Steve James, director of “The Interrupters” and “Hoop Dreams” recently chatted with The Chicago Ambassador about “Life Itself,” his latest film about the life of Roger Ebert.
A beautiful film about the Chicago film critic who would become a national icon, “Life Itself” will likely be up for several awards this winter. You can currently watch it on iTunes or wait for the DVD release in 2015, and read about it here.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) A lot of your films have been focused on social issues, especially race and/or sports, from “Hoop Dreams” to “No Crossover” and “The Interrrupters,” — How does “Life Itself” figure into that mix?
JAMES) Well, in some ways it doesn’t. Because it’s a biography. It’s different in that way, it’s not focused on someone who isn’t famous.
CA) This is the first time you’ve done a documentary on a celebrity. Was there anything different about that aspect than working with unknown people as you did in so many of your other films?
JAMES) I think a lot of times there is much more of a discovery process. I’ve done a lot of them on following people around and even though I’m delving into their past, but what I’m learning about is very much in the course of the filming. In this film, there was this incredible life that was lived very publicly and this incredible memoir to inform it. So it wasn’t the same kind of discovery process that doing the other films was. It still was a discovery process, interviewing all these people about Roger’s life and then spending time with him was revealing and lots of surprises along the way, but it’s not the same kind of process with people whose lives we don’t know much about.
CA) One thing that The Chicago Ambassador was a little unclear on — did you approach the Eberts or did they approach you?
JAMES) This was not their idea. In essence, I was first approached by Garrett Basch and Steve Zaillian. Garrett became a producer on the film, Steve was an executive producer. Both had read the memoir and thought it would make a great documentary and they brought it to my attention and asked if I was interested. I hadn’t read it but then did and said absolutely. We checked with Ebert and Roger and Chaz [Ebert’s wife] kind of said ‘it’s an interesting idea’ and we found out that there were other filmmakers who also were approaching them. So, when we formally approached them, it led to a back and forth email exchange between Roger and I about the idea of what I was interested in and Chaz set up an in-person meeting. We really talked about it when I went to their home and said ‘yeah, let’s do this.’
CA) Roger Ebert passed away a few months after you started working on the film. Did this present a big challenge?
JAMES) It was a big challenge in several ways. We didn’t start it with the idea that he was going to be gone, that wasn’t a motivating factor. Although Chaz did have this intuition that we needed to get it under way and she actually said as much to me. She said ‘you know, I’m just feeling like we really need to get going on this because you never know.’ And she ended up being right about that, but I think none of us expected him to pass away, even when the cancer was discovered and he was saying that I probably won’t be alive to see the end of this film. It was a surprise and it changed the film. Towards the end when it became clear that it looked like he was fading, it lent a gravity to everything we had done that wouldn’t have been there otherwise and it lent an importance to the email exchanged I had with Roger. They suddenly became more precious and important to the telling of the story. So, it definitely had an impact. I think we were fortunate that we had the time that we did with Roger and we’re fortunate that there was so much out there, including his memoir, to draw on in terms of telling his own story. Without the memoir, I think the film would have suffered tremendously because I was still able to lean on the memoir, to let it kind of be a film narrated kind of narrated by Roger.
CA) Because there was so much out there, did it make it easier to put it out so quickly compared with your other films?
JAMES) I think so. I was surprised at how quickly it actually came together. Every film I do, I don’t rush them just to get them out which is why some of them have taken years. In this case, especially after Roger died, I had no intention of just trying to get it done. The importance of the film grew because whenever the film ends, and however many other filmmakers come along and want to do a film about Roger Ebert, this was going to be the only one that was done with his involvement and cooperation. At the same time, there was a sense of urgency because given his passing it would be good to get the film done sooner than later. I was surprised at how quickly it came together. We had a great team, I had a great archival research person in Emily Hart who has worked with me on several films. I had a great co-editor in David Simpson who also worked with me on several films. Between him and I both cutting and tag-teaming as it were, I think we were able to put the film together in a way that I was very satisfied with. We had a great team and it allowed for the film to come together and I’m very happy with it. I don’t look at it and say ‘oh gee, I wish we spent another few months working on it.’ I don’t feel that way about it.
CA) You said you had met Roger Ebert a few times and obviously he was a champion of “Hoop Dreams” and some of your other films, but you didn’t have a friendly relationship with him before the film. What did you learn about him that surprised you the most?
James) The memoir was full of surprises for me, which was part of why I wanted to do the film. I didn’t know his life story. I didn’t know that he had been such a precocious talent even in high school and college. I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t know a lot about his early days in the bars and as a print journalist. So on top of those surprises once we started to do the film, it was great to hear from people who had known Roger and been close to Roger all those years and remained close to him. For them to tell great stories about Roger, it was quite revealing. Sometimes flattering, sometimes not. I just loved hearing the story about the editorial he did at the “Daily Illini” about the church bombing. I thought that was extraordinary. I loved having Bill Nack recite “The Great Gatsby” and talk about what all that meant to Roger. That just seemed so important to feature in the film in a prominent way. I loved hearing more about his relationship to Chaz and to the fact that they shared the home videos of their vacations — I felt that material was incredibly beautiful and revealing of how he fully at that point in his life, meeting her at 50 — how he was totally adopted by and adopted her family and sort of reveled in being a family man in a way that he had never had, as an only child who had lost his dad when he was very young. And just seeing the way Roger — it’s one thing to read about Roger’s illness, which he had written about extensively – it’s another thing to both hear from Chaz, that very powerful moment for me when she talks about at one point he so frustrated that he said ‘kill me.’ I think we didn’t expect to hear that from Roger given how he had accepted so much of what he’d been through, but that only makes him all the more human. Of course he had his dark moments when he just wanted to give up and it speaks to both his resiliency and Chaz’s determination. And to be there to film and at some point realizing this could be the end and to see way he handled that, it was quite eye-opening and moving and courageous. There were surprises all along. I think the fact that I wasn’t Roger’s friend made the process — the reading of the memoir, the interviewing of his friends and colleagues and fellow critics and family — it made it all the more revealing and an eye-opening experience for me and hopefully the film feels that — you feel my feelings as you are watching the story unfold.
CA) Watching the film, I think one takeaway is how strong of a person Chaz Ebert is. Here is a woman that while successful in her own right, was never in the spotlight that Roger was used to. Was she a harder subject than her husband?
JAMES) I think there was a process–she would tell you this– for her to open up more because she wasn’t the kind of public figure that Roger was. She was the person in their marriage, especially once the illness hit, that wanted to protect him. And when he wanted to be open, she was the cautionary voice to say ‘okay, I understand Roger, but let’s think about that.’ I think he needed her to play that role, and she did. Even with the film, she wanted to protect him and his sort of complete willingness to be so open and candid about the illness to a level that even he had not done before through his writing and his public appearances. I think it gave her pause and it took her awhile to kind of get comfortable with that. But towards the end she had gotten there, which is why that scene late in the movie when they are coming home and they get into it – it’s so important because it’s so revealing of the struggle any couple goes through, both in marriage in general but also when there’s a challenge like this illness. It’s not a long scene, but it’s a very revealing scene and neither of them asked for it not to be included, neither of them said stop or came back days later and said ‘that was tough for us, does that really need to be in the movie, Steve?’ – None of that ever happened. She really did embrace it by the end.
CA) Something I found interesting — usually one would think it would be the filmmaker pushing the subject to show more, or to show the “bad” with the good — but Roger was the one pushing to make sure every aspect was shown, the good, bad and the ugly.
JAMES) Yes, I as a filmmaker want that but it is unusual for a subject to be immediately that revealing, especially someone that famous. It’s unusual in every respect. For someone of his stature to be immediately there is remarkable and it’s remarkable for anyone in that situation. Another example of how far Chaz came, in our major sit-down interview we did with her, there’s footage of her throughout the film, but in that moment she revealed that she had been in AA and that they had first seen each other in AA. That was something that Roger had never talked about because he was respecting her privacy around that. She had gotten to such a point of feeling like Roger, that being open and honest was important, that she chose to reveal that in the film, something she had never publicly spoken of before. That tells you something about both of them.
CA) How do you know he has a promising subject or strong compelling characters? What are the signs?
JAMES) I think in this case, reading the memoir and knowing Roger’s public persona, this was a safe choice. I knew it would be interesting and if it wasn’t it would have said more about me than him. I think most times with people who are not famous who I decide to go on this ride with them, and they decide to go on the ride with me, it’s a combination of things. Sometimes I’m fascinated with the person. I find that, well I find it’s always been true that if I’m fascinated with someone that the audience will be as well, if I can only capture ‘that’ thing. I think the other thing is, that in a lot of films, the stories are about people who are either at crossroads in their lives or are trying to achieve something or overcome something or deal with something. To follow people in that place int their lives is inherently dramatic and interesting. Or in the case of “The Interrupters” or “At the Death House Door,” these are people who have gone through profound change. To tell the story of that and to see the result of that change, those are always potentially larger stories and they have something larger to say about the world we live in and also will hook a viewer.
CA) Have you ever started working on an idea for a film and scrapping it because maybe it wasn’t compelling?
JAMES) I have not started a film and not finished it. There have been ideas for films that I’ve wanted to do and for whatever reasons I have not been able to do them, because I could not get the person or the access that I needed in order to tell the story. But I never started a film and then bailed on it. There have been, very rare — like in “The Interrupters,” there were a couple Interrupters that we wanted to follow and we filmed a fair amount with a couple of them but ultimately they became much more minor figures in that film simply because they could not find a way to let us film what we needed to film. It wasn’t that they weren’t interesting, they were. They just had misgivings about allowing us the kind of access we needed into their lives personally and into their work on the streets that it became clear that they could not be a main subject, but I was extremely happy with the three that we ended up with.
CA) You’ve made a lot of films. What would you say is the most challenging aspect?
JAMES) I think different films have different challenges. I’ve been very fortunate that people have trusted me enough to allow me in and have shared with me. There have been challenges with that though, it doesn’t always happen easily and even when it seems to happen easily there are levels and layers of sharing that I’m unaware of that we eventually get to. With ‘The Interrupters’ it was how do we get on the streets and see them doing these violent mediations and be there. I knew that we didn’t need many of them and fortunately I think we got enough for the film we wanted to do. With Roger, it was how do we navigate the hospital scenes and the rehab institute because they have restrictions about what they would be willing to allow us to film and how often. That wasn’t Roger, that was them. With the film on Allen Iverson (“No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson”) ESPN wanted me to interview Allen Iverson. They thought it would be really important. I didn’t think it was that important, it wasn’t what the film was about, but I made every effort to get him and we didn’t. There was plenty of stuff out there but the challenge became how do you tell his story and what happened to him in high school without his cooperation and direct involvement in the film. I would have been happy to interview him but I had to be prepared that chances are we were not going to get him and still make the film. They all have their challenges but that’s part of filmmaking and if you got everything you wanted, that creates another type of challenge. Restrictions and the things you were unable to do make demands on you creatively that actually in some ways often are good things because it forces you to figure out other ways. In some ways, it makes the film distinctive.
CA) Right now the movie is available to rent on iTunes. It’s been shown at numerous film festivals and had an extended theater run. What is the plan for it now?
JAMES) It’s award season so I’m doing a number of screenings. It will be broadcast on CNN in January.
CA) When will the DVD be available?
JAMES) After the broadcast in January. For now, iTunes is the way to see it.