Since be broke out with the classic documentary Hoop Dreams in 1994, Steve James has gradually become one of the best documentary filmmakers in the world. Typically covering issues of race and sports in his movies, he’s most recently turned his eye to one of the world’s most beloved film critics, Roger Ebert, who tragically passed away last year. Funnily enough, Ebert was the one who first championed Hoop Dreams all those years ago; and now, with Life Itself, Steve James gets to somewhat repay the favour.

I’m currently reading Roger Ebert’s book, The Great Movies, and of course, Hoop Dreams is in that book, which is your famous documentary. And now with Life Itself coming out, it’s about Ebert; do you feel that with this film, your relationship with him has kind of come full circle?

Well, I think with this film I actually had a relationship with Roger. It’s funny because Roger, there’s been no critic and maybe no single person, you could almost argue, who’s had a greater impact on my career than Roger, starting with Hoop Dreams but also, he remained a steadfast supporter and really great critical writer about my other films over the years and championed a film three years ago of mine, The Interrupters, on more than one occasion. But I never really got to know him. He was Roger Ebert the critic, and I was a filmmaker, and I never tried to have any kind of real relationship with him out of a respect for those boundaries. And it wasn’t until I got to do this film that I actually got to cross that boundary and got to know him. So, you know, it’s not so much that I think I’ve come full circle in terms of a relationship to Roger; maybe I’ve come full circle in a career sense, ’cause he launched my career and now I had this opportunity that I hope will be part of his legacy for future generations, and young writers and critics such as yourself who wouldn’t have experienced Roger back in the day like I did, when he was a more iconic figure in the public eye.

On that note, being my age of course, I didn’t live through the heyday of his influence. Was that something that got you interested in doing the film in the first place? Were you a fan of his originally?

Yes – I first discovered Roger on television, because you know, this was a long time ago, there was no internet, I wasn’t living in Chicago, I was living in Southern Illinois going to school and studying film, and I kind of tripped across the TV show one day. I thought, ‘what is this show?’ This Siskel and Ebert show. Because I didn’t get the [Chicago) Sun-Times paper in Southern Illinois. I probably could have ordered it, but I had no reason to read the Chicago newspaper. So I had no idea who Roger Ebert was, or Gene Siskel, and I remember my first thought was, ‘this is kind of a curious show – why are these two critics from Chicago on a TV show?’ Because I was studying film, and film criticism was from France and New York, basically. It wasn’t from Chicago. But I was taken by it, and I thought, this is really kind of good – they’re entertaining, and they’re smart guys, and so I became a fan of the show. And it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago then that I started reading Roger in the paper, and was struck by the amazing productivity of the man; you would get the Friday paper, and he would literally have eight full-on, lengthy reviews of movies. One guy. So I became a fan long before Hoop Dreams came out, so that’s why when Hoop Dreams came out and he and Gene went on their show and celebrated it, it was like, oh my god, I can’t believe Roger Ebert is such a fan of this movie.

You document in Life Itself that Roger Ebert, and Siskel of course, helped break through the barriers of where film criticism was… it had to come from one place. Do you feel that documentaries play better in a particular city or area?

No. But I think that what they did is they not only said, ‘Hey, you can be smart and have something of value to say as film critics and be from Chicago of all places,’ but what they also were saying is – and I think, more significantly – is you don’t have to be a cinephile going to the film forum in New York every week to see the latest offerings to love movies, and learn about movies and kind of have an opinion about movies, other than ‘I liked it’ or ‘I hated it.’ I mean, they really brought a kind of real criticism, even though it was in this television format, brought a kind of real criticism to everyday movie lovers who are going to go out to their cineplex in Chicago, or Iowa, and between the Coasts, and really encourage them to sort of watch movies more criticially, which I think was a hugely democratic sort of notion, of what they brought to  film criticism. And it wasn’t just for the elite.

And was that the same kind of approach you have when you’re making a documentary?

I would say that’s true. I try to make documentaries that, if you can get regular people into the theatre to watch it or to watch it on television, that they will find it compelling and interesting. I don’t make obscure kind of films, I see obscure, more artier docs and love them, but I don’t do that myself. But I think the other thing they do on the show, is that they just brought these different kind of films to the attention of people outside of New York and Los Angeles. They brought Errol Morris’ early work, or Michael Moore, or a film like My Dinner With Andre, which is very much a New York City story of these two guys having dinner, they made that film a phenomenon across the country by championing it. So they really broadened the horizons of their viewers too, in terms of what constitutes a film worth seeing.

What do you think is the documentary that influenced you most while making this one?

What influenced me most while making this one… I don’t know that I had a particular film in mind; what I remember thinking when I set out to do it was, this film is a departure for me, because I normally do films where I follow people around in their lives in some fashion, they’re usually not famous at all, you’ve never heard of them for the most part, and often times they are on the margins of society. So this is not a film like that at all; this is a film that is in many respects is more of a straight biography about someone very famous. But I wanted to find a way to not just have it feel like a kind of straight-ahead biography. I wanted it to have a lot of feeling, because Roger was a man with a lot of feeling, and I also wanted to kind of capture his life in the present, which is a big part of this movie. So I wanted to try and do some different things with this biography than I had seen with more traditional biographies; I did see one film though, and I think that it’s not a well-known film, but it’s actually a film that was made in Scotland, a documentary that came out a couple of years ago called I Am Breathing. Do you know this film?

I’ve not seen it, no.

It’s a really great film about a young man who is dying, and his wife and he writes on the internet, and it’s just a beautifully made little documentary, and I saw it right before we were starting to film – you should check it out! – and I said to my wife, and actually showed it to some of my colleagues when we were starting out, and I said, ‘here’s a really beautiful kind of portrait of a man who was dying,’ Now when I started, I had no idea that Roger was really dying either, but that he was struggling with illness and doing it with a sense of humour and courage, this guy. I thought this is a nice film for us all to see as we head into this. So I would say that film actually did influence. You should check it out.

What I find that makes Life Itself especially poignant is the fact that Roger did sadly pass away while you were in production. So if you don’t mind me asking, was there any point after that that you felt like just stopping the film altogether?

No. No… he would never have wanted that. And it was a tremendous loss for all of us. I felt, cheated personally, because I was just getting to know Roger, selfishly; I felt like the film would be hurt by not having had the chance to have asked him all the things that I wanted to ask him, and for him to tell me all these things that I wanted to know. So I felt the loss on a lot of levels, and then of course I felt the loss just like so many people who was just a fan of the man. But it never crossed my mind that we should finish the film; what crossed my mind is, whatever else is done on Roger, going forward, will be done without him. What it did is that it made me think… I always feel this way about my films, but I felt an even greater responsiblity to make something that I thought… that he would love, and respect as a film critic, and love and respect as a film critic not because it’s about him, but as a film.

And it does definitely work just as a film because even though you were in close contact with him, and it’s about him, there are many points where it’s very truthful and very honest about him which… it paints a more truthful picture.

Thank you. And he wanted that. He did not want haigiography. He didn’t want that.

Did you find that making it truthful became a bit harder after his death?

Um… that’s a good question. I think that I had to occasionally think about what Roger would want. There were times in the editing, because the editing didn’t begin until he had passed, as I was starting to put together the film, I would often think of Roger as if he had passed away at that point, but I would think of him as if he were sitting on my shoulder, was over my shoulder, and looking at the screen and going, ‘mm-mm-mm. Don’t get sappy on me. Don’t get sentimental. Keep it true.’ Because I knew that from reading his memoir and being around the man is that that’s what he wanted, but I think there was that impulse. And it’s interesting; Gene Siskel’s wife, who was an extremely important voice in this movie, I think she’s wonderful in this movie, because of this candour about Gene and Roger and how Gene viewed Roger and how she viewed Roger, and how that even changed. I ran into her at the memorial service – we had interviewed her before Roger’s death – I ran into her at the memorial service for Roger, and she said to me, ‘If you interviewed me now, I wouldn’t be so candid,’ Because out of a kind of deference for the past tense of Roger. And I was so glad that we had interviewed her before. I totally understand that impulse on her part, but she actually does the man a far greater service by being honest and candid, and showing how her opinion changed about him, than if she had tried to protect him after he had died.

In that respect, in the years to come when people look back on Life Itself, they’ll think hopefully wow, this is a real product of timing. While you’ve been making documentaries, I assume timing has been a really important factor.

Timing helps. I mean, I do think that… timing… documentary filmmakers like to invoke what we call the, what we like to call, the documentary gods. That bestow great stories upon us, or twists and turns in the story that we’re following that you know, who could have anticipated in all that? I never in a million years would have wanted Roger to die in the middle of making this film. I think that if he had lived, I think we would have had a film that I hope would be as moving and poignant as this film, and we’d have this incredible thing of he might be sitting here with me, talking to you, instead of just me talking to you.

So of course I never wanted anything like that, nor thought that as an advantage to the film in any way. But I do think that documentaries are governed to some extent by events that are completely out of control of the filmmaker as opposed to narrative films, which are a much more controlled endeavour and undertaking. Documentary films, you have to capture lightning in a bottle, so to speak; in narrative films, you often have to create it. And that’s what makes them so hard. But I think in documentary, you have to adapt to and make decisions on the fly, and go where the story leads you, and you have to have the presence of mind to follow that story and grasp it and keep getting it. So I think that luck is involved in documentary filmmaking, but I don’t think it’s dumb luck. I think the filmmakers who have been successful, they’ve been successful in part because they made their luck. And then they also get luck [laughs].

But I don’t think it’s always a sad movie. But I think it’s important; oftentimes in interviews, and even in the reviews, much is made of the fact that we were there for the last four months of his life, and the capturing of that and what did it mean, which is great, because it’s an important part of the movie – it’s a substantial part of the movie. But there’s so much in this movie that, to me, is sort of joyous and funny and entertaining, and about the kind of rollicking life that Roger Ebert led, and the way in which he embraced life; he drank it all in… even after he stopped drinking. I don’t want people to lose sight of that when they hear about the movie, and yes, it has its sad moments, and many people will shed a tear – or two – before the end of this movie. But you’ll also laugh a lot. Because Roger led that kind of life.

What was the number one burning question that you wanted to ask Roger?

That I didn’t get to ask? Well, there were a lot, really – I can’t say that there was just one. I absolutely wanted to ask him, I really never got to ask him about Gene. Not the way he writes about Gene in the memoir (Life Itself), which is quite elegiac, and he’s looking back. He acknowledges that they had some battles, and he even recounts some of their verbal sparring, which is funny to read. It’s funny though, that in each of the ones he recounts, he – Roger – gets the last jab. But when you read the chapter on Gene, you get a little bit of a sense of what it was like, but you really don’t get the sense of just how difficult, and how much vitriol there could have been between them. Because he’s looking back on a man that he came to love, and he’s gone now; and so he’s looking at him through rose-coloured glasses, frankly. So I really wanted to get Roger back in that place where he was when he was… (makes angry, grunting sound) – you know? I wanted to ask him questions, and I had a whole series of questions to try and put himself back there, where he was when he wrote the memoir. Not where he was today. I never got to ask him those questions.

One of my favourite parts of Life Itself is the kind of extended scene where it’s just an outtake, of Ebert and Siskel just battling it out. There doesn’t seem to be any love between; they just seem to hate each other, which is fascinating. Was that one of the more interesting of making it?

Absolutely. Their relationship was very complicated. In one way, it was like a sort of professional rivalry that was fuelled by the two different newspapers that they worked for. It was fuelled by the fact that one went to an Ivy League school and studied philosophy, and the other went to a state school in his hometown because he couldn’t afford to go anywhere else and studied journalism. It was fuelled by the fact that they were like brothers who were competing to be the smartest guy in the room. It was fuelled, ultimately, by a kind of marriage between them – neither brother should marry – but it was fuelled by a kind of marriage where they realised that they were stuck with each other, and for them to break up would do both of them a disservice in terms of their careers, and I think at times they appreciated that, and at times it just drove them nuts. I know that, for instance, Roger hated that people would come up on the street and not know which was which.

They knew that they were Siskel and Ebert, but they didn’t know if he was Ebert or Siskel; he was like, how could you possibly not know I’m Roger Ebert, and he’s Gene Siskel? It used to drive him nuts. And Gene was always amused by the fact that it drove Roger nuts. And so, you know, there was a lot there – but I think that also, in the way that brothers can be both kind of hate and compete with each other, but underneath it all there’s a bond, there was that as well. These were guys who, maybe it was the trajectory of their relationship became a bit softer over the years, but it never got soft. And at a moment’s notice, it could turn very harsh, and then they could turn around like you see in a later outtake, which is around the same time, and they could be laughing joyously and bonding over the fact that Siskel is a Jew, Roger is a Catholic, that they have real religions. Not like the Protestants who run the world; that they’re real religions. They could bond over that. It was that kind of rich and complicated relationship which I tried to get at and capture in the movie, because it was utterly fascinating and it came to define and shape both men so profoundly.

How many thumbs up do you think Ebert would give Life Itself?

[Laughs] Well, on the show, they each were only allowed one thumb. But Roger, if he loved something in later years, he would give it two thumbs up himself; on the show, two thumbs up meant that both of them loved it. I like to think that Roger himself would give the film two thumbs up… I’m not here to say. I can say in defence of that position is that Chaz, his wife, believes firmly that he would give it two thumbs up.

Life itself is out in cinemas now, and you can read our five star review here.