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Steve James and Chaz Ebert interview: “Because of the way he lived his life, he’s a transcendent figure”

The director of the Roger Ebert doc, Life Itself, and the critic’s widow discuss an influential legacy

Clockwise from left: Roger Ebert, Steve James, Chaz and Roger Ebert
Life Itself was conceived as a warts-and-all tribute to a titan of film criticism. Roger Ebert’s personal struggles with alcohol and a life-altering cancer diagnosis would receive as much attention as his passion for cinema and his mentorship of a new generation of writers. But plenty of curveballs were thrown at Hoop Dreams director Steve James and Ebert’s spouse, Chaz, during production, not least of which was the critic’s untimely death—a development that lends the doc a bittersweet air. Time Out New York sat down with the duo for a chat about the man who helped audiences love the movies more.

Where did the idea for the documentary come from?
Steve James: It was inspired greatly by Roger’s memoir [also titled Life Itself]. I really liked that the book was largely chronological, but not exclusively. From the very beginning, he talks about conjuring memories of his life, and he keeps coming back in different ways to the present—after all the cancer surgeries, when he could no longer speak and eat. I loved that idea and wanted to emulate that in the movie. The stuff in the present was always designed to reveal the courage, good cheer and work ethic that he maintained despite all he had been through.
Chaz Ebert: One morning, I woke up with this feeling of impending doom. I said to Roger, “You’re healthy right now,” and he was at the time. We had no thought of his cancer recurring. But still, I said, “You know me and my feelings. If we want this movie done, we better get it done.” I just knew that if we didn’t start then, it was never going to be made.

The film really shows how multifaceted Roger’s life was—how many up-and-down periods he went through.
Ebert: I think his life sort of flowed, but yeah, there were many periods. What I like most about the film is that you see his evolution as a humanist, as a person who was always a deep thinker. He was an old soul, and that’s one of the things I loved about him. I put my husband on a pedestal, but it was a pedestal that he built. He built it with his generosity. He built it with each review. Everything that he experienced brought me the husband and man that I got.
James: The cancer obviously had a profound impact on him. But one thing that Chaz isn’t going to say—but I can—is that she was such an important part of his evolution. In his memoir, he talks about some of the relationships he had over the years before meeting Chaz, and you could see that he was searching for someone like her. He was searching for his soulmate—for the person to spend his life with—and it took him to the age of 50 to find it.

How would each of you describe Roger’s legacy?
James: For me, he is the most important film critic we had, and the most powerful one, not just for what he did for cinephiles, but for what he did for everyday people who love movies. Because of his criticism, and because of the way he lived his life, he’s a transcendent figure.
Ebert: And I would say that Roger is us. He’s all of us. That’s it.  

Life Itself opens Fri July 4.

Watch the trailer for Life Itself

Rated as: 4/5
Unusually moving (not only to stray film critics in your crowd), director Steve James's keen profile of the late, great Roger Ebert works both as a compact appreciation of the reviewer's vast public impact, as well as an unflinching peak into a cancer patient's final months, fraught with pain, hope and constant treatment.

Read the full review for Life Itself

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