Interview: Steve James – ‘Life Itself’

It was Roger Ebert, along with his partner in film criticism Gene Siskel, whom American documentarian Steve James credits with helping to launch his career as a filmmaker. On their acclaimed and nationally popular film review show At The Movies in January 1994, Siskel and Ebert were both unrestrained in their praise for an epic, near three hour documentary that had just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival: ‘Hoop Dreams’ – James’ wonderfully rich exposé of two inner-city teenagers striving for basketball stardom. Ebert called the film “one of the best films about American life I have ever seen” and even went on to say that it was “one of the great movie-going experiences of my life”; for a man whose life was the movies, this was express approval indeed.

Over twenty years later, with ‘Hoop Dreams’ still enjoying an enduringly warm legacy, James had a chance to return the favour by creating a filmic realisation of Ebert’s 2011 memoir ‘Life Itself’. Reaching unprecedented levels of fame for a film reviewer and becoming the very first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Price for Criticism in 1975, Ebert lived what James calls “an incredibly full life”; this no doubt providing a compelling framework on which to base his documentary. Sadly, Ebert succumbed to multiple bouts of cancer and subsequent complications led to the removal of his lower jaw, leaving him unable to eat, drink or speak in the latter years of his life; by the time James’ cameras rolled, Ebert was struck with illness once more and died just four months later. Plans for the film were thus reshaped and James’ absorbing biography delivered with an uncompromising mix of humour, poignancy, inspiration and sadness befitting Ebert’s bravery and resilience in a life so thoroughly lived.

‘Life Itself’ was released in UK cinemas last November and, in recently finding out that James was available for interviews ahead of the film’s release on DVD, I speculatively responded to the film’s PR to see if the director could spare some time for our little website. I was delighted, though slightly apprehensive, when the response came that James would indeed be available to talk. This was to be my first ever “phoner” and it was with a man who was responsible for one of my top five films of all time; as an aspiring basketball player myself, ‘Hoop Dreams’ struck an indelible chord in my teenage years and its multi-faceted commentary on issues of race, class, economic inequality and the dark side of the ‘American Dream’ has left me spellbound ever since.

So, taking twenty minutes away from my desk job on a Thursday afternoon, I retreated to a corner of a cold, deserted storage room, dialled through to Illinois and spoke to the man himself. Garrulous, intelligent and insightful, James mercifully proved to be a model interviewee. Despite nerves that caused me to drown out my own voice with a misplaced left hand covering my phone’s mic as I attempted to deliver my second question (edited out here to save my blushes), I think that it all went quite well.

A little jittery, and narrowly resisting the urge to explode into sycophantic frenzy, I spoke with James about ‘Life Itself’, the world of criticism, objectivity in documentary filmmaking, the legacy of ‘Hoop Dreams’ and the tales of tragedy and survival that followed William Gates and Arthur Agee Jr. away from the cameras.

‘Life Itself’ is out on DVD on 23rd February – stay tuned to The Fix for our thoughts on the film.

Scott Hammond