Producer Chaz Ebert

Ebert comments on spearheading the new documentary, Life Itself, chronicling the life of her late husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. In the WEB EXTRA clip, she talks about meeting Quentin Tarantino for the first time.

Accomplished in her own right, Chaz Ebert's surname typically brings to mind her late husband Roger—the Pulitzer Prize-winning film reviewer. Together, they were one of the most famous couples in the critic world. A civil rights activist and former trial lawyer (she also has a master's degree), she enjoyed early career success with the EPA, the EEOC and a major law firm in her Chicago hometown. After her marriage to the trailblazing journalist, she worked by his side expanding his brand. She's continued their work, running Ebert Digital, Ebert Productions and The Ebert Co. and also participated in the new documentary on Roger, Life Itself, based on the autobiography of the same name.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: For anyone who loves movies, a thumbs up from Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert was the Holy Grail. He championed the best from small independent films to major studio blockbusters.

His now remarkable life, including his battle with terminal cancer, is chronicled in a new documentary titled “Life Itself.” The film is spearheaded by Chaz Ebert, president of the Ebert Company who also heads up the Ebert Foundation. Let’s take a look at a scene from the documentary, “Life Itself,” which opens tomorrow.

[Clip]

Tavis: So I have to tell you a funny story when I ran into Roger. Roger was a guest on this show a number of times, but I ran into him once years before he was a guest on the program. I don’t know what made me say this, but I walked up to Roger Ebert and I said to him – told him how much I respected his work and how much I really appreciated his pushing and being a champion for small film.

But I said to him, “I knew I really liked you, though, when I discovered you were married to a sister” and he laughed. I said who knew that Roger – I mean, you’re watching this guy every week with the thumbs up and the thumbs down. You’re married to a sister, man? He laughed and we had a great conversation about that.

So this is the sister that Roger Ebert was married to. How did this happen?

Chaz Ebert: How did it happen?

Tavis: You and Roger. How’d y’all connect?

Ebert: Well, we met at a restaurant. Previous to meeting in a restaurant, he had seen me at an AA meeting and he had taken – it was an open meeting that’s open to whether you’re an alcoholic or not an alcoholic. So Ann Landers, who was a friend of his, wanted him to take her to a meeting so that she could update her – she used to write something called “20 Questions About Alcohol.”

So she wanted to update it and she wanted to visit a meeting and asked Roger to take her. He said he saw me at the meeting and, later that night, we were all at a restaurant and I was sitting with people that he knew. And he said he was a little shy that night – he’s not always shy – and he…

Tavis: Yeah. I can’t imagine Roger ever being shy. Go ahead, yeah.

Ebert: And he asked Dan – Eppy – to come over to the table and introduce us. So that’s how it started.

Tavis: What do you make – and I don’t want to make too much of it. But you’ve had a lot of years to think about this. Is there any significance, anything to masticate on, about the fact that you and Roger Ebert met at an AA meeting? Is there anything there?

Ebert: Well, let me answer the question this way.

Tavis: Sure.

Ebert: I think that there was some sort of divine intervention to our meeting, period, to our lives together because it’s not – there are so many things that are – you know, so many synchronicities that happened to us.

I mean, the fact that I’m even sitting here talking to you about him, I was much more private than that. I would have never envisioned that I would lose a husband and be talking about him publicly, you know, more than a year after he died.

There are so many things, so many things. I mean, I can’t even begin to – I wish I could just enumerate some of them for you. But I think that there is something.

Tavis: Well, that’s the purpose of a documentary. It does that for you. It tells the story about Roger and about you and about his work and about his life and legacy, which leads me to ask. What do you hope the takeaway is from this documentary, “Life Itself?”

Ebert: What I hope the takeaway is – and this may not be the takeaway, but what I hope the takeaway is for anything when we talk about Roger’s legacy is he is such a beautiful writer.

But I think that his philosophy on life, on empathy, on walking in another person’s shoes, you know, trying to get into the head of a person of a different race, a different gender, different circumstances, different economic situation, having empathy, you know, being your brother’s keeper, your sister’s sister, that’s what I hope. I mean, things like that are really the things that I think are the most important.

Tavis: What in his life, what in his backstory, made him that way?

Ebert: You know, I’ve been trying to figure that out and I don’t know. I don’t know what made him that way. I think he was born that way, really, because even – you know, there’s something in a scene in “Life Itself” where Roger is the editor of the Daily Illini newspaper in college at the time that those four young girls were killed in a bombing in Birmingham.

And what he says about that, what he had the presence of mind to say as this young guy, I was overwhelmed. I had never seen it. The first time I saw it was in the movies and he talked about the blood on our hands for those bombings. I just think he was just born that way.

Tavis: We got to do a little digging, Chaz, ’cause I’m not sure, respectfully, I’m not sure that any of us is born that way. I think that we live in a world where – Roger’s of a different era, so you may be right about this.

Ebert: Okay, all right.

Tavis: I think we live in a world where empathy doesn’t just happen to people. What I’ve discovered is there’s usually an experience, something in their childhood, something they went through, something they were exposed to.

Something happens that allows people to have that sort of – helps develop. At best, we have sympathy for other people.

Ebert: You’re right.

Tavis: But empathy for other people is another thing. So I got to dig a little deeper to figure out what we think caused that.

Ebert: Well…

Tavis: Since you mentioned – I’m sorry. Go ahead.

Ebert: Well, I have to tell you something, Tavis. Roger and I used to watch your show…

Tavis: Oh, I appreciate that. I loved having him on, yeah.

Ebert: No. We loved it because you don’t let people just say, okay, he was born that way, and let it go. You dig deeper and…

Tavis: And I didn’t mean to push back on you about that…

Ebert: No, no, but I’m glad you did because you’re right. There is more of an answer to that.

Tavis: He was such a brilliant critic. I mean, this empathy for characters? I mean, you watch Roger Ebert’s work; it’s the humanity in the characters that he celebrated. Everybody loves a good thriller and, you know, a good comedy.

But when he would drill down on these independent films that were dealing with difficult societal issues and tough subject matter, there was an empathy, a connection to the humanity in those characters that came to life when Roger had these conversations. I’m always curious as to how that develops in people.

But, anyway, I digress on that point because you mentioned that you didn’t see a particular scene until you went to the premier. I happen to know you didn’t see none of the scenes until you went to the premier because I’m told from my research at least that you didn’t want to see it ’til it was time to see it.

What were you afraid or avoiding – maybe a phrase too strong? Why did you not want to see it?

Ebert: I wanted to wait. You know why? I wanted to have a Roger experience of seeing it at Sundance for the first time with this audience who all love independent films. I don’t know. Maybe that was a crazy idea.

As it turns out, because I had my family with me and we were crying and the audience was crying and we were laughing. It was just Steve James made such a wonderful movie that I wanted to experience it the way that Roger and I experienced many other movies at a Sundance.

Tavis: In the movies, yeah.

Ebert: I wanted to see it at the movies, yeah.

Tavis: That makes perfect sense. What did you learn about yourself, Chaz, going through the cancer ordeal which went on for so long with Roger, such a fighter against this disease, this illness? What did you learn about Roger during that period and what did you learn about Chaz during that period?

Ebert: Oh, my God, yeah. Don’t ask the questions that are gonna make me cry.

Tavis: You know what? Just in case.

Ebert: Okay, all right.

Tavis: There you go.

Ebert: What I learned, number one, is how deeply we loved each other. I knew we loved each other. I did know. You know, when you go through something like that, I never fault anyone who leaves. For some people, that situation is too much. It’s too intense. Taking care of someone that sick for that long, I never regretted one day of it.

And I just learned that I loved him so much that I wanted to, number one, I didn’t want to lose him and I wanted to give him a life that he was happy living even with all of the challenges that he would have after his surgeries. And I think that we were successful on both counts.

I also learned that I was stronger than I thought I was. I learned that he was tough as nails. He was tough as nails. He was a fighter and the optimist that I thought I was marrying, I found that it confirmed that.

That’s what we liked about each other, that we were both optimists. He remained an optimist, but he was also a realist. At the end, when he knew it was time for him to go, he said, “You must let me go. You must let me go. My time here on this earth is over.”

So, you know, I actually learned a lot. I also learned that you can’t do it alone, that family and friends and your faith is really, really important.

Tavis: I happened to be in Chicago the day that Roger Ebert passed.

Ebert: No.

Tavis: I was actually in the city that day and making the media rounds on this book tour that I think I was on. So everywhere I went that day, people in the green room, the producers, would ask me, “Do you have a story about Roger Ebert? We’d like for you to say something about Roger when you come on.”

It was the story in Chicago and around the country, for that matter, but certainly his hometown of Chicago. Everybody was talking about Roger Ebert that day. I was just glad I didn’t get canceled ’cause they were doing so much Roger Evert coverage that day [laugh]. So they let me on all these shows and I answered any number of questions that day about Roger Ebert.

And I go back to your comment about how tough as nails he was. And I said in some iteration in one of these conversations that he really was a tough and courageous fighter. And that didn’t surprise me because he seemed to be the quintessential example of a guy who knew that, to be able to dish it, he had to be able to take it.

Ebert: To take it, right.

Tavis: It made perfect sense to me, Chaz. You can’t be a movie critic – well, who are you to give my project a thumbs down [laugh]? You can’t be a movie critic and just dish it out all the time and not be able to take it.

So I celebrated the fact that, when his moment of truth came, he was who I thought he was. He was who I thought he was. He was able to dish it, but he fought, again, so valiantly at the end. It made perfect sense to me, yeah.

Ebert: Well, that’s because you’re a man of good taste and brilliance. Because there are some people who are thin-skinned and they’re also critics and they can’t take it. But he certainly could and he certainly – his doctor said that Roger was probably one of the toughest patients he ever had.

I think also because, Roger, he loved life so much. He was so curious about what was gonna happen the next day. What were the newspapers gonna say the next day? What book would he read?

He loved our grandchildren. We loved our life, our family life, together. And he just, you know – he still kind of talks to me from…

Tavis: Does the annual Ebertfest, does it continue?

Ebert: The Ebertfest continues. We had the 16th annual Roger Ebert Film Festival just – we had Spike Lee doing “Do the Right Thing,” the 25th anniversary of that. We had Oliver Stone there with the 25th anniversary of “Born on the Fourth of July” and lots of other filmmakers. But, yes, it’s going strong.

Tavis: One of the supporters and persons involved in this project is a guy named Martin Scorsese and there’s a wonderful story in this project, a wonderful story about what your husband, Roger Ebert, did for Martin Scorsese. You have to see it. It’s a wonderful project.

Scorsese, like most people in this business, have up and down periods. And in his down periods – these are Scorsese’s words. I’m paraphrasing – in his down periods, Roger Ebert was involved in a project that really focused a whole new light on Scorsese’s project.

His work writ large and Scorsese gives Roger Ebert a lot of credit for helping to give him the bounce-back that he needed in his own career. Those are big words coming from a guy named Martin Scorsese.

Anyway, the project is called “Life Itself.” For more of my conversation with Chaz, hit our website at pbs.org/tavissmiley to hear some good conversation. Chaz, good to have you on the program. All the best on the project and I know people are gonna learn a lot about the life and legacy of Roger.

Ebert: Thank you, and I’m glad that I didn’t need them.

Tavis: Didn’t need it. You see that? I had it just in case. I wasn’t trying to Barbara Walters you. Anyway, I’m glad it was there. That’s our show. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: July 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm