For “Life Itself,” What Was the Filmmakers’ Approach to the Film? How did Roger Ebert Influence It?

In 2012, Roger Ebert published an autobiographical memoir titled Life Itself. The loss of his voice caused his already prolific writing aptitude to achieve another level of personalization and influence. The book is described as such:

In this candid, personal history, Ebert chronicles it all: his loves, losses, and obsessions; his struggle and recovery from alcoholism; his marriage; his politics; and his spiritual beliefs. He writes about his years at the Sun-Times, his colorful newspaper friends, and his life-changing collaboration with Gene Siskel. This is a story that only Roger Ebert could tell. Filled with the same deep insight, dry wit, and sharp observations that his readers have long cherished, this is more than a memoir-it is a singular, warm-hearted, inspiring look at life itself.

Life Itself (2014) was a film originally intended to be a documentary translation of Ebert’s memoir. The project was helmed by director Steve James, a seasoned documentarian whose career was bolstered by none other than Ebert, who considered James’ 1994 film Hoop Dreams as one of the great moviegoing experiences of his lifetime. But as Ebert’s health continued to decline, he influenced many of the decisions the film ultimately made - namely, focusing on the medical challenges of his final days, and the candid nature of his constant hospitalizations.

“This is not only a film about Roger Ebert but also a film very much with and by Roger Ebert, who was the most famous and affectionately regarded of American movie critics, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reviewer for The Chicago Sun-Times who, in company with Gene Siskel, improbably became a globally known television star, and who refused to be laid low by the medical catastrophes of his last years. A friend describes him as having been, early on, “not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director.” “Life Itself” is indeed broadly shaped by Ebert’s own interpretation of his life and clearly marked by his sense of what kind of film it should be.” - Geoffrey O’Brien, NY Times

With his health taking a turn for the worst just before filming, Ebert brought James in to capture all the difficult details.

“On camera, his jaw gone, communicating ceaselessly by voice synthesizer or handwritten notes or gestures, he holds us with the depth of awareness in his eyes, as if he remained the alert spectator he had always been, not missing a moment of a spectacle from which he had no desire to retreat: “This is the third act,” he wrote, “and it is an experience.””

James has said certain medical components of the film, namely the suctioning process used to remove debris from Ebert’s airways, were filmed against the desires of Roger’s wife, Chaz. Roger called James in on a day Chaz wasn’t around to shoot it, because as awful and unpleasant as it was, it’s part of the experience he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about capturing. Shifting from the unpleasant procedure to using his synthesized voice to crack jokes, Ebert’s spirit throughout is mesmerizing - his laptop always by his side, writing straight to the end.

James wasn’t initially certain he wanted to do the documentary. Though Ebert was a renowned and interesting fellow, he wasn’t entirely sure there was a story worth telling as a film. But as he read through Ebert’s memoir and saw the determination of spirit he exuded in the hospital, he gained a renewed vigor in the project’s purpose.

“That’s what made me want to do the movie: the way in which his life had this extraordinary desire for adventure and then, of course, he did his share of suffering and soldiering on. And all of that informed the kind of critic he became. It informed his reviews. It informed everything about who he was and what we came to collectively love about him.” - Steve James in an interview with Indiewire.

What became is part biopic, part funereal dedication. Ebert’s death during filming changed the film’s tone and direction, and the fact he was no longer around by the time people saw the finished piece helped frame and color the material within.

“I knew that I wanted to follow Roger around in his present life, and Chaz, and see that,” James said, again to Indiewire. “But I wasn’t expecting any particularly dramatic thing to happen. Of course, I didn’t expect he was going to pass away. But I wanted to do it in part because I feel like even small moments, if you can witness them and portray them intimately, often tell a lot about a person. The other thing is that I wanted to use it as a springboard to the past much like he did with the memoir. One of the beautiful things about the memoirs is that he’s looking back over the course of his life through this prism of all that he’s been through in the last six years, and I wanted the film to do the same. In a way, it is this sort of hybrid. It has a kind of rawness of the verite stuff I’ve done in the way we documented those last four months, but it’s also a film about memory and an extraordinary life. In that respect it’s a very different film for me. It’s also about someone famous, and I typically don’t do films about anybody you’ve heard about until you see the movie.”

“Roger told me, I don’t want Steve James making a movie that I wouldn’t want to see,” Chaz Ebert told NPR. “Roger expected that kind of honesty and transparency in movies that he saw.”