'Life Itself': An Unflinching Documentary Of Roger Ebert's Life And Death

'Life Itself': An Unflinching Documentary Of Roger Ebert's Life And Death

4:12pm Jan 02, 2015

In late 2012, filmmaker Steve James and Roger Ebert began talking about filming a documentary based on Ebert's memoir. Ebert's wife, Chaz, agreed. They didn't know that he would die within months.

Originally broadcast July 3, 2014.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Last year, a documentary film was made about the life of Roger Ebert, arguably the most famous movie critic of his time. The documentary, which also captured Ebert's final months before he died, is called "Life Itself." Sunday night is its cable TV premiere on CNN.

Our guests are Steve James, the movie's director, who also directed "Hoop Dreams," and Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger for 21 years and is the president of Ebert Productions and the publisher of Ebert Digital. Terry interviewed them in July.

Roger Ebert reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and reviewed movies on TV for 31 years. His TV co-host and sparring partner was also his newspaper rival - Gene Siskel, film critic for the Chicago Tribune. Roger Ebert was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, requiring surgery that left him permanently unable to eat, drink or speak. But his popularity seemed to only increase as he became famous for blogging and tweeting about film.

Just after James and Ebert started planned to shoot the documentary, Ebert's cancer returned and he was hospitalized. He died four months later. But during those final months, he allowed James to film him in the hospital. Let's start with an archival clip that's included in "Life Itself," featuring Ebert and Siskel on their TV show in 1987, arguing about the movie "Benji The Hunted." Midway through the clip, we hear New York Times film critic A.O. Scott commenting.


GENE SISKEL: "Benji the Hunted" exhausted me. This was the first time I wanted to tell a dog to slow down and stop to smell the flowers.

ROGER EBERT: I don't know, Gene. Your review is the typical sort of blase, sophisticated, cynical review I would expect from an adult.

SISKEL: Well, you're wrapping yourself in the flag of children, and I'm saying...

R. EBERT: You're wrapping yourself in the flag of the sophisticated film-goer who's seen it all.

SISKEL: No, boredom - no, boredom - boredom with Benji running.

R. EBERT: I don't think any child is going to be bored by this movie.

A.O. SCOTT: It was not, you know, gentlemanly. It was not - ah, well, I see you have a good point. It was - I'm going to crush you.

SISKEL: This is the show where you give "Benji the Hunted" a positive review and not the Keurig film.

R. EBERT: Now, Gene, that's totally unfair because you realize that these reviews are relative. "Benji the Hunted" is not one-10th the film...

SISKEL: Roger...

R. EBERT: ...That the Keurig film is. But you know that you review films within context. And you know it, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

SISKEL: No, I'm not.

R. EBERT: Now, let's take another look at the...





GROSS: And that's a clip of "Life Itself." That was an excerpt of Ebert and Siskel together. And Steve James, Chaz Ebert, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on this film. And Chaz, I'm just so sorry that Roger Ebert isn't with us anymore.

CHAZ EBERT: Thank you. Yes. He would enjoy Steve's film about him.

GROSS: I think so. Steve, you expected to make a movie about Roger Ebert, a living person. But he went back into the hospital shortly after you started to meet about making a movie, and he died four months later. So the movie ends up being about his death, as well as his life. And I'm wondering how your whole idea of what this movie was going to be changed when you found out that his cancer had come back and that things weren't looking good?

STEVE JAMES: Yeah. I mean, you're right. When we started, I had this idea, and really I - you know, I took the idea from his memoir because I think one of beautiful things about Roger's memoir is that he's writing about his life from the vantage point of where he is in his life now, when he wrote it, which is he's been through all these cancers. He's lost his ability to speak and eat. And he's looking back on this incredible life he's had and conjuring up the memories of it.

And I love the way that was done in the memoir, and so I wanted to do a similar thing in the film. And so I wanted to follow him in the present - his life with Chaz, going to screenings. They would throw dinner parties, and even though Roger couldn't - could no longer speak at those parties, he still sat at the head of the table and sort of presided over them.

And I wanted to capture all of that. I wanted to basically show that here's a guy who has been through hell numerous times, and yet, he has not let it slow him down. He's writing more than ever. He's going to screenings. He's going to festivals. He's living his life. And then, I wanted to use that life in the present as a springboard to the past.

And in a sense, that is what the film is that we made, but with one important difference, like you are talking about, which is that we weren't able to capture all of those things in the present that I wanted. We ended up capturing, in the present, Roger struggling with, first, a fractured hip that then turns out to be cancer and all of the complications from that that eventually lead to his passing.

GROSS: Chaz, by the time the film got rolling, he was physically compromised because of the surgeries.


GROSS: And because of what happened to his jaw.


GROSS: And I think when you love someone and they're physically compromised and when they've been in and out of the hospital, your impulse is to protect them. But in a documentary film, what happens is that you expose them. And so I'm wondering if you had these conflicting feelings during the documentary of wanting to kind of just protect him from any kind of, you know, scrutiny or anything, but also wanting to, you know, put him in the spotlight - you know, help him be in the spotlight, knowing that would also expose things that were maybe unflattering, as well as things that were flattering.

CHAZ EBERT: Yes, that's a fair question, and of course I wanted to protect him. But Roger was fearless, and so as his partner in life, you know, if he wanted to be transparent, it was not up to me to say, no, don't do this. There is one part of the movie that was difficult for me, the part where they're doing a medical procedure, clearing his airways. And that is not anything I wanted on camera because I know how involved it is. I know how difficult it is to watch. You know, and I know that it's something that audiences would turn away from. Roger, though, knew it was important because it's something that happened several times a day in his life that was part of his new normal. And so he arranged with Steve to come over and shoot that when I was out of town because he knew that I wouldn't want that shown on film.

GROSS: Oh, really? Oh. You know I found - that happens really at the beginning of the film. And I think - oh, I'll just say something personal here, you know, I had watched Roger Ebert on television for years, starting when their show was first carried on PBS and then through the years when it was syndicated and so on. And so I feel like, you know, I watched him get older on TV, and then I was - like so many of the people who followed him, I was stunned after the jaw surgery to see how his face was transfigured by the surgery and, you know, how unusual his jaw looked afterwards. And it was just, you know, like you want - in a way you wanted to turn away, and in a way you wanted to look. And it was it was just so strange to see somebody whose face was so familiar, transformed like that.

And I was wondering how that would be dealt with in the movie. And how it's dealt with is, like, you want to know about this, I'm going to show you early on. And the camera is nearly inside Roger's mouth during one shot. And then it kind of pulls back, and then soon we see this suctioning that you described, in which I'm not sure of exactly why it's done or what it's done, but he has the equivalent of like a tracheotomy in his neck and a tube...

CHAZ EBERT: Yes and it keeps - that was to clear his airways to keep any accumulations from going into his lungs.

GROSS: And he looks uncomfortable when they do it. I don't mean uncomfortable that he's on camera, I mean it looks very physically uncomfortable. You see him wincing. But, Steve, I'm going to ask you here how you felt about filming almost, like inside his throat and then pulling back and showing this procedure which Chaz was wishing that you hadn't even shown and just, like, knowing that people were kind of, like, probably strangely curious about that.

JAMES: Yeah. Well, you know, I had of course met with Chaz and Roger before we began filming, and the first time I met with them - it was the first time I had ever seen Roger not in the public-Roger way, of where he would go out and he would wear a black turtleneck. And, you know, when I would see him out publicly, I just thought he was quite stylish. When I met with him privately, I realized because he was wearing the white bandage, not the black turtleneck, is that that was also quite functional, as it prevented you from clearly seeing through his jaw to his neck.

But even in the meetings, I was sort of struck by it. But when I went in that very first day to film, and Chaz wasn't there, Roger was asleep. And it's the first image that we show of him in the present, in the film. He was asleep, and there's something about anyone who's asleep; you're very vulnerable. And in his case, there was that vulnerability of being asleep, but it was also his jaw then, because of that, hung way, way down.

So then what happened was he woke up, and you see this moment in the film. He wakes up, and he looks up at me - as I happened to be shooting this myself then - he looks up at me, and he smiles. Suddenly he was Roger, the Roger I knew. I was relieved and encouraged by that, and so then when we filmed the suction, which I did know that Chaz didn't want, I knew that and when I filmed it, I realized fully why.

I mean, it was very unsettling, and I felt intrusive. And I think what happened is, is that Roger saw that look on my face when it was over, when, you know, I put the camera down. And I think he saw that I was feeling guilty about having filmed it, which is, I think, why he sent me this email that I got when I got home and, you know, we included in the film, where the email title of it was, great stuff exclamation, exclamation, exclamation. And then the body of it is, he says something like, you know, I'm so glad we got something today nobody sees - suction. Cheers, Roger.

I can't tell you what a relief it was to me to read that email. I mean, it exonerated me in a way but I think - but I - what it really was saying is that for all of Roger's courageous public embracing of what he'd gone through, that he was ready for a different level of candor in this film.

CHAZ EBERT: And I thought it was important to leave it in there. I never asked Steve to remove it, even though it wasn't something I agreed with initially because this new level of candor allowed us to see Ground Zero of the body human, what happens when you're really stripped bare.

GROSS: Yeah, and I think what you're both saying, I think that really comes across in the film. And, Chaz, I felt watching it that Roger Ebert expected a level of candor from the documentaries he watched. He wouldn't have liked it if it wasn't honest. And I was just reassured knowing that he was willing to reveal as much in the movie about him as he would've wanted revealed in a movie about somebody else.

CHAZ EBERT: Exactly. And in fact Roger told me, I don't want Steve James making a movie that I wouldn't want to see. Roger expected that kind of honesty and transparency in movies that he saw.

BIANCULLI: Chaz Ebert along with "Life Itself" director Steve James speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Chaz Ebert, who was married to movie critic Roger Ebert for 21 years until his death in 2013 and with filmmaker Steve James, director of "Life Itself," about the life and death of Roger Ebert. It will be shown this weekend on CNN.


GROSS: So Roger Ebert became famous nationally with his rival film-critic in Chicago, Gene Siskel, through the program that they did that I think started in Chicago and became national on public television and then became syndicated and it went through various incarnations. But it became quite famous. And we knew watching the show that they were rival critics. Roger worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and Siskel at the rival paper, the Chicago Tribune, and, you know, watching the show and watching them quarrel, you never really knew how much of the rivalry was for real and how much of it was for the show. So just to give a sense of how deep the rivalry really went, this is a really fabulous outtake that's in the documentary "Life Itself." This is a promo they were recording for the next show. And you'll hear them quarreling and doing like take, after take, after take. And so here's Roger Ebert and James Siskel.


R. EBERT: Two thrillers this week on "Siskel And Ebert." First, we'll review Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan in "The Fourth Protocol." And then Gene Hackman and Kevin Costner star in "No Way Out." Then we have a third thriller too, if you're interested.

SISKEL: What do you mean two thrillers? How about something like this - it's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert" and we've got three big ones.

R. EBERT: OK. Ready?

SISKEL: I guess you're going to do it?

R. EBERT: We have to rewrite it, don't we? You can't handle it, James.

SISKEL: For the last week and the next week we'll do it?

R. EBERT: No. Every week counts.

SISKEL: You read it then. You ad lib it. I'll do nothing. Let him do whatever he wants. It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: Got to have energy up and out.

SISKEL: Why don't you read both parts?

R. EBERT: I'd like to.

SISKEL: I know that. It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: Dennis Quaid in "The Big Easy," Michael Caine in "The Fourth Protocol" and Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in "No Way Out." Sound a little excited, James.

SISKEL: Sound less excited Roger. That's why we're redoing it, because of what you did. It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert At The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: It's called and the movies, not at the movies. That's why we're redoing it this time.

SISKEL: It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: Dennis Quaid in "The Big Easy," Michael Caine in "The Fourth Protocol" and Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in "No Way Out."

SISKEL: That's this week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies." And the [bleep].



GROSS: Wow, I know ouch. So Steve James were - from what you learned making this film, were Ebert and Siskel as competitive most of the time, I mean, as they sound in this?

JAMES: Yes. And maybe even more. I mean, that was the thing that was amazing to me about it which is, is that, you know, when I watched the show, I didn't have any doubt that these guys were legitimately debating and arguing and didn't have a lot of love for each other at times. And it was really important, I think, in the movie to really try to trace that relationship because I think that relationship with Gene, outside of Roger's relationship to Chaz, was the single most important one of his life. And they were, you know, as Ben said, like, bickering brothers and such, but the thing you had to remember is, you know, I bickered with my brother when I was 17 and 18 - these guys were in their 40s and 50s and they were going at it.

GROSS: Chaz, did Roger Ebert take that kind of tension home with him? I mean, did - did the friction in his relationship with Gene Siskel - did he carry that around with him?

CHAZ EBERT: He did. They used to tape the show on Wednesdays. And in the beginning, I would go to the studio to watch them tape the show, but it was too brutal for me to even watch. I started avoiding the studio on tape days and - because I saw that dynamic between them and I didn't think it was that healthy for Roger quite frankly. And he would come home on - oh, I could tell if it was a good day or a bad day at the studio by the way he looked when he came home. And, you know, if he felt that, oh, I really bested Gene on all the reviews, he would come home kind of in a soaring manner. And it would be a good time. But sometimes he came home and he was still angry, you know, with Gene, thinking what's wrong with him? Why did he do that, you know? So it's - I did see it. It mellowed over the years as they became friendlier with each other. They still remained competitive, but it wasn't as vitriolic.

GROSS: Did their rivalry carry over to you and Gene Siskel's wife?

CHAZ EBERT: No. One thing the boys knew that with the wives, you know, they had to be on good behavior. When the four of us were together, it was actually fun. They could relax into being social with each other and laugh at what was going on. So, no, that kind of rivalry, there was no place for it when we were all together.

GROSS: Gene Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999 at the age of 53. And apparently, you know, I learned this from your movie, he didn't really tell people about it. And one of the people he didn't tell was Roger. And so when did Roger Ebert actually find out?

CHAZ EBERT: Roger was wounded by that. You know, the last time we saw Gene in person was on of the set of the show. And we actually gave him a ride home after they taped the last show. And they had put out a press release that Gene was going on hiatus to take a little time to deal with the aftermath of his surgeries and that he'd be back in the fall to resume the show or back later in the season to resume the show. And that's what we thought. And Roger - we were telling Gene - Roger said, I think that's a good idea, you know, go and, you know, have a good time with your family, travel, do whatever you want to do while you're taking some time off and, you know, Gene used to call Roger big guy. And so Roger just jokingly said to him and, big guy, we'll see you later when we come back to do the show again.

Well, someone knew that Roger really didn't know that Gene was dying and I can't disclose who did it, but someone sent a - got a message to us that they thought we should know that Gene was dying, that he was never coming back to the show. And we were astounded. And so we - I said, let's go visit Gene. Let's go and tell him goodbye. And we were going to go, we had made plans to go to the hospital that Monday, but - to the hospice - but Gene passed away that Saturday.

GROSS: So...

CHAZ EBERT: And that's what caused Roger to want to be more open. He said, if anything like this ever happens to me, I want you to let people know who means something to us. You know, I don't think he meant that it would be public, but just people who we knew, who were close friends, or family, people we loved or cared about.

BIANCULLI: Chaz Ebert, along with "Life Itself" director Steve James, speaking to Terry Gross last July. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. This weekend, CNN will show "Life Itself," the documentary about movie critic Roger Ebert. Let's get back to Terry's interview with the film's director, Steve James, and with Roger Ebert's widow, Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger Ebert for 21 years until his death in 2013. The next part of their conversation starts with a question Terry asked Chaz.


GROSS: What would happen if you disagreed with your husband about a film? Would you feel bad, like, oh, I must be wrong because he knows so much about film therefore he's right? Would you push back if you disagreed? Did it become like an Ebert and Siskel thing if you disagreed? (Laughing).

CHAZ EBERT: No. Actually when we disagreed about films, Roger loved it because, no, I'm not a shy and retiring type and of course I pushed back and he loved that, too. And he would actually - you know, the thing that I also loved about him is he respected my opinions about the movies and he did listen to me and that's why I felt that I - sometimes I would not discuss a movie with him that we both had seen until after he had written his review because I didn't want to influence what he said or influence his thinking about a movie. But the thing that I miss now is I did not realize how much we actually agreed on movies. And in this last year, I've missed him so much - missed discussing movies with him. I didn't realize that I had almost taken for granted having access to this brilliant mind, and I miss that.

GROSS: Steve, do you feel like you were changed by making this movie, by getting so close to Roger Ebert at the end of his life?

JAMES: Absolutely. I feel really changed. I mean, I feel like this movie in a lot of ways, you know, it's a love story on all these levels. It's clearly one with Chaz. It's one with movies. And with life and the way in which he lived his life and embraced it was moving. The way in which he stared down death and lived it through the end was something extraordinary and it is something that you think about, you can't help but think about, like, when you get to that place.

I mean, at the end of this movie, he is comforting Chaz. He is saying, you must let me go, I've had a wonderful life. I don't know how many people facing that end could do that. It's a remarkable thing. And so for me, you know, this movie is really - it's very much a movie about how to live your life with great exuberance and passion and humanity and it's also how to die.

GROSS: Chaz, has that affected your feeling about the, you know, future inevitability of your own death?

CHAZ EBERT: It has. It has made be absolutely unafraid of death. I think one of the gifts of this movie that I hope that people take away from it, is that we all say it, that death is a part of life, but I don't know if we really believe it because we are so afraid of death. And the way that I - you know, one of the gifts that he gave me personally in being there with him when he transitioned is it was so beautiful, I never expected it to be that beautiful. And I think I use the word serene because the atmosphere in the room was just lovely. It was just lovely. And I never, ever, wanted to see anyone die. And to be there with Roger when he transitioned like that and to see how effortlessly he did it, and while we were holding his hands and you could - the feeling in the room was one of love and peace and serenity. I mean, that's just - it was just a gift.

GROSS: I regret that we're out of time, I want to thank you both so much. Chaz Ebert, thank you so much for being here. Steve James, thank you and congratulations on the film. Thank you so much.

CHAZ EBERT: Thank you.

JAMES: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Steve James and Chaz Ebert speaking with Terry Gross last year. "Life Itself," the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert that features his wife Chaz and is directed by James will be shown Sunday night on CNN. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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