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Interview: Ebert Club Member Greg Salvatore Responds to "Life Itself"

Ebert Club member Greg Salvatore won a ticket to the L.A. premiere of "Life Itself" by answering one of the questions correctly at the Google+ Hangout held on what would have been Roger's 72nd birthday. We thought it would be fun to get to know Greg a little bit, hear about his relationship with Roger as well as his experience at the premiere. Thank you, Greg, and thank you, too, for sharing your photos with us!

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I am originally from Connecticut. I moved out to Seattle about 4 and a half years ago.  Currently I have a number of jobs. I work at SIFF Cinema, an organization that also runs the Seattle International Film Festival. I also do proctoring for the tests that international students have to take if they want to go to college in the U.S.

And you're a writer as well.

I have two blogs: one is a blog where I update people on the novel I'm writing and trying to get published. Then I created a second blog for special events and film criticism. I also write poetry, short stories.

Could you tell me a little bit about how you came to Roger Ebert's work?

I knew who Roger Ebert was fairly early on because he was occasionally syndicated in the local paper that we had in Connecticut. I remember in college in particular, my junior year, senior year, that was when I started reading his website and his Great Movie reviews. So what I would do would be I would go through his Great Movie reviews and look at the ones I didn't know and then see the movie and read his review. That's how I saw "The Passion of Joan of Arc," for example. (Roger's review of "The Passion of Joan of Arc.") He had started his blog about a year before I actually started reading it. One of the first posts I read was when he wrote on the anniversary of Gene Siskel's death. It's one of my favorites still. I started commenting on his blog around 2009.

Tell me about when he contacted you.

He wrote an entry called "The Blogs of my Blog" that affected a lot of people in the blogosphere. I wrote a comment along the lines of, "This was great, I have people to read now, and oh, by the way, I have a blog if anyone wants to check that out."  I went back a little bit later and saw that Roger had responded to my comment, saying, "Dreams of Literary Grandeur is one heck of a blog. I see you came on here a few months ago. Had you commented on the last two blog posts I am sure you would have been included." And I basically went crazy. I commented back, saying everyone he wrote about were great writers, and he responded again, "You're right about them, I think you take too little credit for yourself," and then he posted a link to one of my posts. It was on William Faulkner, how Faulkner said "no man can write who is not first a humanist," and how I thought that a lot of writing today didn't have that feeling of humanity in it. So yeah, when he linked to my blog, I went crazy for the rest of the week.

You were fortunate enough to meet him.

I met him at Ebertfest in 2011. I did get to speak with him, and I made sure to thank him, and get a picture with him. He wrote down, "Thank you for coming from so far away." That day the movie "Umberto D" was playing and he wrote, "'Umberto D' will make it worthwhile." He was right.

You attended the Google Hangout on what would have been his 72nd birthday. What was the answer you gave to one of the questions during the Hangout that won you the ticket to the premiere of "Life Itself" in Los Angeles?

The question was Which animal tickled Roger's fancy in his review for "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans"? The answer was an iguana.

Had you seen "Life Itself" yet?

I had seen the Indiegogo stream but I knew that footage had been added for the Cannes festival, and my computer has a really slow connection. I really wanted to see the film on a big screen with an audience.

Tell me about your experience at the premiere. I was following your Tweets. They were great.

I made quick travel arrangements, flew in to Los Angeles on Wednesday, and it premiered on Thursday. I went over to Will Call, got my ticket, and went into the theatre, sitting on the aisle. I saw Leonard Maltin coming down my row. I saw Werner Herzog come in, and he sat one to my right right behind me. Someone sat next to me who worked on the movie and she was talking to Herzog. It was surreal, to have someone asking Herzog if he wanted something at the concession stand and hearing him ask for popcorn, in that voice that he has.

How about the experience of the movie itself?

There was a point during the movie that got very interesting. I think it was near the end of the film, and near the end of Roger's life, and I suddenly became very aware that the theatre was totally silent. Before, people had been laughing a lot, with the old clips of Siskel and Ebert and everything, so that silence was palpable. One thing I noticed, too, is that at the end people applauded, but it wasn't huge applause. I think it was because people were just stunned. I had a big lump in my throat. The movie captures so well who he was as a person, not just as an icon.

Was there a party afterwards?

There was a party afterwards at the Warwick Hotel.  Eventually I screwed up my courage, and introduced myself to Chaz, and she said, "Oh you're Greg, the contest winner!" And after that it was great, because she led me around and we got pictures taken with each other and she introduced me to people. I met her family. It was totally great. Steve James was there, and I was able to get a photo with him, too.  At the end of the party, I was going to walk back to where I was staying, and Chaz asked me, "How long is it?" "About 20 minutes." "Oh, no, we're going to get you a cab." And as it turns out, I was really close to where her hotel was, so what ended up happening was I got to take a limo back to my hotel with Chaz Ebert. It was perfect. She's wonderful.

If you had to pick one of your favorite reviews from Roger, what would it be and why?

If I had to pick one, I would say it was his review for Mizoguchi's "Sansho the Bailiff." I've seen the movie and it's one of those movies that I appreciate and admire more than love. But the review is one of those moments where Roger's not just talking about the movie, he's talking about life. The film deals a lot with cruelty and in the review Ebert shared a story from one of his friends. When the friend was a kid, his cat had a bunch of baby kittens on his stomach and then his stepfather killed the kittens right in front of him, and it was a very powerful story. The feeling you get from the review just totally transcends what the movie is. I've now seen most of Mizoguchi's movies because of Ebert's reviews.

Was it a turning point for you, your exchanges with Ebert? What did your relationship with him mean to you?

My family, my instructors, have supported me, but it is something quite different when a complete stranger with a huge following who has won a Pulitzer Prize for writing supports you like that. And there was no reason for him to do it at all. He doesn't know who I am. He hadn't met me. That was just the way he was. And I noticed after he linked to my blog post, I definitely made sure I was putting the effort into whatever I was writing, because it was in my mind, "Roger might read this." I have one celebrity endorsement for my writing and that's Roger Ebert.  That's still pretty amazing to me.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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