Steve James

Acclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) and Executive Producers Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Raging Bull) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, Moneyball) present LIFE ITSELF, a documentary film that recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert – a story that is by turns personal, wistful, funny, painful, and transcendent.

Congratulations on getting into Sundance. Are you excited?

Oh yeah. I’ve been fortunate enough to have films in Sundance over the years, so it’s not a new experience. But what I think makes it special is that they’re showing Hoop Dreams at the festival to mark the 20th anniversary of when it premiered there. Time flies, and to come back with a film about Roger Ebert, who was the greatest champion of the movie and had more to do with its success than anyone else, in terms of critics and press, without question, is really exciting. Roger just remained so supportive of me in the years since then, so to be able to come back with a film about him at the same time that we’re celebrating Hoop Dreams at Sundance – that’s pretty great.

When did your interest in film begin?

Well, it began in college. I have always liked going to the movies even when I was a kid. I remember watching Bonnie and Clyde at my local cinema and just being powerfully affected by it. When I got to college, I was pretty adamant about going to the movies. I took a film appreciation course, which everyone said was a totally fun class to take. They would watch movies, and the teacher was really passionate about it. I took that class, and I think that was the turning point. It was at that point in the spring of junior year that I suddenly was just like – I could do this. They didn’t really have film there, so after college I ended up screwing around for a year or so. Then I ended up in grad school at Southern Illinois University and getting an MFA in film.

Was Grassroots Chicago your first shoot?

Well, if you’re talking about a professional shoot, I guess Grassroots Chicago was. I was also making Hoop Dreams at the time. Grassroots Chicagowas a for-hire project that actually was a great project, because it was about grassroots organizing in Chicago, and it was funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which funds a lot of grassroots organizations. They wanted to do a piece on the vibrancy of grassroots organizations in Chicago, and it came along at the time that I was making Hoop Dreams. We were making Hoop Dreams for nothing; we had very little support. So, suddenly we had the MacArthur Foundation here in Chicago as clients, and I remember saying to my colleagues on Hoop Dreams when we landed that project that this was the first step in a master strategy to get money for Hoop Dreams. So, while we were making Grassroots my client would ask me ‘What’s going on with Hoop Dreams?’ I would fill him in, and once that project was done, he was like ‘Okay, let’s have a meeting about Hoop Dreams.’ One thing led to another, and that led to getting a sizable grant of $250,000, which really saved the film and made it possible.

Where were you when you received the call from Sundance about Life Itself?

Well, I got the call from John Cooper, the head of the festival, which was great for him to make the call. That was really nice of him to do. He just called to say we were in the festival, and he said lots of nice things about the film, and so I really appreciated that.

What was your inspiration to make the film Life Itself? Did you have the desire to make the film before reading the memoir?

It was brought to my attention by Steve Zaillian. He is the writer who wrote Schindler’s ListMoneyballThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and other great screenplays. He’s a big-time screenwriter and also a big documentary film fan. He read Roger’s memoir and loved it. His company reached out to me to see if I was interested. They reached out to Roger, through his agent, to see how he would feel about optioning the story for a documentary. Roger was intrigued, and he wanted to make sure whoever was going to direct this film was someone he could trust. That was Roger’s one caveat. So, when they told me about it, I read the memoir right away, and I thought it was just amazing. I had known Roger to some degree, but not terribly well. We would cross paths occasionally here in Chicago. I obviously had a lot of respect for him as a critic, but I didn’t really know his life story or any of that. So, reading that book was a real revelation to me, and I just thought – Wow! This story should be told in a film. So, I said yes, and they asked Roger how he would feel about me doing the film, and Roger said yes. So, I was able to do it.

Roger Ebert in a scene from Life Itself.

How did Martin Scorsese get involved?

Through Steve Zaillian. In the book, there’s a whole chapter devoted to Martin Scorsese, and I really was inspired by the book, and wanted to use it as a real template for the film, and so there are certain chapters that are devoted to certain filmmakers, who were also his close friends, who are in the film. I had every intention of reaching out to Scorsese to be in the film, and in the course of doing that, we thought oh, well maybe he would be interested in being an executive producer for the film. So we asked him, and he immediately said yes.

What do you hope to get out of this experience at Sundance? Do you sit in the audience when your films are screening?

I do for some screenings, and then not for others. I definitely enjoy that experience, and sometimes I’ll stick around for the first part and then come back before it’s done to kind of feel how the audience reacts. This film in particular I hope will be a real audience friendly film, because there is a lot of humor in it. There’s a lot of very funny stuff. Roger was a funny guy, and his life was entertaining. And the rivalry with Siskel was very entertaining. We were with Roger for the last few months of his life, and we really do deal with the whole illness, and that whole aspect of his life. It’s sometimes really hard to sit in the audience with your film, even if they’re liking it, because it’s equated with watching a boxing match – you’re kind of leaning in when you’re expecting a reaction, you’re kind of rolling with every punch and hope that everything is landing. It can be anxiety-producing even if they love the movie. But I love that experience, particularly after to do Q&A’s and to just walk around the festival to talk to people who have seen it.

What’s next for you?

I have some things I’m developing. I have this one project called Generation Food that I’m working on with this really great writer, named Raj Patel, who writes very provocatively about food and food systems and where certain profound changes are happening in the margins of communities around the world. So, we’re looking to do a film that really kind of goes different places and looks at this subject more in a story-way than in an analytic and survey-way like a lot of films on food tend to do. So, hopefully that will take center stage. Otherwise I just keep looking for the next thing.


Steve James

Place of Birth

Chicago, IL


Producer, Director - Kartemquin Films / Non Fiction Unlimited