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Filmmaker on the life and movies of Roger Ebert

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:50PM



In one of his many glowing assessments of “Hoop Dreams,” the 1994 Oscar-nominated documentary by Chicago-based filmmaker Steve James, the late Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert wrote that James’ examination of two local high school basketball players striving for the big time “gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

Looking back, James said during a recent interview (a condensed and edited version of which follows), it’s a particularly poignant line considering his most recent project: a Kartemquin Films documentary about Ebert based in part on Ebert’s 2011 memoir, “Life Itself,” and shot during the last four months of Ebert’s life. Cinema legend and Ebert’s friend Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) and “Schindler’s List” screenwriter Steve Zaillian served as what James calls “creative executive producers.” (Among several others with an EP credit is Michael Ferro Jr., chairman of Wrapports LLC, the parent company of Sun-Times Media.)

According to James, the project has a roughly $1 million budget, much of that money coming from a couple of private investors and earnings from the sale of broadcast rights to CNN Films. The last $150,000 is being “crowd-funded” via indiegogo.com, which James says is as much about “building community” as it is about raising capital. “And there’s really, in a way, no better subject than Roger to do that with, because he was all about community,” he said.

After “Life Itself” premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19, James is hopeful there will be a theatrical release prior to its airing on CNN at some point down the road.

Shortly before settling in for an afternoon of post-production “color correction” at Nolo Digital Film on East Ohio, James talked about the process of chronicling his most ardent supporter and how doing so affected him personally.

Q: There’s a tendency to sort of canonize people like Roger who touched so many lives in such a positive way. Did you find yourself having to consciously steer away from the iconization of Roger Ebert and bring him back down to earth?

SJ: We tried to do that. I think especially with the heroic way in which he dealt with cancer and illness, he became kind of a saint at that point in the eyes of many. And I totally understand it, and it’s even deserving in a way. But he was not a saint [laughs], and he knew that about himself.

Q: How did your personal relationship with Roger impact the choices you made for this film?

SJ: I could probably almost count on one hand the number of encounters I’d had with Roger since “Hoop Dreams” [in 1994] before making this movie. And that was because [we] didn’t run in the same circles. But the other thing is that I took very seriously this firewall that I perceived to be between filmmakers and critics. I didn’t attempt to have any kind of friendship with him, even though now that I’ve done this movie and really spent some time with him, I really missed out on a great opportunity.

Q: How did Roger’s love and understanding of films enable him to understand your process and what you needed to get?

SJ: He was, as you would expect, totally savvy about it. In fact, there was one moment when we were filming later in the process over at the RIC [Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago] center, and he [indicated], “You should start over. You missed something. You got in a little too late.” It was like, “Great, we will.” He was very respectful. The few times he did it, he was just trying to be helpful.

Q: When he died at the Rehab Institute last year, what footage did you get?

SJ: I didn’t film him dying, and I’m thankful for that. But I went down [after he died] and I brought the camera with me. [His wife] Chaz was not sure I should film him. [His body] was in the chapel at the RIC. I said, “Look, I brought the camera, but it’s sitting over there and we don’t have to film at all.” His body was lying in the chapel and there were a few close family [members] and friends and business associates, and I felt privileged to just be there among them. Everyone held hands and we all said the Lord’s Prayer, because that apparently was a prayer that Roger [liked] a lot. But the most striking thing about it was that Chaz sat down and she sort of took his hand in hers. He was fairly white. And it was such a striking image of her holding his hand. She kept saying, “I can’t believe how warm his hands are.” She clearly was just in shock about this loss. And if there was one image I would have loved to have, but I wasn’t willing to press to get it, it was that image of those hands, because it was quite moving.

Q: How hard was it in that moment to refrain from being the documentarian?

SJ: There was a part of me that wrestled with saying to Chaz, “If I could just film your hand in his …” But something told me, “No, that’s just wrong. She’s in grief and she’s in shock.” It would have been a powerful image, but you don’t get every powerful thing you witness, and that’s OK.

Email: mthomas@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MikeTScribe



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