Hoop Dreams director Steve James was in town for the premiere of his new film Life Itself at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, and we sat down to chat with him about his latest documentary and its subject Roger Ebert.
Were you aware that Roger Ebert would no longer be with us by the time the film was finished?
No. When I started the film I had no idea that he would be gone. That did not become a possibility until we had been filming a while, then it became a distinct possibility when he said that his cancer had returned and that he did not expect to be alive when the film was done. Then it became a distinct possibility and then he came to pass.
When I started out I wasn’t determined to make a film about the death of a famous, prominent film critic, but it ended up being that. But it’s not just about death, you know. It has many aspects to it, and it does end up being a film about how one dies with grace and courage, and I think he did that. That’s what is inspiring and sad.
Being so close to that, did it make you evaluate your own life, as these types of films tend to make us reflect?
Well, I think what I was struck by towards the end was, what I said a moment ago, his grace and courage in the face of it, and the way he maintained his sense of humour to the end. But I think the real lesson of the film, to me, in a way, was just the exuberant way in which Roger embraced life, and it’s something that I try to capture in this film – this sense of a life well lived. You know, he didn’t title his memoir “Life in Films”, he titled his memoir “Life Itself”, and I think that’s significant because he loved movies, of course, but he also loved life apart from movies. And his life apart from movies informed his love of movies.
And you see this in the part where he talks about meeting his wife, Chaz…
Oh my god, yes. I think he had many achievements, but I think Chaz was the most, maybe, life-changing chapter of his life. He found this incredible love. They were married for 22 years, so even though they found each other relatively late in life, they still had a significant life together, and it was pretty remarkable. Roger was someone who, at different stages of his life, managed to reinvent himself. But not reinvent him like Madonna reinvents herself, where you wonder if it’s the real Madonna or not. He managed to reinvent himself in ways that helped him grow and change in really wonderful ways. He reinvented himself when he left small-town Illinois, Chicago as a writer, and he reinvented himself as a film critic, and then he reinvented himself as an iconic celebrity film critic, and then, with the cancer, he became an inspiration for many people about how you cope with cancer. He reinvented himself when he met Chaz because he went from being a kind of confirmed bachelor to an extremely happy family man. His life was full of amazing turns and that’s what really, ultimately, made me want to make this movie.
And even when he realised his life was coming to an end, his spirit wasn’t broken and he was very accepting of it…
Yeah, and he said, “I’ve had a great life.” He realised that. Some people come to that realisation as life comes to an end and they get a different perspective and they look back. Many people don’t. But I think Roger didn’t have to get to the end of his life to realise what an extraordinary life he had. He lived it and he revelled in it.
Was Chaz opposed to the idea of the film, given its sensitive nature?
I think she was, absolutely, more protective of him because she was used to playing that role. He’s a famous guy but, by nature, very unguarded, and she loved him and wanted to protect him. I think that was a very wonderful trait for her, but I think when it came to the film, Roger was going to be Roger, and I think she came around to understanding that.
You mentioned in the Q&A after the screening that it was actually Gene Siskel and Ebert’s review of Hoop Dreams that put the film on the map and propelled it to the top at Sundance that year. Was that one of the things that led you to direct this film?
Well, i’m sure if you had asked Roger there were more names on the list, but I was fortunate enough to get the call. He really prized my work and prized the honesty of the work i’ve done, and so I certainly appreciated that. But I wouldn’t have made the film if all that interested me about him was that he was a great film critic and that he had been an important support in my career. I might have felt some obligation, like maybe I should do it, but I wouldn’t have done it. I had to read his memoir and see everything we’ve been talking about. That’s what really made me what to direct this movie.
Is there something that you want to say about the film that hasn’t already been said?
Well, it’s not like I haven’t said this, but often times when people interview me, they are fascinated with the cancer and they’re fascinated with the candour of how he dealt with that, so we spend a lot of time talking about that, which is great because I think it’s an important part of the film. I think sometimes what gets lost is just how entertaining and funny the film is. It’s a film that has a great deal of humour and it’s because his life was full of humour and full of funny situations, and his relationship with Gene Siskel was both intense and rather entertaining, and so I just want people to be reminded, when they read about it, that it’s not just a film about a courageous man suffering through cancer and dying, but that it is a pretty entertaining ride of a life story.
Obviously we’re here at Sheffield Doc/Fest and you’ve had a chance to watch a few films yourself… Does watching other documentaries inspire you much or do you already have an idea of where you’re going to go next?
I draw lots of inspiration from watching other films. When I was just starting the Ebert film I saw a film at IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam), a film made in Scotland called I Am Breathing. I thought it was a terrific film. It got the wheels turning. Here’s a man who’s dying… and at that time Roger wasn’t dying, but he was going through illness and coping with it, and I planned to film him dealing with it, and I wanted to deal with that and his past, and that’s a film that goes back between his present and his past, and that was great. I thought it was a beautifully sensitive, intimate portrait, you know, and I just really loved it. And so that was a great film, for example, for me to see, that really informed my process on the film I made, and that happens consistently.