CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, ILL. | Twenty years ago Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert founded a film festival to promote movies he believed deserved a “second look.” Originally called the “Overlooked Film Festival,” the platinum iteration of Ebertfest kicked off Wednesday but two miles from the where the late film critic was raised.
“This is such an exciting sight to see you here at our 20th Ebertfest,” Ebert’s widow, Chaz, said from the stage at the historic Virginia Theatre, the event’s home since its inception two decades ago.
Filmmakers and actors from Spike Lee to Isabelle Huppert have attended Eberfest in the past—many of them drawn to this university town 130 miles southwest of Chicago due to Ebert’s reputation while alive and his ongoing legacy following his 2013 passing.
“Because it’s our 20th anniversary, we wanted to bring [up] some of the people who have been so instrumental in [assisting] the festival from the University of Illinois,” Chaz Ebert said of her late husband’s alma mater.
“At one point Roger told his father he wanted to go to Harvard, and his father said, ‘Boy, we don’t have that kind of money, but you were lucky you were born in Urbana, because we have one of the finest universities in this country,’” related Nate Kohn, who has run the festival for two decades.
Ebert also brought out to the stage University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen.
“This looks like a group that can handle the truth,” Killeen said from the dais after being introduced by the mistress of ceremonies. He then shared an anecdote of seeing an arthouse film in 1970s London wherein he learned how film has the power “not just to entertain but to foster awareness and understanding.”
“And no one understood this more than Roger Ebert,” he said. “No one had more love and awareness for his hometown.”
“Thank you so much for letting us continue Roger’s legacy,” Chaz Ebert said. “He thought that films could be a ‘civilizing’ effect on society.”
Chaz said her Pulitzer Prize-winning husband believed strongly in the power of seeing a film with an audience, and in an ever-more fractured media landscape where consumers have numerous choices for their entertainment, it was gratifying to see so many people at the Virginia.
Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, dean of the U of I’s College of Media, announced that October will also see the first ever “Ebert Symposium,” in which scholars, students and others will celebrate the film medium. Chodzko-Zajko also announced there will be a permanent Roger Ebert exhibit at the university’s new Welcome Center, featuring “hundreds of boxes” of film and publicity packages from Ebert’s film-reviewing career.
“That could not have happened had not Chaz intervened to have these materials donated to the university,” the dean said.
He was followed by Christine Dudley, head of the Illinois Film Office, who announced the 20th anniversary of Ebertfest coincided with the bicentennial of the Land of Lincoln’s 1818 statehood.
Business in the 21st state’s film sector is thriving, Dudley said, thanks largely to the state’s generous tax incentive.
“In 2016 a half-billion dollars was spent on film production in the state,” she said, adding 13,000 jobs were created in the entertainment sector in that year alone.
Furthermore, in order to qualify for the tax break, a “diversity plan” must be submitted with the application to film in Illinois, Dudley said, a notion that drew applause from the Virginia’s throng.
“Tonight we are going to see an example of filming in Illinois,” Dudley said of Ebertfest’s opening-night film, “The Fugitive.”
That movie, released in 1993, stars Harrison Ford in a big-screen adaptation of the 1960s mystery TV show about a doctor wrongfully accused of murdering his wife. Director Andrew Davis (“Above the Law,” “Under Siege”), a Chicago native and U of I alum, was on hand for the screening. (His Santa Barbara-based film company is called Chicago Pacific Entertainment.)
“Fifty years ago, I graduated [U of I], and I remember Roger standing up here pontificating” about Fellini films, Davis said after being introduced by Chaz Ebert.
Davis recalled Ebert reviewing his first film, 1978’s “Stony Island,” and also his laudatory writeup of “The Fugitive.” He became visibly upset relating speaking at Ebert’s 2013 funeral.
Following a screening of the film, Ebert’s longtime television co-host, Richard Roeper, joined Davis and editors at RogerEbert.com for a discussion about how Davis chose some of the locations in his native Chicago. He also spoke about the brisk post-production schedule faced by he and his team in 1993—at a time when editing film was moving away from the old model of cutting and pasting celluloid together and into the digital age.
“This was the beginning of electronic editing,” Davis said of the then-revolutionary style of online editing that has since become industry standard. (“The Fugitive” was cut in seven weeks to meet its August 1993 opening.)
It was revealed during the post-screening Q&A that Tommy Lee Jones, who co-starred as the dogged U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, improvised his now-famous response of “I don’t care” to Ford’s protestation: “I didn’t kill my wife.”
Davis said the original script that came to his office had—somewhat inconceivably—the U.S. Marshall chasing Ford as Ford’s Richard Kimble had operated unsuccessfully on Gerard’s son. It was Davis’ own sister who suggested the end result’s conceit that shady doctor friends of Kimble—himself a surgeon in the film—turn out to be the villains who have framed Kimble for murder in the name of covering up the side effects of a “blockbuster” drug they aim to make a fortune on.
“We were literally improvising all the time,” Davis said of the frenetic shoot. “Normally you don’t have time for that. Actors have a lot to contribute.”
Furthemore, a key scene has the G-men figuring out Kimble’s location by listening to an audio recording of a telephone call during which the sound of Chicago’s “L” train gives away his whereabouts.
Davis said the gag was in fact conceived that day.
The film’s famous trainwreck scene got a rather hearty applause during the screening. Davis said the production had only one chance to get the scene right.
“They had 25 cameras present and they said ‘roll it,’ and that was it,” Davis said of the live crash, adding that nowadays most such scenes would be accomplished on the computer.
The owner of the train track used in North Carolina, he said, was supposed to get credit but was snubbed and thereafter sued the production. Davis said the judge in the case wound up showing the jury the entire film rather than just the action scene.
(The crash and the dam from which Kimble jumps were the only two scenes not shot in Illinois.)
Being a Chicagoan, Davis was keen to get the Windy City’s famous St. Patrick’s Day parade in the film as well. Davis said if you look closely in the scene, you can spot former Mayor Richard M. Daley among the paradegoers.
Ford injured himself near the beginning of production, which explained his limp throughout much of the film, Davis added.
Asked why the film has held up for a quarter-century, Davis said it’s largely due to audiences’ affection for the characters portrayed by Ford and Jones and their atypical fugitive-lawman relationship that changes over the film’s running time from purely adversarial to eventual sympathy and even respect.
That and eschewing the John Hughes-esque white suburbs so often seen in films set in America’s third-most populous city.
“I love seeing the racial diversity. It’s the fabric of Chicago that I wanted to show,” Davis said, adding he was one of the few white kids growing up in his South Side neighborhood. “When I was a kid there were no black people on TV. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got” a great deal left to achieve, he said.
Jones won an Oscar for his performance in “The Fugitive”; the film was nominated for an additional six Academy Awards, including best picture. Ebert ranked it as his #4 best film of 1993.