INTERVIEW: Roger Ebert
My two-week trip to the Cannes Film Festival didn't forego me many opportunities to hob-knob with celebs (well, other than that so-called brush with the very lovely Angelina Jolie, of course), but it was my absolute pleasure to get the chance to meet one of the top (if not, the top) film critics in North America during my passage in France, that being: Roger Ebert. I had corresponded with Roger once or twice over the years, and even sent in an audition tape of myself back when he was searching for a new co-host (shoulda known not to review FIGHT CLUB on the tape...damn!!), but surprised was I to discover that he was more than gracious enough to take some time out of his busy schedule in Cannes (trust me, he apparently tries to see 4 movies a day!) to speak to my sorry little ass.
Now even though I've never considered myself a real "film critic"-- more like just a fan with an opinion on movies that have been peculiar enough to interest some-- it was still pretty daunting to meet a man who's steadily been reviewing movies since the mid-60s, and whose repertoire of reviewed films leaves my dinky 1000 critiques, blowing in the wind. That said, I wanted to get Roger's take on the whole phenomenon of the Internet, technology, digital filmmaking, downloading/piracy and how the studios are handling it all. Well, enough about me...take it away, Roger!
JoBlo: So how did you
become a film critic?
Ebert: I got my job more or
less by an accident in timing, in 1957, I was a feature writer at the Chicago
Sun-Times, and the film critic retired and they gave me the job. So when
people asked me over the years, ďHow do I get to be a movie critic?Ē, and
for a long time I just had to say, ďYou know, there are probably only about 50
big-time paid positions in North America.Ē I mean, how many movie critics are
there? Now with the Internet, you can hire yourself as a movie critic, and there
are actually people making a living doing that. I presume that you probably do?
I do now, yeah. The last couple of years. Itís more of a full-blown movie site nowadays, as opposed to just ďmovie reviewsĒ, but yeah.
The first Internet movie
critic that I actually met was James
Iím a fan as well.
I became aware of him very
early on. You know, heís a computer engineer by day?
Really? He still does
Yeah. Itís his full-time job. So when people ask me how to become a film critic nowadays, I say, ďMake yourself one, say youíre one.Ē Go on the Web. And thereís so much more information flying around in such a way that everybody knows so much more about the movies than they ever did before. And then when you add the extra bells and whistles on DVDs, today the average movie-goer who is interested in a film, really likes a particular film, finds out more about it, than 30 years ago, probably more than any director knew.
A lot of up-and-coming directors have said how they now listen to other directorsí commentary tracks as part of their own film education. Switching gears, how has the Internet affected the way you do your job as a film critic? Has it made it harder?
Iím essentially still
doing the same jobówriting for the Chicago Sun-Times, Iíve always been the
only movie critic there, and try to review every movie coming out. That has made
my database very useful now, on the Internet, since most critics, over the 37
years that Iíve been around, got into situations where they would change jobs
or there would add another critic or two other critics on the same paper.
My colleague Pauline Kael used to complain that she didnít review films 6 months out of the year because she would switch with Penelope Gilliatt. Right now, Iím starting a new website called RogerEbert.com, on which we are going to feature all of my reviews going back to 1967. Itís in partnership with the Sun-Times. Nothing before 1985 was in digital form before because thatís when we abandoned typewriters. My website will be the only place on the Web where you will have the same guy reviewing movies since 1967, at least most of the major films.
When will the website be
March the 1st. April the 1st. May the 1st. June the 1st. Any moment now.
We get a lot of hits at
this point. I get emails from all over the world. Not millions, but there might
be a person in Turkey or a person in Japan who are interested in a particular
movie. You get information through the Internet!
Right, and with the Internet being a lot more interactive, do you get more actors/directors emailing you and maybe, complaining about a review of yours?
Really? Thatís surprising.
Generally speaking, stars and directors donít contact me. There are certain people who are on the Internet like Kevin Smith, Roger Avary-- people like that, who are just people but no, I havenít started getting emails from Coppola or Scorsese.
On a daily basis, I go to IMDB,
Movie City NewsÖon Fridays when
the movies come out I like to go to Rotten
Tomatoes, and MetaCritic, which is
like Rotten Tomatoes. There are various sites that I go to, not on a daily
basis, but because I am interested: your siteó
So youíre on the Net a lot
Yeah. Usually, when I am writing the reviews there arenít any reviews out there of course, because I write the review before the opening date, so itís not like I read any reviews before I write my own. But oddly enough, I donít think there is anything shameful to that, I hold an education as an English Literature student and I was getting my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago when I dropped out to be a film critic.
And the theory was youíd never write about a book or a poem without having read the criticism. So when I do my ďGreat MoviesĒ articles, they appear about every other week, Iíve done about 203 of them now, of course I read other stuff, I get information that way, but not so much from the Internet, but also from books. So yeah, I go to the Internet a lot, but also I just meander around.
Do you ever anonymously go into chat rooms or message boards?
No, thereís a rumor that
I have a pseudonym at Rotten Tomatoes, but itís not true. Whenever I go on the
Internet I sign my own name, but of course it does no good because nobody
believes itís me.
Yeah sure, youíre Roger Ebert! Official movie sites, what do you think of them, do you visit them?
They are very useless.
Here is the one thing that a critic often needs, tell me if you have the same feeling. You get back home, youíre writing your review, you canít remember who played a certain character, because itís a minor character. The cast, on the official movie site, will give the name of the actor, and the name of the character, but doesnít describe who the character was, and often times in the movie they never call the character by name, so you want to know who played the bartender, and they wonít tell you that. I would like just one word, like Ďthe goal keeperí, Ďthe taxi driverí, because thatís the kind of information that you just canít get. Why donít they tell us in just one word to describe the character? That would be much more useful than all the little games you could play, which is next to useless to me.
Well, sometimes I will look
at the trailer, especially if I want to see how they are advertising something.
For trailers, itís good.
Yeah, but thatís about it. Some of the sites are extremely clever.
Can you think of any examples off the top of your head?
There was one that I
thought was a pretty good siteÖI might have even mentioned it in my review. It
was a documentary and it had a lot more information on its siteÖI forget right
now. But in general, no, the sites are weak. Iím sure that there are movie
fans and kids who go to the sites and enjoy them, but overall, theyíre not
very useful. Also, I find it amazing that movie publicists apparently never go
to IMDB to correct their own movies.
Sometimes Iíve made
mistakes, and weíve all made mistakes by trusting the IMDB, getting a
character wrong or misspelled. And I understand how it works, it all gradually
gets corrected, Iíve actually corrected a lot of stuff on IMDB myself, but I
wish the publicist would go online and know about that and know that the press,
at least, get more information there than we would on the official movie site.
Thatís a very good point. Hopefully, theyíll consider that. So whatís your take on digital filmmaking, projectionÖ
Anyway you can make the film, to get it made, thatís fine with me. I have this thing called the ďOverlooked Film FestivalĒ every April, and I showed TARNATION, which is here. You know the official story is it was made for $218. But that was actually the cost of getting it onto a DVD out of his Macintosh for screening at Sundance. He used home movies, his own video, answering machines, photographs, and so forth. So he made it on a Mac, and he was able to release it on DVD and it cost him $218.
Of course, the movie youíre seeing here cost several hundred thousand dollars because they had to clear the movie rights, they had to clean up, load it up the 35, they had to promote it and put ads in Variety. They say that EL MARIACHI cost $8,000-- which it did, but it cost about $600,000 to get it in the theaters. Nevertheless, the point is today, using digital, you can get a movie to the point where you can make the movie, put it on DVD and show it to people with very little money, and that essentially puts the tools of production in the hands of the workers, so I think itís good. I donít always feel that digital is the right choice for every movie, I prefer celluloid, but I understand digital, and sometimes I am happy to see digital because some movies simply wouldnít be made otherwise.
As far as projection is
concerned, I still feel strongly that celluloid is better than digital, for
projection. I am going to tell you something that nobody will believe:
MaxiVision 48 is not dead. Iíve been pushing that for four years, well not
pushing it, but Iíve seen it. Itís four times better than todayís film.
I think about three or four
years ago, everybody was convinced that digital projection was the wave of the
future, and itís not going to happen in terms of mass releases because
Hollywood is too paranoid about piracy. And they donít have a satellite
delivery system that will condense it enough to get it down, and if you did do
that, you would have a footprint of every actor that ever worked in North
So I think MaxiVision 48 will actually be seen in theaters, believe it or not, and Iím sure you donít.
Weíll see. We have your words on tape. And what do you think of the whole illegal movie downloading situation right now? Is it something that studios will eventually have to deal with, is it wrong, is it inevitableÖ?
I think itís theft.
I would not be able to go into a bookstore and steal a book.
Or photocopy it and then walk out with it.
No, so therefore since I
couldnít steal a bookÖI mean, I am not a thief! I wouldnít steal a tape
recorder from a Radio Shack--
But youíre not really stealing it, are you? I mean, if somebody put it out there, right? I guess thatís the dilemma.
The person who put it out
there is stealing it, and youíre buying it from the fence. And the fence is
giving it to you for free. I mean, if you have to see a movie that badly, you
could wait for the DVD and rent it for a couple of bucks and see a much better
picture, well maybe not, if you have a T1 line you can download DVD quality,
most people donít yet, but they will.
You know whatís interesting is THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST apparently has been downloaded 600 thousand times on the Internet.
Yeah, apparently by good Christians. I just feel it is theft. By the same token, Iím all in favor of not charging on the Internet, weíre not going to charge for my web site.
Right. But what about movies? Studios are talking about how in a few years they might actually make them available on certain sites for downloading?
Pay per view is fine with me, if thatís what people want. You know unless you have a T1 line, itís such a pain in the ass to download a high quality movie. If you try to do it on DSL, and you want DVD quality, you might as well just walk away from your computer and come back tomorrow, or next week. You can burn it on a DVD, but if itís not high quality, it doesnít work very well. Some of the movies on the net that are Quicktime or RealAudio, theyíre smaller files. But I think it is theft, donít you?
Absolutely. I havenít done it, not even once, I donít like to do it. But I know people on my site do it, on the message board they were talking about it, especially the younger generation, so itís something that studios have to deal with. In fact, for me, itís always been more about the love of the movie, I donít want to see it on a small screen, all blurry, I want to see it on the big screen and enjoy it. Something like 2046, why would you want to see that on a small screen?
Can you imagine seeing that in a RealAudio window or Quicktime? Somebody wrote to me and said if Michael Moore is so concerned about his message, why doesnít he put his movie for free on the Internet?
Thatís a very good point.
And I think one reason might be that it cost him money to make it, and another reason might be that I canít imagine watching that movie in Quicktime. In order to be able to download it with my line, it would have to be a small Quicktime file and even that would take hours.
One thing a lot of studios are doing marketing-wise, theyíre putting 5-10 minute clips of their movies online, so maybe he can do something like that?
Iíd like to see him put
that seven minutes of Bush in that Florida classroom online [from FAHRENHEIT
9/11]. You know one of the most interesting things in that movie is
information that he had in that classroom for seven minutes after he knew about
the World Trade Center and they had to go and get him out. Iíd like to see his
face during those seven minutes.
Yeah. That was pretty awful. Okay, thatís it. Maybe one last question: what do you think is the best and worst thing about the Internet?
The best thing is itís
universalóI want to try to think of something original, since that would be
something everybody would say. Of course, the Internet would be meaningless
without search capabilities and Google or other search engines are the tools
that unlock the Internet. I can find out the answers to things I really need to
know right away, if I know how to phrase the question correctly, or
phrase the search correctly.
Itís like a huge library.
The other day, for example, I took a picture of the leopard ladies, you know who they are?
No. The Leopard Ladies?
They are a mother and daughter who have come to Cannes for 21 years dressed in leopard skins. And the daughter now has a short in the competition this year. They live in Lille, France, and I took a picture of them. Then when I got back to my hotel room, I thought Iíve never asked them what their names are, so in Google I typed ďCannes, leopard ladies, namesĒ and I got their names-- they only give first names. So sitting in my hotel room, in five seconds I can find out the given names of the leopard ladies. I started coming here when you used a portable typewriter and you took your copy down to the Telex booth and got it typed in by French speaking typists and it was then sent to America by Western Union. The Internet gives you potentially the opportunity to find out almost anything you want to know, thatís the good thing.
The bad thing is
potentially the Latin phrase ďCaveat EmptorĒ, Let The Buyer Beware. You have
no idea whether itís right or wrong. A lot of information gets out there and
goes all around and is wrong and becomes a factoid because of its distribution.
The other problem with the Internet is for all the time you save, thatís how
much time you waste. Well, I find out the names of the leopard ladies in five
seconds, and while Iím online I go to Google news, I go to the Drudge Report,
I go to Yahoo, I check out a couple of blogs, I go to Salon, I start reading
some articles and thereís a link in it and I click. Then when I look at my
history, I find out that I found out about the leopard ladies and some 27 other
sites that I would have never gone to if I hadnít gone online in the first
So you have to really be
disciplined. Occasionally, when I have an article to write, I will take my
laptop, which is not connected to the Internet, and go into another part of the
house so that I can write my article. Of course, then when I need to know
something, I have to go back to the Internet and find it out. The problem is
that the Internet can lead you into this aimless surfing behavior.
Good, thanks a lot, I donít want to take up more of your time.
How many hits do you get?
We get 50 thousand people a day-- unique visitors on the site right now.
And youíre supported
largely through ads?
Yeah, ads. We have an ad network that takes care of all that stuff. Most of the studios advertise their latest films on our site, which is cool. Actually, since weíre in Cannes and I have you here, what was general impression of the Festival this year?
I thought, in general,
the films were better this year [than last year].
No BROWN BUNNYís this yearÖ?
I heard a few people comparing Asia Argentoís movie to that film [THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS]Ö
There was a story from
Vincent Gallo today, heís here again this year (more
on that here)ó and he said that it wasnít the booing and it wasnít
Roger Ebert really [that upset him last year]ó he was going through a sad time
in his life, both professionally and personally. The funny thing is that I did
think THE BROWN BUNNY was a very bad film, but Iíve always liked Vincent
BUFFALO 66í was great!
I really liked that movie. [Director] Robert Altman once told me that if you never gave me bad reviews, what would the good reviews mean?
I mean, I wouldnít want to read a review from someone who liked everything I did. Of course, Altman said, however, "Most of your negative reviews of my work have been mistaken".
Thank you and keep in touch. Also, congratulations on surviving the festival in one piece.