James Schamus: Gods and monsters

His latest film, The Hulk, has already broken records in the US. And it's about to open here. So why does the writer/producer James Schamus want to talk about a harrowing Danish classic? He explains all to Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture

Last week saw the US release of The Hulk, Ang Lee's $137m (£82m) summer blockbuster based on the Marvel comic-book hero. By all rights, its writer and producer James Schamus should be thinking exclusively about Dr Bruce Banner, radiation poisoning and the joys of luring a mass teen audience to a movie about a man who develops shirt-ripping green biceps. It's surprising, therefore, that he's prepared to take time off to talk at length about a long-dead film-maker, Carl Dreyer (1889-1968), whose work is rarely seen in the US outside art-house cinemas. Consider, too, that The Hulk will open in the UK on the same day as the re-release of Dreyer's silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. Far from slagging off the competition, this guy's talking it up.

As it happens, Dreyer is a pet obsession. Long before Schamus wrote the screenplays for such features as The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he studied the Danish master's work in exhaustive detail. He did his doctoral dissertation on Dreyer at the University of California, Berkeley, and, in 1988, contributed an abstruse article on "Dreyer's Textual Realism" to a book on Dreyer published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Schamus was a student when he saw his first Dreyer film, Ordet (The Word) (1954). Written by Kaj Munk, it's a story about faith and transcendence. If you watch it with even the slightest scepticism, the famous finale (a religious fanatic approaching the coffin of a mother who has just died in childbirth, whispering in her ear and bringing her miraculously back to life) will seem absurd or even trite. Still, as Schamus wryly points out, accepting the idea that Bruce Banner can turn into the Hulk requires a similar suspension of disbelief. "What you need to have faith in [when you watch Ordet] is the faith you have every time you show up at the movies with a bag of popcorn in your lap - that's the belief in the redemptive spirit of the imagination," he declares. "To me, Dreyer is a transformative film-maker. He changes a genre each time he touches it, whatever that genre is. And he always pushes the experience of his movies to the absolute limit of what the material will allow." He doesn't see any incongruity in championing Dreyer's work while making films such as The Hulk himself. ("Just watch Ordet," he insists excitedly, "and you'll see what I mean!") "In Ordet, you witness a miracle in two ways," he continues more soberly. "There's the miracle in the movie and the miracle that the movie exists. It demands a little patience from an audience."

The problem is that most audiences (in the US at least) haven't had that patience. When Dreyer's earlier film, The Day of Wrath, was first shown in the States in 1948, the response was decidedly lukewarm. Made in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, it is set in the 17th century. Like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, it dealt with religious persecution and the burning of witches. This was a courageous choice of subject matter for a film-maker working under the fascists, but all the American reviewers were concerned about was the languorous pacing. The New York Times' Bosley Crowther (one of the most influential critics of the day) wrote in exasperation: "the tax of Dreyer's slow and ponderous tempo upon the average person's time is a rather presumptuous imposition for any motion picture artist to make. Maybe the cultist can take it. But is it justified? Is it art?".

Similar complaints were raised about almost all of Dreyer's other features. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), was attacked as "inherently static" by critics who failed to notice its virtuoso use of close-ups, its subtle editing, or the sheer anguish and suffering registered on the face of Joan (Maria Falconetti) as she is subjected to her brutal trial. His last film, Gertrud (1964), an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg's 1906 play about a strong, Ibsen-like heroine continually betrayed by the men in her life, was berated for having too few close-ups and for relying so heavily on long, uncut sequences. Schamus, of course, adores both movies. Gertrud is a particular favourite. "It's about a woman's ruthless desire for absolute love. It's a punishing but absolutely transformative story," he says, noting that, like many of Dreyer's pictures, it deals with "the confrontation of women with the patriarchal powers that attempt to define and dominate them". Or, more simply put, Dreyer movies are about "women who scream 'NO!'".

Asked why Dreyer remains so under-appreciated in the US, Schamus speculates that the key reason is that he never stuck to one genre. ("His films are all quite different. He doesn't have a signature style in the way Fellini or Godard do.") It didn't help either that, in a career spanning more than five decades, Dreyer completed so little. Either he couldn't get the finance ("he was not a guy who would have lasted long in Hollywood," Schamus notes, "I don't think he gave good pitch") or he was so busy researching new projects that he didn't actually have time to make them. He worked for years on a script about Jesus, even teaching himself Hebrew so he could prepare it more thoroughly. (Schamus believes Dreyer's endless research "substituted" for the film itself.) He spent almost as long on an abortive Mary, Queen of Scots project, for which he wrote a 350-page screenplay, and on his Medea film (eventually made for Danish TV by Lars von Trier.) "He was very interested in the relationship between the script and the film. He often changed his mind about that relationship. He was pretty much obsessed with it."

Dreyer once described his own style as "merciless realism" and likened the close-up to an instrument of torture. Watching his work, Schamus suggests, brings a strange and sadistic mixture of "pleasure and pain". He cites Joan of Arc as "one of the most ecstatic movies in terms of religious sexuality that you'll ever see on screen". He talks about the pleasure an audience takes in watching Joan suffer. "In short," he says, "we're sick puppies."

As if wary of making Dreyer sound too austere and forbidding, he quickly asserts that the Dane could be "downright funny". He rates Dreyer's silent films of the 1920s (presumably excepting Joan of Arc) as being as amusing as any Hollywood comedies of the era "and just as slick".

No, Ang Lee doesn't share Schamus' obsession with Dreyer, and they didn't watch old videos of Ordet and Joan of Arc together to get them in the right frame of mind for the shirt-splitting sequences in The Hulk or the giddy martial-arts scenes in Crouching Tiger. But Schamus is convinced that Dreyer's films still have a resonance for audiences today.

Is The Hulk a film he could ever have conceived of Dreyer making? With Bruce Banner beckoning, it's too late for him to answer the question. There are (he confesses) people at the door appealing for him to go back to work.

"I'm so thrilled that I have had the chance to blabber on about this guy," he says as he turns his attention back toward more weighty matters - such as the opening-weekend gross for the man in green paint (at $62.6m/£37.5m, a box- office record), and how to keep the audiences coming.

'The Passion of Joan of Arc' and 'The Hulk' are both released on 18 July