Interview: Steve James talks about Roger Ebert and Life Itself
When endeavoring to create a documentary, inherit in the process is the possibility that something along the way can drastically change, either from within or without, thus affecting the story.
Such is the tragic case with Steve James’ Life Itself – that is to say, the unexpected was tragic, but the product is beautiful, winning, and yes, still indeed melancholic.
Based on the memoirs of the same name, the figure at the heart of this biography is legendary film critic and Chicago-Sun Times journalist Roger Ebert.
“When he entered the hospital, we really did think it was a brief setback, that he would be back in a couple of weeks,” explained director Steve James during a phone interview ahead of the film’s release. “That kept getting put off, but there still was this sense for a while that he was just around the corner from coming home and resuming his life as it was.”
“He finally did and I thought ‘now we got to see that part of Rogers’s life.’ Two days later he was back in the hospital and never returned.”
Roger Ebert was hospitalized just as it was set to start filming the documentary about his iconic life, and months later, on April 4 2013, he died.
One of the first shots of the film shows Ebert smiling in his hospital bed, talking as he did later in life through a voice synthesizer due to complications of thyroid cancer. James didn’t want to shy away from showing the once imposing and grandiose man infirmed in bed, and neither did Ebert.
“There was a gradual realization and then a sudden realization he was likely going to die, and it did change the film,” added James.
Life Itself uses the bleaker present as a springboard for the vibrant past of a man who grew to become synonymous with film criticism. The documentary chronicles his rise through the newspaper business to his noteworthy film review show with oft-rival Gene Siskel up to his marriage with Chaz Hammmelsmith, who by all accounts changed his life. James also doesn’t hide from addressing Ebert’s issues with drinking and women, or his occasional combative nature.
“A big part of what engaged me was his life story, and the way in which he had this incredible journey,” explained James, who initially wasn’t sure that a documentary about Ebert would be the most engaging – but that was before he read his memoirs. “From small town Illinois to Chicago and the Pulitzer, he reinvented film criticism.”
“His drinking days, his adventures with Russ Meyer, and then of course his marriage to Chaz late in life: it all struck me as an incredible story. And the way in which he dealt with what he called the third act of his life and his reinvention is extraordinary.”
James credits his professional success to Ebert, whose positive review about James’ 1994 debut film Hoop Dreams at Sundance helped James’ rise. Twenty year later, James returned to Sundance with a film about a man who only briefly got to know, but without the subject present.
“There is probably no single person who had a greater impact on my career than Roger. He Gene really helped make Hoop Dreams a success, and continued to be supportive through other works,” explained James, who added that once again Ebert boosted a film of his years ago, this time through a timely and influential tweet. “I didn’t feel like I owed him a film unless it was really a story I wanted to tell, because of what he personally did.”
While Ebert will never see the film, his widow has, and she told James among others that she believes her late husband would have approved.
“I like to think he would like it, it’s his kind of film,” said James. “We talk about the cancer a lot, but I really want people to know that it’s quite entertaining, there is quite a bit of humour, and it’s full of very funny and interesting turns.”
Life Itself is heartbreaking and triumph, beautiful and sad, full of humourous anecdotes and fascinating stories; it seems something both cathartic and humbling for James.
“We tried to do justice, appreciate both the funny and irreverent about him. And also the poignant. It treats his illness with seriousness, but we tried not to be sentimental. He would have been very unhappy if it felt like we were sentimentalizing him., like to think he would like it, his kind of film, whether or not he was in it.”