Life Itself: Steven James & Chaz Ebert on Dating Film Critics

Life Itself Chaz Ebert Roger Ebert

Life Itself, the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, is in theaters this Friday. From Hoop Dreams director Steve James, Life Itself covers Ebert’s early days, his legendary partnership with Gene Siskel, and medical issues with oral cancer. James and Ebert’s widow Chaz spoke to me about his life, work and the future of the industry he left behind, including the new generation of critics, and a personal question about how we all can find our own Chaz Ebert. At the end, she invited me to Ebert Fest so don’t be surprised if you see Ebert Fest coverage on CraveOnline next year!

CraveOnline: Steve, did you face an ethical issue, since Roger was such a champion of your film, now you had to do an objective portrayal of him?

Steve James: No, the thing I wrestled with because of his being a champion of my movies, in particular Hoop Dreams, in regards to this story was whether I should include Hoop Dreams in some fashion in the film. Even if it’s just to say something about it, not interview myself or anything, but say something about it. We did have some real debate about that among our team about whether we should or shouldn’t. There were some people that said, “Well, I think you should say something because people will be wondering. If you don’t say anything, then you just make them wonder more.”

I ultimately decided that I just thought it was better and safer to not say it and let it come out in stories around the film. People ask about it and then I can talk about it more freely. I just didn’t want people to watch this movie thinking, “Oh, because he felt like he owed Roger something.” I didn’t feel like I owed him a movie. I would’ve loved to have gone to see a movie on him that someone else might make, but I didn’t feel like when I read the memoir, “Gee, I’d better like this because I really owe Roger to do this movie.”

Here’s the other thing. If I’d read the memoir and thought either he’s not that interesting, or if I didn’t like him after reading the memoir. If I came out of it going, “This guy’s kind of a big jerk really,” I wouldn’t have made the film because I’m not one of those filmmakers that wants to make a film about someone that I don’t have any particular interest or want to be around. I’m not an expose filmmaker. I’m not going to do the exposé on WikiLeaks or something like that. It’s just not the kind of filmmaker I am.

Who read the excerpts from the autobiography for the film?

Steve James: Stephen Stanton.

Chaz Ebert: Wasn’t he great?

He sounded just like him.

Chaz Ebert: I know.

Steve James: He’s an incredible actor. He can do any number of voices of famous actors. If you go to his website, you’ll be amazed at all the voices he can do. This was a special assignment because he had to not just impersonate Roger. He had to really channel him and do it through this beautiful writing, which is a taller order than just sounding like somebody.

I wasn’t aware there was a legitimate rivalry with Gene Siskel. I thought it was always the playful ribbing, but is that just the nature of getting any two opinionated talent together? Was there something about those two personalities?

Chaz Ebert: No, there was such a special chemistry there and they were both so proud to be newspapermen from Chicago. The Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune newspapers had a real rivalry. They were both hired when they were like 24, 25, 26. So they started off as these cocky, brash young newspapermen who felt that their newspaper was superior to the other, and they took that rivalry to television. For the first six years they didn’t even really speak to each other outside of the screening room and when they were doing their show.

Later, of course, over the years their relationship evolved and they not only came to like each other, they respected each other right from the beginning, but then they actually liked each other, then loved each other. They became like brothers.

Steve James: In fact, all you have to do is look at all the people who’ve tried to duplicate or replicate what they had since them – no one has succeeded – to know how special that was.

Exactly. Because their show set such a precedent, a lot of people have tried to do the “two guys arguing about movies” show. A lot of them really don’t understand the line between playful ribbing and getting really vicious. What was your take on how Siskel and Ebert walked that line?

Chaz Ebert: Because they were both so intelligent. These were smart men. And they also came from a time period when there was a line drawn between civil, even though some of their stuff was pretty vitriolic, but it never descended into just complete baseness on a professional level. Now, if you caught some of their comments in between, those were base.

I thought I remembered some fat jokes on Gene’s part.

Chaz Ebert: Yeah, you know what, but Roger didn’t care? You remember some bald jokes. Their thing was Roger was the fat one, Gene was the bald one. So each made jokes about that and it didn’t bother them. They didn’t care about that. Other people did care.

Steve James: You sort of see it in the outtake scenes where Gene is saying, “He goes in and orders an apple pie without them even asking.” Then Roger makes fun of the way he bungled the line. Roger was used to getting those ribs.

My memory is that Gene started it, but maybe my memory is selective.

Chaz Ebert: Oh, and your memory is probably right because Gene was the one who used to push the buttons. When he started off, Roger did not like people arguing. That’s the thing that people don’t understand. As a little kid, Roger was an only child and Roger wanted harmony. He was not used to fighting. He never had to learn how to fight with a sibling. His cousins would come in and visit and go away. He did not learn how to do that, so Siskel would come in and fight with Roger and really nudged him until Roger became a fighter and fought back. Now, Roger was in the debate team at school. That’s a different kind of thing, so Roger did know how to debate and held his own very well. Later, he actually had to learn how to fight, verbally joust with Gene.

Even as a kid, I knew fat jokes didn’t have any relevance to the movie. Roger being fat doesn’t make Gene right about the movie.

Chaz Ebert: [Laughs] Right.

I had seen those outtakes on YouTube before. Are there more of those? Was that a particular episode where someone had the foresight to save that?

Chaz Ebert: No, we would like to find who has them. I think I know. Certain breadcrumbs have led to a certain person that I hope has a whole bunch of them. I’m going to find out if I can get this person to release them if this person does indeed have them.

Steve James: We did a lot of search to try to see if we could unearth other ones. That is such a classic. It kind of says it all.

Another classic is Siskel and Ebert being on “The Tonight Show” with Chevy Chase badmouthing Three Amigos.

Chaz Ebert: Oh my God.

When that film became regarded as somewhat of a comedy classic, how did Roger feel about the tide turning?

Chaz Ebert: He didn’t often go revisit because there were always new films coming out. There were a few things that he did revisit. People would write for years asking him to please re-review the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona. So there were some things that he would go back and say, “I’m going to watch this again just to see.” Or me asking him to please re-review A Clockwork Orange which he didn’t like and he did look at it again and never changed his opinion on it.

The only thing he really actually changed from a thumbs down to a thumbs up review, and I think it went from a two star to a four star was the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven. That’s because it was just before our wedding and we were going through all this. He was sitting in the screening room and it’s the first time he was ever that distracted. He was going through all the stuff we had to do for our wedding in his head the day he watched that movie. He didn’t like it. Then when he saw what other people were [saying], he was like, “Oh my God, did I miss the ball on that?” He went back and watched it again after we got married I think, and said, “I love this movie” and changed his review to a four star movie.

Also, The Brown Bunny.

Chaz Ebert: The Brown Bunny was a different circumstance. They changed the film. They re-edited it.

Steve James: And it didn’t get it four stars. It just got up off the mat.

Did you want to interview any new generation critics who were inspired by Roger?

Steve James: You know, I thought about it kind of late in the game, that it would be good to do that. I think that’s one thing that I think would’ve been good to do, to interview a young critic who was inspired by Roger.

Chaz Ebert: That will be the sequel to Life Itself. Life Itself 2.

Steve James: Every film, there’s something you don’t do that you realize you should’ve done and that’s the one I wish I had done, honestly.

Chaz Ebert: Interestingly enough, Roger cut through so many demographics that there actually are new generations of critics.

Steve James: Absolutely, I’ve met them now.

Chaz Ebert: There are people even in film school we saw who still followed him. I think he remained fresh and his appeal was still there.

Even after 15 years at this job, I’m always looking for a new home for my reviews. How does one go about that in this climate where I think anybody who wants to write reviews puts up a site and writes them themselves? Even if you pitch a site, they already have a critic. How does a new or even established critic looking for placement go about it these days?

Chaz Ebert: We get solicitations all the time from people, and some of the people have joined us as a result of solicitations. What I do is I go back and read their body of work to see if it’s something that I find high quality or something that fits in our organization at some point, in some manner. Sometimes I do consider joining other people’s work with the site, but there are other sites who do that too.

The thing is, everybody can write. Everybody can put up a site, but you also have to be able to make some money at it too. It’s hard. It’s hard now. It’s so difficult. I have such good writers on our site. I deplore the fact that not many can pay the living wages that people deserve. A lot of people will do it because they love it and they just have to do it, and have to find some other way to help supplement their income.

I’m just jealous that Roger married a woman who likes watching movies with him.  That’s something I struggle with still and I think a lot of my readers do too. Why is it so difficult? Aren’t there women who like movies to the extent that you, Roger or I might watch one after the other?

Chaz Ebert: Well, you know, I do have a lot of friends, film critics who had either girlfriends or spouses who I got to know. A lot of them did not like going to the movies. Because I was the vice president of the Ebert company, it was part of my job to go to the movies with Roger and to go to film festivals with Roger to keep the business going. But I also just loved film, even before I met Roger. I loved all kinds of film, independent, foreign films, everything. I’m not kidding about this. I actually thought of starting a dating service for film critics, a matchmaking service. Maybe I’ll kick that idea up.

Please do! I’ve been on matchmaking services where I’m told nobody will want to watch movies that much. How hard is it to find someone who just likes movies, likes cats and wants to have kids? I’ve been told, “We don’t have clients like that” in a derogatory way.

Steve James: It’s a pretty tall order you’re asking for there.

Is it really? A hobby presumably lots of people like, animals and children? Just three things?

Chaz Ebert: No, there’s somebody for everybody.

Is it because what we love to do can be solitary and internal, how do we meet other like-minded people?

Chaz Ebert: I do have some answers for that but it’s longer than this interview would take.

Those are the answers I need!

Chaz Ebert: I know. I’m serious, I might pursue this thing. I have some people who actually looked into it. I’m serious, so you’ll see. I’ll keep you in mind.

Steve James: Have you tried just sitting next to a woman at the theater when you go to the theater and striking up a conversation?

Chaz Ebert: No, that would be creepy.

I do make great friends at film festivals waiting in line together. I always talk about my line friends.

Chaz Ebert: I was going to say, film festivals are the best. Let me tell you something, at Ebert Fest, this is our 16th year of Ebert Fest. We have had several people who met at the festival get married, every year. David Poland’s son was conceived at Ebert Fest. One of the things I do because I believe so much in love, I tell people to talk to each other in lines. We try to make the atmosphere one that people find welcoming, and that’s why some people come back year after year after year. Have you ever been to Ebert Fest?

No, not yet.

Chaz Ebert: Okay, it’s in Champaign Urbana. Come next year, okay? You’ll have a good time. 

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.