Life Itself: Director Steve James and Chaz Ebert on the new documentary about Roger Ebert
Good morning. I’m Jeff Bossert. Welcome to Focus. A little known documentary called Hoop Dreams premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It may have gone unnoticed if not for critics like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert who championed the efforts of the film’s director Steve James. Twenty years later it’s James who is now taking notice of e-books work his newest film a documentary called Life itself is based on a bridge two thousand and eleven memoir of the same title.
We all are born with the cereal that we are who we are . Where we were born who we were born as we were raised .
I’m. We’re kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates intimacy. And. Lets you understand them a little bit more about different hopes aspirations dreams and fears and.
Just to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
Life itself makes its local premiere Wednesday at this year’s annual e-book fest Film Festival in champagne. We just heard a clip from the film’s opening scene. James says the film is not what he and others originally envisioned for the project in part due to Roger’s death last April. I spoke with James recently about the film. He told me Steven Zaillian a screenwriter who wrote Schindler’s List among others approached him about a year ago with the idea.
I knew you know I thought I knew quite a bit about Roger as a professional you know critic film critics I’ve read a lot of his reviews over the years that watched him on T.V. back you know when the show even first started I tuned into really really in that but I really didn’t know his story of his life which which was in many ways both the most surprising thing about the memoir and also the thing that made me want to actually do the movie going back to when you first read the memoir did you approach Roger or did he come to you. No Actually Steve zillion through Garrett. It’s producing partner approached Roger. They initially you know sent sent an inquiry I think saying that they had an interest in this and you know Roger’s agent said you know it sounded intriguing and then when it came back to the agent and to Roger and Chaz through them and said What do you think about Steve James to direct it. You know they were positive but But what was interesting about that is that Roger at that point when it would appear that this you know actually could and might happen. He started he wanted to know like just exactly why you know we thought a documentary would be an interesting thing to do and that that began a couple of back and forth between Roger and Me about what I envisioned for the film which then led to a meeting with Roger and Chad. Where we talked a bit about like why I wanted to do the movie and what how I sort of envisioned it and Roger you know like what he heard you know and so course we made the film but I think his initial thought and I think you’ve even quoted somewhere saying this was you know I wasn’t quite sure why anyone would would want to turn it into a documentary.
Some people may have been concerned and maybe the Roger felt the same way that this made into being a hagiography or a case for sainthood. Three Burt and this film is not that.
Thank you. I was determined that it not be that in and in some ways I took my cue. Certainly from the memoir you know I think Roger speaks very candidly about a lot of things in his life in the memoir about his drinking days about alcoholism about you know his love life and his struggles and growing up as well and so you know I think the candor of his memoir you know translated well the film and I was determined not to do that I mean frankly I wouldn’t have done the film if I didn’t admire Roger you know I had admiration for him before I read the memoir. I had you know greater admiration in a way for him afterwards but part of that was because. You know the way in which he viewed his own life and the way in which he grew through his life and he recognized that and talks and writes about that and so I you know felt it was very important to me to have a film that was equally candid and to his credit and Chad’s credit you know when I would reach out to various people to interview that are in the movie. Usually the first overture was made by Roger and Chaz to kind of say you know Steve James is doing this film I want to you know just introduce you to him and they always said and please you know please cooperate if you if you can and be candid that that was in every email to every single subject that we interviewed and they meant it and I think the people that we interviewed many of them are we’re very close to Roger and Chaz. They took it to heart and I think they you know I really appreciate their candor.
If you did your share of narration in this film and shortly after it opens the first thing we hear you say is you set out to make this movie five months before Ybor to death and he is deteriorating health changed a lot about the movie can you talk about how.
Yeah because when we started out I I had every intention of filming Roger in the present with the idea that that part of the story would show just how vibrant and active he remains despite all he’s been through you know that he was still going to screenings. He was still attending awards events even festivals and he was throwing dinner parties. You know he was living a very very active life and I felt that that would be a really great. Thing to show his his sort of unfolding life in the present and then offer that springboard to the past which is something he kind you know he pretty much does in the memoir too. He comes back and forth between life and the president’s past. So I love that idea. When we start of course had no idea that he would be in within four months he would be gone .
And of course so that changed the film and so the film you know of course is part of what this film is about is about the way someone dies and the way in which Roger let those last four months as I observed and filmed was I thought moving and courageous and really captured a lot of the qualities that I had hoped to capture anyway which is here’s a guy that continues to work continues to live his life continues to be engaged has a great sense of humor and and will and determination. I mean all of those things where they are I think in those last four months even though you know he passed away before we could finish the film.
Like you’re around.
Well you know it was at times great and then it was at times you know it was hard because you could see how hard it was on them and you could see how hard it was on Chad. You know Chaz had been and Roger had both been down this road in a way before. You know on several occasions and there have been times in the past when Roger thought that he might be near the end and Chaz had kind of willed him to to come back from that and survive and then he did and had done it numerous times. So in some ways it was hard to know. And someone like myself who was who had never been privy to those those times before it was hard for me to know. And frankly it was hard for a chance to know if this was indeed just another you know obstacle to be surmounted and that Roger would live on or whether this was indeed the last chapters were I think it wasn’t until very late in the day that it became really clear to Chaz that this one this time it was different examples.
The struggles that we that we’re seeing in the last months of his life there’s a scene when he’s returning home from the hospital and he’s not a very good place he doesn’t feel well he doesn’t want to go out of his wheelchair to go up a flight of stairs and he’s motioning for his notebook and you know visibly you know arguing with chess it’s a very real moment you know that you feel uncomfortable and when the scene Well you know I’m I was shooting that day and I was behind them as you see when you you know when you see the scene unfold it you have you are viewing all of this from behind them from behind Chaz and Roger as they’re in this very tight doorway leading up to the steps .
And yes it was very uncomfortable to film is just like it was uncomfortable for them to go through it. You no camera no camera and I remember at the time thinking you know they they might at any moment kind of turn around to me and say Steve stop shooting you know just stop and I would have you know I would have stopped of course and understood that. But they know what they did and I think they probably didn’t because. They we’re in the middle of it and it was a tense moment for them and I was behind them and so on. To some degree I think they they kind of forgot about me because they had more important matters to attend to which was this you know this this this disagreement over how to navigate stairs but I think the way to their credit. They never wanted after that said to me you know that day you filmed you know does that need to be in the movie you know they they never once came back in at that one point months down the road as I was nearing completion of an ad on the film Chalte asked me if that scene was in the movie and I said yes and she said I kind of figured it was and that that you know and I think that again I can’t to their credit because I think it was a hard thing. But as Chaz talks about it in the film when I interviewed her later and asked her specifically about that moment. She talks about how it’s important for people to see that kind of struggle that that’s a kind of struggle that everybody goes through in situations like that. And she’s aware that a lot of people have this perception of or had this perception of Chaz and Roger is sort of like the perfect couple you know that they would never have those kind of struggles they were so much in love with each other and it’s true they were so much in love with each other but that doesn’t prevent any couple from having those hard moments and so I think it’s great. And they think it’s great.
Or you know that that that kind of moment was in the movie it’s important moment I think for people to see I want to switch gears a bit and talk about some of the other memories we hear from people in the film about Roger you specifically confront his history with women in the film.
Roger has always been attracted to where types I mean you should see some of the women that he’s all in the rocks over the years.
Back in the old days Roger had probably the worst taste women of any man I’ve ever known. They were either. Yeah I met Roger one time with a woman that looked like she was gone from the table. Briefly I said Who is that.
And he said and I said Oh you have a favorite story from that.
Well you know I don’t have a favorite story you know but the actual woman per se. I mean you know I think because frankly you know the guys didn’t get into the chapter and verse on it. You know Roger talks about some of this is you know dating days in this memoir. But but I do like I do like the story that that bill Knapp who met Roger in college and remain lifelong friends with him that Bill Mack talks about when when he met up with Roger one one time and Roger was with a hired lady and he was he was kind of surprised. That that Roger you know was was with the prostitute . You know I think in part because Roger at that time in his life was not having a hard time getting dates. You know he was by that point he was a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic and and he was he was a popular guy. But Roger was an adventurer. You know I think that one thing that comes through in his memoir and I hopefully in the film is that he really did kind of embrace life in a very full way as as John McHugh his lifelong friend said he he loved characters he loved people that were really fascinating interesting and I suspect that spread to his dating life as well.
Speaking of Roger’s history with women SAS makes a correction to the story of how she and Roger met.
The first time.
What do you think I want to talk about that now.
I think you know that’s probably a better question for Chaz I think that you know I think that that he that they actually you know it’s a little bit more precisely they actually really first met in a restaurant the way Roger tells of the memoir where where he was with Ann Landers and he saw her across the room and he engineered and then you know meeting and he was immediately seems smitten with her .
But what Chaz talked about in the film is help they actually they actually first saw each other and maybe that that that Roger was there she was there but they actually didn’t meet. But he sees they each saw each other there and you know her choice to share that in the in the film even though that had never been sure before is is interesting I mean I think I would guess it has something to do with just that sort of candor with which both she and Roger embrace of this idea of doing this film and to reveal that about herself I thought was really courageous .
We talked about. We see footage of treatment in the last few months of his life. I didn’t see the completed version of the film until the screening at Sundance.
And well she didn’t see it and she didn’t see she could have seen the completed completed version before Sundance I would never spring a film on and on a main subject and in fact I shared a cut of the film with her months before and met with her and heard her thoughts on it which is something I always do with major subjects in films. I don’t give them editorial control but I want them to see how the film is shaping up fairly late in the game and so that they can see what I’ve done with their story and we can talk about it. And sometimes that process is very straightforward and simple and there’s not much to discuss. Sometimes with some films it’s led to quite a bit of dialogue in this case I mean she has had some really interesting thoughts and ideas and questions about choices made but. But I think overall she she felt good about the film but she had a certain point chose not to see the finished film until the festival because you know I think she had she had seen it in a far enough along stage that she she knew what it was going to be you know when she did see it in its early stages then what was her reaction. So what was she she wondered why since there were so many filmmakers who Who’s Roger Rogers writing had influenced their career. Should there be more voices of filmmakers in the film like Brezik For example she said Spike Lee and I explained to her. Yes You know Roger Roger’s review particularly of do the right thing you know he really championed that film in a big way and I think it’s and Spike Lee’s first film she’s got to have it but that there are so so many filmmakers who we could interview like that and that be the for me the bar had to be not just filmmakers whose work he had had an impact on but that he’d also had some kind of more personal relationship with as well so that they could speak about Roger the person not just Roger the critic who who had written about their films and she she she got that she was like oh OK that makes sense. I mean look I think you get from subjects when they’re really engaged. They help you. I’ve never gone through this process and not come out with a film that I thought was better as a result of that back and forth and I think it’s also just a big part of the kind of trust that I strive for with the subjects so that they feel like you know in a way that I made the film with them not on them.
The contacts that interview schedule.
All right I don’t know I think there are certain people that without Roger’s endorsement .
They would not have done the interview. I don’t know that John McHugh would have consented to be in a documentary if I had written him or called him and said I’m doing this documentary on Roger. I’m sure the first question would have been it well it’s Roger part of this you know and if I said No we’re just doing it on him I think I think he very well would have declined and I think that would have been true of a lot of people maybe not everyone certainly but I think what difference it did make beyond that is that it it made a difference in terms of how free they felt to speak candidly because a lot of these folks we were interviewing are people that for whom Roger is a dear dear person a person that they admire greatly and in a lot of cases were very close friends who are and you know as well as I do that we’re interviewing people who are close friends about someone . They’re there they’re normally going to be trying to just say only the nicest things. For a movie and so I think that’s what you know that’s what was so great about him that him and Chad’s asking people to be candid because and I think that a lot of these close friends understood and they they had an appreciation like any real close friends that Roger was a complicated guy an interesting and complex individual. Richard Corliss the critic who was probably as close to Roger among other critics as anybody told me it’s not the film he said at one point he said if you interview one hundred different people you’ll probably get a hundred different sides of who Roger Ebert was one of the interviews I thought about and I wondered how much encouragement she needed. Yeah well yes and I think this may I think this may be the first time she’s ever really spoken at any length at all publicly about her husband and Roger and that time and that’s I think in large measure because she is a very private individual . They were a very private family you know and a couple despite the fact that she was famous. But but their home life was very much a private affair and family life and so yes we went to Marlene early enough in this process and just went to lunch with her and talked about the film and talked about the goals of the film and you know I think she just felt like maybe this was the time to to do that. I don’t think she’ll be doing a lot of that going forward but I think she you know I think I think she felt like she felt a duty to both Gina and Roger to be a part of this. And and when we interviewed her Roger was still alive. So it wasn’t like she decided after the fact that she should do it. She made a decision to do it while Roger was very much with us.
Talk about the Middle East.
Tremendously boring boring from the beginning of the movie I just want to compare the way that he’s not boring at all that mostly boring. Yes I would. Fabulously.
I would want to know how he would you characterize their relationship. Was it hard to capture that.
Well I think the relationship between Gene and Roger is one area of the memoir that Roger does not spend a lot of time on. I mean he does talk a little bit about that they were professional rivals and that they struggled with each other but it’s a much his account of their relationship is humorous at times and much more sort of even some ways almost sentimental because of the loss of Gene and I knew I knew from reading the great oral history of the Cisco in the road show that was done by Josh O’Mara who came on board as a as a co-producer on the film I knew that there was a lot a lot more to that relationship than than what Roger permitted himself to write about it his memoir and so I knew that that that one way that the film would deviate from the memoir is that we were going to try to dig into that at the show and that relationship you know much more deeply. And you know what I mean I didn’t know either of them at the time of all that I mean I met Roger and Gene Perry you know informally around the time Hoop Dreams came out twenty years ago but you know I was not privy personally to it all but he certainly interviewed people who were and what I took away from it is that you know Gene Siskel was next to Chaz the most significant relationship Roger had of life and it’s a it was a relationship that had a profound impact on his career and on Gene’s career. It it was a relationship that will filter on some level an absence in Roger’s life of not having siblings and with that came all of the competitiveness and angst but satisfactions that can come from siblings particular I think among men especially if they’re competing in the same field and I think that you know it was interesting that each of the three producers we interviewed of the show who were there at different times during the lifespan of that show with Gene and Roger they each individually said they thought they witnessed the transformation from animosity to you know a much more.
A positive relationship between the two of them. They each thought they saw that transition happen and yet they were all there at different times in the relationship of Jean and Roger. And what that said to me is that that relationship was always one that was complicated. It was one that was always filled with with kind of every emotion imaginable and even though I do think they they evolved to a much more positive place by the end of they were before Gene died it was not like it was that simple. It wasn’t like they started out as enemies and ended up as friends. It was always more complicated than that.
In that short chapter dedicated to Gene Siskel in the memoir The last quote describes Ebert’s feelings toward Cisco. He writes how meaningless the hate how deep the love any sense of regret that Roger had early on.
You know one point the film I talk about how it had nine pages of questions for Roger and I tried to send a whole bunch of them at once and he was just overwhelmed. Needless to say and he emailed back rather humorously I tell you what Steve just sent me one at the time. I never really got to discuss Gene Siskel directly with Roger in those last four months which is may seem odd but I never really got to talk to him in the present about team. So most of what I got from Roger was from what he had written and what others would tell me I do think from from the interviews I’ve done and the reading the oral history that I did.
I do think that on some level Absolutely Roger had some regrets about about how competitive they had been and at times you know to a kind of ridiculous point of competitiveness for grown men. Frankly I think it definitely had probably had some regrets and wished they could have gotten past some of that but I also think on some level he knew that that was the secret you know alchemy. That made them both better critics and made them successful in doing the show I mean I think he you know you don’t argue with people you don’t respect.
Generally not the way they did and they both had such tremendous respect for the other and what they had to say and what they had to offer that they butted heads frequently. But they also agreed a lot too. They agreed about films. It was kind of funny they you know often would agree they might give the same the film a thumbs up both of them but the way in which they would disagree in those situations sometimes is that they would think that their reason for giving a thumbs up was more important than the others but I think these two guys realize what they have and I don’t think there was any regrets about having worked together I think if there were any regrets it might have been that they possibly could have gotten along a little better at times.
Some some criticism with the whole branding of the two thumbs up model and you know they were more than just critics I mean they really help movies like Hoop Dreams and many other small films.
Yes they were more than critics. They had a greater impact on the culture and they had you know I think they they had a greater impact on on the way in which more every day movie lovers look at movies you know. You know when you look at the history of film criticism there are certain Titans and icons that stand out.
You know in the literature but by and large most of them were their appeal was was more circumscribed it was either in academic circles or it was in more rarefied you know publications like The New Yorker you know point Hill for example or Andrew seris of the Village Voice and what Roger and Gene did with the show was. They brought up the idea of smart and at times combative criticism into the mainstream and so that so that people watching that show were encouraged to think more deeply about what how they felt about a movie Beyond just to say oh I liked it or I didn’t like it you know it’s in a way it’s a bit of an irony to say yeah thumbs up thumbs down which they were criticized for and we talk about that in the film for it for four years. Criticized by some as reducing film criticism to a simple yes or no in fact I don’t think that’s what they did at all I think that what they did is they really encourage people to articulate what they liked or disliked about a movie and to found what they like or dislike about a movie in the movie about how Roger to handle.
Yeah I think I think that’s true I don’t know that they were thinking about Gene when they agreed to that at that point I think I think that decision had long been made before when when Gene had brain cancer.
They chose to deal with it and in about as private a way possible especially for someone in the public eye like King was.
And Roger chose to to deal with it in a very different way and both in my view are completely appropriate and and honorable ways to deal with you know profound illness and yet choose sort of through the form of gene and and Roger they both chose very different ways to do it. So it’s almost like it was an extension of their of their criticism I joked this is of course before Roger passed away but I joked with some of the interviewees when we were making the film early on that you know if Gene were around they they would probably enjoy having a debate on the proper way to deal with illness. Now I don’t think in reality they would I mean I think that they would both totally respect the choices that he made but there’s no question that the way he dealt with it influence Roger the welt candor though that Roger and Chaz allowed for in the film. In my view goes beyond anything that Roger had done up till now. You know Roger has been out in public and been very brave about letting people see him. But there’s a difference between Roger appearing in public at a an event and Roger in a hospital bed and I hope people listening don’t think oh I don’t want to see that film if that’s where you’re going to show me because I think you’d be really missing a chance to sort of peek behind the curtain of the private Roger and I found the private Roger no less .
Admirable and courageous the public Roger but we talked a lot about filmmakers but you know even in his days at the U. of I was originally a newspaper man and one of the first people we see in this movie is is Bill McKibben He was they were originally friends from his days that the only ally nights. How do you think his background as a as a News.
I think that’s a great question I think that I think for Roger. He always thought of himself as a newsman and he had he had the kind of same sort of discipline throughout his career that he first learned and mastered as a newsman which is you do the work you do it daily you do it on time you get it in and then you move on to the next one you know you move on to the next film just like you might move on to the next story and you know I think and I think that Roger’s engagement and interest in the world at large you know he didn’t he didn’t grow up wanting to be a film critic. He grew up wanting to be a novelist by way of first being a newspaper man and then maybe being a you know like an op ed writer and I think if he was going to charge his own career path early on that would have been the path not film criticism even though he loved movies and so the movie criticism jumped on the slap and he seized on it and made it his own. But I think he always brought to bear those sort of journalistic instincts he didn’t have a problem using the movie as a springboard to speak about politics or about social issues. And he had again that kind of discipline and that kind of he he sort of mastered that kind of Midwestern newspaper writing style the best of that style in his reviewing his reviews weren’t highfalutin and full of obscure quotes and flowery language.
He wrote very directly beautifully and clearly which is what I think kind of every journalist wants to do the very first thing we hear in this movie is a clip from Roger Ebert which I assume was maybe early two thousands after he had his initial surgeries and he said but he said movies were a machine that generates empathy is that what this movie is about.
I hope so. I I love that quote because I think he he that was that his dedication of the star that Chicago theater so that was like in two thousand and five.
And I just think he hit the nail on the head in terms of what movies are at their best. And it’s it’s it’s you know what he articulated there I think is what i even though I hadn’t articulated it before hearing it from him. It’s you know it’s what I’ve been trying to do as a filmmaker my whole career which is to to as certainly the documentary filmmaker is to have the viewer walk in someone else’s shoes for a while see their lives fresh and through their eyes and hopefully not sit in judgment of people’s lives not make easy judgments but help people understand and empathize with the lives of others and I think you know Roger did that in his criticism. But it was all grounded in his own life. I think he was able to look at his own life and all of the struggles that he went through and the adventures he had and he translated that experience to the movies.
Well just about every single person we interviewed at least appears in the film but there is there were certainly a number of other stories and you know great I mean I interview people you know interviewed nearly two dozen people and they were long interviews in each case.
So there’s lots of other stories that we could include on the D.V.D. for instance interviewed at length Rogers colleagues at The Sun Times and they only appear very briefly in the movie. They had a lot of great things to say Roger Simon tells this great. It literally takes ten minutes to tell the story. Famous story Rogers where he and Mick you had a bet about that Roger said you know it’s this part first pilot in the film that Rogers when Roger said that he could order two Johnny Walker blacks anywhere in the world. The Q. took him up on a bet on that . And there’s this great shaggy dog story probably about thirty percent of which is true but of how that went after that. That will certainly be on the on the D.V.D. So yeah I mean there’s a lot of great stuff that hopefully will make the D.V.D. something you know that people will treasure beyond just having the film.
It’s maybe a dramatic you know what else do you think might be part of those like things that have to be made.
Absolutely I mean I could see it while you can I think you could certainly see a dramatic film and I know that there was there was some kind of announcement of there’s an attempt to do a film about Rodgers and Russ Meyer and the making of the on the value dolls that could be very interesting. But I also think you know there might be a film that that that delves into say Roger the film critic and that’s its exclusive focus. And I really tried with this film to kind of get our arms around the man both as a critic and his personal life and sort of how to do it all to to whatever degree we could in a single you know standalone film and I I feel really good about what we were able to accomplish there but but there’s way more detail that could be explored in a guy whose life is it was this interesting.
Well Steve James thank you so much. Thank you I appreciate it. And best wishes. When do we expect to see. Obviously we’re all looking forward to the first premiere when we expect to see it theatrically released.
If it will open theatrically starting in New York Chicago and L.A. on July fourth.
And and then it will go from there. And I fully expect that it will make its way to champagne Urbana beyond its premiere in Hebrew .
I’m Jeff Boxer and so far this hour on focus I’ve been talking with Steve James director of the new film Life itself changes documentaries based on Roger Ebert’s two thousand and eleven memoir of the same title and its local premiere Wednesday April twenty third. The annual festival were Genya theater and champagne. I’m going to take a short break but when we come back I’ll talk with Chad. Stay with us this is focused on W. Iowa .
Welcome back to focus on just last hour this hour on the show we’ve been talking about the new documentary about Roger Ebert life itself which is based on his two thousand and eleven memoir out of anybody who was invested in the film’s production and final cut. We were interested to see if Chassy ever gave it a thumbs up or thumbs down. She told me yesterday that she and Roger trusted director Steve James to ensure this film would indeed be an accurate portrayal of his life.
Well I thought that the game and especially since he had to change the direction that he had planned for the film when Steve James started the process of filming my husband in December two thousand and twelve with the idea that the filming could go on for a year that he wanted to film us having dinner parties and filming Roger going to the movies and film and Roger still believes his speaking engagements and filming Roger still teaching courses in film and mentoring young men. Come writers and filmmakers as Roger did. However you know I guess God had a different plan.
And on April fourth Roger passed away so he had to change the whole trajectory of the film that was the focus of the film changing there are a lot of shots that are hard to watch.
Was there ever a moment in the movie when you wanted to ask Steve James you know cut this part this part out.
Yes of course there were but you know I knew Roger and I both believe firmly that when we opened up the the process of like when we when we gave the approval for life itself to be film we wanted to we didn’t want to be coy about it we wanted to we trusted Steve Davis a filmmaker and he was a fine documentary filmmaker. He made a hoop dreams and the interrupt there’s been a lot of other films in between and so we trusted his judgment and his integrity as a filmmaker it was important for you and Roger for those to be interviewed you told them to be please be candid.
You helped Steve the two of you help Steve reach out to some folks Was there anyone at first that didn’t want to be part of the project. No.
You know everyone was very happy to be part of the. As far as I know. I mean if they if anybody had any any qualms about it they would have told me they probably would have told me that you know people loved Roger Clemens who was so authentic and he was he he was who he appeared to be and people got that and so I think people were I think they were genuinely happy to contribute and do what they could.
You have the experience of watching life itself.
I’m sure you’ve seen scenes with the first time with an audience with was at Sundance and thought about what it will be like to watch it in Roger’s own home community while asking that question makes my heart I feel a little palpitation because I because I think I’m so excited that we will be able to show it to the Ybor crowd the place where he’s been. I mean this is the sixth year of the bridge fest and even though Roger passed away shortly before the fifteenth year he had programmed the entire festival last year. So even you know his spirit was very very present in every single movie we watched last year and I think this year starting off with Roger is so powerful to me it’s so I think it’s going to be so emotional for everyone and I think it’s the way to start the festival the festival is Rogers. So I’m I’m just really happy. I’m sorry that you’re even recording this because I’ve been so inarticulate .
But I’m also excited that we’re starting the festival with life itself.
Yeah it’s all the you mentioned in writing that the audience at Sundance was kind of like a protective shield in the energy of all the people in news and you feel that way about more. Even more so because this is the double just the festival making final preparations for uber fast and coming up here next week.
I’m I’m buoyant because I know that Roger would be so pleased with the selections of film you know it’s the twenty fifth anniversary of do the right thing and Spike Lee will be there in the twenty fifth anniversary of Born on the Fourth of July. And Oliver Stone will be there. Steve James will be there with life itself. Romain Bahraini because this is his third film at the festival. Will be there with Goodbye solo. These are and these are all films that Roger gave four stars to admit that that meant a lot to him Roger and me and I used to sit down and talk about different films that we won at the festival and if we decided for whatever reason not to schedule it for that year we put it on the list. And so over a period of about fourteen or fifteen years we’ve collected enough films on the list to have a festival for the next ten years. It’s just a joyous feeling to be able to continue his film festival.
There films that he haven’t seen on there on the Roger Ebert dot com website I think it was on Christmas day. You want a list of movies that you felt Roger would have really liked Do you hear his voice in your head when you’re watching a movie.
Now I do I do not only do I hear his voice in my head sometimes I look term I have to look next to me and I expect to see him sitting there and of course he’s not. But I just you know because we watched movies together for twenty three twenty four years it’s almost impossible to think about films without thinking about Roger and he was you know and he were actually was a critic for forty six years. So I can imagine that for. His readers or the viewers of a T.V. show that it’s almost impossible for those who follow them for forty six years it’s probably impossible for them to think about movies without thinking about Roger and I understand that. I just did not know that I would feel the same way because I was also his wife and so I had a different relationship with them but I was also a fan of his just like everyone else.
I know in the blog site you mention talking about life itself . So episodic portions of Roger’s life . Is there anything that got left out.
Oh there’s a lot that got left out because Roger had a very tall wife.
Roger was he was a renaissance man. He did so many things I mean he he guessed and he painted and he was a grandfather and he you know he was a teacher and there are a lot lots of things that he did that they would have been able to print the book if it had contained everything so of course there are lots of things that were left out.
You sound really excited about the schedule for the whole festival this year as I’m sure you have been and so are you settling into the role of the executive producer and host free breakfast and you can continue for many more years.
Yes You know I have Roger I think is he lost his ability to speak physically in two thousand and six. So I’ve been a co-host of the festival from the very beginning when it first started sixteen years ago so I just had to take a bigger role as Roger lost his ability to speak and so this is not a new role for me. The newness of it is not having my husband there.
The title of the film Life itself taken from the memoir The book was a guide guide. What does the title mean to you know that he’s gone.
Well the title you know. Do you know that the title came from a letter came from Studs Terkel. Yeah and Studs Terkel talked about how after Roger lost his ability to speak physically that his writing became so deep and rich and so profound about films and politics and life itself that sort of a paraphrase of the letter from Studs Terkel. And that’s where Roger took the title for his memoir from and I think it I think it really says it all .
All right well jazz it’s been great talking with you because you were preaching your time. Safe travels look forward to heaven.
Thank you .
Jeff. And you’ve been listening to focus on W.I.L.L. this hour I talk with Steve James director of the new film Life Itself and Roger’s wife cancel. The film which is based on a bridge two thousand and eleven memoir of the same title makes its local premiere on Wednesday April twenty third at this year’s sixteenth annual event fest and champagne. Focus is produced by Lindsey Moon Jason Croft as our technical director you can always find free downloadable podcasts of the show on our website you will die knowing edu slash focus you can also find a preview of Steve James’s new film the page where you can find a download for this episode. Folks. I just bought. Thanks for joining us . I’m. I’m.
After he lost his voice, some say film critic Roger Ebert became an even better writer, pouring all his efforts into movie reviews and other columns. As he further mastered his craft, legendary writer, historian, actor and broadcaster Studs Terkel sent him a note about his ‘new’ voice. “This – what you write now, it’s more than about movies. Yes, it’s about the movies but there is something added. A new REFLECTION on life itself.”
Those last words became the title for Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir, and is now the title of a new documentary about his life. Steven Zailian, screenwriter for ‘Schindler’s List” among other films, first approached director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, 2005) in late 2012 about the project. When James first met with Chaz and Roger about the direction the film would take, no one could have predicted he would pass away just five months later.
During this Focus interview, Jeff Bossert talks with filmmaker Steve James and Chaz Ebert about capturing Roger’s life, and his death, on film.