Berlin: Jury President James Schamus Hits the Fest With Newfound Freedom (Q&A)
The former Focus CEO talks to THR about getting his start in Berlin, why he won’t talk about what happened at Focus and where he’ll be dining during the fest (it's not where you think).
Veteran independent producer and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter James Schamus takes his post as head of the Competition Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival just under four months after being unceremoniously fired as CEO of Focus Features. It will be Schamus’ highest-profile industry outing since his exit from the Universal Pictures-owned specialty label he headed for 15 years. For the first time in more than 25 years, he is attending a major international festival as a “civilian,” free from sales duties, studio pressures and requirements to attend movies he might want or need to buy for a slate.
As a screenwriter, Schamus is most closely associated with Ang Lee, having penned the script to Lee’s 1993 Golden Bear winner The Wedding Banquet, as well as having delivered Oscar-nominated screenplays for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). He now is working on a script with Lee about the rivalry between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali to be shot in 3D, and is adapting Philip Roth’s Indignation as well as scripting a revisionist look at the life of legendary musician Fela Kuti for Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu.
Schamus spoke to THR from his new office in New York City (just around the corner from Lee’s) about what he is most looking forward to about Berlin, the key role the festival played in establishing Focus’ former incarnation Good Machine as an independent powerhouse and why he is considering ditching his signature bow ties for a T-shirt.
What will be different about Berlin this year?
Schamus: This is the first time in a quarter of a century that I can go to a film festival just to watch movies! It’s a blast and it’s fun to have your selection made up for you. The decisions about what to see at every festival I’ve gone to in the last 15 years [during the Focus years] were primarily based on what was available and what was for sale. It’s crazy. You want to get into the film business because you like to go to the movies. And then you get into the film business and you go to film festivals. And what do you do? Run around and only go to the movies you can possibly get to between meetings.
Are you anticipating receiving an influx of job offers at the festival?
Schamus: Those discussions are ongoing as part of the daily flow of life now. My taste and my career are, I would say, more influenced by Europe and the U.K., so [Berlin] is a land of many old friends and filmmakers that I love.
How does this year’s program grab you?
Schamus: You can never make predictions, but this looks like a very strong lineup. It just feels very, very substantial to me.
What’s your history with the festival?
Schamus: We go way back. I screened the first film I ever produced, The Golden Boat, a little 15mm movie by Raul Ruiz, in the market, and I made my first sale there to Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans at Strand Releasing. I think it was one of their first purchases ever, their first year in business 25 years ago. Then I showed up a couple of years later with a movie called The Wedding Banquet. That movie launched the international sales and distribution part of Good Machine, something that really kept us alive professionally. It was the true foundation of that company. Ted Hope and I started the business and we realized we needed serious professional help, and that was what brought us to David Linde. That screening of the movie at the Zoo Palast was the beginning of us as business people in a sense. And of course Focus International always had a very strong presence at the market.
What is your favorite Berlin moment from the past 25 years?
Schamus: The reason I got started in the international distribution business with The Wedding Banquet is we couldn’t find a single sales agent to sell the movie. So we showed up in Berlin thinking, “This is going to be an absolute disaster.” And it turned out to be one of the great moments of my professional career, sitting with Ted [Hope] in the lobby of the Steigenberger [in West Berlin on Los Angeles Platz] — we didn’t have an office — we were completely ill-prepared for what hit us. We sat in that lobby for four days straight and sold the movie around the world. It was a delirious four days of work and it was fantastic.
Which restaurants do you like in Berlin?
Schamus: My favorite meal is in the shopping mall downstairs in the food hall right there on Potsdamer Platz. It’s a place — part of a fast-food chain — which serves herring sandwiches, called Nordsee. I cannot tell you how many fancy people I’ve dragged down there so I can have a herring sandwich and beer between movies.
How do you approach being jury president?
Schamus: To my mind, I reach back to the Socratic ideal, the usage in Ancient Greek in Platonic discourse: You don’t have an argument, you follow an argument. And to me the great fun of being in a room with a lot of smart people around a table where everyone can see each other and talk to each other is facilitating how we as a group can follow an argument. I am looking forward to doing it with another collection of supersmart people.
What happened at Focus?
Schamus: We had a great run, but I find the topic at this point rather boring these days so I’m not going to answer that.
Did you pack warm bow ties for Berlin?
Schamus: At some point I am going to show up dressed like Stephen Frears, wearing sneakers and a T-shirt. Certain people have more genius than I. I should start imitating them.