The day Roger Ebert saved my life

I idolized the critic and emailed him claiming to be working on a film. He agreed to meet, and changed everything

Published February 8, 2015 3:30PM (EST)

Roger Ebert   (Hachette)
Roger Ebert (Hachette)

Excerpted from "The Autumn Balloon"

Sometimes I wonder what will become of me. I want to be a lot of things, but I’m too embarrassed to say any of it, so I keep it to myself. Sometimes it’s to be a writer. But sometimes I change my mind. Maybe I’ll be a movie director. Sometimes I want to be a rock star, and I play air guitar in my room until somebody knocks and barges in and I pretend I was doing push-​ups. I keep a list of my favorite authors. A lot of them teach in colleges around the country, and I send them letters there, asking them if they need an assistant or an intern. When I wander around at night, scuffing my old shoes on the streets, I imagine one of them saying yes and taking me on to work with him in a small house together. Maybe a writer who feels forgotten and needs somebody to believe in him. But nobody writes me back.

On an otherwise slow weekday, back in Flagstaff, I read a new article on Roger Ebert’s website. One of his favorite directors received an NC‑17 rating for depicting graphic sexuality, and Ebert lambastes the Motion Picture Association of America for rating sex more harshly than violence. And right then and there I decide I want to make a documentary about the MPAA and their evil, puritan ways. I have no filmmaking skills, no money, no equipment, no experience, no guidance, and I own absolutely nothing, not even a real bed, but I want to meet Ebert, and I figure this is as good a way as any. I send a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times, the newspaper where he works, asking for his e‑mail address. A few days later, an assistant responds and tells me to write a letter to Ebert’s assistant, Monica Gelfund. And so I do. I tell her I’m a filmmaker making a documentary about the MPAA and ask her to forward my message to her boss. And then I imagine her reading my letter, rolling her eyes, and making a masturbatory gesture with her right hand before discarding it in a pile with the thousands of other letters they’ve received.

The next day I go straight to the public library and log on for my free hour of Internet. I check my Hotmail account. Junk mail. Some porn. Coupons for pizza.

And an e‑mail from Roger Ebert. I stare at his name in my in‑box. It looks fake. I click on it before I can chicken out.

Dear Mr. Porpora,

I am very busy but it may be that my producer, Don DuPree, could set up a time when we could discuss your project. I’d like to hold it to 15 minutes.



I immediately close out of the screen. I get up from my chair and walk in circles like a dog chasing his tail. I sit back down. I have fifty-​six minutes of free Internet left. I log back in to my Hotmail. There’s his name again. Roger Ebert. It seems so silly for me to have such an important person’s name in my in‑box. I wonder if he knows I’m eighteen and got fired from Home Depot and sleep on a pile of borrowed blankets. I wonder if he knows I have a giant teddy bear named Roger E‑Bear that sleeps on my blanket bed next to Wozels’s ashes.

Ebert has responded. And for the first time in my life I feel like I could actually make something of myself. And then I panic.

I’m in so far over my head. What the fuck am I gonna do?!

I call my brother.

“What’s up, fag?”

“So ya know how I love Roger Ebert?”

“Mmm-​hmm. . .”

“Well, I had this idea to make a documentary about the MPAA, and—”

“What the fuck is that?”

“Never mind. It’s the people that rate movies, R, PG‑13, whatever . . .”

“All right . . .”

“And I e‑mailed Ebert and told him I’m a documentarian and that I’m making a movie about them, and he agreed to let me interview him!”

“You’re a retard,” he says. “What are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t think he’d respond. No one ever responds!”

“Who else have you e‑mailed?”

“Everybody!” I say. “I just e‑mail people sometimes. Ask for jobs, internships, whatever.”

“Like who?”

“I dunno . . . fuckin’ Al Gore, Bill Clinton, magazine editors . . .”

“Al Gore? What the fuck did you ask Al Gore for?”

“I dunno. I just tell them I want to get my foot in the door and ask if they need help. But everyone fucking ignores me. So I sent an e‑mail to Roger Ebert on a whim.”

“So now what?”

“I dunno. I need equipment and money, and I need to find a way to get to Chicago.”

“One sec,” he says, and I hear him repeating the story to his friends. The room explodes in laughter.

“Chris wants to know if you told Ebert about your teddy bear.”


“Did you tell him you were recently fired from the Sizzler? Everyone thinks you’re autistic. I have to go,” he says and hangs up.

I look at Ebert’s e‑mail staring back at me. I e‑mail him back, speaking out loud in a deep voice as I type, hoping to sound professional.

Dear Mr. Ebert,

Thank you for the prompt response. I can’t tell you how excited I am to discuss my project further

I delete and start again.

I can’t tell you how excited my team and I are to discuss my project further. I will contact your producer and organize a time to meet.

Thank you for your time.



I’ve never used Best before, but Ebert used it, and so I will use it to close every e‑mail I ever write for the rest of my life.

I’m going to fuck this up somehow. I’m pretty sure this is going to end with Ebert filing a restraining order. I call his producer, and he answers, pleasant and professional, and he tells me Ebert will be in Hawaii for a film festival, then back for TV tapings. He asks me what my schedule looks like, and because it looks like asking strangers for signatures and avoiding the homeless junkie with Rasta dreads and cooling off in a Carl’s Jr. bathroom— I tell him I’m wide open. We pick a date. A Wednesday a few weeks from now. He says the staff can shoot the interview for me using the equipment in the Ebert & Roeper studios. It’ll already be lit right and wired for sound, and that way my team won’t have to lug all their equipment. I tell him in that case it’ll just be me. Traveling alone.

I spend my final Home Depot paycheck on my flight to Chicago Midway. And for the next few weeks I do as much research on the MPAA as I can, take notes, write and rewrite questions. I come up with a list of ten questions, and I time myself asking them over and over in the mirror. I don’t want to run past fifteen minutes. I pick out my best shirt to wear, and I pack a small bag. I set three alarms the night before my flight but still ask my mother to call me so I won’t oversleep.

* * *

It’s a different kind of cold in Chicago. Stinging, relentless. And the wind’s like a bully, tearing at me, scratching my face like loose tree branches. I’m afraid I’ll get lost if I venture too far out, so I stay near the motel, a Red Roof Inn next door to an Applebee’s. I walk in circles around the block, my sweater pulled up over my mouth, my hands over my ears. My outfit for tomorrow is laid out on my mattress. I’ve called my mother. She reminded me to tell Ebert that I played the Joker in my living room when I was five, acted out scenes, directed my brother. She wants me to show him the stories I’ve written.

I arrive back at my room, which has heavy maroon drapes and a matching bedspread. It’s after midnight, and I need to sleep, but I pace with the list of questions I typed and printed out before I came. Go over them in my head. Time myself again. I don’t want anything to go wrong.

I’m scared awake by my courtesy wake‑up call. I bury my head into the pillow, still tired. Five more minutes. And then I hear my mother’s voice telling stories, the one about my uncle Carter and how he was always late. My grandfather, too. That’s the Kruger way, she’d say with a laugh. I open my eyes and force myself out of bed and dress quickly. Go over the questions again. Time myself. Bless myself.

The wind begins its attack as soon as I walk out into the early morning air. It never stops its assault. I walk through the Loop, past rushing cabs and chugging buses, hurried businessmen in nice suits. I read my handwritten directions off the back of a receipt. A left and another left. And then the first right. I arrive at the studio, which is in a tall, impressive building that has a lobby of gold and marble.

I’m three hours early.

At the front desk, a jovial man greets me and asks whom I’m here to see.

“I’m here to see Roger Ebert,” I tell him. It’s the proudest moment of my whole life.

He asks me when my appointment is, and I tell him it’s not until the afternoon. He gives me a visitor’s sticker and says I can wait in the lobby or at the Potbelly Sandwich Shop next door.

I sit in the Potbelly and count the hours. I eat less than half my sandwich, and the soft roll hardens in front of me. When I accidentally spill a drop of ketchup on my list of questions, I have a quiet nervous breakdown in my seat.

It’s just before one when I return to the lobby, and I wave at the guy at the front desk and go through the turnstile. I take the elevator alone up to some high-​numbered floor. The gold elevator doors open, and I’m greeted by Don DuPree, Ebert’s producer, who shakes my hand energetically and thanks me for coming. As we walk down the hallway making small talk, I think it’s going okay, mostly because he hasn’t yet told me that this whole thing is a big joke and that he’s sending me home to fry zucchini in a trailer with an ex‑con.

We turn the corner and walk onto a claustrophobic TV set. And I see Ebert, his cheeks rosy like a ceramic Santa’s, wearing a sweater vest and his trademark eyeglasses, the Ebert & Roeper logo behind him. He sees me and smiles. I approach him and shake his hand and tell him how great it is to meet him. He’s serious, but his smile is warm and his voice is grandfatherly, or at least what I imagine a grandfather’s voice could be.

I tell him I’ll be sure to keep it to fifteen minutes, and he says, “Take as much time as you need. I’m here for you.” The production crew asks me if a medium shot is good, and I nod. Perfect. A medium shot. Whatever the fuck that is.

My hands are shaking and my knees are shaking and my voice is shaking. I read my questions directly off my sheet of paper, making occasional eye contact. I rattle off my first question— You’ve discussed the MPAA’s tendency to rate sexuality more harshly than they do violence. Can you talk a bit about why you think this is?— and Ebert nails his answer. I nod along with everything he says. He’s even better in person.

I ask my second question, and Ebert stumbles a bit, stops himself, gathers his thoughts, takes the editing process into consideration with a slight pause, then fires off another answer. I wish I were a better interviewer, but I just nod and smile and go down my list, keeping my hand over the ketchup stain.

Fifteen minutes later, it’s over.

He asks me if I’m sure I got everything I need, and I say yes.

While the production crew gets the tape ready for me to take home, Don DuPree joins us on the small stage and says he thinks it went well.

“Me, too,” I say. I build up some courage and ask Ebert if he has an assistant or an intern, and he says I’d have to talk to Don about that— Don handles all the college internships. He asks me if I’m in college, and I say no. I’m not.

“You went to University of Illinois at Urbana-​Champaign,”I tell him.

“I did,” he says.

He tells me one of his big regrets in life is that he was never a graduate student. I decide right there that I want to be a graduate student. He tells me there are lots of good schools in New York. Columbia’s a great one, he says, and so Columbia it is.

And then he touches my arm and tells me there’s another filmmaker making a documentary about the same subject.

I had a feeling.

He says the director is well known and has a lot of experience and is already pretty far along.

I thank him for letting me know and ask him what he thinks I should do.

He shrugs, and in a gentle voice, he says, “You just got to keep trying until you make it.”

He asks me if I’ve thought about college. He tells me he thinks I’d be good at it. I tell him I’ll look into it. The production team is ready with the tape, and it’s time for me to go. I want to hug him and tell him how much I appreciate his keeping me company in all those lonely libraries. But instead I shake his hand and thank him again.

Excerpted from the book "The Autumn Balloon" by Kenny Porpora. © 2015 by Kenny Porpora.  Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.  All rights reserved.  

By Kenny Porpora

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