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‘Life Itself’ documentary takes on life of its own

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Updated: June 30, 2014 9:21PM



Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in late January, director Steve James’ documentary “Life Itself” — based in part on Roger Ebert’s bestselling memoir of the same name — has played to enthusiastic crowds at Ebertfest in Champaign (April), the Cannes Film Festival in France (May) and at various other festivals. ¶ On Friday, the film (of which Michael W. Ferro Jr., chairman of Sun-Times parent company Wrapports LLC, is an executive producer) opens at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago, in 22 other cities and on video on demand. Soon after, it’s slated to play in more than 40 additional markets. ¶ Calling from New York, home to the film’s distributor Magnolia Pictures, James talked about the evolution of his latest project, its Cannes meltdown and his feelings about its Oscar prospects.

Q. Positive audience reaction to “Life Itself” only seems to have ramped up since it played at Ebertfest in April.

A. I will probably never have a showing like that in my life for any film: 1,200 people who loved Roger [and] loved his festival. It doesn’t get any better than that. Even the spaces that we had built in [to the film] based on our experience showing it even before Sundance, where we knew people would laugh out loud and we wanted to kind of build a little bit of a cushion so you didn’t miss the next line — those spaces got washed away because the waves of laughter continued on. And then, of course, the silences during the more poignant parts. You could have heard a pin drop in that theater. But the encouraging thing is that I’ve seen it now in several audience settings. Not one so perfect, necessarily, [but] it really is an audience-pleasing experience. It’s tough in places, clearly, but it’s also quite entertaining. I just feel really heartened by the audience response to the movie, not just the critical response, so far. People really come out of it moved and enlightened by Roger’s life and feeling like they’ve had a nice little journey.

Q. Have you had any personal revelations after seeing the film so many times?

A. One of the things that’s consistently struck me is how many people have Roger stories. And I’m not talking about just people in the film business, like critics or journalists, although they all seem to have them, too. I’m talking about people I encounter at screenings. Somebody will come up and say, “I literally bumped into Roger at a festival, and then he proceeded to talk to me for 15 minutes about what movies had I seen that I’d liked and what movies he’d seen that he liked.” Roger managed to be so much larger than life, in so many ways, but yet life-sized for people when they met him. And I think that’s a pretty unusual combination.

Q. Was the reaction at Cannes what you expected or more than you expected?

A. Well, Cannes was the worst of times, it was the best of times. About three-quarters of the way through the movie, there was a projection problem. There was a loud crack and the screen went green and then it went white. And [Roger’s widow] Chaz was thinking very quick on her feet. Some people started to trickle out, because in the wake of that no one came out and said, “Hold on, folks, we’re fixing the problem.” No one was doing that. I assumed someone was doing it. So she said, “Come on, Steve, let’s go down in front of the screen and answer some questions while they fix the problem.” So we went down there and started doing an impromptu Q&A, because they don’t do them at Cannes. That’s not part of the deal. And then I look up in the projection booth and I see that there’s no one there doing anything, and we’ve got people out searching for someone to come and fix the projection. Finally they showed up. They film was down for literally a half hour. And the problem was very fixable. If someone had been in the booth, it would have been fixed in a minute tops. But about half the audience hung in there, which was substantial, because it was about a 500-seat theater. And then the movie resumed and they watched it to the end and it’s the most moving part of the movie at that point. And they gave us this really incredible ovation. It was tear-inducing. So it ended up being this kind of beautiful experience full of its own hardship.

Q. Since Sundance, you
added new material about Cannes, right?

A. Yeah, and it’s just about a 4 ½-minute sequence. That’s the only thing that’s new to the film. But I really like it. It’s a really nice addition, not only because its entertaining but also because I think it really does provide further insight into Roger’s evolving creativity as it related to television work. And I think it helps you understand even more why Gene was so fearful of Roger leaving. Because Roger could succeed on his own.

Q. What did getting snubbed by the Oscars for “Hoop Dreams” in 1995 teach you about holding out hope for that award — in particular, for “Life Itself?”

A. Look, I’m like any filmmaker: I’d love to win an Oscar. But I don’t think of it as the hallmark of determining whether that particular film, in this case “Life Itself,” is a success or not. And I don’t think of it [being] essential to me feeling like I’ve accomplished something personally in my career. If a film is being talked about as a serious Oscar contender — and I found this out three years ago with “The Interrupters” — it means that the film is getting a lot of attention and getting a lot of love, so that’s a good thing.

Q. What are your hopes for “Life Itself” in terms of box-office success?

A. I never have any idea about box-office success. I’ve only done one film that you could say was a “box office success,” and that was “Hoop Dreams,” so it’s been a while. I would love for this film to be a box-office success. One of the lovely quotes from Roger that I included in the film is about how much he loves seeing a movie on a 10-story-high screen with an audience of a thousand people laughing in unison. And I feel like this is that kind of film. It doesn’t have to be a thousand; I’ll take less than that. But this is the kind of film where, when people watch it together, that makes it much more memorable as an experience. The communal nature of watching a movie that works in that way is something that’s precious. And so I really hope that people go out to see the movie at theaters. I really feel like they will not regret the decision.

Email: mthomas@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MikeTScribe



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