Chaz Ebert, Steve James consider 'Life Itself'

RedEye's Matt Pais interviews Chaz Ebert, widow of the late film critic Roger Ebert, and director Steve James about the documentary "Life Itself."

Many, many people around the world have loved and supported the work of late film critic Roger Ebert. But, obviously, you won’t find bigger champions of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Urbana, Ill. native than Chaz Ebert, his wife of more than 20 years, and documentarian Steve James, one of several filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese) who credit Ebert’s endorsement as a key factor in their careers. (In James’ case, Ebert’s praise for “Hoop Dreams” put the film on a national stage.)

That’s part of the reason “Life Itself,” James’ acclaimed doc about Ebert’s life that opens Friday, is worth commending for avoiding what could have been a softened, polished look at the world’s most famous movie critic. Instead, in large part because Ebert wanted it this way, the film—which gets its title from Ebert’s memoir of the same name—refuses to shy away from the iconic Chicagoan’s time in the hospital in the final months of his life (he passed away April 2013). It also includes less-than-perfect elements of his many years working and living in the city.

At the Peninsula Hotel, Chaz Ebert (who lives in Lincoln Park) and James (who lives in Oak Park) talked about the movie and the man. Watch video of the full interview above; below read an excerpt about a moment Roger Ebert wanted in the movie but his wife didn’t—and something she wanted changed.

On what to include
Chaz Ebert: I didn’t really want the medical procedure [involving the suction of Ebert’s air passage] to be in there, for instance, because it was quite graphic. I saw it every day. So for me it’s something that I could take, but it was extended on the film and at first I didn’t want [viewers] to see [him] having his airways cleared. Later in the film, I saw they made the right decision. Roger called Steve in to shoot that when I was out of town because he knew I wouldn’t want to have it seen on the screen, but it actually makes the film better. People knew that Roger had a struggle, had it difficult after all the surgeries. People had no idea how difficult it was for him on a daily basis.

Her reaction when she came back into town
CE: I just said, “This is a film Roger wants made.” When you have a husband as strong-willed as Roger and someone who has such a good sense of what’s cinematic and what isn’t, you don’t argue with him. You just say “OK.”
Steve James: I knew that Chaz didn’t want us to film that because we had been there for a pre-production meeting right before we started shooting when he needed to have his air passage cleared and she’d asked us to leave. And of course I’ll never forget Roger’s reaction in the meeting which was, “Why? Why are you making ‘em leave?” They could communicate with just gestures.
I’m sure after I pulled the camera down, I realized after filming it why she really didn’t want us to see it. ... I think he saw the look on my face of guilt because I think that’s why he sent me the email that I got when I got home that said, “Great stuff!!! I’m so glad we got something today that nobody sees: Suction.” He knew that I was feeling [uneasy] and he wanted to let me know right then and there, this was at the very beginning of our filming, that, “I want this. This is important. And this is the kind of filming and the kind of film it should be.”
That is so rare for any subject to take that point of view in a film about themselves. But it’s especially rare with someone in that situation. And then on top of it to be someone who’s famous like Roger, because usually famous people have a different definition of what candid and honest is.
CE: He wanted to go as far as he could go and be as honest. He liked gritty stuff. He liked happy stuff too, but Roger liked seeing things stripped down to the bare essentials. Who are we at our core? Who are we when everything that we know and take for granted is taken from us, and how do we survive that? He thinks that that’s how his heart talks to your heart. He is us. He’s not this icon. He is us.

Something Chaz wanted changed
SJ: Early on, Roger’s bar mates and colleagues talk about how he had the worst taste in women. One of the things Chaz said was, “OK, I understand why that’s gotta be in the movie, but can you somehow make a distinction between him then and now?” And she was right, she was absolutely right. So we went back and inserted where Bruce Elliot says about these women that [it was] “back then” in the bars or something to that effect. So you understand that this was an early Roger thing, not a later Roger thing. And that’s a small thing, but it is significant.
CE: And just for the record I’ve known some of Roger’s girlfriends. Not all the very early ones. The ones I knew were not psychos or gold diggers.
SJ: Although the one I did meet—and I don’t know her name so I can’t share it anyway—I wouldn’t say she was a psycho or a gold digger, but she was rather strange.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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