Chicago filmmaker Steve James reflects on Sundance reaction to Ebert doc ‘Life Itself’

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Steve James (Credit: Chandler West/Sun-Times Media)

On his first non-hectic day since arriving at the Sundance Film Festival last Friday, while being shuttled to one of many screenings he’ll see throughout the week, Chicago filmmaker Steve James reflected on the extraordinary reaction to his latest work “Life Itself.” Based in part on the 2011 memoir of late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, the documentary premiered Sunday, January 19 to a packed house of 550, garnered two standing ovations and has so far been heartily praised by both viewers and critics.

Even what might be considered the most critical major review, by the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips — who wished the film “made more room for aesthetic debate,” deemed it “a little soft, and tactful to a fault,” panned its musical score and noted a “Sun-Times bias” — offered many compliments and awarded three-and-a-half stars (out of four).

Here’s James on his Ebert experience:

Q: It’s probably going to to take a while to come down from this emotionally.

A: Yeah. This is my sixth time at the festival. “Hoop Dreams” [in 1994] was a very special year, without question. I don’t think we could possibly ever top that, but this has been right up there, honestly, in terms of the audience response and the press response — the reviews we’ve gotten. Don’t get me wrong, coming into this, I really did feel we had a good film. But the response to it has exceeded my expectations, and that’s not being falsely humble. Because there’s times it’s been the opposite [laughs].

Q: When you’ve made a film like this that seems to have rivaled “Hoop Dreams” in its emotional impact, how do you deal with that in going forward to make your next film?

A: I’m not thinking about that now. I’m not thinking about topping anything now. I’m trying to enjoy this [festival], because it’s truly been a special experience largely due to “Life Itself,” but the “Hoop Dreams” screening was really wonderful.

Q: What were you feeling in the moments just before the first screening of “Life Itself” and throughout the film?

A: [At the start], somebody from the festival introduces the director and then the director comes out and says a few words about the film. So [Sundance Film Festival director] John Cooper introduced it, and it was a nice honor for the film. And he went out and started to do the introduction and he choked up over Roger, which was really touching to me and everyone, and I totally didn’t expect it. Then I get up to introduce it. I had this little thirty-second speech prepared, tying it into “Hoop Dreams” being here twenty years ago. I didn’t write anything out; I just knew what I wanted to say. And I got halfway through it and I welled up with emotion. That has never happened to me before. It’s not like I’ve never gotten emotional in front of people before, but it was completely out of left field. I just did not see it coming. I think it was Cooper’s fault, basically. And I quickly just kind of went, “Enjoy the movie,” and just left [laughs]. It completely surprised me. But maybe in some ways it was symbolic of people in the room watching the movie, because it was the world premiere. The people who had come, I’m sure a great majority of them were lovers of Roger Ebert and his writing, which is why they made the effort to be there. There was just a lot of feeling in the room before the film even started, and I think the film really tapped into that. Whether they realized it or not and whether I realized it or not, it was true for me that we came to celebrate Roger but we also came to mourn him in some way. And there was a lot of emotion in that room through the whole film, both laughter and a lot of tears.

Q: Were you somehow more sensitive than usual to people’s reactions during the film?

A: Usually when I watch [one of my films] in public but in general—it’s the first screening—it’s a very painful experience. I’m constantly hyper-aware and feeling like I’m losing people. I hear somebody cough and it’s like, “Oh, God, I’ve lost them.” Or somebody gets up and leaves, because people do leave from time to time. So I’m hyper-aware and sensitive of it. But I have to say, this was the most pleasant and enjoyable first experience of a screening I’ve ever had.

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