Steve James' Life Itself.

Roger Ebert has loomed for years as the most recognizable individual in American film criticism. Masses of moviegoers became familiar with Ebert and his rival/partner Gene Siskel through their network program At the Movies (and its earlier incarnations), becoming widely known for their “thumbs up/thumbs down” reviews. Ebert began planting his critical footprint in 1967 at the Chicago Sun-Times, staying at the paper until his death, though his reviews were syndicated to over 200 newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. He also published more than 20 books in addition to a number of review collections.

His memoir Life Itself became the basis for the documentary of the same title, directed by Steve James, opening this week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. James, like many filmmakers before and after him, was on the receiving end of both Ebert and Siskel's critical prowess when they championed his 1994 Sundance doc Hoop Dreams, which went on to receive an Oscar nomination.

Initially the big-screen Life Itself was intended to mirror Ebert's memoir, though circumstances quickly intervened. Early into production, Ebert was admitted to hospital with a fractured hip and his health spiraled, causing James's initial plans to shift. Ebert, along with his wife, Chaz, remained steadfast, even at the toughest of times. Ebert's ups and downs and stints at physical therapy are emotionally peppered throughout Life Itself, which also recalls pivotal moments in his professional career as well as personal milestones like his marriage in 1992 at age 50.

Some of Life Itself's most hilarious moments, which are quite plentiful, come courtesy of Ebert's complex relationship with Gene Siskel, the critic at the Chicago Tribune, who became his on-air counterpart. Their bantering, insults, and take-no-prisoners jabs at each other are laid bare. But underneath, their affection for the other is apparent. Siskel died in 1999 and  Ebert exited the television phase of his career after his cancer diagnosis in 2006, though he tirelessly channeled his voice online even up to the final days of his life in April 2013.

FilmLinc recently spoke with Steve James about Life Itself

Roger Ebert with Chaz Ebert in Life Itself.

FilmLinc: Let's take a few steps back first before getting into the crux of Life Itself. Roger Ebert championed your Oscar-nominated 1994 doc Hoop Dreams out of the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered. Was that the start of your relationship with him?

Steve James: Yeah, that's how I actually met him, but like many, I had a relationship with him and he not with me. I watched the show when I first fell in love with movies. I had hoped to one day make them as well when I first came across the show. I was living in Chicago then. I was surprised because it was two Chicago guys. I began reading them when I moved there—and of course this was before the Internet, so you had to actually be there.

So while I met him during that time [at Sundance], I did not become “buddies” with him. I'd see him from time to time in professional settings. He interviewed me once or twice. It was always friendly, but always professional.

FL: So fast-forward here, how did you begin spearheading the film version of Life Itself? If weren't close beyond your professional relationship, how did this click into place?

SJ: It came about because Steven Zaillian and Garrett Basch, who are producers of the film, read the memoir. They are both big doc fans and they thought it would be the basis for a great film. So they contacted Roger's literary agent and talked to Roger. He was intrigued by the idea, but not ready to commit to anything. He reached out to me and asked me if I was interested, so I quickly read the memoir and said that I'd love to do this.

Then there was the back and forth between Roger and me in which he asked why I'd want to do this and what I had in mind for it. I eventually had a sit-down meeting with him and Chaz, and coming out of it they were even more into committing to the film. Roger wasn't sure at first if there should be a documentary on him. He had written his memoir and was happy with it, but as a writer he thought that would be enough. Frankly that was the response of a number of television networks we initially approached to get initial funding. They said, “Really? A documentary on a film critic?”

FL: To follow up then with Roger Ebert's questions about what you'd want to do with the proposed documentary then, what were some of the things you mentioned?

SJ: I talked about how wonderful I thought the memoir was and what it was that I loved about it. He had this incredibly interesting life story that was full of hubris and humor and everything he had overcome. I appreciated the candor of the memoir and how poetically written it was. I said, “I love the way you structured the story, which is mostly chronological but not exclusively so. I liked this idea of looking at your life through this flood of memories and I want to do something akin to that with this film.” 

I told him that I wanted to follow him around in his daily life and show how busy and engaged he was and use that as a springboard to the past and tell the story of his life. I also told him I loved the writing in the book so much and so I asked him to act as the narrator of the movie, not just the book. I want him to take us through his life lifting passages from the book in a first-person account. I think he liked all that.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.

FL: I'd imagine though that the health issues that unfortunately coincided with the making of the screen version of Life Itself that this entire project evolved in a very unexpected way.

SJ: I started following him in the present, but right away it changed. We had a schedule in place in which we planned to film him going to a screening the following week and there was a dinner party being planned by him and Chaz that some of the people I wanted to interview were going to be at. So I envisioned that to be a great theme and that would be a great springboard to interview these folks. I wanted to see him with other critics. He lead a very active life in spite all he had been through and I wanted to show that.

Then he immediately went into the hospital with this fractured hip and in between the hospital and rehab, he only came home for two days for the rest of his life. He never made it to a critics' screening and never had that dinner party. So it did change considerably what I had planned and it became much more about the medical travails not only that he had undergone in the past but what he was undergoing [in the present]. What I had in mind to show along with all the other stuff was his perseverance,  work ethic, personality, and relationship with Chaz, and I got all that despite what happened. I was able to show all that in the end, but what I was also able to show was how a man can die with great dignity, great courage, and sense of humor intact.

FL: When his health was failing, was there any thought to not continue with it, and were Chaz and Roger always still up for going forward with it?

SJ: It wasn't really until the end literally that we were really going to lose Roger. When he went in with a fractured hip, Chaz said, “We expect that the doctors will be in the hospital for [a while] and he'll have a week of rehab and that will be it.” I said to her at the time that I'd like to film some of that and use that as a springboard to talk about the medical challenges of the past, including his cancer. The expectation was that it was a temporary setback and that he'd resume his life as before…

At every step of the way, even when it was revealed he had cancer [again] and that the fractured hip was because of [the disease], the doctors said he may have 6 to 16 months to live. Even then there was an expectation from Chaz, and I believed it that he'd recover and be around for another couple years at least. She had heard these diagnoses before. She and Roger had already defied the doctors' expectations. So we were always proceeding with the assumption that he'd get better and resume his life and then we'd document it.

FL: So let's use this as a “springboard” as you say to dive into the past, specifically to his relationship with Gene Siskel. Of course their relationship is a big part of the story. They famously had a long, contentious, sometimes difficult but also brotherly relationship. Your film shows some humorous exchanges between the two of them, which does bring up the point that despite the end of life issues raised in the story, there is a good amount of humor throughout the movie.

SJ: Absolutely, and that was very important to me because when you read his memoir it has a lot of humor in it. Roger had a great sense of humor and a great sense of comic timing himself. So from the get-go, I thought one of the virtues of this film was that it would be funny. With Gene, the humor is very present. It's one of the funniest parts of the movie and even cringe-inducing in places because of the sheer vitriol and competitiveness between these two guys.

You hear a lot about the candid portrayal of the last months of [Ebert's] life when you read about this movie. Actually there are some humorous parts in that too, but certainly in the history of his life—it was quite the adventure. It's not just about being funny to make a funny film, but it's about how Roger embraced his life—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the quite funny… It is a very entertaining film that at times gets very poignant as well. It runs the gamut.

FL: Did Roger and Chaz Ebert see much footage from the film before he passed away?

SJ: No, I did show it to Chaz right before it was completed, which is my custom with main subjects and I would have done this with Roger, but he had passed away. He died four months into the project, which was well before I had anything to [substantively show]. I could have shown raw footage, but I don't do that. I like to show something when it's put together. The only exception was way down the line when Roger's spirits were waning, Chaz told me she wished there was something she could do to brighten his spirits and then I said that I could put together a few clips from some of the interviews that might make him smile and laugh and she liked the idea. So I sent him a few clips, including one where Rick Kogan says, “Fuck Pauline Kael.” Not that Roger didn't like Pauline Kael, he did like her very much. But I knew it would make him laugh…

FL: The film also includes the likes of Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Errol Morris. How did their participation come about? Did Chaz and Roger steer you toward them?

SJ: The book steered me toward them. There were a few filmmakers that were particularly meaningful to Roger as a critic. But they also came to mean something more than filmmakers to him. There were friendships there and Scorsese and Herzog were two such filmmakers. Their work spoke to Roger in a special way. Scorsese because he grew up Catholic and was the same age, and also because what his body of work meant to him. With Herzog, he loved his bravery as a filmmaker and willingness to tackle “the meaning of it all.” Roger thought about that a lot and he loved that Herzog did too through his work.

[Steve James' Life Itself opens at the Film Society July 4. Screening times and other information can be found here.]