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A Man in Full: An Interview with Steve James on Life Itself

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By Paul Risker.

For Life Itself (2014) – a prominent snub by the Academy in the documentary category this year – filmmaker Steve James paints the landscape of a life and maturation of Roger Ebert, the man and the critic. “I wanted to get my arms around it all” explained James, “To show how the way in which he lived his life in many ways informed the man and the critic he became.”

James has built a firm acquaintanceship with the documentary genre. Known for sports documentaries – Hoop Dreams (1994), Oscar nominee and lauded by Ebert, and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (2010) as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series – he has addressed head concussion injuries in modern sports (2012’s Head Games) and the wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna in At the Death House Door (2008).

In conversation with Film International’s Paul Risker, James reflected on crafting a fitting tribute, condensing a life story into 115 minutes, creating a film to which the audience could connect and which would allow him to honor Ebert’s belief that opens the film. “We are all born with a certain package; we are who we are. Wherever we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We are kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to reach out and empathize a little bit with others. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy, lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” (Roger Ebert, 1942-2013)

James presents us with an opportunity to connect with a fallen comrade on life’s journey.

Starting at the end rather than at the beginning, how do you look back on the experience of directing Life Itself?

Life 03This was an unusual film for me in at least one of two ways. First of all, it is a biography of someone’s life, and I haven’t done anything quite like that before. I’ve done films that have biographical elements, but you wouldn’t necessarily call them a biography. So that was new for me. I certainly see a lot documentary biographies as a lot of them are made, and so I was excited to try my hand at it; to see what I would bring to it that would be different. One of the things that I wanted to try to bring to Life Itself was  seeing Roger’s life in the present, and using that as a springboard to the past. The other distinguishing characteristic about this film for me was that it was based on a book [Life Itself: A Memoir], and I had never done a film which was based on another source material in the way that this film was. So in a sense if you will, Life Itself creates its own dialogue with the memoir upon which it is based.

There are ways in which the film tells the story that Roger tells in the memoir, and I used Roger’s very words to marry the film to the book. But then there are ways in which we of course deviate from his memoir. We spend a lot more time on the Siskel and Ebert Show (1975 – 1999) and his relationship to Gene Siskel than he does in the memoir. Whereas a memoir is only the voice of the person writing about their life, a biography brings in other voices to talk about that person, and so the film deviates from the memoir in that way as well.

The merging of the written word of Life Itself: A Memoir and his film criticism with the filmic image is the film’s achievement, and offers a fitting and emotional tribute.

When I read his memoir I was just struck by the beauty of Roger’s writing. I had read him as a film critic for years, and I had always found him to be an incredibly gifted and clear writer. But the memoir brought other aspects to that. It brought a deeply personal and elegiac quality to his writing. In the memoir, and the film sort of mimics this, you see a man at an advanced age looking back over his life and trying to sort of tease out what was significant and meaningful; what had changed him and what had moved him. So I wanted to capture that in the film and I could think of no better way than to use his own words. But to really give it its full power we ended up finding an actor named Stephen Stanton who was able to channel Roger’s voice. He is a gifted voice actor and he read Roger’s memoir in preparation for reading the passages from it. He studied Roger’s voice on tapes and then he was able to sort of channel Roger. He did it so well that a lot of people came out of the movie thinking that it was actually Roger’s voice reading from his memoir, which of course would be impossible because he wrote it well after he could no longer speak. But I love the fact we were able to create that synthesis between Roger’s written word and his voice, because his voice was so distinctive; so beautiful really. This did become a spine through the movie, but then of course you have to find the visuals to match it, and one of the things that we landed on was that we wanted to treat Roger’s past in terms of pictures, photos and badges from film festivals – all the sort of things that he himself actually saved and collected over the years. He was a real pack rat if you will, and we wanted to create a visual landscape for those materials as if you were looking through old scrapbooks or a collection of articles and such that we might lay out. We had a great designer who worked with us and created that world, which is a very important element in this movie.

Ebert’s journey from boyhood to death is condensed down to a brief 115 minutes. When you stop to contemplate it, it is intriguing how such an expansive life can fit into such a small window of time.

Life 02Well when I started the project after reading the memoir, I decided that I didn’t want to just do a film that detailed Roger’s significance as a film critic and his contribution to film culture. I knew that would be important to include in the movie because that’s the reason Roger is famous and important to so many people. So I knew I needed to do that, but I also did not want to do just a critical biography about Roger Ebert the film critic. I was so fascinated with his life from reading Life Itself: A Memoir that I wanted to get my arms around it all, and to show how the way in which he lived his life in many ways informed the man and the critic he became. So I wanted it all, but I also didn’t want to make it three hours long [Laughs] or four hours long. So that was a challenge, and hopefully not to have it feel like we were just skipping along through his life and not digging in-depth into who this man was.

I feel good about the film we made and I feel that the film achieves that. What allows it to have a lasting impact on the people who respond to it is that it makes you think not just about Roger’s life, but about how we all live our lives. I don’t know when Roger came to this realisation because I never got to talk to him about it. But I sensed that at a certain point in his life he came to the realisation – earlier than most of us – that life is like a kind of movie in an interesting and beautiful way. His life was sometimes a comedy; sometimes it was an adventure and for a little while there with Russ Meyer it was probably more like a porn film. Then at times it was like a tragedy. I think he came to be able to sort of both plunge himself in and step back and appreciate his life in that way, and I think that was sort of a secret to him in embracing life the way he did.

When the film opens it looks at that connection we share with film. We are who we are; we have the experiences that we have, but film offers us as Ebert says an opportunity to empathise with other people, and film has the potential to almost bring us together on life’s journey. Fundamentally he was a critic who understood how central film was to us collectively and the quote you open with is a great way to start the film which connects to Ebert’s own ideology. 

Somebody told me and while I don’t really think of it this way, I think they were right. They said, “It is bold to start the film with him talking about how the movies are a machine to generate empathy, because you now set the bar for the film that people are watching.” [Laughs] Your film – will this film do the same? I think when Roger said that about the movies it was a beautifully concise description of what films at their best can do. They certainly don’t all do that by any stretch, and I think for me in particular one of the reasons I wanted to put it up front was because in that statement he captured everything I aspire to do as a documentary filmmaker.

For me personally the most important role of documentary has been to encourage people to see the world through other eyes, and to not sit in easy judgement of those people; of who this film is about, because it is the easiest thing in the world to do, and especially when you are talking about those who live on the margins of society or who have done bad things in their lives. I think Roger got that; he pinpointed it for me in a beautiful way, and so it is one of the reasons why I wanted this film to not just be an elegy to Roger, which at times it ends up being in a way, but to also show the fullness of the man; show the ego and the bravado; show that he could be nasty and tough as well as generous and open hearted. Show the full measure of the man because that’s the kind of film he would have wanted to see, and I know that is the kind of film he wanted me to make about him. Also those are the kinds of films I want to make.

I’d describe the film as a story of an individual whose life was a journey of enlightenment; of overcoming personal flaws to become a better human being with the passage of time. It is a tribute to him having achieved what we should all try to achieve, and through the film you are certain to capture the human experience. Life Itself creates intimacy whilst also capturing something less personal to the subject, which in a sense is more personal to the spectator.

I just appreciate all that you are saying, and that’s what I took away from this experience of making the film about Roger. The inspiration for me is how you live your life, and Roger showed us how to live our lives. In those last months I was able to see a man show us how to die with an incredible amount of grace and dignity, and even his sense of humour was intact. He really was an extraordinary guy and a tremendous loss to everyone who knew him. Thank God he was so prolific, because there is so much of Roger’s writing out there that people can enjoy. I think his writing will stand the test of time because of the clarity, the straightforward insights and the heart that he brought to his work. So there is a lot of Roger out there, and I have read a fair amount in the course of making this film, and also having read him as a film critic, yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of all that he did.

Life Itself, which is released by Magnolia Home Entertainment in the US, is out on DVD in the UK on the 23 February (courtesy of Dogwoof). 

Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering MythStarburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.

3 Comments for “A Man in Full: An Interview with Steve James on Life Itself

  1. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Great piece, Paul – lots of solid questions, and thoughtful answers – really takes you into the film, and into Ebert’s life. Yes, another Academy snub, but Ebert would surely understand – the list of films the Academy DOESN’T honor – and directors – is more interesting than the films that finally make the cut, either in nominations or actual wins. Ebert’s writing was sort of populist criticism, and he was very good at it; he was also extraordinarily brave in face of a truly horrific final illness. Life Itself is a also a film that documents – in your words – the “story of an individual whose life was a journey of enlightenment; of overcoming personal flaws to become a better human being with the passage of time.” For that alone, it’s a valuable work. Great work, Paul!

  2. As always many thanks for your thoughtful comments and kind words Wheeler. Both Matt Sorrento and myself had been hoping to be run an interview with Steve James since the summer. It actually happened after we thought the ship had sailed, and so I suppose you could say that our patience was ultimately rewarded.

    With each new interview I realise more and more how important they in fact are. It is believed that once a film is released it is no longer the filmmaker’s film as the film is shaped through the subjectivity of the spectatorial experience; its identity in the hands of the audience. And so interviews are a vital part of the discussion of film – opening up the mind of the individual through their ‘own’ words to create an insightful and compelling read that if done well can add to or offer a means for us to expand ‘our’ understanding of film courtesy of an insider’s perspective. One could describe it as the formation of a new branch of a river in our mind.

    Well, the list of films and filmmakers the Academy does not honour is the one that we should refer to as we hunt for contemporary films worthy of our attention. No doubt Ebert would understand, but one eventually grows tired of making excuses for the Academy, and such snubs are only further proof that they should be disregarded and ignored.

  3. Wheeler Winston Dixon

    Dear Paul – you write “the list of films and filmmakers the Academy does not honour is the one that we should refer to as we hunt for contemporary films worthy of our attention. No doubt Ebert would understand, but one eventually grows tired of making excuses for the Academy, and such snubs are only further proof that they should be disregarded and ignored.” And this hits it on the head completely. Cannes, the BAFTAs, The NYFF — anything but the Oscars. Such a dreary, threadbare, predestined, tired, degrading spectacle.

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