July 3, 2014
Guests: Steve James & Chaz Ebert
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Roger Ebert was perhaps the most famous film critic of his generation. Now there's a new documentary about his life and death called "Life Itself." My guests are Steve James, the director of the film, who also directed "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters," and Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger for 21 years and is the president of Ebert Productions and the publisher of Ebert Digital.
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, the film critic for the Chicago Tribune. They became known for giving movies a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Roger Ebert was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. Four years later, cancer of the thyroid and salivary gland led to surgery that removed part of his lower jaw. It left him permanently unable to eat, drink or speak. He was fed through a tube.
But his popularity seemed to only increase as he became famous for blogging and tweeting about film. Just after James and Ebert started planning 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 this clip, you'll 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...
R. EBERT: ...That the Keurig film is. But you know that you reveal 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...
GROSS: 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 James, Roger Ebert really helped you with your career. So just tell us briefly how Ebert affected your career.
STEVE JAMES: Well, you know, I first discovered him on the show when I was studying film, and I was in southern Illinois. And I kind of tripped across the show, and I was like, this is an interesting show. What is this? And one of the first things I remember noticing is - and wondering is -why two guys from Chicago on this show reviewing movies? Because I was reading people from France and from New York in my studies. So - and I kind of fell for the show then. And then, I moved to Chicago became a regular reader of Roger's reviews in the Sun-Times and marveled at his - the - his output and the quality.
So in 1994, when I finished "Hoop Dreams," and they - Roger and Gene agreed - you know, I think it was unprecedented - they agreed to review the film when you could only see it at Sundance. They went on their show, and they said that. They said, you know, you can only see this film at Sundance. But we really think this film deserves a kind of much larger audience, and we hope it gets distribution. And the review happened while the Festival was underway.
And, you know, going into the festival - you know, we had sent the film. Once we got into Sundance, we thought, well, you know, it's a three-hour documentary. I don't know. Let's send it to distributors and see if they are interested. Well, we didn't hear a peep from a single distributor. In fact, when it arrived in their offices, it came on two VHS cassettes. So I imagine it just got put on a pile and never even looked at.
Well, once that review appeared during the festival, distributors were falling all over themselves to get tickets to our next screening. And it really was the beginning of that film's life professionally and getting out into the world. We - you know, in a matter of days, we had four distributors who were interested in the film. We eventually sold it to a distributor. It went out into the world. They went out, and they championed and banged the drum for this film every chance they got.
GROSS: I want to read an excerpt of Roger Ebert's review of your first film, "Hoop Dreams." He wrote, a film like "Hope Dreams" is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.
"Life Itself" ended up being the title of Roger Ebert's memoir, and it's the title, Steve, of your documentary about Roger Ebert. Did you realize when you were making this film - did you remember that he had used the expression life itself in his review?
JAMES: I did not - not when I got into it underway. But at some point in the midst of working on the film, I went back and looked at Roger's review, and I saw that. Of course, I didn't think that that's the reason he named his book "Life Itself"...
GROSS: (Laughing) No.
JAMES: But I - (laughing) - but I was struck by that coincidence and kind of touched by it, really.
C. EBERT: And in fact, the title of his memoir, "Life Itself," came from Studs Terkel - a letter that Studs Terkel wrote to Roger when Roger first got out of the hospital. I think between 2006, 2007, Roger was in the hospital for almost a year.
And when he got out of the hospital, and he started writing again and writing reviews, Studs wrote to Roger saying, your writing has never been more beautiful, more profound - about movies, about race, about politics and about life itself. That may not be an exact quote, but it's a paraphrase. And Roger just loved that letter that Studs wrote to him and decided to name his memoir "Life Itself."
GROSS: Steve, you expected to make a movie about Roger Ebert, a living person. But he went back to 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?
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: If you're just joining us, my guests are Chaz Ebert, who was married to film critic Roger Ebert for 21 years, and Steve James, who just made a new documentary about Roger Ebert called "Life Itself." And of course, Chaz is one of the people featured in the documentary. It was made during the last month of Roger Ebert's life, and it's just been released. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new documentary "Life Itself," which is about the late film critic Roger Ebert. And with me are Steve James, who made the documentary. He also made "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters." And Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger Ebert for 21 years and now is the head of rogerebert.com. And she is keeping his legacy going with, among other things, a website that is filled with movie reviews. Chaz, by the time the film got rolling, he was physically compromised because of the surgeries.
C. EBERT: Yes.
GROSS: And because of what happened to his jaw.
C. 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.
C. 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...
C. 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. And I remember very distinctly thinking, oh, my God, what are we going to do about this?
In a way, I knew that people would watch this movie if we film it the way it is and have the same reaction I was having right there and then. 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, that the public had not seen and that he felt was important. And he knew that I thought it was important, too. So I think going forward, my hope was - is that if we can very quickly early on in the film sort of show you what it is and not hold it back, that my hope is, is that as the movie progresses, that you will become acclimated enough to the reality of his life so that you're seeing past it and seeing Roger and not seeing the hole in his jaw.
C. 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 I see what you're saying, like, once you show it, once you show his jaw, then, like, as a viewer, you just move one. It's like, yeah, OK, I get it now, move on, you know, tell me more about Roger. 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 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.
C. EBERT: Exactly. And in fact Roger told me, I don't want Steve James making a movie that I wouldn't want to see. So - and Roger expected that kind of honesty and transparency in movies that he saw.
GROSS: As you point out, you know, Roger Ebert loved to eat. He was a very gifted speaker, which is why he had such a long career on television and as a public speaker and of course as a writer. How did it change the dynamics of your relationship when you could no longer eat together and when you could no longer actually have a conversation? I know he was able to speak through an electronic device, like a voice synthesizer device. But it's still not the same as having, you know, a in-the-moment, spontaneous, no-intervening-technology type of conversation.
C. EBERT: It was difficult. In the beginning, I would so carefully not eat in front of him because I didn't want him to feel like he was missing anything. And then later he told me, you don't have to do that. You know? Roger always found the silver lining in everything. We thought that the surgery would restore his ability to eat, and he said the first thing he would talk about, the first thing he was going to do when he was able to eat again was have either a coffee, a root beer float or a milk shake. And so we would talk about that. So the eating thing was a little difficult at first, but he still went out to dinner.
In fact there was a place in Chicago, the University Club, and we love the Cathedral Hall, the big dining room that looks kind of like Hogwarts University in Harry Potter - this Gothic room. We love that room. And we would take people there for dinner all the time. They have this roundtable off the corner, and Roger could take his synthesizer to speak. And so we did still go out to dinner. It was different because Roger loved eating, and so I'm not going to gloss over that. But he also published a cookbook when he could no longer eat. He published a book called "The Pot And How To Use It" because he used to love to cook in a rice cooker. And the way that he published that book was when he was in the hospital, he said one of the things that helped him get better is that he would go over in his mind some of the dishes he prepared in a rice cooker. And he remembered every recipe, and he wasn't one to measure things but he - an approximation. So when he got out of the hospital, he said, let's cook some of these things that I've been cooking in my head. And he ended up publishing a book when he could no longer eat. I was so humbled by that, couldn't believe it, that he would be so generous that he would want to put these recipes out there when he couldn't - would never taste them again.
GROSS: Chaz Ebert and Steve James will be back in the second half of the show. James' new documentary about Roger Ebert is called "Life Itself." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the late film critic Roger Ebert with Steve James, the director of a new documentary about Ebert's life and death called "Life Itself," and Chaz Ebert who was married to Roger for 21 years. She's a lawyer and is the president of Ebert Productions and publisher of Ebert Digital. As a result of surgery in 2006 for thyroid and salivary cancer, Roger Ebert spent the final years of his life unable to eat, drink or speak. Just after James and Ebert started working on the documentary, Ebert's cancer returned. He died in April 2013, four months after they started filming.
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 too.
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 Movie". And the [bleep].
C. EBERT: Wow.
GROSS: Wow, I know ouch. So Steven James were - from what you learn making this film, were Ebert and Siskel as competitive most of the time 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 watch 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?
C. 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 it 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? And I would say, Roger, come let's, you know, let's do something, let's do some meditation or something, leave it at the studio. 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 you watch the show, Chaz, before you were married to Roger? Before you knew him?
C. EBERT: You know, the show started in Chicago. Everyone - I think everyone in Chicago watched the show, and, yes, I did watch the show and I liked it. I thought it was great.
GROSS: Who did you prefer? Ebert or Siskel? (Laughing)
C. EBERT: If I have to be - do I have to do have to tell you the truth?
GROSS: I think so.
C. EBERT: In the beginning, I preferred Siskel. Yeah. It's true I didn't - all these years - I didn't want to say it, but it's true. Something about Gene on that show was something that I could relate to. Once I met Roger in person however - case closed. Roger was my favorite because I saw how funny he was, how genuine he was, how he was so curious about other people and it just - I just fell in love with him. And there was no way that I could watch the show after that without seeing how superior Roger was to Gene.
GROSS: Did their rivalry carry over to you and Gene Siskel's wife?
C. EBERT: No. One thing the boys knew that - and that's what we used to call them, we call them the boys. No, they knew that with the wives, you know, they had to be on good behavior. We - 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?
C. EBERT: Roger was wounded by that. You know, when - 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.
C. 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.
GROSS: My guests are Steve James, the director of the new documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert called "Life Itself," and Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger Ebert for 21 years. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about the late film critic Roger Ebert. My guests are Steve James, the director of the new documentary about Ebert called "Life Itself," and Chaz Ebert, who was married to Roger for 21 years. Chaz, in the movie you say that you met Roger Ebert at a rehab meeting that - and you say that you never said that in public before.
C. EBERT: Yes, what I say is I - the first time Roger laid eyes on me was at an AA meeting, but we actually met formerly at a restaurant after that.
GROSS: So you say that he was public about being, you know, being in recovery for drinking but that you had never wanted to be public about that. So I'm wondering - was that one of the things you bonded over as having that in common? And if this is too personal, just tell me and I'll drop the whole thing.
C. EBERT: No. It's not too personal I'm - you know, I'm very proud that I'm a recovering alcoholic. And it is, I mean, it's more than a notion when you become a recovering alcoholic because usually when you're an alcoholic, unless you're a binge drinker, it's something that was very much a part of your life on a almost daily basis and it's not easy to do. It's not easy to give up something that had that much control over your life. So of course that's - it must be one of the things we bonded over, among many.
GROSS: Were you serious about film? Did you care a lot about film?
C. EBERT: I always cared about film. That was another thing that Roger and I bonded over. You know, I do have some friends whose spouses, you know, whose husbands are film critics and they really don't like film that much. They don't like going to the movies, they didn't - they don't often accompany their husbands. I think we were very fortunate that we both were passionate about the movies.
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).
C. 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: In Steve James' documentary about Roger Ebert, "Life Itself," Chaz, you say that you expected your old friends to be surprised that you were in love and about to marry a white man - that you'd been head of the Black Student Union when you were in college. Did you philosophically feel that yourself - that you should be in love with a black man and not a white man?
C. EBERT: You know, I don't think that I thought about - well, you know, maybe I did philosophically think that because it was just something - you know, I grew up on the near West Side of Chicago. Chicago was a - you know, actually sometimes sort of remains one of the, you know, more segregated city in a big cities in America. And so I did not - I lived in a black neighborhood. When I was younger, I went to black elementary school, a black high school. There were maybe a few students who were of another race, but - and I also thought because I was very active in the Black Student Union that I did think that the black male in American society got a - had a real hard time. And I wanted to be very supportive of it. I have four brothers and, you know, my father and I would see some of the struggles that they had having to do with being a black male in this society. And so it never occurred to me that I would one day marry a white man. And it's not that I thought, oh, no, I would never do that. It's just - it just never occurred to me that this is what would happen.
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?
C. 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 - the feeling in the room was one of love and peace and serenity. I mean, that's just - it was just a gift.
GROSS: Chaz, among other things, you are kind of responsible for his legacy now. You are now the head of the website rogerebert.com. And you're producing the TV show that he still had toward the end of his life where other people were reading his film reviews and then there were two other film critics arguing about movies. But anyways, I'm wondering what it's like for you now to preside over his body of work and to be overseeing a website with younger critics writing about movies.
C. EBERT: Well, we have younger critics and some older critics as well, but because I was - during my period as a trial attorney, one of the things I was was also a civil rights attorney and did some equal employment opportunity work, so I don't discriminate between young and old and it's just quality.
C. EBERT: So it is a - it's a big responsibility. But the one thing that he freed me from was doing it if I felt it was only a burden or an obligation doing it only for him. He did want the website to continue, he wanted me to continue to reach out to people on his social media sites. So I was very surprised when he gave me the secret passwords to his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
C. EBERT: Because he used to guard those religiously. And when he gave them to me, I really wondered about that. I think he give them to me in March, you know, the month before he died. And so what I - the work that I'm carrying on to continue his legacy is also something I believe very much about. And I want people to know that because some of my friends, you know, were a little concerned, they said, do you feel that you are doing something - what do you want to do with your life, and I said I'm doing it. I'm doing it. I mean, we were married for over 20 years but we were also business partners for over 20 years and we started that website, rogerebert.com, together in the 2002. And so it's something that I - I've always done things, you know, I ran the business part. Roger didn't like business. He was the creative-side person and yet, he was very astute in business matters, he just didn't like them. So these are things that I am taking a day at a time.
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.
C. EBERT: Thank you.
JAMES: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Steve James directed the new documentary about Roger Ebert called "Life Itself." Chaz Ebert was married to Roger for 21 years and is the publisher of Ebert Digital. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Begin Again." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Director John Carney had a surprise hit with his low-budget musical "Once." And he returns to the musical arena - this time in New York and not Dublin - with his new movie "Begin Again." Keira Knightley plays a heartbroken singer-songwriter who teams up with a down and out drunken producer played by Mark Ruffalo. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The Irish director John Carney has a touching faith in the idea that people who are culturally and temperamentally unlike can achieve oneness by making music together. That's not exactly a radical idea in the world of musicals. But in his 2006 hit "Once," he proved he had a knack for giving sentimental showbiz fairytales the texture and tang of real-life and for knowing when to darken the mood with harsh notes. In "Begin Again," he makes the case once more that a song can save your life. The original title was even "Can A Song Save Your Life?" -which sounds like a name for the worst quiz show ever. The challenge, says Keira Knightley as the heroine, Greta, is that the song must be authentic. It has to come from the soul and sound like it. She's a British singer-songwriter who's jilted by her suddenly famous boyfriend and sometime collaborator Dave, played by Adam Levine of the group Maroon 5. On the eve of fleeing New York City, Greta gets coerced into playing a song during an open-mic event at a bar where Mark Ruffalo, as a once towering recording executive named Dan, is getting blotto. A pair of lengthy flashbacks reveal Dan's very bad day and Greta's very bad year. And then we're back at the bar where Dan watches Greta strum her guitar, and in wondrous scene, a cinematic coup imagines her with backing - drumsticks rise and play on their own power, an electric guitar and bass join in. It's like a drunkard's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Then Dan tells Greta he wants to sign her. Greta brushes him off and Dan pursues her to the street.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEGIN AGAIN")
MARK RUFFALO: (As Dan) OK, here's the truth, I couldn't sign you if wanted to, all right.
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) OK.
RUFFALO: (As Dan) I didn't come for a signing tonight. I haven't signed anybody in seven years. My label has completely lost all faith in me.
KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) So why did you give me your card?
RUFFALO: (As Dan) Force of habit. If I look homeless it's because I practically am. I left my home about a year or so ago. And I wasn't celebrating tonight. I was standing on a subway platform ready to kill myself and then I heard your song. Want to get a beer?
KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) Sure.
EDELSTEIN: "Begin Again" is so charming you forgive all the contrivances. Ruffalo makes an adorably rumpled, drunken jerk. And Knightley speaks with an irresistible mixture of tartness and romantic longing, she also has a surprisingly sweet singing voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEGIN AGAIN")
KNIGHTLEY: (As Greta) (Singing) Tell us the reason youth is wasted on the young. It's hunting season and this lamb is on the run. Searching for meaning, but are we all lost stars trying to light up the dark?
EDELSTEIN: Greta and Dan don't just need a hit, they need to prove to the world they still exist. So they built a surrogate family of musicians and hit the streets. The idea is to do an album in which each song is recorded in a different Manhattan locale live with no overdubs, thereby catching the city's authentic spirit. The conceit would be more credible if the numbers didn't sound so processed. But at least the people on screen are actually playing. The film features several known musicians - Adam Levine is good at convincing you he's a callow, shallow crooner. Cee Lo Green has an amusing scene as a superstar who shows off magnificent estate and does an impromptu rap. And Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, is all sleek self-containment as Dan's chilly ex-partner. The rest of the cast is believable too, especially Hailee Steinfeld as Dan's teenage daughter who hasn't forgiven him for not being around. It's odd though that Carney is under the weirdly old-fashioned impression that teen girls who dress in ultra-short shorts and skimpy tops are crying for their daddies intervention - what decade is this? - they all dress that way. Actually, despite the smart talk and occasional dissonances, "Begin Again" isn't much of a leap from Judy and Mickey saying let's put on a show. Carney's specialty is inching toward cliches and backing away from them and inching forward again. He's not as pure as he pretends to be, but his footwork is very entertaining.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. I'm Terry Gross.
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