Interview with Roger Ebert
by Joe Pudas
Back in March of 2006 when I was a student at UW-Madison, I had the opportunity to interview Roger Ebert for the campus newspaper. I have been reading Ebert’s movie reviews since elementary school, and since it was largely his passion and exuberance for film that inspired my own, this was one of the most memorable moments of my life. On a sad note, this was merely three months before Ebert underwent a series of surgeries related to thyroid cancer that left him unable to speak. This slightly abridged interview covers everything from Ebert’s philosophy on film criticism to his opinion on Vincent Gallo. Want to know what Ebert’s favorite guilty pleasure is? Read on!
Q: Where do you think the industry is going, and do you feel that movies are generally getting better or worse?
A: Movies in general don’t get better or worse. Individual movies exist in their own universes. You know, they say movies used to be better in the old days, but of course you only remember the good movies from the old days, you don’t remember all the bad movies that were made in those same old days, and so the movies are better than ever if you go to good ones and worse than ever if you go to bad ones. You can choose; there are four to five hundred movies that have a fairly wide release in America every year, and from that universe, you can make your own virtual reality of how good the movies are.
Q: Do you feel that film is more important as art, or entertainment, or as a successful mixture of both?
A: I don’t know if I can answer that question, it depends upon . . . I think each movie proposes to do something for us – some movies propose to make us laugh, some to make us cry, some to excite us, and within the boundaries of what the movie proposes to do, we can judge whether it does a good job or a bad job. I can imagine a very serious art film that would be pretty bad and a very superficial entertainment film that might be pretty good. Let’s take two science-fiction films, “2001” and “E.T.” “2001” is pretty visionary and has some very big ideas in it and “E.T.” is enormously entertaining. I wouldn’t really prefer one to the other. I would not want to do without either one.
Q: In this day and age, you see a lot of stinkers making a lot of money while even the most prestigious films like “Brokeback Mountain” make considerably less. Why do you think general audiences are more willing to see movies critics pan rather than praise?
A: Because most people do not have very evolved taste. You don’t have to be really smart to go to a horror movie and see some people cut up for a couple of hours, but you may need to have a little imagination or a little more willingness to be challenged in order to see more serious films, and basically, in popular culture in general, lower tastes make more money than more evolved tastes.
Q: Beyond the obvious, what function do you think a film critic should serve?
A: The film critic, first of all, should give you some idea of what the movie is about, not just in terms of its subject but it terms of its style and how it might hope to make you feel, and the critic should give you this idea usefully enough that you can decide whether you might want to see the movie or not regardless of whether the critic likes it or not. I might pan a movie, but if I’ve described it accurately, you might decide that you’d like to go see it, and that would be perfectly valid. Apart from that, the critic must also maybe be a teacher, in the sense that he tells you something about film in general, the purpose of film, the methods of film, the techniques of film, the weaknesses and strengths of film, and the critic should also be an entertainer in that the review should be not necessarily fun to read, but interesting to read, well-written. It’s a personal essay. The critic’s job is to be subjective, not to be objective, because it’s an opinion, and the critic should give that opinion in such a way that you want to read it, you enjoy reading it.
Q: What you have to say about a film has more influence and impact than any film critic in the country. Does that sense of authority ever affect how you formulate your opinions?
A: You know, I don’t know if that’s true. I think that maybe critics in general or as a mass can have a certain influence, especially on smaller films, but I wish we had a greater influence than we do because I think most people make up their minds based on advertising campaigns and on fairly superficial television entertainment programs. There are people who think that Ebert and Roeper is not terrifically deep, and I’m sure they’re right, but at least we say if we think the movie is bad, or good, and we try to justify that and to defend our opinion, and most of the rest of the coverage of movies on television is simply infotainment. It’s gossip, it’s celebrities, they don’t ever tell you if the movie is bad – oh, we’ve got the trailer for the new movie, or we’ve got an interview with the star, but they don’t say, “But, it stinks.” They don’t ever tell you what they think about it.
Q: How do you manage to see 99 percent of movies that come out in a given year? Do you binge on three or four or more a day?
A: Well, there’s a screening room in Chicago, and it’s not at all unusual for there to be three movies a day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. When I go to a film festival, I will see more movies than that. I might see thirty movies at a film festival like Toronto or Sundance or Cannes, and if that’s your job, it’s not that hard to do. I mean, other people spend eight or nine hours at the office, so I’m watching movies for six or seven hours a day, it’s a job but it’s not that bad of a job.
Q: A very enjoyable one, I would assume. Aside from movie-related activities, what do you like to do in your spare time?
A: Well, I spend time with my family, including grandchildren, I like to travel, I really like to read. I like to look at movies in my spare time.
Q: Other than Vincent Gallo, have you offended a filmmaker enough to have them publicly confront you?
A: I don’t think Rob Schneider was too happy with my review of “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,” but . . . actually, the makers of “Chaos” took out a full page ad of the Sun-Times to attack me. I thought the movie was pretty vile and they wanted to defend it, so that was kind of interesting.
Q: You gave that movie zero stars, right? I know you gave “Wolf Creek” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” zero stars as well. What exactly makes a movie a zero-star movie?
A: Well, it can’t be any worse than one half a star, if it gets zero that means that in some way I think it’s morally offensive, and I think it’s permissible to say that, to say I’m offended by this movie, it’s against my values, not just that it’s bad.
Q: This could be for more than violent content –
A: Content is neutral. A violent movie can be very good.
Q: I guess I’m referring to “The Life of David Gale,” and how you gave that zero stars for its politics.
A: Well, I felt that at the end, the revelation that was made tended to contradict the statement the movie was trying to make in an extremely cynical way. You’ve seen the movie? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Q: Oh yeah, I completely agree.
A: It made me mad.
Q: It made me mad too, I have to say. So other than “The Brown Bunny,” are there any movies you’ve changed your mind substantially on?
A: “The Brown Bunny” changed itself substantially. It was shortened by something like thirty one minutes, and that made it a better movie. There was, for example, in the original cut a scene where he gets his bike out of his truck, gets on it, and rides off into the Mojave Desert in an unbroken shot until he disappears as a dot into the distance, and then nothing happens for a while, and then you see the dot again, and he drives all the way back up to the camera. In the revised version, he drives into the distance, disappears, and that’s the end of the shot. Now that works. In other words, he disappears into the landscape, but if he then reappears and comes right back to where he started, it becomes a bad joke. The one scene works and the other scene doesn’t work. The opening motorcycle race, I think he cut it in half in terms of length, and since it was all shot in long shot without any information about who the participants were, or without any storytelling drama as to who was in the lead, who was winning, or what the purpose of the race was, just the cycles buzzing around the track for six or seven minutes was extremely tedious, so it was an improvement to cut that. There are a lot of scenes where the camera is just mounted in the truck cab, looking at him in profile as he drives, and some of that gives you the idea of him driving across the country, but too much of that gives you the idea that, “when the hell is this shot going to be over?” So when he finished the cut of the movie, he had made a better movie.
Q: Do you think that one scene can change the quality of a movie?
A: I don’t know. I’ve sometimes seen movies where I’ve felt that a particular scene was mistaken or shouldn’t have been there, but the movie might be able to survive it. On the other hand, the last sequence of “David Gale” kind of just sank the whole enterprise.
Q: Are there any reviews that you’ve written that you would’ve changed or that you regret writing?
A: It would be a very stupid person to never change his mind. People always ask a film critic, “Have you ever changed your mind on a movie?” as if somehow you’ve lost your virginity if the answer is yes. I would hope that I would be able to look at a movie after ten or twenty years and see things in it that I couldn’t see before. It might make it better or worse than I originally thought it was. I would hope that I had changed enough myself in that period of time to be able to bring something else to the movie. Now some movies are just going to be the same as they were. “2001” to me made such an impression on me the first time I saw it. I saw it again recently in 70 mm, I’ve seen it probably ten or twelve times over the years, I’m not ever going to change my mind about 2001. On the other hand, “The Graduate” now seems to be a totally different movie to me. When I saw it in 1968, it was about Benjamin, and now Benjamin to me seems fairly shallow and callow, and the most interesting character in the movie, the one I like the most is Mrs. Robinson, who at the time I didn’t like at all.
Q: Would you say that you like “The Graduate” more than you did because of that?
A: I’m not sure that whatever I thought the message of “The Graduate” is still there for me. That movie was scornful of everybody in Benjamin’s world, and I now think that Benjamin is not necessarily so worthy of admiration himself, and that the one person in that movie who decides what she wants and goes after it is Mrs. Robinson. The others are all on automatic pilot.
Q: Are there any “untouchable classics” that you feel are completely overrated or unworthy of their lofty status?
A: I don’t think “High Noon” is as good as people think it is.
Q: Why is that?
A: When you get into a situation where there’s going to be a confrontation between good and evil on Main Street, the structure of “High Noon” and the clock, which is supposed to be so brilliant, seems to be rather artificial and forced, and a more spontaneous movie that’s also about a shootout would be a film like “My Darling Clementine,” which is about the gunfight at the OK Corral. When you look at those two movies, you can find that “Clementine” is a much better movie about the basic western situation of the brave man facing down the bad guys.
Q: I just watched that last week, actually. That was a phenomenal movie. I liked it more than “Tombstone,” I can say fairly safely. Do you have any favorite guilty pleasures?
A: I just reviewed “Basic Instinct 2” and I gave it one and a half stars, but on the other hand, there’s a kind of awfulness about it that has a hysterical grandeur to it. I think I said that the role could not be played well, but no one can play it badly better than Sharon Stone. Maybe I should’ve given it a better review, because in its own way, it was not boring. It was pretty bad, but it was pretty bad in an extremely . . . high-energy, challenging way. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I felt some pleasure during the movie and I felt guilty about that pleasure.
Q: I feel that way about “Road House.”
A: “Road House” is often mentioned by people.
Q: I figured it’s a common one. Nowadays, which directors are you observing closely, if any, and who would you say are this generation’s greatest auteurs?
A: One younger director, he’s only 30 now, is David Gordon Green, who made “George Washington” and “Undertow” and “All the Real Girls,” and I think he is the real thing, he’s really good. There’s a director that has a film at this Madison festival called Eric Bylar, I think his film is called “Tre,” he’s also made “Americanese” and “Charlotte Sometimes,” and I think he shows real promise. I was amazed at Miranda July’s first film, “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” for that to be a debut film is astonishing. Phil Morrison’s “Junebug” was such a good film that I can’t wait to see what else he’s going to do. A woman named Nicole Holofcener has made some very good films, including “Lovely and Amazing,” and Neil LaBute, who is a playwright who’s turned to directing, has made a group of extremely interesting films. “In the Company of Men” was his first one, “Your Friends and Neighbors” –
Q: “The Shape of Things,” “Nurse Betty.” What’s your opinion then on more popular directors like Quentin Tarantino?
A: I think Tarantino is good. I loved “Kill Bill.” The fascinating thing about “Kill Bill 2” was not only was it better than “Kill Bill 1,” but it made “Kill Bill 1” better, because then you could understand “Kill Bill 1” more than you did before. Two films seen together as one film called “Kill Bill” – just terrific, really good. Incidentally, his film “Jackie Brown” is underrated, I think it’s a very good film.
Q: I remember reading your review where you said that this is one of the few movies that allows its characters to just sit down and think, and not act as if they’ve had their lines force-fed by a screenwriter and that they’re just spitting out what they have to say. I thought that was one of the most insightful things I’ve ever read in a movie review.
A: That scene at the end where Pam Grier and Robert Forster regard each other and realize that there are possibilities there, but that it may not be the right part of their lives to act on them is kind of a bittersweet quality.
Q: I love that.
A: There’s a lot of wisdom there that Tarantino shows.
Q: This is probably one you’ve gotten a lot, but what would you say was this year’s most egregious snub at the Oscars?
A: I think “The New World” should’ve been nominated for something.
Q: Other than cinematography, of course.
A: Yeah. I felt fairly strongly that Amy Adams deserved to win for Best Supporting Actress. “The Squid and the Whale” was a better movie than it got credit for. “A History of Violence” also.
Q: OK, this is one I have to ask you about. Did you agree with William Hurt being nominated for Best Supporting Actor?
A: Yeah, I guess so, because it was truly a supporting performance. Sometimes people are in the supporting category and their role is so big that. Jake Gyllenhaal was just as important in “Brokeback Mountain” as Heath Ledger is, so why was he supporting? But Hurt was a supporting actor, he basically had one scene, came out of nowhere, took ass, you know? Kicked ass, I’m a little tired. It was an amazing little moment of film there. It made an enormous impression on me.
Q: Would you say that he made a bigger impression than Ed Harris did in “A History of Violence”?
A: A more distinctive impression.
Q: Was that even expected?
A: A lot of people talked about it, nobody knows how many votes it takes to get to fifth. Maybe the first two get a lot of votes, and it gets down to whether one guy gets twelve and everybody else gets eleven, you don’t really know how many votes it takes to get to fifth slot in one of those categories. Maybe not too many.
Q: Do you think that the Motion Picture Association of America will ever effectively address films with strong, non-pornographic adult content?
A: No, I don’t think so. I’ve been advocating the A rating, which would be between the R and pornography, because I think that there is such a thing as movies for adults only, but there should be. As it now stands, the R rating allows people under 17 to go in with a parent or guardian, and that’s a loophole that they haven’t addressed. I don’t think they really want an adults-only rating because they don’t want to have to turn anybody away from the box office.
Q: What do you think about movies that are released unrated on DVD?
A: Well, there are even movies that are released unrated in movie theaters too. You have to pay to get your movie a rating, so if you have a documentary or a little independent film that’s going to be kind of playing in alternative cinemas, it’s not really worth the money. The hypocrisy though is interesting. For example, Blockbuster will not carry an NC17 film, but they will carry the unrated version of an R rated film. So basically it’s the rating that they don’t want to carry, not the movie.
Q: What made you pick Richard Roeper over the other critics that were vying for the position?
A: We had thirty-five people who were guest critics, and not all of them were able to be considered because it would’ve involved moving to Chicago, and of the people that we considered, I agreed with every other member of the staff that the best was Richard Roeper.
Q: Was it just a staff decision?
A: It had to be my decision too. If I didn’t agree, it didn’t matter who did. I had to agree and Disney had to agree, and our distributor, Buena Vista. If either one of us disagreed, the decision wouldn’t have been made. Everybody on our staff agreed, and I think it’s turned out to be a very good choice. He provides a slightly different point of view from mine. It’s not like you want to have two copies of the same person on the show.
Q: Do you think you agree with him more often than you did with Gene Siskel?
A: I don’t know what the stats are. I really have never added them up, so I don’t know.
Q: Would you ever consider writing another film or otherwise getting involved in a movie’s production?
A: Not at this point, because I think it might be a conflict of interest. You know, a film critic shouldn’t have a screenplay on the desk of a person whose movies he might be reviewing.
(At this point, I was told I was nearing the time limit)
Q: As I was saying before, I’ve been writing these reviews since 5th grade when I got one of your movie yearbooks for Christmas.
A: I’m inspired.
Q: That inspired me really to take film seriously. I thank you for that. What advice would you have for aspiring film critics like myself?
A: It sounds like you have all the advice you need. There’s a book called “The Immediate Experience” by Robert Warshaw, and he has a line in there that I typed up and put over my typewriter when I started out. It says, “A man goes to the movies, and the critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man.” Well, of course, the critic can be a woman too, so he was a sexist pig, but apart from that, what he means is . . . you go to the movies, and your review must admit that it was you who was there and it’s you who’s writing the review and it’s you who has the feelings. You shouldn’t try and be a ventriloquist and say things that you think the readers want to hear, things that you think you should say, or stay away from things you think you shouldn’t say them. You have to actually deal with the immediate experience that you had. In other words, if everybody in the world thinks a movie is bad, but you liked it, then you have to concede that you liked it. You have to say, “I was there. Here is what I felt.” It has to be first person subjective. It’s not a science, it’s an art.