Even those with a casual interest in the dying world of film criticism should be familiar with Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel. Millions of viewers knew them only as argumentative television personalities responsible for passing or failing a film with a turn of their thumbs. Until recently, it wasn’t as widely known that they began as professional rivals working for competing newspapers in Chicago, and that their on-air pairing stemmed from everything apart from a mutual desire to work together. In spite of this, their combative personalities soon evolved into a strange kind of chemistry, allowing them to collectively become a familiar presence in homes across the country.
But perhaps the American people didn’t know them as well as they thought they did. Here to fill in the blanks is author, editor, and journalist Josh Schollmeyer, who currently serves as executive editor and director of digital content at Playboy magazine. His latest work is Enemies, A Love Story: The Oral History of Siskel and Ebert, a short-form e-book that chronicles the love/hate relationship between two of the world’s most popular film critics. He was nice enough to answer a few questions I had, namely about how the piece came to be, about finding the right balance between print and digital publishing, and about what Ebert and his family thought of the project.
Enemies, A Love Story: The Oral History of Siskel and Ebert originally appeared in the debut issue of the resurrected magazine of the Windy City, The Chicagoan, and now available for download on your e-reader-of-choice. If you’re interested in picking up a (digital) copy check out the official website of of independent publisher Now and Then Reader right HERE!
Instead of interviews with the principle subjects, Enemies, A Love Story is comprised of interviews with associates of Siskel and Ebert from their television days. Was this intentional?
Not exactly. But it was revealing to hear the stories of everyone who went on the journey with Gene and Roger – many of whom had never spoken so in-depth publicly about the experience. They have a different context and shape to the Siskbert venture (both personally and professionally) that I found fascinating. Plus, once I decided to footnote the piece with primary source material from Gene and Roger (newspaper columns, Letterman appearances, Siskel & Ebert outtakes), I realized their own words from those moments in time provided an immediacy and honesty nothing said in retrospect ever could.
I’m sure you know that A Love Story has been released on the heels of Ebert’s own autobiography, Life Itself. Do you think readers are ready to accept another biographical dose of Ebert at this time? On the same token, do you think there’s an advantage to examining the Siskel/Ebert relationship from the outside?
You’re right. In the last few years, much of Ebert’s story has been told – from the Esquire profile about his health struggles to Life Itself. (To say nothing of Roger’s prolific tweeting and blogging.) That said, Ebert the television personality and his relationship with Siskel generally went unexplored. So that’s the prism in which I chose to view Ebert through (and vice versa with Siskel).
I was surprised to learn that A Love Story originally appeared in the debut issue of the revamped magazine version of The Chicagoan. What made the love/hate relationship between Siskel and Ebert the ideal story to kick off the magazine’s new run?
Their passion for the city and how they elevated it. Here in Chicago we are mostly known for big shoulders and Midwestern stoicism. Gene and Roger changed all that; they turned the city into a cultural arbiter and made the coasts come to us. In many cases, the success of a movie depended on which way they pointed their thumbs – appendages that proudly and firmly remained in Chicago.
Considering that A Love Story appeared in both The Chicagoan and is now available as a separate digital purchase, it seems there’s a symbiotic relationship between print and e-publishing. Given the rapid rise of e-readers and tablets, do you think the latter is the way of the future?
For me, the key is how a suite of editorial products interact. The most successful publications will figure out how their ethos best fits each medium – whether print, a smart phone or tablet. The beauty of the tablet is how well long-form narrative nonfiction plays on it. For example, a good friend and legendary magazine editor recently told me that he found himself before his Kindle app more than he ever had physical books. Better still, the tablet is a very nascent device, meaning the reading experience on it is only going to get better and better.
At 25,000 words, A Love Story is easily digestible in a single sitting, especially in the digital format. Do you think this short-form style is better suited for today’s fast-paced, internet-savvy generation?
I mainly wanted it be conversational – as though you were listening in on my conversations with each subject. So I never really paid attention to the length of the quotes; I just wanted them to flow naturally and build a harmonious narrative.
It seems like a cheap closing shot, but I have to ask: Have you spoken with Ebert about the book? Does it have his blessing?
Roger gave me his blessing at the start. I never would have done the piece otherwise. We heard that Chaz, Roger’s wife, loved it. I think, though, it’s been difficult for Roger to read, which he more or less admitted in a tweet. For one, it’s the first time someone else has told his story. Second, it’s never easy to read about yourself. And while I wanted to be respectful, I also wanted to be as honest as possible and truly document what made his and Gene’s relationship so dynamic and compelling.