James starts doc production on Roger Ebert’s memoir

Chicago icon Roger Ebert

Steve James’s Kartemquin Films coproduction Life Itself about Roger Ebert is two months into production and on its way to a 2014 broadcast by CNN Films, in a deal announced at the Sundance Film Festival.

The broadcast will follow the film’s theatrical release, by a to-be-determined distributor, James writes from New York, where he and producing partner, former Kartemquin production head Zak Piper, were interviewing New York Times film critic A.O. Scott for Life Itself and picking up a duPont-Columbia Award award for their previous collaboration, The Interrupters.

The broadcast date “will depend on when the film is actually completed,” James says.

Life Itself is based in large part on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, which stretches from his childhood in downstate Urbana, his 45 years and counting as Chicago Sun-Times film critic, his TV partnership with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, his 20-years-and-counting marriage to Chaz Hammelsmith, his battles with alcoholism and cancer, his loss of speech, and the way his embrace of new media has allowed him to become, as Kartemquin’s site calls him, “arguably the most read and followed cultural voice on the web.”

Production commenced in December.  In addition to Scott, to date they’ve also interviewed Ebert, Tribune columnist Rick Kogan, painter Bruce Elliot, a painter and owner of the Old Town Ale House a longtime hangout for Ebert and Kogan,  and begun combing through Ebert’s massive personal archive. 

Martin Scorcese is executive producing the doc with Steve Zaillian of Film RitesGarrett Basch, also of Film Rites (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Moneyball), is producing with James and Piper.

“I was approached by Steve Zaillian’s company about doing the documentary,” James says.  “Steve’s a fan of the form and loved Roger’s memoir. I read Roger’s memoir and loved it as well.  I then brought Kartemquin into the mix, which is why it’s a co-production,” he says.

Ebert was instrumental in establishing James as one of America’s preeminent documentarians.  Ebert and Siskel’s championing of James’s Kartemquin documentary Hoop Dreams before its 1994 Sundance premiere helped position the film for its acquisition by Fine Line and unprecedented $12 million box office.

The CNN broadcast was announced as part of a slate of releases by the network that also includes an untitled 9/11 doc by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein (Gunner Palace) and an untitled higher education doc by Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times)

Contact Ed Koziarski at edmkoz@gmail.com.