When Steve James’ Hoop Dreams came out in 1994, film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert called the film one of the best of the year. Ebert was a champion of James’ work since then – he called 2012’s The Interrupters the most important film James made – so when Ebert decided to make a documentary based on his memoir Life Itself, he announced James would direct it. At that point, Ebert was the peak of his abilities: aside from his prolific output of criticism, Ebert’s blog was one of the best on the internet, filled with his insight on everything from bigotry, alcoholism, philosophy, to his favorite recipes. This period was remarkable because it arrived after Ebert was diagnosed with cancer, and several surgeries left him without the ability to speak. James was going to end the documentary on a high note, but then Ebert’s health deteriorated again, to the point where his email correspondence devolved from paragraphs to mere words. James still had to finish the film after Ebert’s death last year, and while parts of Life Itself are heartbreaking, it is a moving celebration of a man without any equal in the world of film or journalism. I recently had the chance to talk with James about Ebert, his filmmaking style, and what he thinks of critics now.
Compared to your other films, your subject here is well-known. How did that difference change your approach as a filmmaker?
Good question! As someone who’s done enough films at this point, I like a different creative challenge, so I relish the idea of doing a film about, well, Roger in particular, but also the fact that he’s this famous iconic figure. A lot of story would be about his past. In a nod to the way I like to work in my earlier films, I wanted some spine of his life in the present that I could follow. I love to observe people in more verite situations because I think it’s often the most revealing of who they are. Given that this part of Roger’s life – which he called his “third act” – was marked by tremendous obstacles that he had to overcome, I thought I’d be compelling to [film] that and use it a springboard to the past. I was going to try my hand at biography in documentary that I’ve seen often but never really done, and was hoping I’d create a hybrid between I’ve done and what the form generally does.
There’s a scene where you’re filming Roger’s medical treatments and he’s clearly in quite a bit of pain. What’s going through your mind when you have work to do – you’re filming someone going through something difficult – and yet you have empathy for them? Is it difficult to reconcile the two?
Yes, it can be. As for that moment, I wanted to film that suction. I knew about it because I observed it during a meeting before we started filming; I saw it from a distance since [his wife] Chaz had asked us to leave when he needed to be suctioned. At first, I didn’t know what the deal was, but Roger of course was great because when she asked us to leave, he made this hand gesture that meant, “Why?” He made that gesture several times a day. Anyway, we stepped into another room, but you could still see through various levels of glass because of how their house is designed. I remember thinking, “This is important. I should definitely film it.”
But then when I was in the hospital room, filming the treatment, I was [holds hand] this close to him. In the middle of it, I’m thinking, “Ok, this is intense.” I’m also thinking, “Now I understand why Chaz didn’t want us to film it.” It is pretty… raw. When I went home that day, I felt a little guilty, but Roger didn’t seem so bothered. It was such a relief to email when [Roger] sent me an email that night because he basically said, “Look, this is what we need to do. I’m down with it. I want this to be an honest film.” That’s a rare thing in any subject; it’s exceedingly rare for someone that famous to be that open.
You mentioned this hand gesture Roger gave to Chaz. From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like he’s really frustrated. What do you think about their relationship, and how did your opinion change as you observed more of them together?
I went in thinking that they have a great relationship. You know what? It’s true – it’s true on a deeper level than I could have imagined. But on the other hand, what I really appreciated about the way they acted was that it felt like a real relationship (I’ve been married a long time). There’s frustration, there’s stubbornness on both sides, there’s conflict, but they truly loved each other. They didn’t pretend in front of me. They know what their public image is: people view them as the super couple in Chicago. And they are! They are that, and they’re also real.
I wrote one article for Roger Ebert’s website, and it was about music in movies. Ever since then, I’ve thought about movie music a lot, so I was struck about your easy-going jazz score. How did you decide on this theme, and did Roger have any input?
He did not have any input because he died before he could have weighed in on any of that. Joshua Abrams is the composer – he did the music for my film The Interrupters. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with him, and he’s a jazz guy. He’s a really talented bassist, so I wanted to work with him again. We had found a temp track: I can’t remember who did it, but it was this cool, modern version of “I Only Have Eyes for You.” That was the definitive cue that begins and ends the movie, so I remember saying to Josh, “You can try to replace this, but I love it. I think we’re going to want to license this.” He insisted on trying anyway, although the temp piece set the tone. It really seemed to capture Roger’s spirit. It was an inspiration for what Josh did, and ended up being better than what we wanted in the first place. I use jazz in a number of my films, starting with Hoop Dreams, and the thing I love about jazz is that’s more timeless. It kind of works in the present, and it seems to age well.
Many filmmakers like to say, “I don’t read criticism.” They have this adversarial relationship with it, and…
I don’t believe the ones that say that!
Me neither. Anyway, what do you think filmmakers can learn from Roger Ebert’s criticism?
Roger did not know a lot about film when he started out, so he said he was going to write about the way that a film made him feel. That’s going to be the basis of his criticism. Over the course of his fifty year career he schooled himself to the point he became a film scholar, but he never lost sight of that. Movies are about feelings – they can be about intellect, too – but on a fundamental level what we feel from a movie is what we take away, what we remember the most. When you read his criticism and he clearly says why a film moved him or didn’t, I think that’s the sort of thing someone could learn or pay attention to. At the beginning of the movie, he says, “Movies are a machine to generate empathy.” I feel like there’s never been a greater definition, in my lifetime anyway, of what movies can do at their best (documentaries in particular). They put is inside the lives of other people, sometimes people we never thought we’d care about or have anything in common with, and connect us to them. If filmmakers take that way, there will be better films being made.
How exactly Life Itself change after Roger’s death?
I never intended to use email as a sort of motif throughout the film because I always expected to get that big interview, where he would type all his answers and the computer would play them for me. As an aesthetic choice, those emails became more important, especially when I was trying to engage him toward the end. His hands were swollen, and he was clearly dying. On a deeper level, it changed the film because, instead of being a life story about a guy in the present who is soldering on (as Werner Herzog might say ) and who is overcoming great odds, it ends up being about all that, as well as being about how to die with a sense of humor, courage, and grace. At the end, he’s helping Chaz accept his death. I don’t know how many people on their death bed are helping the survivor to accept their death.
In your interview with her, she talks about how his death is a spiritual moment. I thought it was a really remarkable thing to capture on film.
That interview… I’ve done a lot of interviews over the years, but that description of his final day and his finals moments is… I’ve never had an experience like that before. I wanted to preserve its integrity as a moment, not cut away.
You mentioned earlier that Chaz was reticent about showing certain parts of Roger’s life. How did she feel about the final product?
She was happy with it. It took several viewings to even see the movie – that’s not unusual – and it wasn’t until EbertFest that she really watched it and was quite moved. It took that long for it to sink in, and for her to understand what the movie really is. When she watches before then, it sent her off in so many different directions.
Has it been surreal talking to so many critics about what your film – which is about a critic – means to them?
[Laughs] It has been, but you know what? It’s humanized you guys for me a little bit. It’s been great because I was worried that the bar would be so high for a lot of critics. They either are younger critics, like yourself, who either came to Roger, or were inspired by Roger, or loved his writing. Or they were Roger’s contemporaries, even his close friends. It was a little daunting because, with most of my films, you don’t know anything about who these people are. You know what I show you, and that’s it! That wasn’t going to be the case here, so I’ve been heartened by the response to the film. I’ve been touched by what the film has evoked in a lot of the critics. They’ve told or written their own stories about their connection to Roger. I had a critic in Toronto tell me one of the most unforgettable moments of his professional life was when he was at the Toronto Film Festival and Herzog was showing the world premiere of Encounters at the End of the World. Roger came to the theater and down in the front. People noticed. When the dedication [to Roger] happened at the end of the film, the room erupted in a standing ovation for him. When the critic was telling me this story, he was tearing up and saying, “I’ll never forget that moment.”
What do you think about documentary as a form nowadays, and where do you see its future going?
First of all, I think it’s remarkable what’s happened to documentaries in the past twenty-odd years. Yes, they were great documentaries made before then, but I don’t think there were nearly as many or with so many different varieties. The genre of “documentary” isn’t really a genre anymore. You can name any kind of genre that we normally associate with fiction – romantic comedy, thriller, horror – and there are documentaries being made like that. I mean, what do you call The Act of Killing besides a horror film? There’s just an extraordinary range of work. We’re living in time for documentary that’s analogous to fiction filmmaking back in the thirties and forties. Of course, there are a gazillion documentaries because anyone with a camera and a laptop can make one. Maybe they’re a few documentaries you wish you hadn’t seen, but on balance, every year there’s a group of films that stands out. Where they’re going? I hope the trend continues. I do think it’s going to morph – it won’t all change, but we’re going to see a new breed of documentary that’s only on the internet. They’re a different way of telling stories, which is an exciting change from what we’re seeing now.
Life Itself opens on Friday, July 4th.