Filmmaker getting thumbs up for Ebert movie

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While he was in school studying film, documentary director Steve James would watch Roger Ebert on television and read his reviews in the paper. He hoped to someday have his films reviewed on "Siskel and Ebert at the Movies," but he never could have anticipated the two critics' positive reaction to his film "Hoop Dreams," which has now been canonized as one of the greatest documentaries of all time.

"Roger and Gene [Siskel] did this unprecedented thing, and they reviewed it on their show when you could only see it at Sundance," Mr. James said of the film festival.

Mr. James credited Mr. Ebert and Mr. Siskel with helping his film -- a three-hour documentary -- find a distributor and achieve a wide theatrical release in 1994. "It was unconventional then, as it would be now," he said.

Mr. James must have mastered the art of the unconventional, because 20 years later, his film "Life Itself" -- documenting the life and final days of Roger Ebert, who died in April 2013 -- has itself opened to largely positive reviews.

Critics have noted that the film certainly celebrates the legacy of Mr. Ebert, yet it does not shy away from the darker moments of his life. "Life Itself," which borrows its title from Mr. Ebert's 2011 memoir of the same name, is honest about the alcoholism that once plagued Mr. Ebert, his often contentious relationship with Mr. Siskel and the cancer that eventually contributed to his death.

Although he described all of his films as collaborative pieces, in which the subjects have some influence on how the piece ultimately turns out, Mr. James said his subjects have little say in the actual creative process and the content of the film. He does, however, screen the film for them once it is finished, so that they can discuss the outcome before it is released.

But Mr. James said that Mr. Ebert did not try to impede his filmmaking, even when confronted with difficult subjects. Mr. Ebert's knowledge of filmmaking allowed him to more easily trust Mr. James, he said in a recent phone interview.

"It's almost like from the get-go, from the very first day of shooting, he was going to be himself and did not shy away from letting me see his difficulties with medical issues and also ... some of the rougher edges of his personality," Mr. James said. "Interesting people are complex people. He certainly was that kind of person, [and] I know he wanted the portrayal of the film to represent that."

Problems arose only when Mr. Ebert's doctors stepped in, but even then, Mr. James said he largely agreed with their decisions and would not have challenged their restrictions. For instance, Mr. James was prohibited from filming the moment in which Mr. Ebert passed away, but he said that even if he could, he would not have wanted to use that piece in the film.

Unlike Mr. Ebert's memoir, the film documents Mr. Ebert's death as well as his life. In a pivotal moment of the film, Mr. James emails Mr. Ebert a question, asking him why he named his memoir "Life Itself."

But Mr. Ebert is too weak to respond.

When asked why he named the film after the book, Mr. James said he had no firm answer and he hopes that audiences will ponder the title after the credits roll, perhaps while exiting the theater.

However, he offered some hints. He pointed to a passage that appears early in the memoir, in which Mr. Ebert describes his life as a movie.

"I think that his life was a kind of a seven-act movie, with all kinds of twists and turns that both informed his criticism and stood apart from his life as a critic," Mr. James said. "That's ultimately what I came to appreciate greatly about him, and ... it's why I decided to make the movie."

With a length of nearly two hours, the film tackles the difficult questions of persistence, mortality and human connection. But at its core, Mr. James said the film is rather simple.

"My greatest fascination is with both his love of movies and his love of life."

"Life Itself" opens Friday at the Regent Square Theater.

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