CHAMPAIGN — Standing on the corner of Park and Randolph streets downtown on Friday, Ben Lear sought out a passer-by and asked to have his photo taken sitting alongside the Roger Ebert sculpture in front of the Virginia Theatre.
The son of Norman Lear, one of the most influential television writers and producers of all time, just had to get his photo taken with the Ebert statue.
"It only seems right that I do that," he said. "It's just so inviting; there's even a seat here for me."
Lear, a 28-year-old filmmaker blazing his own path, was in town for Friday's Ebertfest 19 screening of his directorial debut — "They Call Us Monsters," a documentary that looks into the lives of three juvenile offenders who are serving various sentences in adult prison.
Lear spent the morning speaking on a panel at Hyatt Place discussing the importance of documentaries. He then headed over to the 1,500-seat Virginia to show his film to a crowd of folks who waited for hours to get inside.
"It seems like a really engaged, cool audience. It's probably the biggest audience we've had for the film," he said.
"I'm assuming a lot of people aren't familiar with the issues in the film, and it's always a treat to share this story with people who aren't already involved in the juvenile justice and criminal justice system. I'm looking forward to sharing that story."
Some time after "They Call Us Monsters" was released last summer, Chaz Ebert saw it and reached out to Lear with an invitation to screen it at the festival named after her late husband. Lear and producer Sasha Alpert — whose credits include reality TV giants such as "The Real World," "Project Runway" and "Bad Girls Club" — jumped at the opportunity.
"Sasha and I were lucky enough to meet Chaz along the way, and she's just been such an awesome person," Lear said. "I'm very honored. It's such a limited selection of films. It's really flattering and awesome to be asked to do it."
Being the son of Norman Lear, who created legendary sitcoms such as "All in the Family," "Sanford and Son" and "Good Times," it was assumed that Ben would follow in his footsteps. He has, but he's taken his own path. Ben Lear dabbled in music for about a decade before finding his way back into the film industry.
"It was just a come-to-Jesus moment. I woke up one day and realized I wasn't doing the thing I loved the most," he said. "The cool thing about film is there's music involved; I'm still working in music. It's just a little bit of everything, which is what I love about it."
Ben Lear will be joined at Ebertfest today by his father, who is expected in town for a screening of "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," a film in which he's the subject. It's the second film festival that father and son have both been apart of while representing their own projects, having both participated in the American Film Institute's AFIDOCS last year.
"It's really fun to do this with him," Ben Lear said. "He's super supportive, he's always been so supportive. We're fans of each other, always have been. There's enough of a gap in age and taste and personality that it doesn't feel like a competition."
"They Call Us Monsters" marked the first time Alpert and Lear worked together, and despite his familiar last name, Alpert went into the experience with no expectations.
"I've worked with a lot of different filmmakers, and I'd say Ben was very easy to work with, which is a compliment," she said. "We had a really great working relationship. From the minute I saw the footage he had, I think we agreed what it should be and that it should be a very nuanced film with a lot of layers."
While the entertainment industry has played such a big part in Lear's life, he didn't watch Ebert's shows growing up. That's not to say he wasn't aware of Ebert's opinion and his authority when it came to movies, which is why he was so determined to get his photo with that statue.
"He was always a cultural fixture, and you were always waiting to read his review," Lear said. "Even as a kid, I would decide if I was going to see something based on what he thought.
"Obviously, his legacy goes without saying. He was the guiding force for most of my life movie-wise."