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Spot on Directors: Steve James

Our film of the month for February is Steve James’ inspiring documentary LIFE ITSELF, a beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of humanity that recounts the surprising and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert, based on his memoir of the same name. This doc is James’ latest in a long line extraordinary storytelling which includes HOOP DREAMS and THE INTERRUPTERS, to name a few.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I love the surprises and richness of the lives of real people. Its always more interesting than anything I could make up.

You have a 20 year history as a documentary filmmaker- What is it that draws you from one film to the next? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I don’t know that there is one thread through all my films. For many of them, I am compelled by people at important junctures in their lives, whether its chasing the basketball dream, or facing prison, or trying to mediate violence. I also need to feel some kind of personal connection to the story or subject matter, even if the film isn’t in and of itself, a personal film. Though I have done two such films. Finally, I’m intrigued by complex people whose lives take surprising turns. Roger Ebert certainly qualifies on that score.

Is your experience making Life Itself like any of the other filmmaking experiences you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?

This is the first time I’ve made a true biographical documentary, which was an exciting challenge for me: how do you capture the full life of a person without it feeling like a “connect the dots” travelogue through their life? I also was challenged by the reality that the film ends up documenting Roger’s last months of his life. That aspect of the film carries it beyond being just a biographical film.

Documentarians often set out to make one film and end up making another. Life Itself began as an adaption of Roger’s memoir of the same title, although it took an unexpected turn due to the resurgence of his illness. This gave you a window into a part of life, and death, that often occurs behind closed doors. What was this experience like as a filmmaker? Were there any restrictions on what could be filmed, or was there ever a question about if the film should go on?

We were challenged on how to tell that story along with his life story. And of course, it was profoundly sad and unsettling to film Roger’s decline and eventual passing. But part of Roger’s courage was in his allowing – and even insisting – that the film capture those difficult last months candidly. Now, that doesn’t mean that we filmed everything. Doctors prohibited us from filming from time to time out of concern for Roger’s energy or health, particularly near the end of his life. Despite Roger and Chaz’s courage, the last couple weeks of Roger’s life were not filmed or photographed in any way. That time became understandably private for them, and I had no expectation nor desire to film Roger as he passed away.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up any unexpected reactions?

I’ve been particularly pleased to hear people speak about Roger’s life as an inspiration in the way that transcended his considerable contributions to film and film criticism. And part of that is watching the way in which he coped with illness and the last months of his life with grace, acceptance, and even humor.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to learn more, take action or get involved in some way. Is there anything that you recommend to people who feel inspired by Roger’s story?

What I said before… Roger not only inspires one to appreciate and think about great films, he inspired people to live their lives in a full and compassionate way – to love life, not just movies.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

How about a list of docs that I know Roger loved: Gates of Heaven, Michael Apted’s “Up” series, Shoah, Crumb, Grizzly Man, and a fun one since Roger had a great sense of humor and loved music: Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

Watch out! More of these films are being added to our Documentary Pages soon!


LIFE ITSELF is Influence Film Club’s featured film for February. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Photo: Steve James, director of LIFE ITSELF, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Interview by: Isis Marina Graham