Nine months after Roger Ebert’s death, his wife Chaz can still sense his presence.
“When you have somebody like that and they are not there, there’s a lot of energy gone,” says Chaz Ebert, who married the film critic in July 1992. “And yet, I still feel his energy with me most times. There was one period, about a month ago, where I felt like he was abandoning me. It’s difficult to explain. And now I could tell he wasn’t. The energy was just changing, and now he’s around me even more.”
The Eberts used to travel together to Sundance, and even though Roger is gone, one of the crowning achievements of this year’s Park City festival is “Life Itself,” the documentary based on his 2011 memoir. Chaz attended the film’s premiere on Sunday night, along with the film’s director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen, who also appears in the film. Vulture accurately described the doc as “Sundance’s biggest tear-jerker.” It will be distributed in theaters later this year before airing on CNN.
James had initially wanted to make a film about Roger’s life after numerous surgeries from thyroid cancer left him without a speaking voice. But as initial filming began in December 2012, the critic’s health took a turn for the worse. The doc was completed based on footage shot at the hospital before he died in April of 2013, where he underwent a daily suction procedure to clear saliva from his throat, and other interviews, such as ones with Martin Scorsese and New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.
Earlier this week, Chaz and James sat down for a lengthy interview with Variety in Park City, where they talked about making the film. Chaz also revealed she’s writing her own memoir.
Everybody at the premiere was crying throughout this film.
CE: I was sitting with my daughter, my son and my granddaughter. I was trying to help take care of them during the movie. We were all squeezing our hands so tightly on different parts. One thing that surprised me, and my granddaughter mentioned it to me, we didn’t anticipate so many people sobbing. We were hearing people sob all the way around us.
SJ: I was bowled over by that screening. I kind of came away thinking to some extent, a lot of people who were there showed up to celebrate Roger, but they also showed up to mourn him, because they were not able to do it properly. I didn’t anticipate that.
Was the project Roger’s idea?
CE: Roger never wanted a movie made about his life. Steve wrote this beautiful essay to Roger, and Roger later said this is the guy to do this. Steve talked about going back to the younger Roger, showing him doing things vibrantly and still leading a full life. As it turns out, all the shots he got except for one were in the hospital or rehabilitation institute.
SJ: I wish I could take credit for the structural idea. I really just stole it from the memoir. The idea was to film Roger and Chaz in their present day life by showing how vibrant he is—going to screenings, throwing dinner parties, going to events, awards ceremonies. What they were going to be doing over that period of time, I wanted to be there for it.
CE: Ironically, we were doing all of those things and more before you started filming. He wasn’t even sick. One of the things that I want to make clear, because I read it in some other reviews—by the way, I’m so thankful for the rave reviews and Variety’s great review by Scott Foundas. But some other reviews call Steve James a friend. He was not a friend. Even though Roger championed “Hoop Dreams” 20 years ago, we’ve only seen Steve a handful of times. He was a filmmaker who kept a very respectful distance from Roger as a critic, even though Roger did get to be friends with some other filmmakers.
And Steve, that helped you be fair and portray Roger as he was?
SJ: It made doing the film a complete act of discovery for me, from reading the memoir through all the research and interviewing people. I always think documentaries should be a distilled version of the experience I have as a filmmaker making the film. That the audience goes through the same feelings and revelations I did. It’s just through a much shorter period of time. It was so crystal clear from the start that both Chaz and Roger wanted candor and honesty. I didn’t have to go to them and say, “I’m not making a tribute film.”
CE: We were both prepared to allow him unfettered access. But to my mind, that didn’t extend to having a medical procedure like clearing his airwaves filmed. Roger did that when I wasn’t around.
Were you upset?
CE: What can I say? It’s my husband’s life. He felt that was the best way to do it, and maybe he’s right. I still don’t know. The second time he’s clearing his airwaves, when we’re in the room, I actually wanted to stop filming. You probably don’t know that.
Steve, you only had a few months to film. Did you think you had enough footage?
SJ: I never think I have enough. You always want as much as possible so you can make decisions in the edit. Memory can be a tricky thing. When you have things on film, you have memories of what you got and you have the empirical evidence of what you go. I remember one of the concerns I had was we didn’t have enough of Roger’s positive spirit. When I got in front of the material and started to work with it, I was relieved. I felt like it is there.
Chaz, in the documentary, you reveal for the first time that you met Roger at Alcoholics Anonymous, which is not the story he tells in his memoir.
CE: We didn’t meet at AA. He first laid eyes on me there, and Steve actually filmed me saying “but we met in the restaurant.” It’s the story Roger told in the memoir. Steve just decided not to put that in.
SJ: When you told us that, I read that as Roger in the memoir was protecting your privacy.
CE: It’s my anonymity. It’s not his to reveal. But he actually met me at the restaurant. I was sitting at a table. It was a friend who told me Roger Ebert is looking at you. I said, “No he’s not.” Then we looked up and he and Ann Landers came up—she came specifically to me at the table and introduced us. We ended up talking for hours. I had seen him on TV, but I didn’t know him personally. I really love smart men. He could talk about any subject, and he was so charismatic.
Did you connect right away?
CE: We connected, but it was not like a love match or anything like that. I really didn’t think we’re going to go on a date.
SJ: Forgive me for being so presumptuous, I think Roger viewed it differently.
CE: He did. He told me later he was absolutely smitten.
Would you ever write your own book about Roger?
CE: I am writing a story now. Roger’s life was so big, there could be other stories. The thing I’m writing is very personal.
How far are you?
CE: It depends on how I decide to shape it. I started to keep this journal in 2006. I’m working from that.
SJ: Why didn’t you tell me about the journal before?
CE: You didn’t ask.
Steve, when was the last time you saw Roger?
SJ: We filmed him at home a couple days. He left to go back to the hospital because he had pneumonia, and I never saw him again. We were never able to get back in to the hospital. The way it appears in the film is chronologically correct, which his why at the end of the film the last thing you see of Roger is him at home.
When I heard Roger speak in an old clip at the beginning of the film, it gave me chills. I remember hearing his voice on TV growing up, but I hadn’t heard it in a long time.
CE: I loved my husband’s voice. Each surgery altered it a little bit, until [the operations] finally took it away. Now, though, when I’m reading a book or reading one of his movie reviews, I can hear him speaking. I can hear his physical voice.
Do you still feel like Roger is with you?
CE: I feel like Roger was in that movie theater laughing at the film, laughing at the fact that this was streamed out to all those people in different countries who got to see it the same day. Roger was 70 when he died. He had so many followers who are young. One of the biggest demographics on our Web site is 18-to-34 year old males.
SJ: So many critics trace their love of films and career choices back to him, it’s amazing.