In Life Itself, the poignant documentary based on Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir, director Steve James focuses on the two faces of the famed Chicago film critic that fans came to know and adore. There’s the rounded cherub who jousted furiously and famously with frenemy Gene Siskel for nearly 25 years on television’s most successful movie-review show. And there’s the fleshy, asymmetrical features he introduced to the world after cancer left him without most of his jaw and robbed him of his voice.
Ebert remained the same thoughtful, eloquent man through it all, and the documentary — which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters and on VOD and iTunes on July 4 — tells the story of a man who loved film and the people who made it, was drawn to others who shared strong opinions, and lived a wonderfully full life that touched millions.
James (Hoop Dreams) spent months with Ebert and his beloved wife, Chaz, just as the resilient critic’s health began to fail in 2012. James’ camera captures their life in intimate, and occasionally jarring, detail. But he also captures two great love stories: Ebert’s midlife romance with Chaz, and his long-running sibling rivalry with Siskel, who died of a brain tumor in 1999. Through the candid recollections of longtime friends, At the Movies producers, and esteemed filmmakers whose art was discovered or amplified by Ebert’s voice (and thumb), James paints a picture of a man who loved being Roger Ebert, a man whose smiling eyes never lost their spark.
Entertainment Weekly has the exclusive poster for the documentary, and James spoke to EW about his time with Ebert, a man who helped jumpstart his own career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The most charming element of Life Itself for me was just the tangible delight that Roger took in being Roger Ebert and filling the place he carved for himself in cinema. Even after he got sick and had the surgery, his eyes still smiled so brilliantly.
STEVE JAMES: He embraced life. He embraced it when he was an only child growing up in Champaign. He embraced it when he got to the University of Illinois and became the editor of the newspaper. He embraced it when he first moved to Chicago and was living the life of a hard-drinking reporter. At every stage of his life, it was an adventure for him. He loved life. I think it’s why ultimately he titled his memoir Life Itself. He didn’t title it Movies Themselves or My Life in Movies. He titled it Life Itself because of the way in which he lived his life.
You must’ve had some understanding that this project might chronicle the last chapter of Roger’s life, but did you ever hesitate once his health took a sudden downward turn?
When we started, we actually did not think that it would be documenting the end of his life at all. In fact, the goal of filming him in the present was to show just how lively his life was — how he wasn’t missing a step despite all he’d been through, that he was still going to screenings, he was throwing dinner parties, he was going to events and film festivals. We really expected to show just how vibrant his life remained despite all he’d been through. Even when he went into the hospital with a hip fracture, and even though it was a mystery to him and Chaz as to how he suffered it because he hadn’t fallen, everybody’s feeling was that this was a temporary thing, that literally in a matter of weeks, he would be back home. Literally, the day he died, I was scheduled to go film him leaving the rehab institute. So there was never that moment of deciding, “Gee, should we continue to make that movie?” Had we really known with some degree of certainty that this was the end, I know what Roger’s view would’ve been: “No, you’re finishing the movie.” His attitude about his illness and about his life in the present was always about showing the truth, showing the reality.
Roger lost his ability to speak after his jaw surgery, but you not only have his words in the film as voice-over, you seemingly have his voice. Had he recorded himself for his book-on-tape years ago?
That is an actor, named Stephen Stanton, who is able to impersonate other famous actors. In the editing, we were using the television actor who read [Life Itself] on tape, and he did a perfectly great job of reading Roger’s memoir. But it just became clear that we needed to get the voice closer to Roger’s because it was too distracting to have it read by someone who didn’t sound at all like Roger. So when Chaz discovered Stephen when she was looking for someone to read some of Roger’s great movie reviews for their website, it was like, “Well, let’s go for it.”
I was trying to find a way to express the profound influence that Roger acquired, and the kindness with which he would often wield it, especially in the encouragement of promising young or first-time filmmakers. Looking at his review of your documentary Hoop Dreams from 1994, I can only imagine how it must have felt when Roger Ebert called it one of the great moviegoing experiences of his lifetime.
Well, I’m getting chills just as you say it now. As I recall it, I was speechless, as I remain. When I moved to Chicago in 1985, I began reading Roger regularly in the Sun-Times, and he became a go-to guy for me, so to read his review of my film, it was just beyond anything that I could’ve hoped for or imagined, honestly.
His relationship with TV co-star Gene Siskel is a large part of the film, and their bittersweet rivalry could be a movie in itself. Just watching their old clips — to say nothing of the nasty outtakes — reminded me that their show was simply great television.
It was great then and it’s still great now. We went back and looked at a lot of old shows looking for choice clips, and I would just find myself watching the show. It was really smart, and it’s interesting to watch with hindsight, seeing them talk about movies that we have a sense of what the fate of those films was. What made those guys great was that they were both really good at articulating what they had to say quickly and concisely. Even if you agreed with one of them, you didn’t think the other guy was a complete idiot. Chaz has said as much, that when she would watch the show before she met Roger, she tended to agree with Gene more than Roger.
The documentary premiered at Sundance, which seemed appropriate, since Roger loved discovering new filmmakers. That must’ve been a special screening.
It was one of those really great screenings that I’ll never forget frankly. Towards the end, when it was really quiet as we’re dealing with Roger’s passing, it dawned on me that for a lot of the people in that group, this was their chance to not just kind of celebrate Roger’s legacy but also mourn his passing. In Chicago, we got an opportunity to do that because of the memorial service and because he was ours. But at Sundance, we have all these film lovers and cinephiles and people who admired him and loved movies, I think it made it a very special screening. Chaz was there and Gene’s wife, Marlene, was there, and there was this one incredibly great moment at the end of the Q&A where Chaz said, “And I just have to say Marlene that in my opinion, Roger was the more elegant of the two,” referencing the moment in the film where Marlene says that Gene, for lack of a better word, was just a more elegant figure. So Chaz said that to Marlene, and the crowd just sort of exploded with laughter. Then Marlene, with perfect comic timing, she just said, “It’s your night, Chaz.” And the place fell out again, because it was like the two of them were channeling their husbands. They each had their husband’s backs. It was a really great moment.