Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
Kevin Horan Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert

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.

Steve James
Steve James

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.