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'Life Itself': An Unflinching Documentary Of Roger Ebert's Life And Death

In late 2012, filmmaker Steve James and Roger Ebert began talking about filming a documentary based on Ebert's memoir. Ebert's wife, Chaz, agreed. They didn't know that he would die within months.

26:47

Other segments from the episode on January 2, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 2nd, 2015: Interview with Brigid Schulte; Interview with Steve James and Chaz Ebert.

Transcript

January 2, 2015

Guests: Brigid Schulte - Chaz Ebert & Steve James

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. If you've just made any fresh New Year's resolutions for 2015, chances are good that at least one of them is related to better time management, especially between work and home life. Brigid Schulte is the author of "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time." It was published last year. And maybe you still haven't found the time to read it. So we're repeating her interview with Terry from last March. "Overwhelmed" is about the pressures on working mothers and fathers - pressures which lead to a constantly racing heart, consuming guilt and the certainty that you've become inadequate at home and at work. Schulte interviewed researchers studying time management, stress management, family life and gender roles. She examines workplace and government policies that affect working parents in the U.S. and compares them to other countries. And she describes her own anxieties as the mother of two with a high-stress job as a reporter at the Washington Post, where she covers work-life issues, gender and poverty. She's also a fellow at the New America Foundation. Her husband has high stress job, too. He's Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon for NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Brigid Schulte, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about the book, we have to talk about the cover because this is like my favorite cover in a really long time. So the title, "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time," and your name, is kind of outlined in one of those - you know, highlighted in one of those yellow highlighters as if it's, like, stuff you have to remember on your list.

BRIGID SCHULTE: Right.

GROSS: And then written in what looks like pencil is all kinds of, like, things on your to-do list, like chicken cutlets, granola bars, almond butter, taxes, exclamation point; get new flash drive, use it; reschedule flight to Austin; melatonin.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: Right.

GROSS: Sunscreen. Three percent raises this year? Memo to Kevin and Marty, and that's crossed out. I guess you did that.

SCHULTE: I did.

GROSS: Fill out camp forms; find geometry tutor. That's just a small part of it. And it's all kind of like scribbled in pencil. Did you do that to-do list part on the cover of the book?

SCHULTE: Well, you know, it's really funny. When we were designing the cover, my publisher and editor, Sara Chrichton(ph), who's just wonderful, she sent me a note and said, you know, we're thinking of doing something with a to-do list, and what should we put on the cover. And I just sent her a note back, saying do you want my to-do list from this week?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: And she said sure. So I sent her my to-do list, and then they embellished with some others. You know, I did try to weigh in later when she said, you know, there's something at the top that said tonic and limes. I'm like, you know, that makes me feel like gin and tonics, and that was not on my list. But, you know, the memo to Kevin and Marty, I'm a reporter at the Washington Post, that was a memo I wrote to Marty Baron and Kevin Merida, the two top editors there. And the dentist with the exclamation point is definitely something I had to get my kids to and, yes, find the geometry tutor and fill out the camp forms. Yes, that's - you know....

GROSS: And there's Max to vet, try diet cat food, you know, question mark.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: Well, we do have a very big, fat, fluffy cat named Max. And I did have to get him to the vet, although we still haven't tried the diet cat food.

GROSS: So give us an example from your life of something that makes you feel overwhelmed.

SCHULTE: Well, to be perfectly honest, I don't feel as overwhelmed as I did when I wrote this book. I've learned an awful lot, and...

GROSS: We'll get to what you learned a little bit later. So let's back up a little. Before you learned how to cope in a better way...

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: Right, right, still a work in progress, I'm not a guru, but absolutely. Well, when - and I actually have a hard time reading Chapter 1 now, but when I was - you know, when I let myself go back to how that felt, it felt horrible. I felt completely overwhelmed at work. I felt like I didn't spend enough time with my kids. I was just soaked in guilt all the time that I was a working mother and that I was somehow ruining their childhood.

I just felt like I could never do enough, like my mind was just constantly running. And I would wake up in the middle of the night at 3:00 in the morning just seized with panic about all this stuff that I still had yet to do.

GROSS: And so when you decided to look at women and time, you found a time researcher who tried to convince you that you had much more leisure time than you thought and that you probably had 30 hours of leisure time a week. So what did he show you that you weren't aware of? And were you convinced that you really did have leisure time?

SCHULTE: Well, you know, I put off doing this study with him for about a year and a half. At first I thought, well, I'm just too busy to track my time. And, you know, then he gave me this little template to try to describe what I was doing. And it - and my time just didn't make any sense. There was sort of - I was never just doing one thing.

So I added my own little category called doing anything else because it just seemed like I was doing a million things at once. And so when I finally did track my time, and I went to him, and I handed him these little notebooks that I'd been carrying because when I told him the templates didn't work, he said, well, just keep a diary, and I'll figure it out.

And so he took out a yellow highlighter very much like the cover of the book, and he started highlighting everything that he considered leisure. And at the end, he found 27 hours of what he called leisure. So he felt that he proved his point. And I looked at what he highlighted, and to me it was just garbage. It was 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there and being exhausted, laying in bed, trying to get out of bed listening to the radio, but listening to the radio in its strictest sense apparently is considered leisure to time use researchers.

And I think one of the most amazing things is I had taken my daughter to a ballet class, and on the way back the car broke down, and we were waiting for a tow truck on the side of the road to come for two hours. And he highlighted that, and he called that leisure time. And I said you are crazy.

You know, I think of leisure as laying in a hammock on a beach or, you know, reading a book for hours and getting lost in, you know, the time when days feel like it could last 1,000 years or whatever. And none of it, none of my time felt like that. And so I think that was probably one of the biggest revelations, is leisure is really in the eyes of the beholder, and what he considered leisure I considered just bits and scraps of in-between time.

GROSS: So was there any truth in what he said that you could use? Or do you think, like, that's an example of time research that's just not helpful?

SCHULTE: Well, I think that it's not helpful, frankly, because it makes you feel like a failure. It makes you feel like, wow, one more thing to really suck at.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And when you're waiting for the tow truck to come or AAA to come or whatever, that's total anxiety time, and there's nothing you can do except the stuff you could do on your, you know, on your smartphone while you're waiting. It's not...

SCHULTE: Well, actually my daughter and I played tic-tac-toe and hangman.

GROSS: Oh, so it was leisure, see, OK. He was so right.

SCHULTE: But that's the other thing that really struck me, is - then he did revise, and he said, oh, you were with your daughter, so that's child care time.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: But, you know, but I think when I started really then looking at time use research, and I started looking at leisure research, I didn't even know there was such a field as leisure research or, you know, leisure research that was specific to how men and women experience it differently. And I think what really struck me is that for women, particularly in the United States, particularly now, they spend almost all of their leisure time with their children.

And that led to this other kind of crazy finding that has since really helped alleviate a lot of my guilt but that working mothers today, even when they work full time, the time studies are showing they spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s and '70s. And it just seems to blow your mind, but it's because they've given up personal leisure time and time with adults.

GROSS: Uh-huh. But also is it possible that parenting is more intensive now than it was - like for instance, you compare birthday parties, that when you were growing up the party that your mother would throw for you was like pin the tail on the donkey, a few friends come over, there's a cake. Compare that to the kind of parties you've thrown for your daughters.

SCHULTE: Oh, do I have to admit this?

GROSS: Go ahead.

SCHULTE: Okay. I staged D-Day for my son when he turned eight because he was really completely obsessed with "Band of Brothers." I've turned our backyard into Mount Olympus when my daughter was really into Percy Jackson, and everybody came as a different Greek goddess. So yeah, we've gone to town, but so did everybody else. That was just sort of kind of what you did in our group of friends and our kids' friends in our neighborhood.

And I think you raise a really good point that I - again, I didn't realize, is that motherhood, what we expect of mothers today, again, has just gotten really crazy and out of proportion. You know, when I came home from school, my mom was an at-home mom, and I love her dearly, but, you know, she wasn't always there.

And there were a couple times when she was - we're not sure where she was, but, you know, we broke in the basement window to get in. You know, if I did something like that as a working mother today, people would call the cops. You know, I think that what we expect of mothers, not only, you know, to be there and to be present and to take your kids to lessons and, you know, fill them - you know, read to them and fill their heads with all these educational opportunities, you know, it's so much more out of proportion than it's ever been.

GROSS: You use the expression - well, you found out about the expression contaminated time. What does that mean?

SCHULTE: Yeah, no, I found out about it. Boy, I wish I were smart enough to have come up with that because it just describes so perfectly I think certainly what I was feeling and I think is a pretty pervasive feeling out there. And what contaminated time is, you know, even though men are doing more at home and with the kids, women are still seen as the default parent or primarily responsible for the home sphere because that's the way that it's always been.

And so what happens is now you're juggling work demands on top of all of the stuff that you've always had to do at home. We've ratcheted up the standards for what you need to do as a parent. And what that does, then, is it completely pollutes your time so that you may be in a moment that could look like leisure from the outside, but on the inside, you are just crashing around, thinking of, like, oh, man, what have I got for dinner, and I forgot the carpool, you know, to drive tomorrow, and did I ever send this note, and I better get this memo to somebody at work.

And so you're never really fully present in the moment, you know, and as new-agey as that sounds, there has been really great, you know, work by psychologists who say that's really peak human experience, when you're able to lose yourself in the moment.

GROSS: But what you're leading to, too, is I think that being overwhelmed by too many responsibilities of being a parent and working leads to this kind of panic, this constant state of panic.

SCHULTE: Well, it doesn't have to, you know, and I think that's what I found is that so much of where that panic originates is because our workplaces haven't changed. Our workplaces still expect and demand us to work as if we had no families. Are laws are still - we're still governed by the Fair Labor Standards Act that was written in 1938. You know, we have the Family Medical Leave Act, which is really the only piece of if you want to call it family-friendly legislation that we have.

And when you compare the United States to what other countries are doing around the world, we are really at the bottom of the barrel. We have not made it easier for people to work and have families.

GROSS: Compare us to Denmark.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: Well, let's see. Where do I start? Let's start with work. At work, people in Denmark, they have, by law, short hours, short, very intense, bounded hours. You work a certain amount of time, and that's it, and you go home. But what I also saw when I over there...

GROSS: Do they throw you out or something when your time is up?

SCHULTE: No, but this is interesting. They feel there if you work overtime, you're simply inefficient, that you're not getting your work done when you need to be getting your work done. They take short, half-hour lunches, and it's usually their workplaces have this fabulous smorgasbord. You know, I went to a couple workplaces and ate with them.

But that's - it's healthy, it's wonderful, and then they want you to get right back to work and so that when the workday is over, you leave. And then when it comes to the play part, it's also a society that values leisure time and values balance. I spoke with an American over there who, she kept getting dinged on her annual performance evaluations because she worked too long, and they felt that her work-life balance wasn't enough of a priority for her.

They wanted her to have a fuller life outside of work.

BIANCULLI: Brigid Schulte speaking to Terry Gross last March - more after a break. This FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with author Brigid Schulte. Her latest book is called "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: There's a story I want you to tell, and this is the story when you were driving your daughter to her ballet lesson because her - was it her nanny or babysitter - had to cancel at the last minute. So, just, like, give us a short version of that story.

SCHULTE: Oh, boy. This is a tough one. Yeah. So, I had a high school afterschool babysitter. But I do think that this is a story that tells you how completely automatically I assumed the ideal mother. You know, she was living in my head. So, she called me at the last minute to say that she couldn't take my daughter to her afternoon ballet class. And I was working on a deadline story for The Washington Post about a Somali war criminal. It was this, you know, big, intense, difficult story to write. So she calls me at the last minute, and without even thinking, I just automatically assumed that I need to take my daughter now. And I'm angry and I'm furious and I'm stressed out and I screech home and I'm wielding my Blackberry and making these phone calls and I'm yelling at her up the stairs to put her tights on. And she's doddling because she doesn't want to go. And we've got literally, like, seven minutes to get across town. And she saunters down the stairs and she says, well, now I have to put my hair in a bun, you know, because it was a sort of fancy ballet school. And, you know, I said, just get in the car. You'll be fine.

And so I'm screeching across town and handling the phone and trying not to take notes while I drive. And I look at her in the rearview mirror, and she's just shooting daggers at me. She's, you know, seven or eight at the time. And I just, I lost it and I just said, your mother works for one of the best newspapers in the country, and I am taking time out of my busy schedule to get you to your ballet class, and you should at least be grateful. And then, you know, a few beats, and this little voice comes from the backseat goes, what about The New York Times? You know, and I just...

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: I, you know, totally...

GROSS: Because you work for The Washington Post.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: I work for The Washington Post. Right. You know, and so it was like, you know, we told that story for years about how precocious she was, and wasn't that funny? But, really, over time, and as I was researching this book, I became more ashamed of how I, you know, why did I make that automatic decision that I should take her to the ballet class? You know, why should I layer on this unnecessary additional layer of stress? I was so guilty about being a working mother, so worried.

GROSS: What were your alternatives, though? Who are you going to call?

SCHULTE: You know, well, you know what? If she missed a day of ballet class, she would've lived.

GROSS: Let's talk about changes you've made in your life as a result of all the research that you learned about in the course of writing your book. So how does your to-do list compare now with what your to-do list used to look like?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: That's probably the biggest change. I used to have a to-do list that just weighed on me like this huge weight, that I felt like I had to get to the end of it before I could do anything fun. It was almost like I used to call it this if-then mentality: If I finish up these tasks, then I can get to the important stuff.

And I think it was a huge revelation for me. I did want to learn about time management, which I think is a joke. I don't think you can manage time. You know, all of the strategies out there to help us cram more stuff into our calendar is really not the answer. It's figuring out what's important to you, and then making time to do what's most important first.

But I was at a time triage seminar to try to help you figure out how you spend your time, and why you're feeling so overwhelmed. And it was this exercise where they gave us this blank calendar. And first they said fill out what you did in the last week. And I was there with a group of people, and we all just busily scribbled everything in that we could do. And we were writing on the sides and, you know, all sorts of stuff was coming out.

And then she stopped us, and she said, now, if you had as much time in your life as you wanted, what would you do? And we all threw things out like read, spend more time with my partner, you know, go for a walk, enjoy the sunset, all this kind of stuff. And she said: Where is the time for that in your calendar? And none of us had any of that in there. It was just filled with all this to-do garbage. And so that was a huge revelation. That to-do list will never go away. If you have this if-then mentality, you will never get to then. And so I have trashed the to-do list. To help my brain, I do get it all out. I write it all down, because then it kind of gives me kind of mental peace, that I don't have to try to keep remembering it. But right now, I try to do one thing a day, and if I can do it, that's great. And if I write stuff down, I do it and also give myself permission not to do it.

GROSS: Is that part of your worry journal?

(LAUGHTER)

SCHULTE: Yeah. Well, that's a little different. That's when I get, like, out of control. Like, I do, I tend to be very anxious about things, and then that anxiety clouds my vision, and then I just get ramped up. And that's when I usually go to that to-do list, because it's easier when you're in that kind of panicked state to do little things, and then check it off and sort of feel that - I used to call it virtuous busyness.

But at the end of the day, you can't really remember what you've done, and you don't really value it. You know, whether you've, you know, cleaned the oven hood or, you know, cleaned out your email inbox. I'm pretty convinced right now, unless technology changes, you really never should clean out your email inbox, because life's too short. So what I try to do, when I'm in that panicked state, I try to bound that time, five minutes, get everything out. Again, it's like brain dump - get it out of my head, so that it clears some space. It's living in a journal somewhere, everything that I'm bugged about, and then clear some space to again see - what is it that is most important to me, and do it now. You know, don't wait till then. Do it first.

GROSS: Now, you also write about leisure indecision, you know, and I think this is so true, you know, that if you're craving, if you're hungry for a little bit of time that's leisure and you finally get it, it can be like really overwhelming just thinking, like, well, how should I use it? There's so many things I'd like to do. Like, which of those things should I do? And before you're done deciding, your leisure time is up. So...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how do you deal with leisure in decision?

SCHULTE: Yeah. That's a really good question. I talked with this leisure researcher named Roger Mannell, and it just makes such beautiful sense to me when he said this. He said to have a true moment of leisure involves both control - a sense of control, and a sense of choice. That it's something that you choose to do, and that as something as simple as really kind of taking a breath, taking a pause, disrupting that cycle of busyness and really thinking, if I do have this time, what is it that I really want to do? And then making that choice and doing it, that that can make that leisure time feel so much differently because you've chosen something, and you've known going in what you've wanted, and then you're more likely to actually do it and have that experience.

GROSS: So do you still multitask?

SCHULTE: I try not to. I really try not to. I try to bound my time for checking email and social media, and then I - then when it's time to work, I try to turn all of that off. And I'll say that I do this on my good days because, you know, I don't always have good days. I still have what I call stupid days. But on my best days I do that.

I'll save all my errands kind of in a pile, and I'll try to do them all at once. What I try to do on my best days is chunk my time and do one thing and do one thing at a time.

GROSS: Well, Brigid Schulte, thank you so much for talking with us about time and being overwhelmed. Thank you.

SCHULTE: Thanks so much for having me.

BIANCULLI: Brigid Schulte speaking to Terry Gross last March. Schulte's book is called "Overwhelmed: Work, Love, And Play When No One Has The Time." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Last year, a documentary film was made about the life of Roger Ebert, arguably the most famous movie critic of his time. The documentary, which also captured Ebert's final months before he died, is called "Life Itself." Sunday night is its cable TV premiere on CNN.

Our guests are Steve James, the movie's director, who also directed "Hoop Dreams," and Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger for 21 years and is the president of Ebert Productions and the publisher of Ebert Digital. Terry interviewed them in July.

Roger Ebert reviewed movies for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years and reviewed movies on TV for 31 years. His TV co-host and sparring partner was also his newspaper rival - Gene Siskel, film critic for the Chicago Tribune. Roger Ebert was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, requiring surgery that left him permanently unable to eat, drink or speak. But his popularity seemed to only increase as he became famous for blogging and tweeting about film.

Just after James and Ebert started planned to shoot the documentary, Ebert's cancer returned and he was hospitalized. He died four months later. But during those final months, he allowed James to film him in the hospital. Let's start with an archival clip that's included in "Life Itself," featuring Ebert and Siskel on their TV show in 1987, arguing about the movie "Benji The Hunted." Midway through the clip, we hear New York Times film critic A.O. Scott commenting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SISKEL AND EBERT")

GENE SISKEL: "Benji the Hunted" exhausted me. This was the first time I wanted to tell a dog to slow down and stop to smell the flowers.

ROGER EBERT: I don't know, Gene. Your review is the typical sort of blase, sophisticated, cynical review I would expect from an adult.

SISKEL: Well, you're wrapping yourself in the flag of children, and I'm saying...

R. EBERT: You're wrapping yourself in the flag of the sophisticated film-goer who's seen it all.

SISKEL: No, boredom - no, boredom - boredom with Benji running.

R. EBERT: I don't think any child is going to be bored by this movie.

A.O. SCOTT: It was not, you know, gentlemanly. It was not - ah, well, I see you have a good point. It was - I'm going to crush you.

SISKEL: This is the show where you give "Benji the Hunted" a positive review and not the Keurig film.

R. EBERT: Now, Gene, that's totally unfair because you realize that these reviews are relative. "Benji the Hunted" is not one-10th the film...

SISKEL: Roger...

R. EBERT: ...That the Keurig film is. But you know that you review films within context. And you know it, and you should be ashamed of yourself.

SISKEL: No, I'm not.

R. EBERT: Now, let's take another look at the...

(LAUGHTER)

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And that's a clip of "Life Itself." That was an excerpt of Ebert and Siskel together. And Steve James, Chaz Ebert, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on this film. And Chaz, I'm just so sorry that Roger Ebert isn't with us anymore.

CHAZ EBERT: Thank you. Yes. He would enjoy Steve's film about him.

GROSS: I think so. Steve, you expected to make a movie about Roger Ebert, a living person. But he went back into the hospital shortly after you started to meet about making a movie, and he died four months later. So the movie ends up being about his death, as well as his life. And I'm wondering how your whole idea of what this movie was going to be changed when you found out that his cancer had come back and that things weren't looking good?

STEVE JAMES: Yeah. I mean, you're right. When we started, I had this idea, and really I - you know, I took the idea from his memoir because I think one of beautiful things about Roger's memoir is that he's writing about his life from the vantage point of where he is in his life now, when he wrote it, which is he's been through all these cancers. He's lost his ability to speak and eat. And he's looking back on this incredible life he's had and conjuring up the memories of it.

And I love the way that was done in the memoir, and so I wanted to do a similar thing in the film. And so I wanted to follow him in the present - his life with Chaz, going to screenings. They would throw dinner parties, and even though Roger couldn't - could no longer speak at those parties, he still sat at the head of the table and sort of presided over them.

And I wanted to capture all of that. I wanted to basically show that here's a guy who has been through hell numerous times, and yet, he has not let it slow him down. He's writing more than ever. He's going to screenings. He's going to festivals. He's living his life. And then, I wanted to use that life in the present as a springboard to the past.

And in a sense, that is what the film is that we made, but with one important difference, like you are talking about, which is that we weren't able to capture all of those things in the present that I wanted. We ended up capturing, in the present, Roger struggling with, first, a fractured hip that then turns out to be cancer and all of the complications from that that eventually lead to his passing.

GROSS: Chaz, by the time the film got rolling, he was physically compromised because of the surgeries.

CHAZ EBERT: Yes.

GROSS: And because of what happened to his jaw.

CHAZ EBERT: Yes.

GROSS: And I think when you love someone and they're physically compromised and when they've been in and out of the hospital, your impulse is to protect them. But in a documentary film, what happens is that you expose them. And so I'm wondering if you had these conflicting feelings during the documentary of wanting to kind of just protect him from any kind of, you know, scrutiny or anything, but also wanting to, you know, put him in the spotlight - you know, help him be in the spotlight, knowing that would also expose things that were maybe unflattering, as well as things that were flattering.

CHAZ EBERT: Yes, that's a fair question, and of course I wanted to protect him. But Roger was fearless, and so as his partner in life, you know, if he wanted to be transparent, it was not up to me to say, no, don't do this. There is one part of the movie that was difficult for me, the part where they're doing a medical procedure, clearing his airways. And that is not anything I wanted on camera because I know how involved it is. I know how difficult it is to watch. You know, and I know that it's something that audiences would turn away from. Roger, though, knew it was important because it's something that happened several times a day in his life that was part of his new normal. And so he arranged with Steve to come over and shoot that when I was out of town because he knew that I wouldn't want that shown on film.

GROSS: Oh, really? Oh. You know I found - that happens really at the beginning of the film. And I think - oh, I'll just say something personal here, you know, I had watched Roger Ebert on television for years, starting when their show was first carried on PBS and then through the years when it was syndicated and so on. And so I feel like, you know, I watched him get older on TV, and then I was - like so many of the people who followed him, I was stunned after the jaw surgery to see how his face was transfigured by the surgery and, you know, how unusual his jaw looked afterwards. And it was just, you know, like you want - in a way you wanted to turn away, and in a way you wanted to look. And it was it was just so strange to see somebody whose face was so familiar, transformed like that.

And I was wondering how that would be dealt with in the movie. And how it's dealt with is, like, you want to know about this, I'm going to show you early on. And the camera is nearly inside Roger's mouth during one shot. And then it kind of pulls back, and then soon we see this suctioning that you described, in which I'm not sure of exactly why it's done or what it's done, but he has the equivalent of like a tracheotomy in his neck and a tube...

CHAZ EBERT: Yes and it keeps - that was to clear his airways to keep any accumulations from going into his lungs.

GROSS: And he looks uncomfortable when they do it. I don't mean uncomfortable that he's on camera, I mean it looks very physically uncomfortable. You see him wincing. But, Steve, I'm going to ask you here how you felt about filming almost, like inside his throat and then pulling back and showing this procedure which Chaz was wishing that you hadn't even shown and just, like, knowing that people were kind of, like, probably strangely curious about that.

JAMES: Yeah. Well, you know, I had of course met with Chaz and Roger before we began filming, and the first time I met with them - it was the first time I had ever seen Roger not in the public-Roger way, of where he would go out and he would wear a black turtleneck. And, you know, when I would see him out publicly, I just thought he was quite stylish. When I met with him privately, I realized because he was wearing the white bandage, not the black turtleneck, is that that was also quite functional, as it prevented you from clearly seeing through his jaw to his neck.

But even in the meetings, I was sort of struck by it. But when I went in that very first day to film, and Chaz wasn't there, Roger was asleep. And it's the first image that we show of him in the present, in the film. He was asleep, and there's something about anyone who's asleep; you're very vulnerable. And in his case, there was that vulnerability of being asleep, but it was also his jaw then, because of that, hung way, way down.

So then what happened was he woke up, and you see this moment in the film. He wakes up, and he looks up at me - as I happened to be shooting this myself then - he looks up at me, and he smiles. Suddenly he was Roger, the Roger I knew. I was relieved and encouraged by that, and so then when we filmed the suction, which I did know that Chaz didn't want, I knew that and when I filmed it, I realized fully why.

I mean, it was very unsettling, and I felt intrusive. And I think what happened is, is that Roger saw that look on my face when it was over, when, you know, I put the camera down. And I think he saw that I was feeling guilty about having filmed it, which is, I think, why he sent me this email that I got when I got home and, you know, we included in the film, where the email title of it was, great stuff exclamation, exclamation, exclamation. And then the body of it is, he says something like, you know, I'm so glad we got something today nobody sees - suction. Cheers, Roger.

I can't tell you what a relief it was to me to read that email. I mean, it exonerated me in a way but I think - but I - what it really was saying is that for all of Roger's courageous public embracing of what he'd gone through, that he was ready for a different level of candor in this film.

CHAZ EBERT: And I thought it was important to leave it in there. I never asked Steve to remove it, even though it wasn't something I agreed with initially because this new level of candor allowed us to see Ground Zero of the body human, what happens when you're really stripped bare.

GROSS: Yeah, and I think what you're both saying, I think that really comes across in the film. And, Chaz, I felt watching it that Roger Ebert expected a level of candor from the documentaries he watched. He wouldn't have liked it if it wasn't honest. And I was just reassured knowing that he was willing to reveal as much in the movie about him as he would've wanted revealed in a movie about somebody else.

CHAZ EBERT: Exactly. And in fact Roger told me, I don't want Steve James making a movie that I wouldn't want to see. Roger expected that kind of honesty and transparency in movies that he saw.

BIANCULLI: Chaz Ebert along with "Life Itself" director Steve James speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Chaz Ebert, who was married to movie critic Roger Ebert for 21 years until his death in 2013 and with filmmaker Steve James, director of "Life Itself," about the life and death of Roger Ebert. It will be shown this weekend on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: So Roger Ebert became famous nationally with his rival film-critic in Chicago, Gene Siskel, through the program that they did that I think started in Chicago and became national on public television and then became syndicated and it went through various incarnations. But it became quite famous. And we knew watching the show that they were rival critics. Roger worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and Siskel at the rival paper, the Chicago Tribune, and, you know, watching the show and watching them quarrel, you never really knew how much of the rivalry was for real and how much of it was for the show. So just to give a sense of how deep the rivalry really went, this is a really fabulous outtake that's in the documentary "Life Itself." This is a promo they were recording for the next show. And you'll hear them quarreling and doing like take, after take, after take. And so here's Roger Ebert and James Siskel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LIFE ITSELF")

R. EBERT: Two thrillers this week on "Siskel And Ebert." First, we'll review Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan in "The Fourth Protocol." And then Gene Hackman and Kevin Costner star in "No Way Out." Then we have a third thriller too, if you're interested.

SISKEL: What do you mean two thrillers? How about something like this - it's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert" and we've got three big ones.

R. EBERT: OK. Ready?

SISKEL: I guess you're going to do it?

R. EBERT: We have to rewrite it, don't we? You can't handle it, James.

SISKEL: For the last week and the next week we'll do it?

R. EBERT: No. Every week counts.

SISKEL: You read it then. You ad lib it. I'll do nothing. Let him do whatever he wants. It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: Got to have energy up and out.

SISKEL: Why don't you read both parts?

R. EBERT: I'd like to.

SISKEL: I know that. It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: Dennis Quaid in "The Big Easy," Michael Caine in "The Fourth Protocol" and Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in "No Way Out." Sound a little excited, James.

SISKEL: Sound less excited Roger. That's why we're redoing it, because of what you did. It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert At The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: It's called and the movies, not at the movies. That's why we're redoing it this time.

SISKEL: It's thriller week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies" and we've got three new ones.

R. EBERT: Dennis Quaid in "The Big Easy," Michael Caine in "The Fourth Protocol" and Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in "No Way Out."

SISKEL: That's this week on "Siskel And Ebert And The Movies." And the [bleep].

(LAUGHTER)

CHAZ EBERT: Wow.

GROSS: Wow, I know ouch. So Steve James were - from what you learned making this film, were Ebert and Siskel as competitive most of the time, I mean, as they sound in this?

JAMES: Yes. And maybe even more. I mean, that was the thing that was amazing to me about it which is, is that, you know, when I watched the show, I didn't have any doubt that these guys were legitimately debating and arguing and didn't have a lot of love for each other at times. And it was really important, I think, in the movie to really try to trace that relationship because I think that relationship with Gene, outside of Roger's relationship to Chaz, was the single most important one of his life. And they were, you know, as Ben said, like, bickering brothers and such, but the thing you had to remember is, you know, I bickered with my brother when I was 17 and 18 - these guys were in their 40s and 50s and they were going at it.

GROSS: Chaz, did Roger Ebert take that kind of tension home with him? I mean, did - did the friction in his relationship with Gene Siskel - did he carry that around with him?

CHAZ EBERT: He did. They used to tape the show on Wednesdays. And in the beginning, I would go to the studio to watch them tape the show, but it was too brutal for me to even watch. I started avoiding the studio on tape days and - because I saw that dynamic between them and I didn't think it was that healthy for Roger quite frankly. And he would come home on - oh, I could tell if it was a good day or a bad day at the studio by the way he looked when he came home. And, you know, if he felt that, oh, I really bested Gene on all the reviews, he would come home kind of in a soaring manner. And it would be a good time. But sometimes he came home and he was still angry, you know, with Gene, thinking what's wrong with him? Why did he do that, you know? So it's - I did see it. It mellowed over the years as they became friendlier with each other. They still remained competitive, but it wasn't as vitriolic.

GROSS: Did their rivalry carry over to you and Gene Siskel's wife?

CHAZ EBERT: No. One thing the boys knew that with the wives, you know, they had to be on good behavior. When the four of us were together, it was actually fun. They could relax into being social with each other and laugh at what was going on. So, no, that kind of rivalry, there was no place for it when we were all together.

GROSS: Gene Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999 at the age of 53. And apparently, you know, I learned this from your movie, he didn't really tell people about it. And one of the people he didn't tell was Roger. And so when did Roger Ebert actually find out?

CHAZ EBERT: Roger was wounded by that. You know, the last time we saw Gene in person was on of the set of the show. And we actually gave him a ride home after they taped the last show. And they had put out a press release that Gene was going on hiatus to take a little time to deal with the aftermath of his surgeries and that he'd be back in the fall to resume the show or back later in the season to resume the show. And that's what we thought. And Roger - we were telling Gene - Roger said, I think that's a good idea, you know, go and, you know, have a good time with your family, travel, do whatever you want to do while you're taking some time off and, you know, Gene used to call Roger big guy. And so Roger just jokingly said to him and, big guy, we'll see you later when we come back to do the show again.

Well, someone knew that Roger really didn't know that Gene was dying and I can't disclose who did it, but someone sent a - got a message to us that they thought we should know that Gene was dying, that he was never coming back to the show. And we were astounded. And so we - I said, let's go visit Gene. Let's go and tell him goodbye. And we were going to go, we had made plans to go to the hospital that Monday, but - to the hospice - but Gene passed away that Saturday.

GROSS: So...

CHAZ EBERT: And that's what caused Roger to want to be more open. He said, if anything like this ever happens to me, I want you to let people know who means something to us. You know, I don't think he meant that it would be public, but just people who we knew, who were close friends, or family, people we loved or cared about.

BIANCULLI: Chaz Ebert, along with "Life Itself" director Steve James, speaking to Terry Gross last July. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. This weekend, CNN will show "Life Itself," the documentary about movie critic Roger Ebert. Let's get back to Terry's interview with the film's director, Steve James, and with Roger Ebert's widow, Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger Ebert for 21 years until his death in 2013. The next part of their conversation starts with a question Terry asked Chaz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GROSS: What would happen if you disagreed with your husband about a film? Would you feel bad, like, oh, I must be wrong because he knows so much about film therefore he's right? Would you push back if you disagreed? Did it become like an Ebert and Siskel thing if you disagreed? (Laughing).

CHAZ EBERT: No. Actually when we disagreed about films, Roger loved it because, no, I'm not a shy and retiring type and of course I pushed back and he loved that, too. And he would actually - you know, the thing that I also loved about him is he respected my opinions about the movies and he did listen to me and that's why I felt that I - sometimes I would not discuss a movie with him that we both had seen until after he had written his review because I didn't want to influence what he said or influence his thinking about a movie. But the thing that I miss now is I did not realize how much we actually agreed on movies. And in this last year, I've missed him so much - missed discussing movies with him. I didn't realize that I had almost taken for granted having access to this brilliant mind, and I miss that.

GROSS: Steve, do you feel like you were changed by making this movie, by getting so close to Roger Ebert at the end of his life?

JAMES: Absolutely. I feel really changed. I mean, I feel like this movie in a lot of ways, you know, it's a love story on all these levels. It's clearly one with Chaz. It's one with movies. And with life and the way in which he lived his life and embraced it was moving. The way in which he stared down death and lived it through the end was something extraordinary and it is something that you think about, you can't help but think about, like, when you get to that place.

I mean, at the end of this movie, he is comforting Chaz. He is saying, you must let me go, I've had a wonderful life. I don't know how many people facing that end could do that. It's a remarkable thing. And so for me, you know, this movie is really - it's very much a movie about how to live your life with great exuberance and passion and humanity and it's also how to die.

GROSS: Chaz, has that affected your feeling about the, you know, future inevitability of your own death?

CHAZ EBERT: It has. It has made be absolutely unafraid of death. I think one of the gifts of this movie that I hope that people take away from it, is that we all say it, that death is a part of life, but I don't know if we really believe it because we are so afraid of death. And the way that I - you know, one of the gifts that he gave me personally in being there with him when he transitioned is it was so beautiful, I never expected it to be that beautiful. And I think I use the word serene because the atmosphere in the room was just lovely. It was just lovely. And I never, ever, wanted to see anyone die. And to be there with Roger when he transitioned like that and to see how effortlessly he did it, and while we were holding his hands and you could - the feeling in the room was one of love and peace and serenity. I mean, that's just - it was just a gift.

GROSS: I regret that we're out of time, I want to thank you both so much. Chaz Ebert, thank you so much for being here. Steve James, thank you and congratulations on the film. Thank you so much.

CHAZ EBERT: Thank you.

JAMES: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Steve James and Chaz Ebert speaking with Terry Gross last year. "Life Itself," the documentary about film critic Roger Ebert that features his wife Chaz and is directed by James will be shown Sunday night on CNN.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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