By Jason Reitman
Updated June 18, 2013 at 03:48 PM EDT
Credit: George Pimentel/WireImage

Roger Ebert died on April 4 after a long battle with cancer. To commemorate what would have been his 71st birthday today, EW is republishing this essay by filmmaker Jason Reitman, written in tribute shortly after the critic’s passing.

I spoke with Roger Ebert perhaps a dozen times, but only heard his voice once.

I first caught him at the Toronto Film Festival, where I had a short film in the program. I was 21 years old and I needed to shake his hand. I needed to thank him for being a part of my relationship with movies for as long as I could remember. I needed him to know that now I was a director, even if I only had 16 measly minutes to my name. I needed him to know that while infinitesimally small, I too was now a particle in the cinematic universe in which he was a force that had touched anyone who had ever picked up a camera or sat in a theater.

Like he’d done countless times in his life for others, Roger Ebert stopped and spoke to me. Even happily granted a photo. And for that moment, Roger made me feel like I had directed The Godfather.

After he lost his voice in 2006 following cancer surgery, I met Roger almost exclusively for interviews. His was the first face I saw when the lights came up after Juno’s premiere in Toronto. I lifted Ellen Page in the air, looked to my side, and saw Roger beaming as he applauded. The following day, I was invited to his hotel room for one of his first non-vocal interviews. His language software simultaneously thrilled him and completely frustrated him. What I remember most was making Roger laugh, for without his voice, Roger laughed with his thumbs.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be included in the San Francisco Film Festival tribute to Roger, where directors like Philip Kaufman, Errol Morris, and Terry Zwigoff sang a critic’s praises, expressing their gratitude for his reviews, even the brutal ones. For when Roger loved a film, he loved it … and when he hated a film, one couldn’t help but sense a frustration for the film it could have been.

If the cinematic experience brings a room of strangers together, bonding our hopes and fears, Roger Ebert somehow connected those rooms. And he did so with that thumb. A gesture so simple and beloved that it made it easy to forget that he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning wordsmith.

To be reviewed by Roger Ebert, good or bad, was to exist as a filmmaker. Artistry aside, this is one reason we make movies. We write and direct for the same reason we conceive children and build buildings. We’re looking for proof of our own thumbprint, a reassurance that we somehow matter. As a filmmaker, sometimes that comes from hearing an audience’s laughter or buying a ticket to your own film. However, there was nothing like – and I’ve confirmed this with many directors – the sight of Ebert’s thumb on your movie poster. Up or down.

My heart goes out to his wife, Chaz, the staff of the Sun-Times, the people of Chicago, and anyone who has ever been lost in a movie.

Jason Reitman is the director of Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult, and the upcoming Labor Day.