The documentary “Life Itself” is about the life, career, death and legacy of film critic Roger Ebert but, as the title implies, also much more. It is about the role of work and love and passion and ideas in the living of one’s life, all the things that come together to make each of us who we are. An adaptation of Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name – a New York Times review called it “the best thing Mr. Ebert has ever written” – the movie is directed by fellow Chicagoan Steve James, whose earlier film “Hoop Dreams” Ebert wildly championed.
“Life Itself,” which opened this month and will be available on demand, is also a loving tribute to Ebert’s relationship with his wife, Chaz. In the last years of his life, as Ebert struggled with cancer and a series of surgical procedures that left him unable to speak, she was seen more and more frequently by his side.
Both before and since Ebert’s passing, Chaz Ebert has been stepping out from her longtime behind-the-scenes role overseeing the business side of her husband’s multiplatform presence in print, on television and online.
Q: Those last few years with Roger must have been a real emotional roller coaster. What made the two of you decide to let cameras into your lives at that very delicate and difficult time?
A: No. 1, the biggest thing is we didn’t know he was going to pass away. We really thought Steve would be filming something over the period of a year, showing Roger giving speeches, Roger going to movies, Roger and I giving dinner parties together, Roger traveling with the grandchildren, so much stuff that we thought would be included. Going to the opera, where we had our first date, all of that stuff. We didn’t know it was going to be this version of “Life Itself.”
I thought it was important to have Roger’s contribution memorialized on film. I thought this was a good thing to leave for posterity. Roger was actually in good health, relatively speaking, for his situation and his new normal health situation. But I just had a feeling and I asked Steve, “If we’re going to do this project, I want you to come to the house and meet us.” I was afraid if we waited until everything was straightened out with the deal and the contract, it would be too late. He came over the next day and Roger passed away four months later, in April 2013.
Q: There are some things in the film you say you’ve never spoken publicly about before. What made you want to open up like that?
A: Being true to Roger, the spirit of what he was all about. I remember when he was writing his memoir, the chapter on his mother, even his publisher said, “Are you sure this is what you want to say?” It’s not all sugar and spice. And Roger said, “I am doing this only once, and if I don’t tell the truth there’s no sense in doing it at all.” So when we were making the movie, I thought in that spirit of full disclosure, I think that I will say that the first time he laid eyes on me was at an (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting. Maybe there are people who will watch the movie, they’ll hear him say how he realized he had to stop drinking and that he was an alcoholic and how getting sober really made a big difference in his life. It was important to make that link for others who may be struggling.
Q: Did he know of everything that was going to be in the film?
A: He knew and encouraged those things in the movie. Sometimes I think, “Oh, my gosh, maybe we shouldn’t have revealed so much.” But that’s the only way we know how to be, that’s just who we are. One thing I’m really pleased with is when people come up to me after the movie – and the movie really is Roger as a young man, Roger and his relationship with Gene Siskel, Roger and his writing and his influence on filmmakers – but so many people come up to me and say, “That’s what I thought I was going to see, and what I really saw was a love story.” That surprised me.
If I wanted to talk about a concept like love, it’s too abstract, too philosophical to talk about. When you can talk about concrete things that happen in your life, when you’re tested and you have to prove that you actually love someone enough to take care of them. That’s something concrete, so to use the word “love” in that context, it’s real and it’s palpable, it’s something people can relate to. It almost makes me cry, because to me one of the most important things about this whole thing is, I just think there’s too little love in the world and even to bring just a little bit more into the world is something worth doing.
Q: What was it like not just meeting Roger but also his “At the Movies” sparring partner, Gene Siskel, and stepping into their dynamic?
A: First of all, Gene and I got along famously, right from the beginning. And I don’t know if Roger liked that. Roger knew that before I actually knew him, Gene was my favorite on TV. I don’t know if I should say that. You could see the competition all the time. If they were on TV – the Jay Leno show for instance – when they came off the show, they’d come back to the dressing room and say, “Who was the best?” And I’d say, “Gene, please don’t ask me that. I have to say Roger was the best.” Those dynamics were explosive sometimes, but they were also very funny.
Q: I know this might be hard to sum up, but what is Roger’s legacy to you?
A: It’s very easy for me to say. Roger’s legacy to me is the thing he talked about – empathy being one of the most important aspects of civilization. Roger led with his head and his heart, but he did them simultaneously. The empathy aspect, putting yourself in another person’s shoes, trying to figure out what it’s like to be a person of a different race, sex, sexual orientation, to me that’s his legacy. Even if you say his reviews, if you go back to those reviews, in almost every one he is talking about those philosophical questions. It’s not just this movie is good or this movie is bad.