Rapid Round: James Schamus on Directing 'Indignation', Hollywood's "Gold Rush Mentality" in China (Q&A)
The former head of Focus Features goes behind the camera with a Philip Roth adaptation discussing anti-Semitism, slut-shaming and the looming shadow of war: "These kids are struggling with very similar issues as the people I know today."
“It’s always been a bit of a shitshow, right?” laughs James Schamus to The Hollywood Reporter aboutthe film industry. At 56, the former Focus Features chief and seasoned screenwriter of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk makes his feature directorial debut with the period drama Indignation. The 1950s-set adaptation of the Philip Roth novel, out Friday, follows a young Jewish student named Marcus Messner, played by Logan Lerman, who moves from New Jersey to Ohio to attend a small college and struggles with anti-Semitism, sexual repression and the ongoing Korean War. Also starring Sarah Gadon as his troubled love interest, as well as Tracy Letts and Danny Burstein, the title was nabbed by Lionsgate’s Summit Entertainment shortly after its Sundance premiere.
Schamus — currently polishing the Zeolot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth script for producer David Hayman and finalizing his next Ang Lee collaboration about the Joe Fraizer-Muhammad Ali rivalry — tells THR about how Hollywood should be strategizing with China, what his favorite films are (at the moment) and what helming help he got from working with directors while at Focus: “You can make a movie without ruining people’s lives.”
Why did you want to film this adaptation?
It’s a weirdly hard one to answer. Because of course if you’re going to make a movie that's as perverse and sad but also ruminative and tragic, the answer to your question is clearly a Rorschach test for some mental, emotional, Oedipal issues I have that I obviously haven't worked out yet, otherwise I wouldn't have made the movie. It's tough — why go into that place? Why go back there? It's called Indignation. Philip Roth named the novel that for some reason, and clearly there's a well of protest and anxiety and maybe regret and all kinds of things mixed in there. If I were to answer your question and say, "I thought it'd be really fun," it's true! And it was fun, that's the crazy thing. We had a blast.
Did you have any concerns about making a period movie?
Sometimes, stuff that's period lets you speak to the present with a clarity that you don't get when the people, the characters and the settings are already tagged as so present, that everybody is reading them for the small differences and nuances — they get in the way. So when you go into the past, you can just cut through all that because immediately, you hope, you can put your audience into a kind of reverie and dreamspace, and suddenly the issues and the anxieties, but also the joys and the pleasures, hit you much faster and harder. It was clear that Roth was able to speak to us now by going back to his past, to his youth, and letting some of those moments, however embarrassing they may be, bubble up to the surface.
The book is full of obsessions of Roth’s that appear throughout his work. How did you translate those to the screen?
One of the things you have to do is just put your blinders on. Obviously, if you're a reader of American fiction, Philip Roth is in the pantheon, and he deserves to be held there. But if you're going to be adapting one of his works for the screen, at a certain moment, you have to turn around and Philip Roth has to be behind you and you have to go forward. Essentially, you're interpreting the work and not adapting it. And that's risky, because he's Philip Roth and we're not.
Did you go back and look at either Goodbye, Columbus or Portnoy’s Complaint, two of the earliest Roth adaptations?
I had seen them, so I had them in the back of my mind, but I didn't feel as if I needed to go do a thorough rise/critique from them. I felt, if we were going do it, we had to do it our way, and rather than set myself up for a compare-and-contrast, I would rather just go and try to make the movie I wanted to make.
Given how prolific Roth has been, why has there been so relatively few adaptations of his books?
I think he's a very specific literary voice, right? And just from a technical point of view, the translation from page to screen of his work poses very specific questions, in particular about voice and modality. This whole issue of first-person narration, for example — cinema doesn't really allow for that as a technology. You can try, and there are famous examples: Lady in the Lake, personal works of essayistic cinema like Jonas Mekas or Chris Marker. But essentially, the technology, the medium itself is very resistant to a first-person narration and the possibilities that gives you for exploring creatively the gap between narrator and the narrated. You don't have that — it's like, I hire a guy to get dressed up in period clothes, get a haircut, get some makeup on, and then boom, he's in front of the camera and he's acting. So you have to stick with the characters, the people, and that requires a different set of narrative tactics and strategies. Roth's work is very resistant to those strategies, actually.
Do you have any concerns that a film about such a repressed sexual era would be tough for younger audiences, even smart ones, to buy?
On the one hand, I think, sure, things are different now. You're gonna swipe right! Marcus Messner (Lerman) and Olivia Hutton (Gadon) were not swiping right, no one was swiping. On the other hand, what's crazy is how uncannily similar the underlying emotional and political and social issues that these kids deal with still are. One would think, "Oh wow, it's sixty, seventy years later, we're so much more advanced, society has really moved on from that horrible, repressed era," and yet, I teach at Columbia University, I see a culture of slut-shaming that's equally vicious if not more so than what Olivia was going through at the time. It's like, well, wait a second, I thought this was all in the past? No? Really? Wait a second. Oddly, for all of the shtick about how much more free and liberal and blah blah blah we are, I'm noticing in our culture now — *ahem* Trump *ahem* — this kind of atavistic, repressive, really kind of gross thumb of the patriarchy, if you want to call it that, is just coming right down on us again. So these kids are struggling with very similar issues as the people I know today.
Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in 'Indignation.' Photo credit: Alison Cohen Rosa
This film is a genuine independent project — would you have preferred to have had the support of a Focus or a Searchlight while filming?
The answer to that is complicated because it's a yes and no. For sure. Look, we had 24 days to shoot the thing. Could I have used more support? Sure. Could Logan have used a trailer? Yeah. There were a lot of things we could’ve used, on the one hand. On the other hand, it was such a luxury to be able to fly below radar and know that I had a team who was with me and can make this movie at such a low price. We had the freedom to do what we wanted to. I worked at Focus for a long time, and now, Peter Kujawski, [who] started in the business as my assistant [and is running it]. They’re lovely people. I would love to be working with Focus again, trust me, there may be a movie I make with them soon, you never know. But on the other hand, you do get into a zone as the budget goes up and the infrastructure expands where you start thinking differently, or having to think about why you’re not thinking differently. When you’re flying below radar, you just get to do it.
What did you take from directors you’ve worked with over the years — particularly Ang Lee?
I’m being honest — as little as possible. One of the things I’ve learned working over the years with so many great directors is each one does it differently because he or she is gonna have their own approach. So if I tried to learn from Ang, what am I doing? I’m trying to be Ang? That’s a recipe for disaster; there’s only one Ang Lee. My way of working with actors is very different because at the end of the day, it had to come from me, otherwise the actors would’ve smelled something funny and untrue and would’ve lost faith. They have to have faith in what we’re doing together, not what I’m trying to rip from somebody else.
I have to say though, having worked with people like the Coen Brothers and Gus Van Sant, and watching directors who were able to make movies that I loved on a budget and on schedule and treating their crews with respect and not going into overtime every day, that was a good lesson. You can make a movie without ruining people’s lives. I was very happy to have a crew who was there for me, and I hope they knew I was there for them. We made our days and rarely went into overtime, and it was a very loving and supportive set. A kind workspace. I thought, you can make movies that way.
How did you develop your directing style?
As I was going through the prep process, I developed what I felt was an architecture for making choices, and a menu in terms of the color palette and a shooting style that I felt was appropriate for the material. I wouldn’t call it my style, I would call it the film’s style. That’s something I did learn from Ang: try to let the material lead in terms of some of the basic fundamental decisions, stylistically.
The scene with Tracy Letts and Logan Lerman were 18-minute takes, one after the other. They were off-book and had the thing down, they were superhuman. We shot that scene in one day. That said, preparing for that scene, my shot list was very explicit. It had to have a structure that may not be perceived by a viewer but I knew I could rest on.
Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in 'Indignation.' Photo credit: Alison Cohen Rosa
What was your best moment while shooting this film?
It sounds so pathetic, but I loved every minute of it. We had so much fun. The crew was so great. The luxury of making the movie in New York — I got to take the subway to set in Brooklyn for one-fourth of the shoot. I thought, I get to take the subway to make a movie. That was ridiculous.
What was your toughest moment?
Every day was tough because we were trying to do so much with so little. Our toughest day was at the butcher shop: weirdly, though it doesn’t look like a big day on paper, having a lot of meat around — and it had to be kosher — and for whatever reason, it was a funny day. You never know what’s gonna be the tough day. But we pulled it together.
What are some of your favorite films?
That list changes every day, as it should. Some show up again and again: E.T., Wild Strawberries, The Searchers. But I experience waves of cinephilia — I’m planning to teach a class at Columbia on the Western, so for the last few weeks, I’ve just been on Anthony Man, who hasn’t really survived as a big-name auteur in Hollywood history, but it turns out he’s just the boss. If you haven’t seen Man of the West, it’s insane. Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T with Randolph Scott who, again, a lot of people don’t remember anymore but he’s one of those signature Hollywood figures that we’ve gotta get together and bring back.
Are you reteaming with Ang Lee anytime soon?
We’re hoping, finally, that Ang’s film that I’ll be a producer on, about the rivalry between Joe Fraizer and Muhammad Ali, we may be able to pull that together and shoot it next year. Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8 has been a godfather, and it’s inching its way towards the possibility that we’ll be able to make that next year.
Will you write another film book?
It’s funny, I’ve been working more occasionally, so there was a lecture I gave at Berlin a few months ago that I published in Filmmaker magazine. That might find its way morphing or mushrooming into something a little longer. We’ll see.
What do you want to write or direct next?
I’m happily finishing up a polish for David Hayman and Lionsgate of Zeolot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s taken a long time, I’m so sorry for those guys because it was just a crazy process. And I’ll have another script to write this year. It depends on the time with Ang’s movie and everything else, but I’d love to direct again, if anybody wants me to. I have a thought about something to do.
Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts and James Schamus, photographed by Austin Hargrave for THR at Sundance Film Festival.
Is there a dream project you’ve never been able to make, maybe throughout your career at Focus that you’d like to do?
It’s funny, I don’t. Almost everything I didn’t get to make at Focus, I was able to get to filmmakers who were able to care for it and do it. I didn’t leave very much on the table there.
What do you love most about Hollywood?
Precisely what you can complain about: the calculation that makes a global industry. This very odd, constant influx of that kind of instrumental reasoning and non-creative thinking. But in a weird way, that’s also what makes it so cool. You say American independent cinema, but the opposite is not American dependent cinema, you say Hollywood. I do think the global reach of the business means in some ways that it’s going to be mutating, and it’s going to be increasingly interesting and challenging. Certainly, the rise of the Chinese market is a perfect example of this. Hollywood’s storytelling is going to change in ways nobody sees yet, because we’re not paying attention to Chinese culture and Chinese pop culture in substantive ways. Everyone is running off to China to try to do business, and they’re forgetting that this is a 5,000-year-old culture with the youngest cinema-going culture in the world, which actually has a future for us. It’ll be interesting to see how Hollywood genuinely adapts to that. Right now, it’s this gold rush mentality, and that never really ends all that well, does it?
As an American independent filmmaker, how much of that is a priority?
A lot. My new little company Symbolic Exchange, my partners are Chinese, and a lot of my favorite filmmakers and films are Chinese. So I’m getting the opportunity to spend time some really cool filmmakers who haven’t necessarily translated that much over here but are actually quite visionary, like Wu Ershan of Mojin: The Lost Legend. They’re giant successes but Americans know nothing about these guys. Having access to those discussions and seeing what they’re up to is great.
If you could change one thing about the film industry right now, what would it be?
Look, it’s always been tough. It’s always been a bit of a shitshow, right? But that’s what you sign up for. This is a hilarious business, we’re so blessed — we’re making movies, are you kidding? Stop complaining. Of course it’s hard, especially if you want to do something like Indignation. No one is sitting around going, yes, great! No, you gotta fight for it. If you don’t want to, go do something else. I don’t know. I’ve really never been a complainer, and it’s just a thing in this business, we just love to complain all the time, seriously.