Steve James's portrait of much-loved film critic Roger Ebert didn't exactly turn out as expected. However, the trials involved in creating Life Itself probably resulted in an even more fitting tribute to him, the documentarian tells James Croot.
Attending screenings and hosting a dinner party.
Documentary filmmaker Steve James and the subject of his latest work, legendary film critic Roger Ebert, had their shooting schedule all worked out. That was until tragedy struck the next day.
"When we met, he'd complained that his hip hurt and he didn't understand why," James says on the phone from his Chicago base. "It turned out he had a fractured hip and they sent him straight to hospital."
Thinking that he would sidelined for a few weeks at the most, Ebert and James pressed on with their plans to create a cinematic version of Ebert's acclaimed memoir Life Itself, taking the opportunity to get some candid hospital-based footage along the way. "We both felt it wasn't going to be any big deal - just a bump in the road, but as we went along it turned out the fractured hip wasn't so simple, it was actually the result of cancer."
Such a diagnosis was nothing new to the 70-year-old Ebert who had lived with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands since 2002, something that had robbed him of his voice and ability to eat properly, but certainly not his spirit.
"Since he could no longer speak, our on-camera conversations would consist of him writing out the answers to my questions beforehand and him playing them back 'live'. He had a wonderful way of miming along with the answers to give them expressiveness."
He was also unafraid to have the cameras sit in on his more intimate moments, like being cleared of secretions - or "suctioned". James says allowing them to do that "spoke finally and clearly as to his attitude - you're going to film my life - everything I have to go through."
James says he was drawn to the project not only because of Ebert's reputation as the most powerful film critic in America, "if not the world", but also because of how the Chicago Sun Times reviewer used that clout in print, on TV and later on the internet.
"He always saw himself has having an enormous responsibility and conducted himself with grace and humility. He also saw it has his role to really raise up independent and documentary filmmakers - people who needed that kind of clout to break through and have success. He was someone who was a true champion of work that needed champions."
James himself benefited from Ebert's willingness to seek out film in all its forms.
"This is one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen", Ebert said of James's 1994 documentary about two Chicago-based African-American high school students and their dream of becoming professional basketball players - Hoop Dreams.
"And that was in the days when only one or two documentaries in a given year got a real theatrical release."
Thanks to help of critics like Ebert, far more documentaries reach audiences thesedays. "Audiences have come to embrace the idea of documentaries as theatrical films and as provocative entertainment, often with a higher purpose. A lot of film watchers, whether heading to a theatre or watching at home, look at documentaries differently now, they don't look at them as medicine. Instead they are an alternative way to tell stories - true stories that there is an appetite for.
"Just look at the genre now - stylistically it has exploded. Every kind of genre of fiction film you can think of now has its counterpoint in documentary. Animation? Check. Thriller? Check. Comedy? Check."
However, that doesn't mean finding funding for a documentary is any easier, says James. "We pitched it to a lot of different places and got turned down. 'Why a film about a film critic?' they said. They just didn't get it - some of them regret that now.
"I also had one broadcaster who was convinced we should be focusing on (New Yorker magazine film critic) Pauline Kael instead. I spent the next hour explaining why Roger had a greater influence on more people and more films. She eventually agreed with me but still didn't want to do it.
"I adore Pauline Kael, but I think there is that kind of bias still out there that existed when Roger and Gene Siskel started their TV show At the Movies. For some reason people were jealous of them because they were from "the hinterland" (Chicago) rather than the media power centres (LA or New York).
In the end a combination of private investment, CNN and crowd-funding helping make Life Itself. "If ever there was a film and subject where crowd-source funding made sense it was this, because of Roger's wide reach and how important and committed he was to the internet, social media and his fans - who were everywhere."
One person who hasn't gotten to see the finished film was Ebert himself, he passed away on April 4 last year.
"Right up until the end there was this sense that he was going to get pas thing and go home. His wife Chaz had complete belief that he would make at least a partial recovery," James laments.
"I fully expected that we would eventually go through my emailed questions in a thorough way but in the end I was left with nine pages of questions, most of which did not ever get answered."
As part of the Documentary Edge Film Festival, Life Itself will screen at Auckland's Q Theatre on Thursday at 7.30pm (where Steve James will be in attendance), Friday at 11.30am and Saturday at 6.45pm. A Wellington season follows. For more information, see documentaryedge.org.nz
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