Life Itself, the touching and detailed new documentary about film critic Roger Ebert, makes clear what a Chicago guy Ebert was, a man who remained fiercely loyal to it even when jobs in bigger cities were dangled in front of him.
And the people making Life Itself had their own Chicago ties. Steve James, who directed it, has made other films about the city and its people, including the acclaimed Hoop Dreams. Executive producer Mark Mitten has spent his adult life in the Windy City, working in marketing and advertising as well as on community projects.
But before he settled there, Mitten was an Akronite, a graduate of Firestone High School, a kid who remembers watching the movie-review shows hosted by Ebert and Gene Siskel with his family. His first movie memory is seeing Grand Prix at the Highland. His first moviemaking effort was a short, 2001-like effort he made while still in his early teens.
So Mitten will be in town on Saturday to introduce the 9:15 p.m. showing of Life Itself at the Nightlight Cinema in downtown Akron. (The two-hour documentary begins showings today at the Nightlight and Cleveland’s Cedar Lee.)
“I’ll talk a little bit about the inception of the film and what to look for, but not give away too much,” Mitten, 56, said in a recent telephone interview. “I want people to be able to kind of interpret it on your own.”
He would have liked to do a Q&A after the movie but suspects that would be too late in the evening. The Nightlight has another film, the much-talked-about Snowpiercer, showing earlier Saturday night and “it’s a great film,” Mitten said. “But personally I would have flipped the order.”
Snowpiercer would likely appeal to a younger audience that is more willing to stay up late, while Life Itself is more likely to reach older audiences who followed Ebert’s work during his close to 50-year career, he said.
But Life Itself is effective for any audience. It looks not only at Ebert’s work but his life, using interviews with friends, colleagues and loved ones, and a wealth of clips of Ebert over the years, especially in tandem (and at odds with) Siskel before that critic’s death in 1999.
But the film is framed by the last of a series of struggles with cancer that marked the years leading up to Ebert’s death in 2013. James began filming Ebert in what proved to be the last few months of his life, long after Ebert had lost his jaw and the ability to speak, save through an audio program on his computer. Images of that Ebert pervade what was initially meant to be a screen version of Ebert’s memoir, also called Life Itself. The life is there, but so is an unblinking presentation of the impact of disease and treatment, and how it affected Ebert and his wife, Chaz.
Mitten became connected to the project through his work with Chicago’s attempt to win the 2016 Olympics from 2006-2009. A veteran of advertising and marketing, with Chicago area Emmys for some of his work, Mitten knew that the International Olympic Committee “really liked to be communicated with through film.” Some 40 films were made about Chicago, and James was one of the filmmakers. “When we didn’t win the rights to host the games, I said to Steve, if there’s ever a project you want to work on together, give me a call and let me know.”
James called when the Ebert film came along. Mitten knew immediately that it could be a powerful film, since Ebert had been hugely influential in the movie industry, the book was good and Ebert had proven inspirational in his battles with illness. Mitten signed on as an executive producer and co-producer.
Life Itself has a fistful of executive producers, among them big names Martin Scorsese and Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian. I asked Mitten what all those executive producers do. “A typical executive producer comes in and they provide funding or they provide some kind of assets or resources that make the film,” he said.
Zaillian read the memoir and saw the potential for a documentary; he worked with Ebert on choosing the director, James. Scorsese was “a creative executive producer,” Mitten said, “and provided input as to the storyline, how the story should unfold, and who we should interview.” Among those interviewed is Scorsese himself, who was close to Ebert through both praise and criticism and makes an emotional contribution to the film.
“I was kind of hybrid,” Mitten said of his role. “I helped bring in resources and money, and at the same time I was part of the creative team helping to make the film. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the film in the editing room where we talked about what the cuts should be. Part of my background is I’ve made a number of shorter films — nothing of this magnitude, but I have a sense of storytelling. At the same time, it was a great education to sit in the editing room, or shooting with Steve, and understanding his editing process.” Because of that participation in the creative side, he has the co-producer credit as well as one as executive producer.
The result can be difficult to watch, particularly when Chaz talks about the despair that Roger felt as he grew sicker. But it is also biting and funny, including when it deals with Ebert’s shortcomings. And, as Mitten said, it takes us beyond Ebert’s TV persona.
“It’s a story of inspiration in regards to seeing the journey Roger took,” Mitten said. “We have a certain perspective of Roger from his writings and from how we see him on TV. This fully dimensionalizes him, as a real man who had his ups and downs, his triumphs and challenges.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about public television for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. You can contact him at 330-006-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.