by director Steve James
I first encountered Roger Ebert when he was co-host of “Sneak Previews,” the first incarnation of his groundbreaking television show with Gene Siskel. I was in film school at Southern Illinois University and stumbled across the show one night. My first thought was: “Why is there a television show devoted to reviewing movies?” My second was, “Why does it feature two newspaper guys from Chicago?”
I initially found the show an interesting curiosity. But I quickly gleaned how smart and savvy Ebert and Siskel were. Yes, their arguments were entertaining and informative. But particularly valuable to me was the way in which Roger infused his analysis of a film with his own personal experiences and worldview. He struck me as someone who’d be great to have a beer (or three) with and just “talk movies.”
I didn’t actually meet Roger until after the release of my first film, Hoop Dreams. He and Gene championed the film beginning with its premiere at Sundance, and continued to bang the drum for it the rest of the year. It’s no exaggeration to say that without their very public and influential support, the film might never have gotten beyond the festival circuit.
Though Roger and I both lived in Chicago, I rarely ran into him. And when I did, I maintained a respectfully professional distance. I took seriously that “firewall” between filmmakers and critics. When I read his 2011 memoir, Life Itself, I found out Roger had developed close relationships with a handful of filmmakers over the years. I felt like I’d missed out on an opportunity.
But when I began shooting our film based in part of his memoir, I realized that it was fortuitous that Roger and I had never become friends. It freed me up to make a more candid portrait of the man because I didn’t have personal obligations to him. Roger knew this, which is one of the reasons he was willing to have me make this film at all. As a journalist and a film critic, Roger prized candor and complexity. He wanted the same for this film about him.
He and his wife Chaz courageously opened up their lives to our camera. They allowed us to film some very difficult moments in what would sadly become the last four months of Roger’s life. That filming revealed Roger to be a flesh and blood man. Albeit one who weathered great obstacles with grace and humor and pathos.
I’ve tried throughout my career as a filmmaker to take viewers inside the lives of people with hopes that they will understand, not judge: See the world through the eyes of people on the margins of society. Roger wasn’t on the margins. He was a celebrity and the most powerful film critic ever. But his life had much more meaning than that.
Which is why, I believe, he didn’t title his memoir, My Life in Movies. Roger had a truly unquenchable passion and curiosity for life itself.