place for Roger because that’s the role she’d had to play so often: to protect him, to push him, and to help him. I think one of the wonderful things about that relationship is that, by the end of the film and since then, because we still see each other a lot with the release of the movie, she really came to fully trust me with this story and trust that I would treat Roger with honesty and empathy, which was always my goal.
In fact, the film begins with that great quote about cinema being a “machine that generates empathy,” and I think your film really operates from that perspective. It really puts Roger’s ideas into practice.
Thank you. I take that as high praise. Whether or not you mean it as high praise, I’m gonna take it as high praise. [laughs] Because, for me, that quote… I’ve never read a more clear and concise quote about what movies at their best should do. For me, as a documentary filmmaker… he nailed it! That’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do and tried to do in my work, but I’ve never been able to put it in those words. [laughs] So when I heard that, I felt like he was really speaking to me. So if this film achieves half of what he meant by that, then I will feel that we were successful.
Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.