Q&A STEVE JAMES The following Q & A with the director of Life Itself took place after the screening of the film at the Curzon Soho on Friday November 7. Q: Steve, people seem to see filmmakers existing on one side and film critics on the other. As a filmmaker, what made Ebert different? SJ: I think he understood how hard it was to make a good film and I think that came from some of his friendships with filmmakers. They just didn’t sit and talk about favourite novels but about favourite films, about the process and I think he drank that in. I think a lot of filmmakers felt that when Roger came to your film he came with a desire to have both an appreciation of how hard it was to make a good film and a desire to want to really like it. And sometimes there are critics who come to the theatre with this attitude of ok, prove something to me, but you never got that from Roger. It didn’t mean he wouldn’t savage your film if he didn’t like it and made it even more painful, but you never felt that attitude, you felt he loved movies and he wanted to love your movie, and he also championed smaller films and smaller filmmakers, he saw this as his mission and I think once he had the sense of his power as a film critic along with Gene Siskel, and after Gene Siskel, he would use that power to bring people to films that they would not otherwise see. Q: Tell me a little bit about your own relationship with him prior to this film, assuming it goes back a way? SJ: It does. I met him as a result of Hoop Dreams because he and Gene championed that film, which really made a huge difference in the film’s life in terms of getting it out to the world, so I met him at a dinner in Toronto but I didn’t sit next to him so I didn’t get to talk to him. We both lived in Chicago and I would see him over the years but honestly I probably ran in to Roger about a dozen times over twenty years. Since I first met him he reviewed me a couple of times about films and I saw him a couple of times at social events, and I was always like: Oh, my God, you’re a film critic and I’m a filmmaker and we can’t be friends. I had his email address and I would email him that I have a new film coming out and I hope you will check it out and nothing more and I was very respectful of that. It was only when I read the memoir that I found he had friendships with filmmakers, not many and my thoughts were well why not me, we live in Chicago and Scorsese lives in New York. But it actually served the film because a lot of this was a big discovery for me to make a film, to read his memoir, doing this film. It was a great journey for me to go on as a filmmaker and I think if I had been close friends with him there might have been a few things I would not have put in the movie; might have been more inclined to try and protect him more. Now I wouldn’t have made the film if I didn’t admire him because someone who has been this good to me as a filmmaker I had no desire to do a take-down on Roger Ebert. If I had read the memoir and thought you know I don’t like this guy, I would probably have declined to do the film. This wasn’t a purely journalistic enterprise but at the same time I thought it was very important and he did too. Q: When did you realize that this was going to end up as an elegy? SJ: I was listening to Chaz and it seemed like his health was declining and he said himself that I probably won’t be around to see the end of this movie and then I would talk to Chaz apart from Roger and she would say, no I think he’s going to be around for another couple of years, I mean she had been through this before, I mean there had been times in the past when he said to her kill me, I don’t want to live or when things had been pretty dark and uncertain and they had got through it, so I wasn’t going to bet against Chaz on that. It wasn’t until near the very end: the day he died I was going to go to film him at the Rehab Institute and him going home. Two hours before he died I was texting back and forth and saying Ok Chaz, just tell me when to show up, and then he died, that is how sudden it was, even though all the indications were there and you could see that. Q: Some of those scenes in hospital were pretty rough to watch and I imagine that they must have been pretty rough to film as well. SJ: They were, I mean, some of the scenes in the hospital were shot by my wonderful cinematographer Dana Kupper, who has worked with me on a lot of films, but there were some situations where she wasn’t available or her family said that this was so...you know, could you just do it, so I did. And I remember the first day I walked in and he was asleep and to see his jaw hang down and see through his jaw and thinking, boy how are people going to handle this because it is so hard to look at, but then as you see in the shot, he wakes up and smiles and you see that look in his eyes and it was like that was a comfort to me because well, if we can be really candid which is what Roger wants and what I want about what he goes through and get people past that and you’ll see the thing that I want you
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