Chaz Ebert and Steve James Talk Ebert And Life Itself

We sit down with Roger Ebert's wife, Chaz, and documentarian Steve James to discuss Roger's life and the new film, Life Itself.

Twenty years ago, Steve James released his second feature length documentary, Hoop Dreams. It was a film that Roger Ebert described in his print review as “one of the best moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” Now, James is releasing his latest documentary, one about the life and times of Roger Ebert.

Several weeks ago in the lead up to the film’s release—which is now available on VOD and is playing in select cities—we sat down with the documentarian and Chaz Ebert, the wife of the critic who collaborated extensively with James on this film that began production during the final four months of Roger’s life. We were able to discuss what this documentary means to for both of them, and what it might have meant to Roger. We also discuss the choice of the filmmakers who appear in the film—including Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog—as well as the role Marlene Iglitzen, Gene Siskel’s wife, played in him crafting a movie that I certainly adored when I reviewed it last week.

Twenty years ago, Roger said that you made [“one of the best moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.”] So, how is it to make his documentary 20 years later?

Steve James: Well, it was an amazing, fortuitous thing that it should happen. Of course, I could have never predicted it right up until the opportunity came, because it was presented to me as an idea to do a documentary on him by Steve Zaillian, the screenwriter, and his business partner Garrett Basch, who came onboard as a producer. I wish I could take credit for it; he would probably be okay with it if I did [Laughs], but they read the memoir. They’re huge documentary fans in general and they just thought this would make a great basis for a documentary. As it turns out, they weren’t alone. There were several people that came to a similar conclusion and approached Chaz and Roger about that.

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Often it’s said artists take adversity in his or her life and turn it into art. Was that sort of Roger’s intention with writing the book? Because he wrote ostensibly about his situation with his cancer. So, was that sort of therapy for him to be able to write about these things?

Chaz Ebert: I guess so, but I think he actually wrote about that less than someone else would have. I think he was still so interested in so many other things that he said he never wanted to become the “poster boy” for anything. I think he wrote about it when it made sense…So, he would write about it when it was something that meant something to him. Otherwise, he said when he was in that space, he didn’t feel like he was sick. So, he didn’t want to write about only illness.

SJ: Part of what I take away too though is he was a creative writer in the fullest sense of the word. When he was a young man, he said that he was going to be a newspaperman. Check, he did that. Then he was going to be a columnist, which in later years he became, but not in the way he envisioned. He wanted to be on the Op-ed page. And then, he envisioned he’d eventually be in New York and a novelist because he loved literature so much. So, I think that creative sensibility informed his life and informed his writing in really profound ways.

Did Roger and yourself have any requests or reservations about making a documentary on his life? How did you feel when you were approached about making this documentary?

CE: Yes of course, in the beginning, we had a few reservations about it. I did think it was important to have a movie about Roger and what he contributed to the world. Not just to the world of film criticism, but to the world of film, because he wrote about film for almost half of the history of motion pictures. His writing did shape some filmmakers. I thought it was important to have that.

Plus, I thought his writing was so beautiful. It’s so clear, but it’s also so humanistic, and he wasn’t afraid to let his emotions show. He didn’t pretend to be just completely objective. He says, “A man goes to the movie, and I am that man. How did it affect me, and how did I feel when I was there?” So, I thought it was important to show this for generations and even for now. But—we’re not reality TV people. So no, we did not cherish the idea of having cameras follow us around. We had to think long and hard about it. But when we knew that there was a filmmaker of such integrity as Steve James, we knew that the process would at least be dignified.

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Did Roger see any of the footage or ask to see any of the footage?

SJ: No. Well, he did see a little bit of footage, but he passed away four months into our filming. My plan with every film, and I did this with Chaz and I would have of course done it with Roger, is that near the end of the process—fairly deep into the editing, but not before it’s done at all—I share the film with subjects with the idea that I really want them to tell me what they think and ask questions, and make comments. I’m not bound to respond with suggested changes, but that process has always made the films better. And I think it’s always been part of the trust building with subjects; they know they’re going to get that opportunity. There’s no secrets here.

It didn’t happen with Roger, because he passed away too quickly. Near the end, when Chaz and I would speak on the phone, and she was very concerned about his spirits waning, and she felt being in the hospital and in rehab was kind of bringing him down in ways, I said, “Maybe I could send him a few comments from interviews that might lift his spirits.” And she thought, “Oh that’s a good idea.” So, I put together three or four comments, and one of them was of course the “fuck Pauline Kael” comment [Laughs]! “I got to share that one!” And one of them was from John McHugh. It’s a moment that didn’t end up in the film, but he said, “If I look up, and I’m walking down the street, and I see Roger coming down the street in the other direction, my day just got brighter.” So, I collected a few of those and I put it on QuickTime, and I sent it to him.

CE: And it brightened his day. It did. Thank you.

SJ: Of course, in classic Roger form, he emailed back and he said, “Rick Kogan’s quite a character.” It’s always about the person, not about, you know.

It was Saturday night at the AFI, you were quoted as saying you do a film with a subject and not on a subject. Would you dare say it’s a collaborative process working with a subject or is that going a little too far?

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SJ: It is as long as you understand what I mean by that. They’re not in the editing room with me. We’re not sitting down, and I’m saying, “Okay, I’m thinking about cutting from here to here.” It’s not that kind of collaboration.

CE: Do I get a co-director’s credit on this film? [Laughs]

SJ: Let me be clear! [Laughs] But when you do a film, and it goes right, and I think I’ve been very fortunate with this, and this film is no exception, is that the subjects have a stake in it too. And you really do want to hear what they’re thinking and what they think is important, who they think it is important to speak to. So, I did all of that with both Roger and Chaz. I had my own thoughts on who I thought it was important to interview, but I wanted to know what they thought. And they not only gave me ideas, they reached out to people on my behalf and said, “Please be a part of this. But be candid.” And Chaz went to bat with the doctors with me to be able to allow me some access in times when the doctors were more reluctant to do that.

And Roger, as you see in the movie, there were things he thought were important to be filmed and made a point of telling me that. So yes, in that way, I do think of them as a collaborative undertaking. But I did not ask them to make the film for me. That’s my job.

In the film, you had Roger reading excerpts from his book. But he wrote the book after he lost the ability to speak, so I was wondering how you did that.

CE: …Actually that was a voice actor named Stephen Stanton who read in the movie. And we discovered him because we were looking for someone to do an animated project, and we were looking for voices, and I had rejected a lot of voices as not being right. I heard, and someone who works with me also heard Stephen Stanton’s voice, and we said, “There’s something to this one. But I want to speak to him over the phone, because I want to hear him say, ‘Hello, my name is Roger Ebert.’ If he can nail that, I think we can do it.” So, we arranged a session in the studio, and he said it. When he said it, it was like everyone in the room said “that’s it!”

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Was it his natural voice?

CE: No, no, this is not his natural voice.

SJ: He’s a really good actor.

CE: And if you met Stephen Stanton, there’s nothing about him that would make you think he could do a Roger Ebert voice. And he can do a lot of other voices too, and it’s not impersonating. He really takes it seriously. He read a lot of things, he studied scripts, he looked at stuff; he really did his homework.

SJ: If you google him and go to his website, you’ll see he can do Morgan Freeman. It’s astounding what he can do. But he’s not an impersonator in the way of Rich Little. He’s not a comedian impersonator; he’s an actor. And there’s a big difference. Chaz discovered him; we were looking for someone who could sound like Roger, but not mimic Roger. And when they found him, we were like “well, we might as well just go for it.” Because it’s Roger’s words, and we wanted to channel Roger through it. So, let it be Roger.

And just to understand, it can pass over you, but we’re not trying to hide it. Early on in the movie, he says in Roger’s voice, “When I lost my ability to speak.” But he’s so good—

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CE: He’s so good that you’re immersed—I call it being immersed in the Roger bubble. And his voice keeps you in that dream state, which is what Roger always talked about what film should do. It just lulls you, so people think from the beginning to the end that they were listening to Roger. And I think that’s a tribute to Steve as a filmmaker, and it’s a tribute to Stephen Stanton.

Also, let me tell you how important we thought the voice was. I think the voice is so much a part of what makes us who we are. Also, whether you’re a male or female, tall or short, whether you’re big or skinny, all that stuff is—you don’t know until you lose your voice how much an identifier with your personality that is. It was devastating for Roger. And it was devastating for me in a way I never knew until [a company created an artificial Roger Ebert voice]. When I first heard that voice that they created of Roger, I was sitting there just sobbing because I missed his voice so much, and I didn’t even know I missed that part of him. So, when we found Stephen Stanton, in a way to give that sort of identity of Roger back—it was a godsend.

Would Roger get depressed after he saw a film from a filmmaker he really admired that disappointed him?

CE: Yeah, he does. There some films that really—punched him in the gut. He was crazy about them and crazy about the filmmaker in the sense that this was someone’s work he really respects. And so, when someone disappoints him, of course, he talks about that too. He’s a professional film critic. He’s just not a fan. So, he wrote about it. I think he wrote about it in an intelligent way, and I think he wrote about it in a way that he would hope would be encouraging as something they could take to heart in their next film.

SJ: And I’ll tell you just real quickly—Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet was a film in which he was very much against the tide of other critics. I mean, it was hailed almost instantly like a masterpiece, right? And Roger was this very important dissenting voice and not because he didn’t admire the filmmaking. He had a moral problem that he perceived with the film. And yet, when I emailed him about it—the film came out in [1986]—when I emailed him about it, it’s clear that he’d been thinking about over the years, still. It wasn’t like he had to go “wait, what was that about Blue Velvet?”

One of the longest emails I got from Roger—because Roger was famous for notoriously short emails—one of the longest emails I got from him was about Blue Velvet, which was one of the reasons I wanted to feature it in the film, because it was one that was still resonating with him.

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CE: He also had a lot of respect for David Lynch as a filmmaker.

SJ: Yes.

CE: Over the years he had met David Lynch and knew that David Lynch was a very smart man, and a deep thinker. He does all these things with consciousness and yoga. All these things you wouldn’t know about from just watching the typical David Lynch film. So, he took it seriously. His criticism of Blue Velvet, because it just wasn’t a film for him—a lot of things with writing for Roger [wasn’t just a film for him]. You’re talking about “life, itself,” and so, it’s going to mean something. That what we put out there in the world actually means something.

Speaking of filmmakers, I know that Martin Scorsese is [executive producer] on this movie, but along with Herzog, how did you choose which filmmakers to approach or did they come to you?

SJ: We went to them. And it was first and foremost from reading the memoir. There were certain filmmakers that Roger devoted chapters to like Herzog and Scorsese. Then there were filmmakers who he didn’t devote chapters to, but from reading the memoir it was clear that he had a relationship to. Ramin Bahrani pops up in several places, and what Roger’s relationship to him was is interesting. And so, I was interested in exploring that. Gregory Nava—he doesn’t really write about Gregory Nava, but somehow, and this might have been from some of my talking with you guys, because he leaves Gregory out of the memoir, even though that is probably the filmmaker he had the closest relationship to over the years—or definitely a close relationship to. I mean, you [Chaz] know better than I. But somehow, I found out about Greg Nava, and I think it was from you guys in terms of who was someone who was a filmmaker that Roger had a relationship with and was important to. And Greg Nava’s name came up.

So, it was trying to identify that handful of filmmakers who were significant filmmakers and he had a significant impact [on]. I could have interviewed a hundred filmmakers whose career he impacted, but I tried to pick ones that it was about more than just the impact he had on their career.

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CE: And I have to emphasize that even though these were filmmakers he had a closer relationship with than others, we didn’t go to their birthdays or their bar mitzvahs, or anything. He just loved talking to them, because they loved talking about film. And they were the ones who were interested in film preservation; they were the ones interested in film history. Quentin Tarantino should be on that list, because they had many conversations over the years. They weren’t invited for the most part to our wedding or when our grandchildren were born Some of them were, but there was still—Roger was always aware of that professional divide.

Chaz, can you talk about why it was always so important for you and Roger to be so candid in the film?

CE: Because we thought if we were going to do it, then “why not?” If you’re not going to be candid and transparent, and allow full access, it’s not worth doing. That’s how Roger felt about film and films that affected him so much over the year were ones that really stripped bare, and get down to the nitty-gritty, and see what really makes someone tick. What is the heart and soul. Not the ones that are puff pieces or the ones that are just glossed over filmmaking. So, he thought, “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it. Let’s make a film that I would want to see!” He said, “I don’t want Steve to make a film that I wouldn’t want to see.”

SJ: I think he had underlining his whole career was he was a serious journalist. I think we sometimes tend to think of film critics as not really journalists. And I think the best of them are, and Roger is a perfect example. In terms of the integrity of journalism, bringing that to bear, the journalist in Roger too would not want something that doesn’t really try dig in and get at all sides of who a person is.

CE: Maybe directors think of film critics as not journalists, but me being married to a film critic— [Laughs]

How did you dig up some of that footage? Like the promo of [Roger and Gene] bickering?

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SJ: Well, the promo is actually something that’s been on the internet for a while. Somebody who worked on the show posted them years ago. What we tried to do was find that person to see if there were others, but the trail went dead. We even put it out there that we would even give you tickets to the premiere—we were trying to flush them out. And with the shows we had access to, which were limited [like the early public access] shows, Zak Piper, a producer, went there. He not only looked at the tapes of the shows, he went beyond. He found one little nugget that we used, so—

CE: We’re still looking for that person, and I think I have an idea of who may have done it. I’m going to see if I can get him to confess [Laughs]. Because I bet he has a lot of great stuff that we haven’t seen.

SJ: Now, I don’t want to see it. [Laughs] No, no, I think I would want to see them. But one of the things about that clip that even though they have been out there, and people have seen them, seeing them in the flow of the context of the movie itself where at the point you get to it, you now, I think for most people, you understand a great deal more about their relationship, and it’s ups and downs, the rollercoaster ride, that I think it makes it resonate more than just as sort of funny clips. There’s a lot going on there.

I was wondering if there was any sort of that bickering at home? Where there was a movie that he loved and you absolutely hated, or a movie that you loved and he absolutely hated?

CE: The answer is yes [Laughs]. The thing that’s hurt so much over this last year is I didn’t realize how much we agreed on movies until—because we would only think about the ones we disagreed about. Over the last year, I’m the steward of, and I have all these writers who are writing for me, and I read their reviews carefully, and I try to see the nuggets of truth, the nuggets of humanity, the nuggets of this and that. And I just say, “Oh my God, Roger, I miss you, I miss your writing so much. I’m sorry that we bumped heads about this.” But he loved it. He loved it when we disagreed on a movie.

And yeah, he did encourage our grandchildren. He would say, “You don’t have to agree with what everybody says. Just tell me what you felt about the movie. How did it affect you?”

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SJ: There’s one you famously disagreed on.

CE: A Clockwork Orange. Because he did not like it. It was the movie—when I first met Gene Siskel for the very first time, Gene always did his homework and did a little research. “This is Roger’s girlfriend I’m meeting. What does she like?” And I don’t know how he found out, but he discovered A Clockwork Orange was one of my favorite movies, and Roger gave it thumbs down. So, the first time I was sitting in the car, Gene got in the car, we were going to do something, and he said, “Hi, I’m Gene Siskel. Do you know that Roger didn’t like A Clockwork Orange.” [Laughs]

That was his first statement to me, and I didn’t know! I said, “What?!” because Roger hadn’t told me.

SJ: Score one for Gene.

CE: And then the other movie that Roger loved so much, and I just didn’t get until finally he had me watch it so many times that I finally got why he liked it so much: Joe Versus the Volcano.

We ended up having it in our film festival. For our film festival, even though he was the final arbiter of what we showed, but if we both really disagreed about something, we didn’t show it. For years, he kept saying, “I want to show Joe Versus the Volcano.” And I said, “Uh, I don’t think that’s good enough for Ebertfest.” And finally, he said, “Okay, let’s sit down.” At our house in the country, one weekend we sat down, and I saw all of the reasons that Roger liked it. I said, “Yeah, it does belong. It belongs at Ebertfest.”

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I was wondering what response you got from Gene Siskel’s wife to the film and its portrayal of Gene?

SJ: Good question. There were only two people who saw the movie before it was done that I felt an obligation to show before it was done: Chaz and Marlene [Iglitzen]. And the response was heartening. She had never been in a movie; she had never been interviewed about any of this. She always refused any inquiries to be interviewed about Gene, their life, any of this.

She agreed to do this, and she told me, “I feel like I have to do this one. I just have to,” because she knew the film was also going to be about Gene, if we were really going to deal with Roger’s career and the importance of that show. And I so appreciated her candor in the film, and she’s very happy with how the film turned out, because I think she feels like it’s honest. I think she was nervous, frankly, about how critical she was about Roger, and hoping that we would present that in a way so that you see how she changed her mind about him, and Gene as well.

And for me that’s one of the most important revelations, if you will, in the film. As someone who is channeling Gene and how Gene felt about Roger when they were not getting along, she’s so important to the film and to see the way in which she changed her view of Roger in those later years in big part because of Chaz coming along is really meaningful in the film. And I think she was relieved to see that progression in the film, so that people would understand that.

CE: And Marlene and I are working on projects together. We say that we are the new Siskel and Ebert. [Laughs]

SJ: One of my favorite moments of the release of the film was when it premiered at Sundance, near the end of the Q&A—and these two know what they’re doing—near the end, Chaz says, “There is just one thing I have to say to Marlene. For me, Roger was the more elegant of the two.” Because [Marlene] had said in the film that for lack of a better word, Gene was the more elegant of the two. So, the audience erupts in laughter at that, because Chaz got her little [jab] in.

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And Marlene, in perfect comic timing, she let’s the audience laughter subside, and she goes, “It’s your night, Chaz.” And then they just erupted again. I just thought that was so perfect, because they both channeled their men at that moment.

Life Itself is now playing in select cities and is available on VOD.

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