Precisely 20 years ago, Ebert and his television partner, Gene Siskel, championed James’ film “Hoop Dreams,” generating buzz and box-office returns.
James began filming around December 2012, attempting to capture the man in person. At that point, Ebert had lost his lower jaw due to cancer, and was in the hospital due to a painful hip fracture. He died April 4, 2013.
“I believe these are the last recorded images of Roger,” James says. “I had about nine pages of questions that I never got to. We were trying to make plans to get back over there and film. There was definitely a fear that he would die and we would be there.”
Ebert’s widow, Chaz, who carries on managing and blogging for www.rogerebert.com, explains that her husband wanted to hide nothing in the film, which has upsetting hospital footage, even showing his throat being suctioned.
Chaz Ebert says that the decision likely came about because Siskel had kept his condition, a brain tumor, very private, and his 1999 death came as a surprise.
“Gene was like a brother to him, and he was so hurt that he didn’t get a chance to tell him goodbye,” Chaz Ebert says. “He said, ‘I don’t ever want to do that to people we care about.’ I don’t think it was a plan to make it so public, but then he did because illness is a part of life.”
As the movie celebrates Roger’s life, it doesn’t shy away from the dark side, including his drinking, his feuding with Siskel, and other personality quirks.
Chaz Ebert remembers that he was a creature of ritual.
“EbertFest was only supposed to happen once!” she laughs. “Whenever we got an invitation for anything, I had to consider it carefully, because anything Roger does becomes a tradition.”
Roger Ebert was also supportive, encouraging Chaz Ebert to show her own writing to the world.
“His death just sort of freed something in me,” she says. “I have the need to celebrate this man.”
She adds: “He continued to look beautiful to me up until the end. He was more himself. He was stripped down to the bare essential, loving, giving funny person that he was.
IF YOU GO
Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog
Directed by Steve James
Running time 1 hour, 55 minutes