At the Movies

‘Life Itself’: An Open Letter From Filmmaker Steve James About His Roger Ebert Documentary

Filmmaker Steve James (‘Hoop Dreams’) pens a letter about his upcoming documentary on the late Roger Ebert.

Kevin Horan

I am deeply honored to be making Life Itself, a documentary on the life of Roger Ebert, and to have had the full cooperation and enthusiasm of Roger and his wife, Chaz.

Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel first championed my film, Hoop Dreams, which was essential to its success. Roger remained a great supporter of my work throughout my career and I’ll never forget him tweeting about The Interrupters right before its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. Martin Scorsese and Steve Zaillian also felt a special bond to Roger Ebert, crediting his help in propelling their careers, which is in part why they wanted to come on board as creative executive producers.

We started filming in December 2012. Roger and his wife, Chaz, courageously opened up their private lives to our filming as they never have before. No one could have known then that Roger would be with us for only four more months, but his undiminished will and enthusiasm were inspiring.

With the same spirit in which Roger shared so much of his life with his fans and followers, we hope to build a community for this film where people can participate in the celebration of Roger’s legacy and impact on all of us. Roger's fan community spans the globe and we want to include them now by enabling them to see the film first.

Therefore we have embarked on a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo to ensure our ability to deliver the film to fans and engage them around the world. As a reward for their support, a key thing we are offering is a private streaming experience to view the film upon its completion and prior to its official release in theaters next year. Thus, all of Roger Ebert’s fans will have the chance to watch the film wherever they live. Other rewards, such as special screenings, perks for educational institutions, and personal hangouts with the filmmakers, are also being offered in an effort to further involve the community and celebrate the film.

Many know Roger’s story to be inspiring. But he was also a flesh and blood man whose life was full of humor, hubris and his own share of heartbreak. We are aiming to tell the whole story: from his days at the University of Illinois, to Chicago where he was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, on to television where he became an iconic star with Gene Siskel, and finally to what Roger told us was “his third act”: how he overcame disabilities wrought by cancer to become a major voice on the Internet and through social media. His impact on cinema and on our own lives has truly transcended generations.

We have conducted interviews with over two-dozen people, including life-long friends, professional colleagues, the first ever interview with Gene Siskel’s wife, and filmmakers whose lives Roger impacted including Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay, Werner Herzog, and Martin Scorsese.

And because Roger’s generosity extended in so many directions to include filmmakers, fans, other writers, and those engaged in health and social issues advocacy, we intend to do the same. Therefore, if we are fortunate enough to exceed our funding goals, we will be donating a portion of contributions to two charitable causes begun by Roger and Chaz: The Ebert Foundation and The Roger Ebert Film Studies Center at his alma mater, the University of Illinois.

Roger told Chaz when we began this film, “I want the film to be a portrait of the real man, not the icon.” My hope is that Life Itself will do justice to both. What I’ve learned through this entire process is that Roger’s significance continues to be felt throughout film culture and by all of us who love movies, and interacting with the crowd is just an extension of what Roger inherently stood for as both a film critic and humanitarian. Our campaign has reached a global community of supporters who likely found Roger to be an accessible public figure who looked at the world through the same screen.

“See you at the movies.”


Steve James