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

Thompson on Hollywood By David D'Arcy | Thompson on Hollywood December 11, 2013 at 1:48PM

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 bellweather 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 ("Hoop Dreams") will debut in Sundance’s Documentary Premieres section. TOH! talked to Steve James about putting Ebert on the screen.
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Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel
Kevin Horan Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel

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?

Roger Ebert
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. 

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Documentary, Documentaries, Roger Ebert (1942-2013), Roger Ebert Fellowship , Steve James, Sundance Film Festival


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.