Capone Thumb Wrestles (and Interviews) the Legendary Roger Ebert!!!
Published at: Oct. 13, 2008, 2:47 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
In so many ways on so many levels I feel like every review I've written, and certainly every interview I've conducted, has led up to this. To say that Roger Ebert and his late partner Gene Siskel were inspirations to both me and virtually every critic (certainly online) working today is to require a redefinition of the word "inspiration." I literally cannot remember a time in my life when I was not watching Ebert on television. And although I don't actually think it contributed to my decision to move to Chicago for college in 1986 (for those of you without math degrees, yes, I am 40), I can't swear that it didn't.
The light that Siskel & Ebert threw not only on the mainstream's best and worst films, but also on a vast array of foreign films, independent works, and smaller Hollywood offerings that I otherwise never would have seen, transformed me from a person who watched and absorbed as many films as was humanly possible through most of my 20s into someone who wanted to analyze and write about film. I'm sure the story is the same for so many critics around the country and world.
Around the time I hit 30, my admiration for Roger's work and opinions went from something I did at a distance to something I was able to do in person, shortly after I started writing for Ain't It Cool and shortly after Harry first co-hosted "At the Movies" with Roger. That's when I started getting invited to a few press screenings at Chicago's famed screening room, and I first had the opportunity to talk to Roger (albeit it in a group of critics, but that didn't stop it from being fun and lively).
This interview came about for one very simple reason: I was the first critic to review the new and disapproved "At the Movies" syndicated show that Ebert and Siskel built. Apparently that review set off a shitstorm of "activity" in many camps. Roger was the first to email me. He was in Toronto, doing one of the things he loves best: covering a film festival. He hadn't seen the newly reformatted, recast show (a program that gets worse by the week) at the time, but what I wrote had apparently been forwarded to him and Richard Roeper and I'm sure one or two other people connected to the show. I'm not tooting my own horn here (okay, maybe a little), but my point is that I got notes from or had conversations with some surprising people in the days after my original review ran. Anyway, I figured since I had Ebert's ear, I'd ask him to talk to me on the record about a variety of topics.
The first thing I'm going to do before you read this is direct you to an excellent recent article written by my Chicago-area comrade at TimeOut Chicago, Hank Sartin. In the wonderfully written piece, Sartin describes Roger's medical history and condition better than I ever could. So if you're curious, please check this out for details. The story also does a marvelous job of describing the inspirational partnership between Ebert and he wife, Chaz. It's a love story every movie geek can appreciate and admire.
One of the many things that the article touches on is that Roger in unable to speak these days, which is why my interview with him was conducted via email. I've had few burning questions that I've been wanting for years to ask Roger, so forgive the blatantly personal nature of a couple of my inquiries. But mostly I just wanted to set the record straight on a couple of show-related things, Roger's workload, and how/if his medical struggles have changed the way he reviews films. I hope you like reading this as much as I've enjoyed corresponding with Roger and Chaz these last couple of weeks via email and in person. If things go as I think they will, I may have one more interview connected to "At the Movies" for you in the near future. And let me throw open the invitation to either of the current hosts: if they would like to have a conversation on the record, feel free to contact me.
Above many other things, Roger has been a fearless supporter of AICN, Harry, and mine for many years, and as much as I tried to avoid blatant hero worship, I did want him to know that his work and passion has been appreciated. Enjoy...
Capone: What is your current health status?
Roger Ebert: Excellent. The after-effects of surgery remain, of course, but I am in excellent health, attend all the screenings, went to Toronto, write more than ever.
Capone: You've been using your blog and various columns in the Sun-Times over the last couple of years to update your readers as to your condition. Has the actual act of writing played a factor in your recovery? And what have been some of most surprising reactions to these status updates?
RE: Oh, yes. Writing has always been the central occupation of my life, and I'm never happier than when I'm writing something. None of the reactions have been surprising, but so many of them have been heartwarming.
Capone: I'm not sure how aware you are of this, but I get a steady stream of emails from our readers asking about your condition, among other things. Were you aware this was going on?
RE: Good lord! Tell them to visit www.rogerebert.com and judge for themselves. In addition to everything else, I've started the blog, which is enormously satisfying for me. Check out the entry, "Confessions of a blogger."
Capone: Alright, onto the more important questions. When you reviewed the 2005 film CHAOS, why did you feel it necessary to drag an unsuspecting Ain't It Cool News critic named Capone into your discussion, and are you aware of how cool people thought he was as a result of your doing so?
RE: Should have known Capone never forgets and never forgives. Actually, I approved of your review. I just thought you should have thrown up a little more.
Capone: Let's talk about the demise and painful rebirth of the "At the Movies" television show. When you first wrote me, you said you hadn't seen the "re-imagined" vision for the show. Have you seen the show now? And what were your immediate reactions?
RE: I am intrigued by the notion that a critic's "pick of the week" can be for the trailer of a movie he hasn't seen, and which won't come out for another two months. Apart from that, I will simply commend you for your review of the show on Ain't It Cool.
Capone: There was so much gossip and misinformation floating around concerning 1) how the show lost the "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" format; and 2) what role, if any, you played in the Roeper-Phillips version of the show. Can you walk us through the way you were informed that the Thumbs would no longer a part of the show, and that the show was effectively being taken off the air.
RE: First off, Marlene Siskel and I never pulled our thumbs off the show. It remained welcome to use them. Disney, for its own reasons, announced that I had taken the thumbs off, and I responded on my site with a statement that I had done no such thing. I remained in very constant contact with Richard, Michael and our heroic producer Don DuPree right up until the final show.
Capone: Why do you think Disney killed "Ebert & Roeper At the Movies"?
RE: [They] wanted a younger demographic. The numbers I've seen indicate that's one of several areas area where they have lost viewers.
Capone: Much like your medical updates, you also found your blog/columns a useful place to set the record straight on the status of the show. How have your liked your new role as your own publicist?
RE: I'm great at it.
Capone: What is your relationship like with Richard Roeper these days? Was there ever a time when things felt strained while he was doing the show and you were at odds with Disney?
RE: We have a solid friendship. Never strained, because we were on the same side. He knew I wished they were using the thumbs.
Capone: I'd only been working for AICN for a little over a year when you first invited Harry Knowles to come to Chicago as a guest host in 1999, so his first trip here was the first time I'd met him face to face. Why did you think Harry would be a good co-host for the show? And what was the response from the critical community about bringing in an online critic and general rabble-rouser like Harry?
RE: I thought he would bring energy, enthusiasm and a lifelong background of moviegoing to the show, and I was right. The "critical community" was mixed-to-positive. They were still getting used to the fact of a site like AICN.
Capone: What do you remember about your first contact with Harry prior to meeting him? What do you remember about your initial meeting with him?
RE: I think I met him for the first time when he flew in for the show. He was exactly as I expected him to be. He started right in lecturing informing me about the greatness of the Ritz Brothers.
Capone: Several of the larger online film sites have been purchased or are otherwise operated by larger corporations now, making them a part of the system to which they were once the antithesis. Rather than fight against these upstarts, the studios have started buying them up. What is your reaction to this?
RE: It's capitalism. The key question: When those sites think the studio's movies stink, do they say so? We were with Disney for years and never experienced the slightest attempt to control our opinions. In fact, when Rich Frank was the head of the Walt Disney Studios, his speeches would include a clip reel of Gene and me trashing his movies. Except for the final days, I have nothing but praise for the way Disney handled the show.
Capone: How has your view of "digital entertainment journalists" and online critics changed over the years, or has it?
RE: It has always been high. I was on the internet very early, in the old CompuServe days. Had my own forum. The blog has now allowed me to resume that relationship with readers.
Capone: Have these sites changed the way moviegoers perceive or go into films? For the better or worse?
RE: Moviegoers by and large flock to tentpole movies and are shy of films they fear might actually challenge them. As a result, studios increasingly depend on Oscar nominations to fuel their less conventional films. A bad situation. My advice to moviegoers, if they truly care about good films: When you're making your plans, look for the film in your market that has the least hype and the best reviews. That's the one to see.
Capone: Back to you, since getting back into writing again post-surgeries, do you feel that your critical mind has been softened, hardened, or been altered in any way?
RE: I am more aware of simply being grateful for the way movies work on me, and everyone else. During some of the early days after surgery, I really benefited from the escapism. I don't know if my reviews have been altered in any way, but see my blog post titled, "You give out too many stars!"
Capone: Outside of your travel schedule, are you back to where you were before your health became in issue, in terms of your screening and writing schedule?
RE: Absolutely. I'm actually reviewing more movies than ever, because I'm making an effort to review even more indies, docs and imports.
Capone: You've got a new book out on Martin Scorsese. Why was now the time to put together this book?
RE: I have to give credit to John Tryneski and Rodney Powell of the University of Chicago Press for their encouragement. I wrote the first review Marty ever received, and was right in predicting he would be a great director. Siskel would always ask me, "When are you going to do your Scorsese book?" Now I have. I would like to correct any impression that the book simply collects my old reviews. Of course it does, but I'd guess up to half the book is brand new.
Capone: You've also expressed interest in writing a book on your good friend Werner Herzog, who referred to you when I interviewed him as a "soldier of cinema." What's your best story about time you spent with Herzog?
RE: Yes, Herzog would be my next director. I loved the time he took me to his hotel room at Telluride to show me two of his new documentaries. I thought they were fabulous. One was about a town in Russia where the people crawl out on the ice of a deep lake because they believe they can see a city of angels on its bottom. When the ice is too thin, they might fall in. Too thick, and they can't see it. So the ice creaks as they crawl out there. Herzog then revealed he made the whole thing up. But here's the thing with Herzog: Sure, there was no city and nobody thought there was one. But they were really crawling on the ice, and it was really creaking.
Capone: You started your weekly reviews for the Sun-Times the year before I was born. How does it strike you when people one-third your age tell you that you got them interested in not just watching good movies, but also analyzing and writing about film? Does it sit well with you be called an inspiration?
RE: When that happens, it makes me very pleased, and grateful to the many people who inspired me. What goes around, comes around.