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Interview: Steve James Talks “Life Itself” and Elusive Best Doc Nomination

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Kevin
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Kevin Horan)
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Kevin Horan)

Roger Ebert’s top films of ’90s included the likes of “Fargo,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Goodfellas.” But at the very top was Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams.” Years later, the two would work together on a documentary based on Ebert’s best-selling memoir, “Life Itself.”

Ebert passed away during filming, but his contemporaries have hailed “Life Itself” as one of the best documentaries of the year. The Academy recently named it to the short list for Best Documentary. Despite James’ pedigree, a nomination for Best Documentary has eluded him.

I had the chance to speak with James over the phone about this and whether making a film about a famous movie critic was different than his past documentaries. This is an edited version of our conversation.

None of your films have received Oscar nominations for Best Documentary, what would a nomination for “Life Itself” mean to you?

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Let me point out, because there’s been an error put out there that I’ve never been on the short list and I just want you to understand that that’s not true… this is actually my fourth time on the short list, but never nominated. So, I’m sorry, your question was?

What a nomination would mean to you?

Well, it would mean a lot. It would mean a whole lot, because, you know, “Hoop Dreams” didn’t get nominated; there was no short list back then. But you know, over the years I’ve gotten close but not gotten nominated. So it would be thrilling to be nominated this year.

What would it mean for this film particularly, focusing on such a seminal figure in the film industry?

Getting nominated would be a wonderful kind of statement about [Roger] and his significance to the film industry and what he gave to independent film and independent filmmakers in particular… I also think it’s a statement beyond film, about a guy who lived an extraordinary life and bravely and with grace and humor even faced a seven-year battle with cancer and did so in a way that was extremely moving and enlightening and inspiring to a lot of people beyond film. That’s certainly a part of what this film is about as well. For all those reasons, it would be a beautiful thing.

Ebert sent you emails about the filming process. What was it like having him as a subject?

It was great. It was different obviously because most of the films I have done have been about people that are not film savy, much less famous film critics. It was different but I loved it.

Right before we began production Roger emailed me that he had explained to Chaz the way it works in documentaries is that the filmmaker does what the filmmaker does. They would have no say and no kind of editorial control over this kind of process. I emailed him back and I said ‘thank you, Roger for understanding that this needs to be my film.’

But I told him, ‘I do think of my films differently perhaps than some others.’ I really do think of them as a process in which I’m making a film with a subject, not just on the subject. I felt that way about other films I’ve done and I certainly feel that way about this film.

I said, ‘I encourage you to give me your thoughts about this as we go along because I want to know what you think and who you think I should talk to.’ I certainly talked to some people that were inspired by his memoir – a lot of people were inspired by his memoir – and then I talked to some people he didn’t expect me to talk to.

I really like feeling that the person you’re making the film on feels as invested in this process as you do, as long as you have that understanding of editorial and journalistic boundaries that come with that. And he totally understood that. I think he enjoyed the fact that I was open in that way, and it freed him up to offer his thoughts.

It also wasn’t like he was regularly weighing in on ‘you should do this or that.’ Not at all. Most of the key ones are actually in the film where he did that. I thought here’s a guy who has a profound understanding not only of his own life but about film and so it would be kind of foolish not to encourage his participation in that way.

As a filmmaker, what did Roger Ebert mean to you before the documentary and after the documentary?

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Art Shay)
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures (Art Shay)

More than any other critic, without question, he had more impact on my career than anyone. Yes, great reviews can help make a film, as we all know, negative reviews can help bury one, but Roger’s support of “Hoop Dreams” going back to when it premiered at Sundance, along with Gene Siskel, and then going forward… he was someone whose writing about my film I always was anxious to read. He really championed “The Interrupters” three years ago; that really made a difference for that film.

I wouldn’t have made the film if after reading the memoir I hadn’t come away admiring him as a person and as a critic. I wouldn’t have made it because he had done too much for me to go make a film where I didn’t have that admiration still. On the other hand, I also appreciated the fact that he wanted it to be a candid portrait and he did not want a hagiography on himself and I certainly wasn’t going to give him that.

That’s one of the things that really impressed me about Roger through the process of making the film. He was so candid about letting us in to film things and film difficult situations for him. He didn’t ever blink in terms of that and kind of say, ‘hey, gee, when I came home and Chaz and I got into that argument by the staris, you know we were both kind of exhausted and overwhelmed, does that really need to be in the movie?’ He never once, nor did Chaz, say that to me.

In my experience there are times when subjects do say that to you because they feel like it was a tough situation. I really came to admire that he applied the same sensibility and expectations to the telling of his own story that he would expect watching a film about anybody else.

The other thing I really came to appreciate much more profoundly is as much as Roger helped me in my career, he has done the same kind of thing for a lot of filmmakers. I was not unique at all. He made a big difference in the careers of so many filmmakers and a big difference in the life of certain films. Whether it’s Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” or whether it’s “My Dinner with Andre,” or whether it’s Errol Morris’ “Gates of Heaven,” on and on. He really did have a profound impact on the fate of those filmmakers and of those films.

“Life Itself” can be seen currently on digital and On Demand.

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Written by Michael Balderston

NoVA native who has returned to the Washington D.C. area after two years in L.A. My biggest annoyance since leaving L.A. is not having immediate access to indie films on their first weekend, but I'm making due. When I'm not tracking the year's Oscar players or exploring film history, I'm rooting for my Philadelphia sports teams.

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