For a long time, Steve James has been best known to the general public as the director of Hoop Dreams. It may be time to alter that description.
James’s latest film is Life Itself, the new, uplifting documentary of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert. Loosely based on his titular 2011 memoir. James filmed Ebert months before his April 2013 death. Using that footage — along with interviews with friends, colleagues, and family members — James crafts a beautiful, honest profile of an American treasure and warm soul.
In a recent interview with Film Racket, James talked about how he adapted Ebert’s sprawling memoir (which is essential reading), the struggles of filming a sick man, and how Ebert became a deity in the film world.
Film Racket: How did you get involved in this movie?
Steve James: Steve Zaillian, the film’s executive producer, and his partner, Garrett Basch, who’s a producer on the film, read Roger’s memoir and then approached Roger and Chaz [Ebert’s wife] about the idea. They didn’t agree to it, but they were intrigued. So then they reached out to me. I read the memoir, loved it, and said I would love to do this. That began some back and forth. First by email and then a meeting at [Chaz and Roger’s] home, where I talked to them about why I wanted to do it and what I wanted to do. And then they agreed to move forward.
Did Chaz and Roger have any concerns about the project?
When the email process began, he [Ebert] emailed something like, “Please, yes, tell me why you would want to make this a film and how could it be a documentary?” I think he was just curious about how I might translate the memoir and make it into a film, because, frankly, I don’t think he thought about it in those terms, that he would ever be the subject of a film. So I explained to him that, inspired by the memoir, I wanted to follow him around in the present and sort of see his life in the present and all that he does and how he manages despite the obstacles that he’s faced in recent years. I wanted to use that as a springboard to the past. And I told him some of the people from the book that he featured that I thought would make great interviews. I think my choices aligned with his as to who was important. Some of those ideas came to pass and others obviously didn’t, but I think it was enough of an articulated vision for him to see it and then decide, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
The memoir is outstanding but it’s, to use an overused word, epic.
How did you go about deciding what aspects to use?
Good question, and it’s always tricky. If you can believe it, Chaz told me that his original manuscript that he submitted to the publisher was almost twice as long. So we can be thankful that we didn’t have to wrestle with all that.
I knew there were things in the book that stood out to me that were absolutely essential to deal with. I knew that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in his years growing up. He spends the first 130-odd pages on growing up in Champaign, but I knew there were very important things that happened there, like his father’s death and his relationship to his father that would be important, but I didn’t want to do a blow-by-blow of those years. I knew, for me, the film would really begin in earnest when he comes to Chicago, because that’s where his life took off and the adventure ultimately began in my view. So I made decisions like that along the way. I knew I wanted to deal with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I knew that when I read the chapter on Bill Nack, his friend since college, I had to interview Bill Nack. When I read the Scorsese and Herzog chapters, I felt like I’ve got to represent that aspect of his life. Those two artists probably spoke to him more than any in their work.
And, unlike in the memoir, I knew that I wanted to dig much more deeply into the show [with Gene Siskel] and what the show meant. Not just what the show meant to Roger’s life and his relationship with Gene. I wanted to get into the nitty-gritty a lot more than the memoir does, but what the significance of the show was. Roger didn’t write a lot about the show in his memoir because I think he feared it would look too self-promotional. He doesn’t talk about winning the Pulitzer in his memoir either. I knew there were places where I really wanted to embrace what was in the memoir and places that I would deviate some. One thing I was struck with throughout was his voice in the memoir, so I was determined to really have him essentially narrate the film, much like he narrates his life story in the book.
That was a nice touch with his actual voice—
And the actor did a phenomenal job.
I’m sorry. What was that?
The writings from Roger’s memoir are read by Stephen Stanton. By the time he wrote his memoir, you know, Roger could no longer speak. It’s funny some people watching it, it kind of slides over them, even though there’s a point in the movie where in the voice of Roger done by the actor he says, “When I lost my ability to speak.” [Both laugh]. But he’s so convincing a lot of people don’t even notice it.
You’re not alone. Some people get it, and I’m thankful for this, they tell me it’s a momentary realization like, “Oh my God, it’s not him.” But he’s so convincingly Roger that you forget about it anyway and you just go with it, which is what I want.
But I think that shows how just beloved Ebert was. I think a lot of people, and not just the people he worked with, his readers, had that personal connection with him.
Yes, absolutely. I think that’s one of the great legacies of his life and his work. That connection probably began for Chicago audiences in the Sun-Times and it continued and expanded considerably, obviously, with the show. And then I think it became a deeper and more lasting kind of connection that happened in the blogosphere, where he continued to review movies and help lend legitimacy to internet reviewing, but also wrote personally as well as did commentaries. People really felt like they knew this man.
In directing this movie, you’re dealing with a man who’s sick. So how did you balance compassion for the subject with the urgency of the project?
He died four months into our filming. And I think, for at least a couple of those months, we were convinced that he was going to recover, that it was taking longer than expected but that he was going to be fine. But he even once he had the cancer, the doctors were giving him six to sixteen months. And as Chaz says, in her mind that meant two years. Doctors are always conservative. So I think there was a feeling that he’s not going anywhere soon, really, even though the prognosis was not great for the long term.
Down toward the end, and there’s that section in the movie where you see my email exchanges with him, it was becoming increasingly clear that he could be going. There was this part of me, and you see it in the film, that was like, “Oh my God, there’s so much I want to talk to him about still,” but there’s a part of me that sort of like, “But I don’t want to burden him either.” That wasn’t easy. Everybody’s most profound sadness around all this is that he was lost and gone. I really did selfishly hope he would get to see this movie, you know? I was intensely curious to hear his take on it. Even if he hadn’t published something, and he might have because he kind of did what he wanted, he certainly would have shared with me his feelings about it. But that’s very selfish. Obviously, the greater loss was to his family and to all his fans.
When he died, it was almost like an uncle dying for me. And for you, I know he was such a supporter of Hoop Dreams. In the film community, that must have been a huge blow.
Exactly. In a way, it’s almost like it was an uncle and, if you were a Catholic, the Pope died. He was both much bigger than life [laughs] and yet people felt this intimate connection to him, especially in the film community. Roger remained supportive. It started with Hoop Dreams, but he remained supportive of my work over the years. I will never forget with The Interrupters, he not only Tweeted at the beginning of Sundance right before it was going to premiere there, he banged the drum for the movie throughout the year. And then when the film didn’t make the [Academy Awards] documentary short list, he wrote in outrage [laughs]. He was still defending me all these years later [laughs].
Are we ever going to see the likes of him again, not only as a film critic but as a champion of film?
You know you can never say never, because who knows, but it’s hard to imagine that we will ever see anyone that approaches what Roger became. I think that’s due to a number of reasons.
Roger came of age, at least for a younger generation, starting in ‘67 and with the advent of the New American Cinema. He came of age at a remarkably prescient time for movies, in America especially. His career spanned a remarkable period in world cinema as well and the rise of independent filmmaking in America and the explosion of documentary as an art form within film. He got to bear witness and describe and critique and promote that remarkable period of time. And the fact that he was on that show, which was unique and has never been approached in terms of how good it was and the reach by any other kind of show, wherever it might appear — it’s hard to imagine that ever happening again.
Roger used his enormous power in such an incredible way. It’s rare that someone has the kind of power that he had in the cultural arena could be such a absolute humanist, lover of the form, not thinking of himself as above the form, which I think for most critics who achieved what he achieved would have been hard to maintain. It was a perfect storm in a way of timing and talent and generosity of spirit that made him who he was.