Steve James Promises Surprises in Roger Ebert Documentary ‘Life Itself,’ Set to Premiere (and Livestream) at Sundance 2014 (EXCLUSIVE)

Steve James Promises Surprises in Roger Ebert Documentary 'Life Itself,' Set to Premiere (and Livestream) at Sundance 2014 (EXCLUSIVE)

The critic Roger Ebert was a fixture at Sundance, such a
fixture that the towing of Ebert’s car on once-sleepy Main Street in Park City
years back was bellwether evidence that Sundance was outgrowing its ski town
origins.

Now, nine months after Ebert’s death from cancer in April, “Life Itself,” the new bio-doc directed by fellow Chicagoan Steve James will
debut in Sundance’s Documentary Premieres section. James’s own debut film, “Hoop
Dreams” (1983), which Ebert and Gene Siskel championed on television, will also
show in a restored version at Sundance on its twentieth anniversary. TOH! talked to Steve James about putting Ebert on the screen. 

David D’Arcy: Where did the idea for the film come from?

Steve James:  The idea
for the film came from Steve Zaillian. Steve and his producing partner, Garret
Basch, read Roger’s memoir, and thought it would make an interesting
documentary. Garret reached out to me on behalf of Steve. I had not read the
memoir, so I quickly read it, and said, “Yes, I’d love to do this.” Steve is
also an executive producer on the film. 

Was Roger Ebert an early supporter of “Hoop Dreams”?

Yes. It’s one of those stories about supporting
independent film.  Roger and Gene reviewed
Hoop Dreams when it was just playing at Sundance – which I don’t think they’d
ever done before and I don’t think they did it afterwards. We were able to get
it in front of them. They were willing to watch this three-hour documentary,
and they responded so well to it that they decided to go on their show that
week, when the film festival began, and talk about the movie, and encourage
distribution to happen. It was an extraordinary thing for them to
do, because as they say in the piece, “the only place that you can see this film
is at the Sundance Film Festival – this week.” But they made a plea in their
review that this film, hopefully, should get distribution.

There’s so much Ebert footage out there – you could do a
kind of “Rumsfeld” film, distilled into the one-interview style of Errol
Morris, who dedicated “The Unknown Known” to Roger Ebert. You would have plenty
of material.

That’s right. We do show some of our favorite clips –
which are out there on the internet  —
but also we show stuff that’s not as familiar. And I did interviews with over
two dozen people – colleagues, professional critics, three producers of the
television show in its various incarnations, old friends from when he first got
to Chicago,  filmmakers who were impacted
by Roger and talk about their relationships with him. It’s the kind of film
where you could have interviewed 100 people easily. We got tremendous access,
and a real coup for the film is that a very significant presence in the movie
comes from Gene Siskel’s widow, Marlene, who has never been interviewed about
any of this. She’s terrific in the movie.

And then there’s Roger’s writing in the memoir, which we try
to feature in the film as well. It’s a beautifully written book.

What’s the earliest moving picture in which Roger Ebert
appears?

I don’t think that we found anything before the show that
shows him on video. My guiding principal was to find whatever we could
to help tell his story. Sometimes it’s more familiar material, sometimes it’s
in less familiar reviews from the shows than the usual suspects. The goal was
to get my arms around his life and to tell his life story, which was really
quite fascinating, and quite unlike what we normally associate with film
critics.

We tend to think of them as people who spend a lot of time
in the dark watching movies, and don’t have much of an adventurous life beyond
watching movies. Roger clearly was an exception to that.

When we started the film, we had no idea that Roger would
not be with us four months later.

We had his and Chaz’s [Ebert’s widow’s] full cooperation.
The film goes back and forth between the present – that is, the last four
months of his life – and his life story.

It’s true to the book, too. The book doesn’t unfold in a strictly
chronological way. He really does talk about his life in the present, and it
becomes a springboard to the past, and I tried to do something like that.

What about the film is going to surprise people who might
think that they know all they need to know about Roger Ebert?

Candidly seeing Roger’s life when he’s not in public. Not
when he’s out at a ceremony, or at a film festival, or receiving an award, of
which he received quite many. What we were able to film with the intimate
access we had to him and Chaz in the last four months will be new to people,
for sure.

Some people who know quite a lot about Roger Ebert have seen
this movie, either because we interviewed them or because they were working
with us on the film, they’ve said that they learned new things about Roger from
watching the movie – and that even came from family members. That made me feel
good. We’re trying to create a portrait of a man’s life who became an icon, but
also a flesh and blood portrait. One of the great challenges is that there are
so many aspects to his life, I had to make choices about what to put in and
what to leave out, because it’s not a mini-series, and it’s not even one of my
three-hour documentaries, (laughing)  —
it’s under two, shocking. I hope that
it’s revealing and surprising in a lot of ways for audiences.

Did you find Ebert admirers among people whom you might not have
associated with Roger?

We feature some very prominent filmmakers – Errol Morris,
Martin Scorsese, who’s an executive producer – but we also have Gregory Nava,
who did “El Norte” (1983), Ava DuVernay, who made the film “I Will Follow” (2011),
and who made a film since then that tells a great story about her encounter
with Roger.  Ramin Bahrani has an
important role in the film. Cinephiles would know their work, but for more
casual viewers these are filmmakers who are less well-known than Errol Morris
and Werner Herzog.

When did CNN pick up the film?

CNN already acquired the film before we started
shooting.  It was crucial support,
obviously.

What do you want this film to say about Roger’s legacy?

I hate those kinds of questions.  I want the film to communicate in a lot of
different ways about Roger.  Some have
said that he may have been the last truly powerful film critic to be able to
affect people’s decisions to go to films or for distributors to handle films.
Who knows? Maybe someone else will come along and achieve that kind of power,
but it’s harder to imagine in a world where the media is as fractured as it is
now. He was truly a powerful film critic, but he was also a film critic who
understood that power and who tried to use it as a force for good in the world
and in the world of film. But he was a flesh and blood guy. The tag line that
we came up with for the poster is “The only thing Roger loved more than
movies….life itself.”  I think that’s
true, and I hope that’s one of things that the film does justice to – that he
had a rich and very interesting life that include movies, but wasn’t just about
the movies.

But there’s something else going on.  We’ve had this offer with the Indie-Gogo
campaign that for $25, you can stream the film after its premiere and before any
kind of theatrical release. Now we’ve upped the ante.  When the film has its actual world premiere
at Sundance, people who participated in the Indie-Gogo campaign at $25 or
higher will be able to stream the film live if they choose, and they will be able
to tune in to at least watch of not participate in the live Q and A following
the film.  

What could be a more perfect film and subject to do that
with than Roger, whose third act of his life was very much about his move to
the internet, and finding his voice, which he’d physically lost, in that
space? This is the perfect life-story film to kick something like
this off, given who Roger was and what he believed in – that films are for
everybody. 

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