‘Life Itself’ Director Steve James and Chaz Ebert Reflect on Legacy of Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert wrote thoughtfully, eloquently and passionately about films for nearly five decades. During his long and fruitful pairing with Gene Siskel, Ebert stoked that passion as the two frequently clashed on camera over a movie’s merits, becoming the most popular and influential film critics of their – and probably any — era.
As Ebert neared the end of his life, following a long battle with cancer that robbed him of his voice and part of his jaw, his fervor came through more than ever in his written words. As his love affair with movies continued, Ebert, ever-reflective and analytical, turned to the subject of his own life with his 2011 memoir Life Itself, exploring the road that led him to become synonymous with the “Thumbs Up” review. The richness of Ebert’s history sparked a filmed incarnation, helmed by acclaimed documentarian Steve James (whose breakthrough work Hoop Dreams reached modern audiences in no small part through Ebert’s praise) and produced by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian.
Along with a revealing look at Ebert’s colorful beginnings as a born newspaper man, his complicated relationship with Siskel and his little-seen roles late in life as a husband, a stepfather and a grandfather, the film takes an unflinching look at his ongoing health struggles before his death in 2013 – struggles he seems to handle largely with a grace earned by continuing to pursue his ardent passions: his relationship with his wife Chaz and, of course, the movies.
Chaz Ebert and Steve James sat down for a roundtable discussion to reflect on their journey to bring the Roger Ebert that they knew to the movie-going masses who put their well-earned faith in his thumb.
Chaz, I’m curious for you, being part of this process. What did you learn about Roger that you were surprised to learn? Was there something that came out of this that “I never really thought about it in that way?’ or ‘I never knew that aspect of his personality?’
Chaz Ebert: No, I learned something that sort of confirmed what I thought I knew about him. And it was the scene, um, when they’re talking about what Roger wrote when those four little girls were killed in the bombing in a Birmingham church. And his words were so powerful – and he was so young. And I wondered, “Where did he come from? With the presence of mind like that?” A sensitivity, and such an interest in social justice. That he was able to respond like that, talking about “the blood on the hands.” And 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. You know, I knew he was a precocious, smart kid who started a newspaper in his neighborhood when he was 8 years old, but still I just thought that very beautiful when I saw that. I was quite moved by it.
What did you love most about him?
Ebert: The thing that I loved most about him is … well, several things! But I loved how much he loved me. I loved how deeply he loved me. I loved that he wasn’t afraid or ashamed to show his feelings, that he wore his heart on his sleeve and that was OK with him. And I loved that. We both are very passionate about a lot of things, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. Also, I loved how generous he was with people, how generous he was with his fellow film critics. He did it for people from all over. He would fight for the right to have online critics – and you know, at one time online critics weren’t even allowed in movie screenings. Roger went head to head with the studios, saying, “This is the future: Look at it in the eye.” And you have to let online critics see it. Now, today can you imagine having a screening without online critics in it? I mean, newspapers are going out of business. So I loved his generosity, that he had a healthy ego and yet he had a good sense of himself so that 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 – I know that’s one part in the film that people didn’t know, how much of a family life we had. And we used to love to travel with our grandchildren and take them places. I’m 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. We’d have them read to us, and we would read to them. We always wrote letters to them. If we were on the road and they weren’t with us, we wrote letters so they would actually mail with stamps and envelopes, just to encourage that kind of thing. I loved the family life. So many things! The other thing I loved about him is he was so curious about everything. I remember once when he was in the hospital and 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.”
On the one hand, Roger’s actual voice was gone. But on the other, he was finding it unleashed in these beautiful words more so than ever. Steve, what was it like to work with that dichotomy on a cinematic level?
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, because I didn’t know this extraordinary life he had that included movies but was by no means limited to movies. The other thing that blew me away was just the quality of writing and how beautiful the prose was. And still very Midwestern: spare use of those adjectives, but just eloquently written. And so when it came to the film, I really wanted to lean on the memoir for a lot of reasons. I loved the structure of it. I loved the way it sort of looked at his past through the prism of his present life since the surgeries and since the loss of the ability to speak. So I borrowed a lot from that memoir, in a lot of ways, and I wanted to feature his writing. I wanted him to narrate the story in a sense. And so he does narrate this film, really. It’s his words. It’s his writing. And in order to sort of complete the effect of it, we needed to find an actor that could impersonate Roger, but do it in a heartfelt way so that voice of Roger that’s the memoir voice, because Roger couldn’t speak by the time he’d written the memoir. So it was actually through Chaz’s efforts on behalf of projects on their website that she found Steven Stanton. I was originally thinking just someone who kind of sounds like Roger would help, but this guy, he did all this preparation, and he just did, I thought, an extraordinary job. And 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? Especially having him, in a way, still with you as you shepherd this out so people can see it.
Ebert: I didn’t know what a gift it would be to be able to sort of hang out with Roger for two hours on the screen. Even though it is an unflinching portrait – some of it is a little painful to watch, but it’s also just … I love just being with him again that way. I also think, though, that it’s a gift to us, especially in this society where we so 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. The brutality of going through that, because people knew. And especially after the Esquire article of 2010, people knew that Roger was still writing and still doing things, and they knew it was difficult. 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. He did it with a smile on his face. To see that kind of resilience of the human spirit, it moves me to tears. And I think he is transcendent in the film. His spirit is just transcendent.
Chaz, you’re one of the people who observed most closely his relationship with Gene Siskel and how it evolved over the years. It started out as two guys who really didn’t like each other very much, didn’t talk to each other, ignored each other in the elevator – and then all of a sudden, they had this soaring chemistry that catapulted them both upwards. And obviously, their relationship changed over time.<?b>
Ebert: That’s true. They said 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 – because remember, they were newspaper guys, and [then] it was mainly newspaper men – but for them, the rivalry between the Chicago Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune was fierce at one time. And they both were these, like, young warriors who were hired when they were like 24, 25, 26 years old at the newspapers, and they both wanted to be number one. They felt their newspapers were superior – Roger worked for the Sun Times, which was more of the working man’s newspaper, and Gene worked for the more elitist Chicago Tribune – at one time; it’s not like that now. Every newspaper wishes they had more money and more resources, but back then, they had all the resources, so they took that rivalry to the television show. And I think that they had a chemistry that you really can’t buy. No one, when they put them together, thought the show would be that much of a hit – and they didn’t either, because the 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 the show with me?” Later, they realized – you know what? Actually I take it back: Gene realized early on why the chemistry — it was a synergy between them. Gene knew that he couldn’t do it alone. For a long time Roger thought he could.
James: And it’s probably true in a way. Roger was a much more versatile writer, clearly, and prolific writer. And Gene would say so. One of the things I found – I didn’t put it in the movie, but I interviewed three producers who worked on the show, at different phases of the show. And I actually talked on the phone to a fourth who would have been one of the later phases even yet, but I didn’t choose to interview him. And interestingly, all four of them said the same thing independently of each other, which is, “I felt like I saw these guys go from hating each other to finally loving each other.” Each one of them said that, which told me that even though there was a progression, it was always a kind of roller coaster.
Ebert: Still kind of volatile.
James: It was volatile, and so it was never like the Hollywood version, which is they started out as enemies, and they were pals. It was always complicated. It was always up and down, and they could one moment be laughing together, and the next moment at each other’s throats and back to laughing with each other.
How much fun was it to find the clips to illustrate that prickly relationship?
James: Well, it was great! Those clips, someone posted them on the Internet some years ago, and they’re the only ones we know of. We went and searched and tried to find others, but it is perfect. And I think that one of the reasons it works – if it works in the film well – is because we’ve fertilely planted the fields. I think when people would watch them, just on the Internet, divorced from the rest of the story of their relationship, it has one impact. But when you have more of a fuller sense of these guys and where they were coming from and a lot of the stuff that Chaz was just saying about the rival newspapers and the early competitiveness, it just makes them resonate a bit more. One of the things I really loved about digging into this was hearing the stories, some of which we included in the film. Like Marlene’s [Iglitzen, Siskel’s wife] story about on the airplane when Gene, who was much more of a practical joker than Roger, he loved to prank –
Ebert: [Sighs] He was just MEAN! [Laughs]
James: But it is a great story — a great story that tells you a lot. And of course, you can’t help but notice the pleasure Marlene gets in telling it. Because Gene got the best of him, right? There were so many of these kinds of stories, but the one that I did put in, which was one where Gene could read Roger’s date book upside down, and so he could figure out where he was going and then scoop him.
Ebert: Can you imagine doing that to anyone?
With this film, you get to share the Roger you knew with the world. As part of this process, what are you learning about how the world felt about Roger?
Ebert: That question, if I thought about it a lot, would make me cry, because everybody has a story. Everybody. As we go across the country, talking about the film and doing screenings, and that really made me wonder: How many Rogers were there? Everyone has a story of having either written something to him and having him write back when if it was still on a typewriter, then on a computer, and then they would either see it on email or a typewritten letter. Or people have stories like, “You know, I sent him something to review and either pass along to someone or did it because it was actually a film festival. He actually came and looked at my movie.” Or people who were writers saying, “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, and I thought, my God, I knew he was a communicator, I knew he liked reaching out to people, I knew he was generous, but I didn’t even know the depth of his generosity.
James: Our main story in the film about how he wrote – he was a nobody filmmaker, and he wrote him back, is not unusual. It happened so many times, and as Chaz said, I too. I have encountered so many of these people. Everybody that I run into. A woman told me she was – she’s not a filmmaker, she’s not a film critic, she doesn’t write. She just goes to movies. She was at a film festival. She bumped into Roger, and then they spent the next 15 minutes talking about what movies he’d seen at the festival, he liked. And he wanted to know what films she’d seen that she liked.
Ebert: Did she have big breasts? Because he was also a fan of Russ Meyer’s. [Laughs]
James: No, she did not have big breasts, but she was cute. But just even earlier today a reporter said something that really touched me. This is not even a direct encounter with Roger – he used to watch the show with his parents, and he said the only time, and really kind of the first time they ever treated him as an adult and respected his intelligence, was after this show, and they would talk about the show and the movies that were viewed. And that stuck with him. I thought that was amazing. Not even meeting Roger! That’s just the impact of Roger.
Chaz, along with the website and this film, do you have other ventures in the works that push Roger’s legacy forward?
Ebert: The website, and also we’ve been approached to produce a “Great Movies” series based on the three Great Movies books that Roger wrote: 100 movies per book, and he wrote another – probably fortysomething – that we probably will end up publishing as a fourth Great Movies book and use that as the basis for the TV show.
Do you ever think we’ll see the likes of Roger, or of Siskel & Ebert again? Critics with that kind of high profile popularity, with their level of talent for communication and passion for film?
Ebert: You know, never say never. I think what we’ve learned in an almost like a 50-year history – because Roger reviewed films for [that long], which correlates to almost half of the history of motion pictures, and the show was on for about 35 of those years – and it hasn’t been really, truly duplicated with that kind of chemistry. Who knows? It could happen. It hasn’t happened so far. I don’t know.
James: I’ll tell you one encouraging thing in a sort of way is that when you go back and look at the shows now – and I did a lot of that for this film – I was struck by how great the shows are – these old shows that you would think, well, they will be dated. I thought, “Well, there will be good moments, but it will be dated.” I’d find myself looking for something specific, and I’d be sitting there watching the show.
Ebert: It’s fresh. They’re still fresh and relevant.
Playing in select theaters, Life Itself is also available on iTunes and On Demand.