In the waning summer days of September 2010, I was assigned by my college newspaper to review Mark Romanek’s sci-fi drama, Never Let Me Go. The assignment required me to attend a press screening on the 16th floor of 70 East Lake Street in downtown Chicago, a private theater where the city’s critics preview all the new releases. The prospect of running elbows with professional film critics was thoroughly exciting, so you can imagine my panic when I found myself running late for the 12:30 PM screening.
I burst into the tiny theater somewhere around 12:35 PM and was relieved to see the film had yet to start. I immediately sat down in the first open spot I saw, in the very back row in the seat closest to the door. As I set my bag down and switched off my phone, one of the press agents who organized the screening tapped my shoulder: “Excuse, you need to move—we’re saving this seat for Roger.”
My mind still reeling from my mad dash to the screening, a single thought entered my brain: “Who the fuck is Roger?” I sighed, collected my bag, and plopped myself down in the seat directly in front of me. Finally settled, I surveyed the scene and saw I was surrounded by some of the best critics in the business—Scott Tobias, Michael Phillips, and J.R. Jones, among others, were each on hand. Eventually, I thought to myself, “I wonder if Roger—”
It hit me like a sack of bricks. “Who the fuck is Roger?” Roger fucking Ebert, that’s who. Just then, the door swung open, and the man himself entered the room. A few people waved, some said “Hi, Roger.” He waved back, gave a thumbs up, and sat in the seat I had just vacated—the one in the far back row, closest to the door. His seat.
Now directly in front of him, I sunk as far into my chair as possible. I was embarrassed, for starters, but I was also going to make damn sure I didn’t impede on one iota of his vision. This was Roger Ebert, after all. The film started (we always wait for Roger) and I spent the duration fully aware that one of the most—if not the most—important people in the history of film criticism was sitting directly behind me. Somehow, I made it through.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the last time I saw a film at 70 East Lake. As such, it wasn’t the last time I saw Roger. For a while there, he was a weekly fixture in my life. Obviously, we never exchanged words, but as I became a more familiar presence in the screening room, he often made a point to nod and wave my way. Once, I even got a thumbs up—after a screening of I Am of Number 4, of all things. I felt the warmth, compassion, and good nature so many people have mentioned since his passing. He made me feel like a peer.
The surreality of the whole thing was never lost on me. Roger was larger than life. Here was a guy whose work I admired fiercely, whose pragmatic and inspiring words adorned my cork boards and countless notebooks. Here was a guy who took thoughtful film discussion and made it cool, who went on TV and talked about things that I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. And here he was, just another guy in the screening room.
In my time as a critic, I’ve been sent to press junkets, interviewed the likes of Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Ed Helms—the only time I’ve ever felt starstruck, when the sheer scope of what was happening seemed beyond my comprehension, was when Roger Ebert came into the screening room that afternoon in September. It’s a day I’ll never forget. I’ll miss him.