Ebertfest Q&A: Steve James on 'Life Itself'
Steve James, a Southern Illinois grad, is director of "Life Itself," the new documentary about Roger Ebert that will kick off the late critic's film festival tonight at the Virginia Theatre.
Why did you decide to do a documentary on Roger Ebert?
I read Roger's memoir and was moved and entertained by it. I knew of Roger's importance as a movie critic but the memoir made clear that he had lived a richly adventurous and satisfying life apart from his role as critic.
How closely did you hew to Roger's memoir?
The memoir was a great inspiration and source for the film. We use Roger's writing as the narrative voice of the film. And it also helped me decide who was important to interview. But the film is candid in different ways because it has the points of view of others, not just Roger.
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Did your opinion of or feelings toward Roger change while you were making the doc? Were you a friend of his before you began working on it?
I started the film not as a friend, but as someone who'd had occasionally friendly encounters with Roger over the years. I think this served the film well for freeing me to tell the story unencumbered by friendship. I admired Roger before making the film. I admire him even more after.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while making the documentary?
It really started with the memoir — that Roger had enjoyed such a ribald time of drinking and dating earlier in his life before meeting Chaz. One great revelation in making the film was having Bill Nack recite Roger's editorial from his days as editor of The Daily Illini about the 1960s bombing of the church in Alabama. It's an incredible piece of insight and prose, and it came from a 21-year-old student.
How do you feel about "Life Itself" opening the 16th Ebertfest?
There is no place I would rather see the film than at the Virginia Theatre in his hometown among his devoted friends and fans. I read that the film sold out in 10 minutes. I expect it will be a very special night.