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At the Death House Door: Steve James on the Roger Ebert Doc, Life Itself

Two heavyweights of Chicago film culture, director Steve James and the iconic late film critic Roger Ebert were fond of each other from afar for years. It wasn’t until James was charged with making a cinematic document of Ebert’s final months and his life and achievements that the two grew close. The filmmaker behind the masterful Chicagoland documentaries Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters gives us an up close and personal look at the final months of Ebert’s life, crafting both a tough-minded look at his physical decline and a warm-hearted celebration of a singular cultural figure’s life and work. James, whose Hoop Dreams was passionately championed by Ebert upon its release in 1994, shot the critic from December 2012 — when he’d been admitted to the hospital for a hairline hip fracture following a fall — until the weeks just before his death. We watch in unsparing detail as Ebert undergoes a difficult bout of physical therapy and, most memorably, the clearly painful process of having his throat, left moribund following several cancer surgeries, drained via suction.

In addition to liberal readings from Ebert’s 2011 memoir by voice actor Stephen Stanton, James also interviews dozens of friends, colleagues, fellow alcoholics, and world-famous film culture luminaries in an attempt to get at the heart of the man who was once the youngest daily newspaper critic in the country. Supported ably by wondrous archival material, both from At the Movies and Ebert’s life about town, the movie is more cinematic than portraits of writers have any cause to be. At the center of the film is Ebert’s relationship with his wife Chaz, whom he met in AA in 1979 and who has carried on his legacy in a number of ways. The movie’s glimpses of their last months together are often nothing short of harrowing; they often contain the ugly truths of being at the death house’s door. To the couple’s credit, they don’t flinch from the depiction.

Life Itself opens this Friday from Magnolia Pictures.

Steve James (Photo by Ramya Jegatheesan)
Steve James Photo by Ramya Jegatheesan

Filmmaker: You didn’t know Ebert terribly well before this, yes?

James: Because we’re both in Chicago I’d run into him at the Chicago Film Critics’ Award ceremony or another similar thing, but literally probably less than ten times did I encounter him over 20 years.

Filmmaker: But he was a big fan of your work?

James: He was, absolutely. And I was a fan of him as a critic, but it was always just friendly and professional and that was that.

Filmmaker: I believe the idea of you doing this film originated with him?

James: No, it originated actually with Steve Zaillian, who was an executive producer, and his partner Garrett Basch, who ended up being a producer on the film. They have a company together. They read the memoir, loved it. Steve I’d met before through a mutual friend, had dinner with him once and he is a huge doc guy, loves docs. He watches more docs than anything. So they had the idea that this would make a great basis for a documentary, and they reached out to Roger’s literary agent first. There were other people who had similar thoughts, so there was interest coming from different quarters. Then Garrett called me from Steve’s office and said, “Would you be interested in doing this film?” I hadn’t read the memoir, so I read the memoir and that’s what made me want to do the movie, because I just loved it.

Filmmaker: What most struck you when you read his book that you hadn’t gleaned in your few encounters with him?

James: I knew Roger as a film critic who was a champion of independent filmmakers such as myself. He was a very, very insightful and smart writer of film. You know what I mean. I watched his shows back in the day and I read reviews for years, but I hadn’t really known him. His memoir was his life; it’s not called My Life in Movies, although it does talk about that. It’s his life. If I had read it and thought, “Great critic, still think so, but his life is OK,” I wouldn’t have done the film, because I don’t think it would’ve been enough for me to want to do a film about a guy that was a great film critic.

What I fell for was, here’s this significant, great film critic who has had this incredible life journey starting from humble beginnings in Urbana, Illinois. Single child, father passed away early. He goes to Chicago and his whole world opens up. His life adventure with all the ups and downs and then, of course, the last “third act” as Roger called his illness — I just thought it’s a hell of a story, and a story that has a lot to say about how to live your life. The way in which he embraced life. And when I read about his life I saw how it informed his criticism too.

Filmmaker: He was very influential on me as a young person reading criticism who ultimately became a critic himself, but his writing feels like it got so much deeper even after he grew ill.

James: Absolutely, totally deeper, because he started to write about himself. When he was a young man he imagined becoming an op-ed columnist at some point in his career, and then he was going to become a novelist, that was his plan. He was going to live in New York. He had it all figured out. He would go to Chicago, be a newspaper man, then op-ed, then go to New York and become a novelist. That was what it was gonna be. It didn’t quite work out that way, but all of those things that were important about that — the insight, the creativity, the beauty of his writing — had manifested itself in other ways. And he became that op-ed guy on the blog.

Filmmaker: So when you first spoke to Chaz and Roger in the late part of his life, how did they feel about this project?

James: Roger wasn’t sure that there should be a film made on him. He was very happy with his memoir. I think there was a bit of a humility about it too, like “Why would anyone want to see a movie on me?” And I don’t think that was false humility. At the time, I thought it was a little bit of false humility. You’d look at him and think, “You’re really a significant guy. Why wouldn’t you?” But then when I went out and started to try to raise money for the film, which I thought was going to be one of my all-time easiest films to raise money for, it wasn’t. And what I kept hearing back from broadcasters was, “Oh, a film critic? I don’t think so. Even Roger Ebert.” And I was kind of shocked, because I was like “I know, but you haven’t read his memoir!” Of course you can’t get them to read a memoir. You can’t get them to read anything.

Filmmaker: Did it take a while to build the intimacy to be able to film him while he was getting treated in a very graphic way?

James: From the get-go he was instantly accessible. That’s a remarkable thing in my experience. I mean, I’ve had good luck with people over the years getting to a place of intimate connection, but usually it takes a while. Almost from the start, he knew what was required and made a decision to do it. He knows filmmaking, he knows what’s involved, he’s a journalist himself. It’s like all of those things conspired in a great way for him to let go. For instance that first suction scene, that’s one of the first things I shot. And Chaz wasn’t there, which is why we got it. Because at that point, she did not want that. He didn’t even blink. And then he had the presence of mind to send me an email later to say, “Great stuff, you got something today, nobody gets to see suction.”

After I shot it, I knew Chaz didn’t want us to film it. But I knew I needed it, and she wasn’t there, so I didn’t have to ask permission, so I shot it. But while I was shooting it, it dawned on me why she didn’t want this filmed. I bet Roger looked at my face after that scene was over and he saw a trace of, “Should I or shouldn’t I have done that?” I was on my way home, thinking “I don’t know, I do think it’s important but boy it’s graphic. And I know Chaz didn’t want me to do it and blah, blah, blah.” It’s all going around in my head. And I got home and I open up my email and this note was there, this note.

Filmmaker: And did that give you a little bit more confidence?

James: Absolutely. He had totally made me feel like “OK, this is what he wants too. It’s not just me wanting to be completely candid and truthful about what his life is like now. It’s important to him too.” And it was. He demonstrated it many ways over those next months, and then Chaz got totally invested, she got it too. So by the time when they came home — well, first of all, we filmed another suction scene again and she was in the room and she didn’t object. But she didn’t know I had this other one at that point until she saw it. She might’ve said, “You’ve got one already, no more!” But when they came home and they had that argument in front of the stairs — there are a lot of people in that situation who would’ve turned around and said “Stop, this is tough for us, we don’t need you here.” And I would’ve understood that, but they didn’t.

Filmmaker: Did they have aspects of their private lives that they set from the get-go as off limits?

James: They didn’t set ground rules. But like any subjects, there are certain things that people are willing to share no matter how candid they are and certain things people aren’t. I was struck by how much they were willing to share, especially given — we’ve all seen films that deal very candidly and forthrightly with life-ending illness, but I can’t recall ever seeing a film with that kind of candor that’s about someone famous like Roger. Usually famous people, when they’re candid, there’s a lot of strings attached to what that means. And they weren’t that way. But I think the most significant example of what was not going to be filmed was those last few weeks, when things were really starting to go south. I knew from talking to Chaz and from my emailing with Roger, that wasn’t going to be filmed.

In fact, I think I have the last actual image of Roger Ebert that was recorded, the second day he was home, the last thing we filmed. Because after that when he went back to the hospital, according to Chaz, she didn’t take a single picture of him. No one that came in to visit him took a single picture. There are no images of him from that time. I’m glad that we didn’t film that. We didn’t need to film that. Nobody needs to film that.

Filmmaker: I’m curious about your research about the rest of his life. Obviously that book is a huge resource. But were there other people in his life that you really leaned on? Was there a key archival thing?

James:  Josh Schollmeyer came on board as a co-producer. Josh did the magnificent “The Original Frenemies,” the oral history of the Siskel and Ebert show. I read it before I ever got involved with this film, because it was featured in a magazine that featured something on The Interrupters. So when I got the magazine, I was looking and there’s this incredible oral history of Siskel and Ebert so I just started reading it. In his memoir he doesn’t talk about the show, he devotes a chapter to Gene, but it’s much milder. It’s the recollections of a man looking back wistfully not a man that was in the throes of this—

Filmmaker: Rivalry.

James: Yeah. So Josh’s piece was an important touchstone. I said, “Do you want to be a part of this?” So that was a great resource. Out of that, I determined which producers from the show’s history I wanted to speak to. I interviewed three of them and that grew right out of that piece. I got to have Nancy Santos, a few others. He devotes a chapter to Bill Nack and a chapter to John McCue, so I knew I gotta talk to those two guys. I looked at the filmmakers he referenced in the memoir that were particularly meaningful to him. He devotes a whole chapter to Herzog.

Filmmaker: They were great friends. Were there aspects of his life that, as much as you may have wanted to include them, just didn’t fit in to the arc of the story that you were telling?

James: Most prominently, the show after Siskel. I mean he did the show with Roeper for eight years or so. I had every intention of dealing with that part of his life. When I would interview other people, I asked them about the show, post-Siskel. I made a plan to interview Roeper, but it never happened. In part it didn’t happen because some of the interviews happened after Roger’s death. I probably got two-thirds of them done before he passed away and then he passed away, I still had people I needed to interview.

Roeper was going to be one of them, but right after Ebert passed away, I started to sit down and cut a version of the movie and rough out the structure. As I was doing that, I got to the part where Gene passes away. Chaz had told us in the movie that when Gene passed away, Roger swore that if he ever became ill like Gene did that he wasn’t going to keep it a secret, that he was going to tell people that were closest to him. Of course he went well beyond that. He became very public about it. So I knew, because of that central relationship between these two guys and how they morphed and changed, I have to go from that to “now we’re going to deal with Roger’s cancer.”

Filmmaker: And so that becomes more important.

James: That becomes more important than, “Oh, but before we do that let’s stop and talk about the Richard Roeper years.” I just didn’t do it, and Richard, God bless him, was a great sport about it. I wrote him when it was clear that I was no longer going to interview him and I explained why. He really wanted to be interviewed, of course, but he was very classy about it and just said he understood. The book was 460 pages long. The first 130 pages take place in Champaign-Urbana. I knew, even though there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there, I wasn’t going to spend much time in this movie in his hometown.

Filmmaker: Sure. Was there any particular aspect of the movie that was just really tough to work out given the interviews or verité footage you had?

James: I don’t know about tough, but with the Siskel and Ebert relationship there was so much to choose from. There was such a wealth of material, it’s almost like the opposite problem. There are so many great moments from the show’s history between the two of them. There were so many moments with them in the larger culture on Letterman and Carson. There was great Letterman stuff that I with great regret did not include. There were more stories, more great anecdotes, tons of stuff like that. I remember saying at the time when we were between shooting and then starting editing we could make an entire film just about that, the anecdotes, that could be quite fun. So it was more about asking how do we boil it down but still feel like we’re still digging deeply into who these guys were? That was tricky.

Although I had a plan for it, it wasn’t like I tortured myself for months. It was hard figuring out how to represent the end of his life because we weren’t there. I knew, because he died without having answered even a fraction of all the questions I had, that I wanted to use the emailing as a device. To help show both how he revealed himself in ways, but also to reveal that decline at the end. And so figuring out how that could work and then lead us to Chaz talking about his last day took some time to work out. Once I heard Chaz tell that story — I mean, that was it. I’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years. I cannot think of anyone in an interview ever moving me more.

Filmmaker: How did she react when you showed her the picture? You didn’t share footage with them while you were working?

James: I share a cut with all my main subjects, in this case with Gene’s wife and with Chaz. Those were the only two people. I don’t do it with everybody in the film, but I do it with primary subjects. I would’ve done it with Roger if he’d been alive of course. But I showed Chaz a cut of the film relatively late in the process, because I don’t want to show it to them—

Filmmaker: At the premiere for the first time or something.

James: No, I definitely don’t do that. But I also don’t want to show it too early when it’s like, “Oh, I’m going to do this and I’m going to do that.” I want them to see the movie. But I don’t wait until the last minute, because I’m serious about this.

I tell them early on, “You’re going to get a chance to tell me what you think, make suggestions, tell me if you think I have something wrong, I really care about what you think about it and want to know.” The first time she saw it, it’s almost like it kind of washed over her. She didn’t have an emotional response to the movie. She was looking at it, saying thing like, “But what about Spike Lee? I know he helped Spike’s career. Should you be talking to Spike Lee? And what about this person? And what about Oprah? They were on Oprah.”

Filmmaker: It was like she was kind of removed from it.

James: She was removed, and at first I have to say it was a little disconcerting, thinking she might hate the movie, because all she wants to do is tell me “Where are these other people?” And I dutifully explained my rationale and reasons for not interviewing Spike and for not doing that and not including Oprah and why I did this and that. And she was like, “Oh, OK.” And she gave me a few thoughts. Then I offered to show it to her later and she said “I don’t want to see it again. I’ll see it at Sundance.” And so she watched it at Sundance and that was the first time in a way that she really saw it.

But even there she was more feeling the audience and feeling the environment, feeling the spectacle of a premiere and all of that. And not like “Oh, isn’t this wonderful,” but more like “I don’t know what this is.” It really wasn’t until she saw it about the third or fourth time that she really, really watched the movie. And she just said in an early interview today, she watched it again this past weekend at a film festival. She’s probably seen it now with audiences six or seven times I would guess. She said she had an epiphany watching it this time. In the recent times she’s been watching it, she’s very emotional at the end of it. Like at Ebertfest she couldn’t even talk. I was so glad to hear it, she said she had this epiphany. I actually thought, “Gosh, it is so amazing the way he’s showing people how not just to live but how to die.”

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