TORONTO — When shooting began for Life Itself — a documentary based on film critic Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir — no one imagined it would document his death.
Shortly after embarking on the project, Ebert learned his cancer had returned. He died just months later in April 2013.
His widow, Chaz Ebert, said screening a film that her husband was not able to see left her with mixed emotions.
“In the beginning it was painful to watch because it was still so (early) in the grieving process but now, I have to tell you, it’s joyous,” Chaz Ebert said in a recent phone interview from Chicago. “I loved spending two hours with Roger.”
Chaz said the pair granted Hoop Dreams filmmaker Steve James “full access,” including shooting in hospitals and rehabilitation centres when permitted.
“We felt that to honour Roger’s legacy, the best thing to do was to continue with the making of the film, not stop it,” she said.
The result is an intimate look at the final months of Ebert’s life, as well as a portrait of his rise as one of the most important film critics of his time. Life Itself weaves interviews with Chaz, former colleagues and filmmakers, with footage from his combative bouts with Gene Siskel in At the Movies and home videos showing his seldom-seen role as a family man.
Life Itself opens in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa on July 11, with Chaz Ebert set to attend the Toronto premiere.
In addition to chronicling Ebert’s early career as a reporter, the film also delves into the critic’s personal life, including his support for Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which he described in a 2009 blog post as “the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I came to love the program and the friends I was making through meetings, some of whom are close friends to this day,” he wrote on RogerEbert.com.
Life Itself reveals for the first time that one of those relationships became the most important in his life — AA is what brought Ebert and his future wife together. Chaz Ebert said she had been hesitant to share that detail but ultimately did so because she wanted Life Itself to be the “definitive” film about her husband’s life.
“I wanted to have a level of candour that matched everything else in the film,” she said.
The film suggests the pair met in AA, but in an interview with Variety, Chaz Ebert clarified that her future husband “laid eyes” on her in the program but waited to approach her at a restaurant after a meeting.
The relationship that grew from that encounter took centre stage in Roger Ebert’s life — and is a focal point of the film.
“He was a man who wasn’t afraid to love deeply, to accept love and to give it,” said Chaz Ebert.
The couple’s devotion to one another is reflected in the film, which depicts Chaz Ebert caring for her husband in his final days and includes interviews with friends describing the impact she had on his life.
Ebert was initially diagnosed with cancer in 2002. A string of surgeries left him without his jaw, taking away his ability to speak, eat and drink. Still, the prolific critic kept working, reviewing films and blogging on his website.
“His curiosity over life, his love for me, his love for movies, his love for just life itself, really — I think that kept him going,” said Chaz Ebert.
The film also reveals how Ebert helped some of his famous friends. Director Martin Scorsese credits the Pulitzer Prize-winning reviewer with helping him emerge from a difficult period in the early ’80s as his third marriage dissolved and his career stalled. Scorsese, who also produced the film, said Ebert’s invitation to receive a tribute at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was a turning point.
Ebert also helped bring TIFF to prominence. As an early supporter and festival fixture, he was keen to see it grow.
“He actually said it became the most important festival after the Cannes festival,” said Chaz Ebert.
As publisher of Ebert Digital, Chaz Ebert looks forward to returning to TIFF this year with a team of reviewers, continuing to keep Roger Ebert’s legacy alive. The Toronto fest runs from Sept. 4-14.
“Living your passion — that’s what Roger did,” she said. “He used to say that even if he wasn’t paid to be film critic, that’s what he would have been.”