You and some of the other writers at the site, like Sheila O’Malley and Odie Henderson, bring a lot of yourselves to your work, a lot of first-person narrative, much like Roger did. But there are other contributors, like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who don’t do so much of that. The overall diversity makes the site a kind of artists collective. Is that something you’re striving for? What sort of writers attract you?
I don’t know if I have a particular type of writer that I’m looking for, but I will say that I want the writers on the site to be as different as they can possibly be, while still being good writers and good journalists. I really enjoy stumbling upon writers, just kind of at random, when I’m surfing the net, as they used to say in the mid-nineties. I like reading something and saying, “Holy shit, she’s really good!” or “Wow, that guy can really edit,” and then writing them an email and saying, “Hey, why don’t you send me some pitches?” Because I feel like one of the biggest pains in the ass about being a writer is feeling like you’re doing it in a vacuum, and I’ve met writers on a much, much, much bigger scale than me who feel that way too sometimes—like, you’re getting feedback but you’re still not entirely sure if everyone’s connected. I mean, it’s great to get 100 comments on a story or whatever, but it’s even better to get that one comment, or that one email, from someone who seems to understand you on an almost freaky level. I like that. Keith [Uhlich] or Ed [Gonzalez] might have told you that I used to throw a lot of parties at my house, almost every single weekend, and it just got to be known that, if you weren’t doing anything on a Friday or Saturday, you could always stop by Matt’s place. And you knew there was gonna be food on the grill and beer in the fridge. Everywhere I go [professionally] I try to turn it into that a little bit, although hopefully we still get some work done. And RogerEbert.com is becoming that in its own strange way.
And what about assigning specific assignments to specific writers?
Well I love the feeling of thinking like a journalist. When Richard Matheson passed away, I thought, “Okay, we need an obituary, and we need it fast, otherwise it’s going to be irrelevant. We can’t do that sort of personal blog thing, where you sit on something for two days, then write something and hope that someone reads it. We gotta be on this—it’s big.” And I looked down at the roster of people who wrote for the site, and when I came to Peter Sobczynski, I thought, “Hmm, I bet he could do a really good job with this.” I called him at 6 p.m. and asked if he could get me something by midnight. He turned it in by 10 p.m., and it was perfect and we ran it. And I thought, “This is like the old days.” It was like when I was working at The Star-Ledger, only we’re not all in the same office.
Like a major newspaper, though, the site has a pretty huge wealth of departments, from the “Far-Flung Correspondents” section, which Ebert himself started, to “Balder & Dash,” whose content seems to overlap with other sections. Is there a specific to department you’re most interested in augmenting right now?
We’re actively working on the whole site, in theory, at least. But right now, Balder & Dash has gotten the most of my attention, probably because it’s the most like what I’m used to, which is a kind of catch-all film and television blog where anything can happen. But we’ve had a few good pieces go up on “Demanders,” which has become more of our DVD and streaming column, or “channel,” as we call it. And we’re going to refine that further. My big project in the coming months is Far-Flung Correspondents, which is a very special part of the site, because it’s home to writers that Roger hand-picked because he liked them. And some of them were professional journalists, and some of them were [relative] newcomers, but what they had in common was that Roger thought they were all special. And I really want to develop that because I feel like that’s the greatest unexploited resource so far in my tenure—those wonderful people. You’ll be hearing a lot more from them very soon.
Let’s get to some of the bigger things that have received attention since you’ve stepped into this position. There was your against-consensus After Earth review, which got a lot of interesting responses…
Ahh, that’s one way of putting it. [laughs]
Well it presents a good opportunity to talk about relationships with commenters. We definitely get our fair share of impassioned commenters here at Slant and The House. What’s your general feeling about the dialogues that accompany certain articles, be they positive or negative?
I think comments are mostly great. I’ve always interacted with commenters to a much greater extent than a lot of critics do. And I started doing it back at The House Next Door. In fact, the comments section at the pre-Slant House Next Door, for a lot of people, was the main reason to visit the site. Which isn’t to say they didn’t occasionally derive pleasure from the writing of myself and of other staffers, but it was a place to hang out and have intelligent, impassioned conversation. Roger’s site has been the same way, but it presents a different set of issues because the audience is so much larger. There are millions of people who read this site every month. As a result, you get a very wide range of comments in terms of relevance and acuity, by which I mean you’ll get comments that relate directly to the substance of an article, or the substance of a comment left on the article, and then you’ll get ones that are kind of just people belligerently patrolling. They don’t actually visit the site regularly, but were referred by an angry link from somewhere else. I call that the “Fly, monkeys, fly!” commenting approach. [laughs] Keith Uhlich ran into a nasty case of that a few years ago when he wrote about The Dark Knight. For some reason it’s always more vitriolic when it’s comic book movies. It’s incredible. Horror film fans are much better behaved than superhero film fans. I don’t know why that is. We are developing a comments policy, and I’m hoping we’ll move toward one where there’s significant moderation. The substance of people’s arguments will not be touched, but I think we’ll post a notice that if your comment is filled with attacks, and you’re not engaging with the text, then there’s less of a chance it will get through. We don’t want this to turn into YouTube.
The other big item that surfaced this past month was the death of James Gandolfini, which made me think of you because you’re a TV guy, you’d just taken over a film site in the wake of the death of someone you knew, and here comes the death of another giant, whom you also knew, and whose work straddles the worlds of TV and film. How did you approach covering Gandolfini at RogerEbert.com?
Well, I’m pretty familiar with the subject of James Gandolfini and The Sopranos in general, so I thought I could bring something unique to the site just given my professional history [in that area]. But there’s also a tremendous amount of overlap between fans of television and fans of movies. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it doesn’t make any sense to separate those two things. And I knew there was a great chance that anyone who was reading Roger Ebert’s site was either a fan of The Sopranos or, at the very least, aware of it. So it made sense to cover that. It was a big deal. James Gandolfini’s death should be one that’s on par with the death of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix—it’s up there. This is the kind of death that makes people remember where they were when they heard the news. This guy touched people. I know he touched me. That [Sopranos] roundtable series that was posted on the site, “Cut to Black,” was, oddly, in the works for months. I kind of went rogue on that and made that shoot happen. It was just a fluke of timing that it happened to go up that week. We scheduled it for that Monday and Gandolfini died a few days later. I asked the [video] editor, Dave Bunting Jr., to add a title card at the end, dedicating it to Jim. And I want to do more video items on this site. I want the site to be a destination where people can go to see cool stuff. I want it to be like one of those television shows that you watch with a sense of anticipation, because you don’t know what they’re going to do next. That’s job one.
I’m going to fumble this quote a little bit, and I’ve had a hard time finding exactly where I read it, but somewhere along the line, Roger wrote something about a note that he kept at his desk at the Chicago Sun-Times, and it said something to the effect of, “At the end of the day, I’m just a man in a theater watching a movie.” He did it to remain humble. Is that a philosophy you identify with and hope to uphold?
Yeah, but I think every critic feels that way to some degree. Ultimately, I think the only thing that separates a professional critic from a regular moviegoer is that they’ve probably seen more movies, read more about movies, and have done a lot more writing. And that’s it. And I’ve had a number of conversations at parties with people I was meeting for the first time whose opinions on film and television were every bit as interesting as ones that I had recently heard from veteran critics. I feel the same way about criticism as I do about pretty much any other skill that I have, which is that it’s just a means to an end. And the means to an end is connecting with other people. The movies and the television shows are just a way to do that. Just like an actor wants to connect with people—the performance of the text is just a means to an end. And you can substitute your own examples. Why does anybody do anything? If it’s not just for a paycheck, then there’s gotta be some other reason. And I think it’s connection.