Berlin: James Schamus Says This Election Season Echoes 1950s "Xenophobia" and "Slut-Shaming"

Indignation Berlin H 2016
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Indignation Berlin H 2016

"A rise of xenophobia, a slut-shaming culture against women, a rise of insane military innovations overseas," reflected the 'Indignation' director. "I feel like Philip Roth was writing for now."

James Schamus' Indignation rings too true of today's times, the writer-director said Sunday at a Berlin International Film Festival press conference.

"To a certain extent, it's from another era, another time," he said of his 1950s period drama starring Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon. The filmmaker described the decade as a time in which "a gigantic patriarchal thumb" was pressed down on American culture, with the rise of McCarthyism and xenophobia, as well as "a new repression in particular of women and sexual deviance" that greatly contrasted the female liberation of the 1920s and 1930s.

"A rise of xenophobia, a slut-shaming culture against women, a rise of insane military interventions overseas," reflected Schamus. "I feel like Philip Roth was writing for now. It's a lot of what we're experiencing this election season."

Based on the 2008 Roth novel, Indignation follows a young Jewish student in the 1950s who moves from New Jersey to Ohio to attend a small college and struggles with anti-Semitism, sexual repression and the ongoing Korean War. Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment label nabbed the title shortly after its Sundance premiere.

"What I fell in love with, honestly and not cynically, with the novel ... is Philip Roth writing really at the end of his career," Schamus explained of the author's atypical title. "He's finding something both very innocent and very tragic with the human soul … these two young people finding each other and not realizing they've found each other while they were still alive."

The former Focus Features chief recounted how he initially optioned the book after reading it on a flight and hoped his good friend Ang Lee would direct it, "but he was busy." Schamus opted to make the film his directorial debut because "I got fired from my studio gig so I was unemployed, and my youngest daughter was going off to college. I didn't want to be that guy sitting in front of the computer, trying to sell people things, so I thought I'd try something else!"

Though he didn't get direct consulting from Lee about helming (though Lee did visit the set), "We're friends, so I've been getting help from Ang Lee for 30 years," said Schamus. "He was very good about staying away."

To get past the directorial learning curve of choosing where to place the camera, Schamus noted that he and his team described every scene of the script "as boring as possible" — for example, Lerman's extensively tense scene with Tracy Letts was just "two people talking in an office" — and compiled scenes from a range of other movies that fit that description and watched them while having dinner at Schamus' home.

"We reverse-engineered every scene." he said of decisions about lenses and blocking. Once on set, "I could feel as if I wasn't completely making up everything for the first time … and then I just did my own thing."

Currently finishing a draft of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth for Lionsgate and producer David Heyman, Schamus looks forward to directing another film — and not necessarily one he's written himself, he laughed. "That'd be so much easier! Please, anybody!"