Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Shannon M. Houston, Assistant TV Editor and film critic at Paste Magazine, published an interview with Chaz Ebert on April 3rd. The conversation covered a variety of topics, including Chaz's recent SXSW panel, her belief in the importance of normalizing diversity onscreen and the love of music and mentorship she shared with Roger. Click here to read the full article, "Chaz Ebert Celebrates 'Life Itself' and Roger Ebert." Below is an excerpt.
Paste Magazine: There were so many great scenes in Life Itself, but two that were really memorable to me were very different. I loved the clip of Gene [Siskel] and Roger arguing in between takes, and then making the McDonald’s jokes about each other.
Chaz Ebert: (laughs) Oh, yes!
Paste: And then, I was also really taken aback with the medical procedure that was shown. The film occupies these two spaces and navigates them so well—the great comedy and Ebert’s sense of humor, and the realities of loss and pain. Did you always trust Steve James with this story? How did your relationship with him change over the course of shooting the film?
Ebert: We did trust him. And in fact, if Steve James’s and Martin Scorsese’s names hadn’t been attached to this, we probably wouldn’t have done it. We had been approached by some other people to do it, and Roger wasn’t interested. He actually told people “no”—that he wasn’t interested in having a film made about his life. But then Steve Zaillian [Schindler’s List writer] and his producing partner Garret Basch came along, and they had read Roger’s memoirs. They actually brought the project to James and Scorsese. And with all four of those names, we just said, “What?!” How can you say no to something like that?
And we knew that Steve James had the best reputation in the documentary filmmaking community. He’s a man of integrity. We’d watched him over the course of 20 years and we knew that his reputation was stellar. So that’s why we trusted him. And, even knowing that, we still had him come over, and sit down and talk to us about how he would make the film, before we said “yes.” So by the time we agreed, we were pretty comfortable with the fact that we were turning our lives over to Steve James.
Paste: Ava DuVernay often talks about Roger’s impact on her career, but I didn’t know the story of their original meeting until I saw Life Itself.
Ebert: When she was eight years old! Can you believe that?
Paste: I loved that part. And I love that it follows with your granddaughter Raven talking about his impact on her. And then there’s Gina Prince-Bythewood, another black filmmaker, who has spoken highly of him and the website. Can you talk about his relationship to filmmakers—especially in terms of championing women of color—and how your personal relationship with him might have impacted things?
Ebert: Well, this goes back to what you mentioned Shonda Rhimes said, about normalizing. Roger didn’t see what he was doing as something extraordinary, or something he was doing to right the wrongs of the past. He saw it as something normal and natural. Now, in his memoir he does talk about how he grew up in central Illinois and there were a few African-Americans in his school. They didn’t necessarily hang out together all the time, but he said that, from the time that he became aware of race, a lot of the opinions he’d formed in his mind were based on books he read: Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and James Baldwin, and things like that. But he said that he never tried to approach the concept as if to say, “Oh, this is something outside of myself.” It was normal and natural, and for him, it was just about how you treat another human being. And that’s what I loved about him. It wasn’t about making a big gesture.
Paste: Sure. But it’s interesting because DuVernay says that, knowing that he was married to you enabled her to trust him a bit more with her work.
Ebert: (laughs) Well I do like to think I had something to do with that, for sure! I must have had some subtle influence. I’m going to add another strong, black woman into the chain, since you brought some up, including my granddaughter Raven—they were very close. Oprah Winfrey! Oprah Winfrey says that Roger is the one who put her on the path to becoming a billionaire, because he told her to go into syndication.
Ebert: They were on a date! They were at Hamburger Hamlet or something, and she was trying to make a decision. I think it was about whether to go into syndication, or take a very secure position with ABC. She said Roger sat down, got a napkin—a napkin she says she still has to this day—and wrote down all of the figures, and options she had. She took that napkin, and the next day told King World that she’d accept the syndication deal. So that’s another one! (laughs)
Click here to watch Chaz's interview on Fox 32 news.
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