Roger Ebert spent his life making film criticism accessible — and often, he was more entertaining than the movies he reviewed. Creating a documentary worthy of the late Pulitzer Prize winner sounds like an imposing task, then. But director Steve James has some unique qualifications.
Like Ebert was, the Hoop Dreams director is based in Chicago, and he understands how the Midwest's biggest city changed Ebert's life and, by extension, the way Americans look at movies. To make Life Itself, which takes its title from Ebert's autobiography, James followed Ebert and his wife, Chaz, during the critic's final months. His film (available on demand now and opening locally July 18) also includes testimony from filmmakers whose careers received a crucial boost from Ebert's praise — notably, Martin Scorsese and Errol Morris.
James, whose other films include Stevie, The Interrupters and Head Games, spoke with The Pitch by phone from the Windy City.
The Pitch: When Ebert died, people referred to him as a "beloved critic." Most critics are pretty much treated like lepers.
James: Yeah, it is kind of an oxymoron. But yet, there you go. He was beloved. People loved the way he wrote about movies. They loved the personality of Roger that peeked through in his movie criticism. He wasn't this pretentious snob thumbing his nose at movies, quoting philosophers or novelists to show how smart he was. He didn't act like he was above the movies.
I think Roger also fully engaged his audience, especially when he lost the ability to speak and was on the Internet. He would respond to people's comments to his columns or his reviews. He really connected with people, and whenever people would meet with him or have a cause to meet him in person, he always was so approachable and friendly. I think all of these things contributed to this kind of very profound affection that people attached to Roger. Roger the man, who was also Roger the critic.
I experienced something like that myself when I interviewed him by e-mail for Huffington Post about the cookbook he wrote for rice cookers. His answers came back to Kansas City from Chicago in less than 20 minutes, and I knew it was Ebert instead of a publicist because I spotted a couple of minor typos.
That's Roger. He was attentive. He was fast.
"Fast and furious" was how his friend John McHugh, the newspaperman, says of his writing. Someone else told me a story that's not in the movie. One of his editors said some famous actor had passed away. They called Roger at 11 o'clock at night. The edition was going to be put to press at midnight or something. They said, "Quick, we need a 350-word obit for this actor." At 11:30 [laughs], it came in right on the nose at 350 words and didn't need a bit of editing.
Life Itself includes interviews with directors who say Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel helped launch or invigorate their careers. Didn't something similar happen with you and your breakthrough movie, Hoop Dreams?
Well, yes. I absolutely have a great debt to him. We didn't have any distribution, and they [Ebert and Siskel] watched the film here in Chicago. They put it on their show and talked about the fact that basically nobody in their viewing audience could see this movie, but that they really thought it deserved distribution and to be seen more widely. That had a profound impact that made distributors suddenly interested in it who up until then had no particular interest in a three-hour documentary about two unknown basketball players.
And then Roger personally, of course, wrote about the film. He wrote beautifully about it in his print reviews, and he included it in his first great-films book series. He continued to write about my other work and review it and was a very positive, critical voice. He made a big impact on my career.
There were other film-discussion shows like theirs that tried to imitate their success. From watching their broadcasts in preparing for this documentary, why do you think they made for good television and their imitators didn't?
I think it helps to be first, number one. They were the first to do it, and there was, at the beginning anyway, a kind of novelty factor to it. But had they not been a kind of perfectly matched duo, it would have failed, just like it did for most, if not all, of these other imitators. I think what it was, was that Roger and Gene approached film in a little different ways. Roger tended to speak more from his gut about films and review from his gut, even though he was a very intellectual guy. Gene tended to take a more analytic approach to film. He was a bit cooler, you might say, in the way he looked at films.
So these guys, they legitimately clashed. They had other reasons to clash, as the film makes clear. They were from intensely bitter rival newspapers. [Siskel was with the Chicago Tribune, while Ebert was with the Sun-Times]. They came from different backgrounds. They were intensely competitive guys who disagreed. And then when they agreed on a film, they sometimes disagreed about what they each liked or disliked about a film. This was the alchemy, I think, that made the show great theater or, if you will, great television.
How much do you think that his being based in Chicago affected his work?
Chicago's a great newspaper town. There was a journalistic tradition here. Unfortunately, like most places, it's a bit more endangered these days. He came up as a real journalist, a real writer, a newspaperman. He thought of himself as a newspaperman, and I think he approached film criticism, in a strange way, kind of like that. I think Chicago definitely influenced his work.
When he became a critic, there was no real critical film community to speak of here in Chicago because, as the film makes clear, there was a catchall-heading name that film critics wrote under called "Mae Tinae," which was really "matinee" when you put it all together. It wasn't valued here in the way it was elsewhere.
Roger and Gene, through the show, and Roger, particularly with his writing — because he was way more prolific as a critic in writing than Gene was — they helped put Chicago on the map and made it a place where film criticism was taken more seriously. I think you are seeing some of the legacy of that today. There are a lot of really smart critics here who write out of Chicago and on Roger's own site, which he helped to cultivate. That is a really terrific site for film criticism.