/Film Interview: Steve James Talks Roger Ebert Documentary 'Life Itself'

NOTE: Life Itself is now in theaters and on demand. To mark the occasion, we're republishing our interview with director Steve James that took place following the film's premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Steve James credits Roger Ebert with launching his career. It was Ebert's championing of James' first film Hoop Dreams, at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, which put that film on people's radars. James scored an Oscar nomination and the film enjoyed a successful box office run. Afterwards, the two remained friends and James was eventually tasked with directing Life Itself, a documentary based on Ebert's memoir.

Soon after filming began, Ebert tragically passed away. James endured and finished the film in time for the 20th anniversary of the beginning of his relationship with Ebert, the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It's a gorgeous, heartbreaking look at the career of the man many consider to be the most influential film critic in history.

During Sundance I was lucky enough to talk to James about the film. We discussed his approach to the story, balancing the tragedy with humor, the relationship between critic and filmmaker, and the choice to include Gene Siskel's story. Check it out below.

/Film: When Steven Zaillian brought you [Ebert's memoir, Life Itself], what was it that made you think, 'This is my next project?' 

Steve James: It was when I read the memoir. I hadn't read the memoir [yet]. I was just blown away by the book, the writing, but also his life story. I mean, that was the thing I didn't know. I admired Roger greatly as a critic and I learned so much from him from watching the show and reading his reviews in Chicago. But that wouldn't have been enough for me to wanna make a film on him. It was when I saw the sort of arc of his journey from Central Illinois to the big city and falling in with the newspaper guys and drinking and the adventures, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. All of the things he did that were apart from how we know him best. Then, of course, the ultimate love affair of his life. To find Chaz at the age of 50 and the ways in which she changed him and sustained him. I mean, it's like a great story and an important story.

His personal life is interesting and I love that it's in there, but his contributions to criticism and to movies in general is just insane. Social media, too, and I love that you touch on all of it.

Yeah. It was a challenge 'cause, you know, the memoir's almost 500 pages long. And then there's all this other stuff. He didn't really talk about [the show, Siskel & Ebert] much in his memoir. And I really wanted to get into the show. So yeah, it was a challenge.

So how did you approach it initially? 

I really used the memoir as my foundation. It was the sort of Bible of making this movie. It's why it shares the same title, because I really thought the way he artfully took us through his life in his memoir was a great model for the film. I didn't put everything in that was in the memoir, but I really used it. For instance, he had a chapter devoted to William Mack. I was like "I gotta interview him." He had a chapter devoted to John McHugh, his best newspaper buddy. And to Martin Scorsese and to [Werner] Herzog and so it was like "Okay, these are important people in his life. And so these are people that need to be in this movie."

How much time did you actually have with Roger before his passing? It seemed like the second the movie got going, he had the fracture and he was in the hospital.

Yeah, it was. We filmed with him for the last four months.

The film obviously can get pretty dark. But the Siskel and Ebert stuff, and the outtakes we see on YouTube, is so funny. How do you go about balancing those elements?

I'm not known for comedic movies. This is probably the funniest film I've made. I've always thought I had a pretty good sense of humor. People seem to laugh at my jokes. But I felt like this movie, this needs to be a "movie" movie. And so it's gotta be really entertaining and it's gotta, ideally, hopefully kind of have everything a lot of good movies have, which are humor and pathos, poignancy. And so that's what I aimed to do because that's kind of what his life was. His life was full of that. And he lived such a full life, so I hope the movie in some modest way kind of captures that spirit.

One thing I wasn't expecting is the point when you show footage of some of his favorite movies with his reviews overlaid on them. I love that. How did you choose what movies to use, and were there more? 

Oh God, there's so many. You know, to be honest, part of it is governed by movies I loved that he loved.

There you go. You're the director.

When his work was submitted for consideration for the Pulitzer Prize, he selected reviews to be considered, to be read for it. So like Cries and Whispers and Bonnie and Clyde were among those reviews he submitted as examples he felt were of his best writing. And Bonnie and Clyde happens to be one of my all time favorite movies. But I thought the writing about those both of those films was extraordinary. And The Tree of Life was extraordinary in other ways, because Tree of Life he wrote late in his life when he really did feel the mortality of this bearing down on him.

One of my favorite scenes also is The Color of Money scene because — and I've encountered this too — is that Roger was accused of bias. What are your feelings on that? That balance of friendship versus honesty?

I get into that in the movie and some of the other critics kind of say I think that you went too far with that. And then Gregory Nava sort of defends it in a very interesting way, talking about 19th Century music critics and I don't think he answered that. I know Roger would say, if he were sitting here, it never compromised the way he looked at a film. That he would actually consider that an insult. That was one of those questions I wanted to ask that I never got to really get him to weigh in on. Like how do you feel about that criticism? But I kind of know how he feels about it really.

But I feel like two things. One is is that whether it did or didn't compromise to some degree, Roger thought about it and he always gave thought to that when he was dealing with a film by someone he knew. But I do think what Gregory Nava was saying was also true, which is is that by getting to know filmmakers, Roger learned much more about filmmaking than a lot of critics do. Because they didn't just sit around and pal around. They talked about movies and talked about filmmaking and I think one of the things that set Roger apart from many other critics, Roger said once 'It's hard to make a good movie.' It's really hard to make a good movie. And I think when he went into a movie theater to watch a movie, he went in with that mindset. Meaning 'I have respect for this process about how hard it is, so if you make a good movie, I'm really impressed.' He didn't go in like 'Okay, show me something,' you know?

There's poetry to having the debut at Sundance. Was that something you always had in the back of your mind or did it just work out timing wise?

It was always in the back of my mind. You know, Roger had a kind of deep relationship with several film festivals. Telluride was one of them, Cannes was one and Sundance. And it, so it was partly, it was, I mean, if it had been done in time to submit to Telluride, I'm sure we would have tried for that. But Sundance seemed perfect because of his relationship to the festival and my relationship, like you said. Because I did learn pretty early after last year's festival that they were gonna do this thing with Hoop Dreams this year. And I couldn't help but start thinking 'Oh my God, how beautiful would that be to be here with this film on Roger?'

Was there ever an impetus to turn the camera on yourself so you could tell that story? 'Cause you tell that story of critic and filmmaker with a couple other filmmakers and how Roger got to them. But obviously you, the director, had an incredible story too.

Yes. I've said that if someone else made this film besides me there's probably a decent chance Hoop Dreams would have been in the film as an example of his power and influence to champion small films. But it was never a serious question to me about whether to put it in or not. I felt like, with Errol Morris, Gates of Heaven tells virtually the same story. And I would much rather have Errol Morris tell that story than me, because I just feel like it's too easy for it to look self serving to me and to Hoop Dreams. And there's so many filmmakers who have similar tales to me about what they did for the film. I'll talk to them.

I was very surprised and touched by the time dedicated to Gene Siskel, his wife, his family and other escapades that I didn't know about.

Great Playboy stuff.

Yes, so awesome. How did that come about? I was expecting a movie about Roger and obviously Gene was going to be mentioned, but he's really present.

Yes. It is and I think that evolved organically. I think I didn't start out thinking Gene's life would be so significant. I knew it would be significant, but not as significant as it is [to this story]. And it worked organically because as I learned more about their relationship together through interviews and research and this great oral history that Josh Schollmeyer wrote on the Siskel and Ebert show, which if you haven't read, you have to read. He's one of our co-producer on the film. It seemed to me and not just me 'cause people have made this point in interviews, that, outside of Chaz, the most central relationship in Roger's life was Gene Siskel. He really was that brother and I have a brother like that. He was that brother that there was a bond, there was huge competitiveness, there was anger and vitriol and there was love. And it just seemed to me that there was so much in Gene's life and Roger's relationship to him reveals so much about Roger too.

Life Itself is in theaters, and on demand, now.