When he was making “Hoop Dreams,” the acclaimed 1994 documentary, filmmaker Steve James followed two Chicago high school basketball players over five years. For his new “Life Itself,” which recounts the life and career of movie critic Roger Ebert, James got a little less time with his subject. About four years and eight months less, in fact.
“I’m a verité kind of guy at heart,” says James, referring to cinema verité, the French term for naturalistic documentaries. “I love the idea of following a story in the present and using that somehow as a springboard to the past.”
James, who visited Washington in June for screenings of “Life Itself” at the AFI Docs festival, planned to show Ebert at work, at screenings and at a dinner party with some of his colorful longtime friends. “I don’t want to just do, if I can help it, a straight biography where it’s all about the past,” the filmmaker says.
But the scenes James and his crew managed to shoot for “Life Itself,” which opened Friday, are set mostly in medical facilities where Ebert was being treated for thyroid cancer and related ailments. He died in April 2013.
“He went into the hospital with a fractured hip literally days before we were about to begin shooting,” James recalls. “He was in the hospital or a rehab room for just about the entire time that we filmed. He went home for two days in those last four months, and that was it.”
There was always going to be a lot of past in “Life Itself,” of course. The story be gins with Ebert’s childhood in southern Illinois, where he was born in 1942. Along the way, Ebert was picked as the film reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, which led to a 1975 Pulitzer Prize. He started a small local TV show, which later added Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel and became a national “two thumbs up” success. Less publicly, Ebert joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979, and in 1992 got married for the first time, at 50, to the former Chaz Hammelsmith, who reportedly transformed his life.
Ebert was a strong supporter of “Hoop Dreams” and subsequent James films, and a friend of some directors, notably Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. Yet despite their shared home town, Ebert and James were not close.
“In the 20 years since ‘Hoop Dreams,’ I would bet that I did not see him more than 10 times,” the director says. “And a few of those times were when he interviewed me about a film or something. We never buddied around. I was always very careful of that wall that I perceived.”
James, who grew up in Tidewater Virginia, studied film at Southern Illinois University and settled in Chicago after graduation three decades ago. “I think there is this sort of spirit of camaraderie among Chicago people in general,” he says. “And I think it certainly extends to the film community.
“Roger always seemed to embrace the Chicago filmmakers. He wanted them to succeed. It’s not that if he didn’t like your movie, he wouldn’t give it a critical review. But he was pulling for Chicagoans.”
Ebert particularly supported nonfiction films, James suggests, because “he was a newspaperman at heart. I think that what he loved about documentary was that it combined his passion for movies with his passion for journalism.”
The critic’s interest in documentaries is also reflected in his definition of cinema, offered early in the film. “The movies are a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert states.
That remark “was like a revelation,” James marvels. “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do as a filmmaker my whole life.”
“Life Itself” began with Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same title, which James calls “a terrific book.” At first, James says, Ebert wasn’t convinced it should become the basis of a documentary. But once he agreed to the movie, he was resolute.
“I think that once he made that commitment, he looked at the movies he loved, and he looked at the documentaries he loved, and he said, ‘This is what’s involved. It can’t be the half truth’,” James says.
“He sent me an e-mail right before we started shooting where he said, ‘I’ve explained to Chaz that the way this works is that this is your film. This is your take on us, and my life. And that you need to be able to do what you need to do.’ Not many subjects say that to you, even though that’s what you’re aiming for.”
One subject that’s more prominent in the documentary than the book is the Siskel and Ebert TV show, which had several titles during its run. “I think the reason Roger didn’t write about it so much in the memoir is that it would be too easy for him to look as if he were bragging about his legacy,” James says. “Because so much of the reason we know about Roger Ebert, even though he’s deserving in so many other ways, is because of that show.”
Siskel died in 1999, but Ebert picked up again the next year with new co-host Richard Roeper. Ultimately, Ebert’s illness stole his ability to talk, and the show ended. As the documentary shows, in his final years the formerly garrulous pundit used a voice synthesizer.
The movie relies on clips of the show and interviews with people who worked on it. It also includes the first documentary interview ever with Marlene Iglitzen, Siskel’s widow, in which she discusses Ebert’s late-in-life mellowing. But Ebert’s own thoughts on the show and his relationship with Siskel are missing.
“I say in the film I had, like, nine pages of questions,” James notes. “And I probably had a solid two just on him and Gene. That I never really got to get him to answer.”
Another topic that inevitably gets a different treatment in the movie is Ebert’s illness, which had advanced to claim part of his lower face. “I remember thinking initially, that’s going to be tough for people,” James says. “Because it was tough for me.”
On the first day of the shoot, the crew entered Ebert’s hospital room to find him napping. It’s an alarming sight, James acknowledges, because “when he’s asleep the jaw hangs down completely. But then he woke up, and that’s why I put that shot of him in the film first, where he wakes up and he smiles. Because as soon as he woke up and smiled, I was very much relieved.”
Of Ebert’s disfigurement, the filmmaker says, “I hoped that, as you watch the movie, that you not only become acclimated a bit to it, but that you also see past it. That you see that he’s still Roger.”
Although he didn’t get the kind of cinema-verité footage he intended, James says, he still captured “that famous Roger sense of humor, that perseverance, that work ethic. All those qualities that I wanted to show, perhaps in a more active way, are still there.”
Playing at Landmark E Street Cinema. Rated R. 116 minutes.