Roger Ebert Memorial: Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and More Remember 'The Good Soldier of Cinema'
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Robert Zemeckis, Filmmaker
I just don’t know how film critics can do it. How they can sit and watch everything. How they have the stamina to do that. The thought of someone saying to me, “You have to watch four movies a day for the rest of your life, and you can’t choose what they are,” is terrifying. I think the way Roger did it is, he really did love movies. I’d known him since I made my first film, I Want to Hold Your Hand, when he took me to lunch at the Chicago Club. It was a great honor. Since then, I always had an audience with him for every film. We would just talk about movies we loved -- not what either of us was doing -- just shoot the shit about movies. He was a film scholar, but most of all, he was appreciative of entertainment.
Leonard Maltin, Critic-writer
It’s impossible to overstate the impact Roger and his longtime partner and rival Gene Siskel had on popular culture and the perception of film criticism. They were both firmly established in Chicago, writing for the Sun-Times and the Tribune, respectively, when their local public television affiliate exposed them to a national audience on PBS in the early 1980s. Imagine: a weekly half-hour program consisting of two critics debating current movies. There had never been anything like it. Gene and Roger were in the right place at the right time, and they made the most of it: They became bona fide celebrities, and soon their names were synonymous with film criticism. (I know this first-hand, because Entertainment Tonight started around the same time. When people started recognizing me in hotel lobbies and airports, they would often ask, “Aren’t you Siskelandebert?” as if it were a compound name.)
The role of critics has been marginalized by the growth of the Internet and the empowerment of self-made bloggers who are eager to share their opinions. But few, if any, of these wannabes will ever come close to Roger Ebert as an essayist, and I doubt that anyone will ever have the enormous impact he and Gene Siskel had on the moviegoing public.
Martin Scorsese, Filmmaker
Back in the ’80s, my career was at a low ebb. My last two pictures hadn’t made money and were made at a transitional moment in Hollywood, after Heaven’s Gate. My first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart at the very last minute, I was absolutely exhausted and I thought, “OK, this is it, I probably won’t be able to make any more pictures.” I wasn’t talking much, I wasn’t going out; I would see only a few people here and there. And then one day, completely out of the blue, I received an invitation from Roger and Gene Siskel to be the honoree at that year’s Night of the Stars in Toronto. It was just what I needed; it actually helped to bring me back to life. Roger knew that, I think, but he didn’t present it that way -- he was always encouraging, always affirming, but without making a show of it. Roger was just there for me, in a way that few people in my life have ever been. It meant the world to me.
Michael Barker, Co-president, Sony Pictures Classics
Roger had the ability to communicate how movies explain the world to us and who we are as human beings. That talent made him the world’s most popular and influential film critic. And how fortunate for all of us he had such a love of independent film. Ask Ang Lee. Ask Errol Morris. Louis Malle used to tell everyone Roger saved Atlantic City from disaster. Robert Altman echoed that. The list goes on. The fact is, we would not know movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, Hoop Dreams and Roger & Me as we do if it were not for Roger Ebert.
Patty Jenkins, Filmmaker
Making Monster was a huge uphill battle. It was a tiny movie with very little money, and every step was a struggle. Even the decision to cast Charlize Theron: Today it looks brilliant, but at the time it made us a laughingstock because she was seen as much too beautiful to play serial killer Aileen Wuornos. We had no money to release the film, and instead of doing the festival circuit, the producers decided to put it out in screenings just days after we finished it. It was a dodgy proposal that this film would ever find its audience.
Then out of nowhere comes Roger Ebert with this amazing review, calling Charlize’s work “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.” And when the movie started to get press -- thanks to him -- he kept talking about it, he kept engaging with it, addressing the other critics and really keeping the momentum going.
When you make a film, you struggle over every detail and you expect people to reflect your ideas and intentions back to you in very vague terms. But Roger saw completely what I was trying to do and reflected it back to me in words; he saw things that even people who were working with me didn’t see: that this film was an education in the human experience, letting you walk in the shoes of someone who is technically the worst kind of monster so that you can see how a person ends up in that situation. He understood that I wasn’t making a value judgment or justifying her actions, but simply trying to show how you could end up being a different person than you think.