Sundance ’14: Tackling cancer, criticism and “Life Itself”

Director Steve James tells realscreen about making Life Itself, his feature doc about the "adventuresome" life of late film critic Roger Ebert (pictured), which will have its world premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
January 16, 2014

This year’s Sundance Film Festival is a chance to look forward and back for veteran documentarian Steve James.

The annual Park City, Utah-based event will host the world premiere of Life Itself, the Chicago-based filmmaker’s doc biopic about late film critic Roger Ebert (pictured), as well as a 20th anniversary screening of his newly restored doc classic, Hoop Dreams.

It’s an appropriate pairing for James. Ebert and his critical sparring partner Gene Siskel were early champions of the documentary, which followed the lives of two high school basketball players over six years. The duo not only gave the movie their “Two Thumbs Up” stamp of approval, both ranked it as their top film of 1994. In his review, Ebert wrote that Hoop Dreams “gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

James signed on to direct Life Itself in 2012 after screenwriter Steven Zaillian and his producing partner Garrett Basch optioned Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name and approached the director and his company, Kartemquin Films, to turn it into a doc.

Reading the book, he was immediately drawn into the Illinois native’s eventful and sometimes tumultuous life. In addition to a 46-year career as a critic, Ebert worked as a beat reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times, struggled with alcoholism, penned Beyond The Valley of the Dolls for sexploitation director Russ Meyers, won the first Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, and reinvented himself on the Internet after his 11-year battle with thyroid cancer forced him off television.

“I have the feeling that most film critics have not had such adventuresome lives,” James tells realscreen. “We tend to think of most film critics – rightly or wrongly – as spending an inordinate amount of time in dark rooms and sitting down to write. Roger, of course, did all that but he also managed to have quite a varied life experience along the way.”

Using the book as a guide, James set out to interview the people Ebert named his chapters after: his long-time friend Bill Mack, his wife Chaz Ebert, and directors Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom also executive produced the project. Additionally, James spent four months shooting with Ebert before his unexpected death from cancer at age 70 last April.

CNN Films has acquired the television rights for Life Itself, so James is looking to sell the theatrical rights at Sundance, where the January 19 premiere will simultaneously live stream to supporters of the film’s crowdfunding campaign – a festival first.

Ahead of the premiere, realscreen spoke with the director about adapting the book, how he handled Ebert’s untimely death, and his successful crowdfunding campaign to cover post-production costs.

In adapting the memoir, did you follow the same structure and content from the book or did you add your own spin?
Both. The film that we’ve made mirrors the book in a number of ways. I really loved the way the book dealt with his life and time. It’s largely linear in a sense that first part is about his childhood, going to college and then he moves to Chicago. But it’s not exclusively linear in its chronology at all. He jumps around in time. He jumps back and forth between his present life and the past.

Was his writing influenced by the way films are edited?
One of the things he says, a quote at the beginning of the movie – and I’m paraphrasing – [is], “I was born inside the movie of my life.” In several places in the book he talks about the flood of memories that came back to him when he was living a much more solitary and sedimentary life because of his difficulty walking and such. I really was struck by that and the way in which he weaved that in and out. That was something I took as an inspiration, which led me to want to document, in a more vérité fashion, his life in the present as a springboard to the past.

In essence, he really is the narrator of this film and it’s drawn not exclusively but overwhelmingly from the memoir. In a way this movie really does hue very closely to the book but it deviates in some very significant and important ways. The most significant deviation is we spend a good deal more time on the show [Siskel & Ebert], its significance and his relationship to Gene Siskel, than he does in the book. We also tried to address something that’s not in the book at all, which is the backlash against Siskel & Ebert at the zenith of its popularity. There was a genuine debate, which Roger fully participated in, about the impact the show had on film criticism.

Director Steve James

Director Steve James

So you asserted your authorship through that.
In a sense, the memoir is an inspiration for the film. It is still his view of his life. I also wanted to make it unmistakably my view on Roger and his life. You feel very much like he is your guide through this story but we don’t let it be exclusively through his eyes. I started out wanting to interview eight people and I wound up interviewing over two dozen people and I could’ve interviewed over 100 people.

Did he give you complete creative control?
He very early on made it clear that he understood that I had to have editorial control and I had to be able to make the film that I wanted to make and he was very respectful of that. He made it very clear that he wanted the film to be very honest and he and Chaz encouraged people to be completely candid.

The film has some great filmmakers who have great insights. Martin Scorsese is a terrific interview in the movie. A filmmaker that Roger grew close to is Ramin Bahrani – he is quite wonderful in the movie. We have the first ever interview with Gene Siskel’s wife, Marlene, who had never before been publicly interviewed. Chaz is great in the movie, as is Bill Mack, his childhood friend. I really felt like we hit the goldmine with the interview subjects. They all had something special to offer.

What was it like to have the subject of your film pass away during shooting?
It was not easy for anyone. I think you can imagine how tough it was to see his family go through that. It was a surprise to the world at large. People knew that he had been ill but no one was expecting that he was going to die and that was true of people close to him. It wasn’t like everyone was sitting around waiting for the end.

How did you proceed?
It obviously changed things. That happens in every documentary. You have a concept and an idea of what you want to do and then the reality of what happens changes that. In my experience – creatively – it’s for the best. It’s an essential part of the process. You need to have a good idea of what you want to do and why you want to do it going in. You also have to be flexible about what really happens. I really wish Roger was going to Sundance to see the movie. I really wish I had the chance to show a cut to him to hear his thoughts before we were done. I don’t know that he would not have reviewed it, but I would’ve heard his review [laughs]. I would’ve liked to have heard that.

Can you tell me about the IndieGogo campaign and why you decided to crowdfund the finishing costs?
We did it for a couple of reasons. Of course we needed to raise money for finishing costs but we also did it to build community around the film. Roger at his heart was – as one of the subjects in the film says – a populist and he felt everybody should be able to get a movie. Roger, on some level, felt like movies are the great democratic art form and everyone should have the opportunity to see any movie they want. He loved the big screen experience and treasured that, but he also appreciated that the Internet, DVD and newer technologies allowed for people who love movies to have a broader and greater experience. He embraced the new while still treasuring the old.

Sundance has never allowed for a live streaming of a movie during a premiere and has never allowed for people to tune in via the Internet and watch the Q&A. When I told Chaz about it she said Roger would’ve loved the idea. And I think she’s right. You can just see him blogging and Tweeting about it – if he felt like he could. He also would’ve said: ‘Well jeez it’s about me! It might look a little too self-promotional!’

  • Life Itself plays at Sundance on January 19, 20, 23, 24 and 25.
  • Watch Steve James’ Indiegogo campaign video for Life Itself below:


About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.