James Schamus interview: 'There are two kinds of asshole directors'

The scriptwriter of many of Ang Lee’s greatest films now makes his directorial debut with the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s ‘Indignation’

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The Independent Culture

James Schamus is Hollywood’s ultimate polymath: scriptwriter of many of Ang Lee’s greatest films, former boss of Focus Features, professor at Columbia University, essayist, polemicist and cinephile. His family background, though, isn’t so very different from that of Marcus Messner, the hero of Indignation, Schamus’s first film as director. Marcus (played by Logan Lerman) is the son of a kosher butcher growing up in post-war Newark, at the height of the Korean war. He’s a bright, resourceful kid, a straight-A student and captain of the baseball team who makes it to college, the first in his family to do so. The college is in faraway Ohio. (“Ohio? How will you keep kosher?” a neighbour asks in dismay.)

Schamus recently discovered that his own great grandfather was a kosher butcher too and that his grandfather was a grocer.

“My parents were the first generation to go to college. There was this weird autobiographical connection,” Schamus says of Indignation (based on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel). The Messner family in the story were “a generation away” from him but he began to “feel the pull” of his own roots the more he worked on the story.

'Indignation' director Schamus poses with the cast: Logan Lerman plays a Jewish college student who falls for a young woman, played by Sarah Gadon 

In the film, the precocious and irreverent young Jewish student at the midwestern college questions everything. Whether it’s compulsory attendance at chapel, the way American history is taught in the classroom or the attitudes of his own room mates, he refuses to accept conventional thinking or behaviour. What scars him the most is his relationship with a beautiful, sexually precocious but emotionally unstable fellow student (Sarah Gadon) whose behaviour is even more subversive than his own.

Back in the days when he was a studio boss at Focus, Schamus did much of his best creative work in aeroplanes. When he was in the air, he couldn’t be disturbed by phone calls, emails or the relentless flashing of his Blackberry. He had time to himself. 

It was on a plane that he first read Indignation, having picked up a mass market paperback copy in an airport bookshop.

“This was a moment in time to treasure, a moment before there was wifi on airplanes on long haul flights,” sighs Schamus, sounding nostalgic for a long-lost era which actually only ended a year or two ago. “It used to be that you’d get on aeroplanes and that you would have time to read. That’s gone. It (wi-fi) has changed the whole experience of flying. It’s horrible. Please take me back in time.”

On that plane journey, Schamus was reading Indignation simply for pleasure, with no intention of making a film of it. 

“Of course, we all know that Philip Roth novels are impossible to adapt and blah blah blah. But when I finished it, and it’s late book of his, there were a couple of things that just blew me away. One was this elegiac sense – here is something touching and fable-like in his approach to this moment in time. Clearly, as always with Roth, he is pulling from his own life but it’s not autobiography. He did go off to university in 1951; he went to a very rural and conservative place and hated it. He had an encounter there with a young woman which, in his own autobiography, never really came up. But suddenly, in his seventies, that encounter becomes very tragic and very moving. There is something about this young woman. In his old age, he is reaching out to her and trying to reconnect. I found that very moving.”

There is an extraordinary scene midway through the film in which Marcus comes face to face with the college Dean (Tracy Letts). For more than 15 minutes, they tear strips off each other, debating ethics, religion and politics with one another in an outwardly cordial but actually very vicious way. 

When the film screened in Sundance last January, this scene received an ovation.

Gadon and Lerman in a scene from 'Indignation'

It is fitting that the movie’s most memorable set-piece involves two characters sitting opposite each other, discussing abstract ideas. It’s not a scene you would ever find in a Michael Bay blockbuster. The drama comes from the ideas and the wordplay, not the mindless explosions.

“I knew that when we went to Sundance, we would look like the old-fashioned movie,” Schamus observes. He was never going to adopt what he calls “the current handheld gyroscopic aesthetic”. As he discusses his “rigorous” approach to framing in Indignation, you get a sense of what he must sound like in the classroom, lecturing his students at Columbia.

On set, though, Schamus tried not to act the schoolmaster. He was working on a tight budget and on a breakneck schedule. His actors, everybody from young lead Logan Lerman (whose credits range from Percy Jackson to Fury) to Gadon and the multi-award-winning Letts, were vastly experienced. He was the first-timer. “What I made sure was that they never smelled bullshit.” 

If Schamus didn’t know the answer to a question, he wouldn’t pretend that he did. At the same time, from his own experiences as a producer, he knew he had to make decisions quickly.

“There are two kinds of asshole directors,” he reflects. “Number one, (people who are) assholes, of which there are a few. Number two, there are people who don’t make up their mind. I’d rather work with number one than number two.”

On Indignation, Schamus was being overseen by a producer, Anthony Bregman, who had previously worked many times for for him. (“Anthony’s first job in the business was with me.”) Bregman was extremely efficient. 

“It was fun because I was able to watch my self divest from the producing process and let directing take over.” 

Watching Bregman, Schamus realised just how stressful and thankless it is to produce a movie. “What are you doing with such a terrible job as producer? It’s such a shitty job. Nobody appreciates what you do,” Schamus thought, forgetting that he has been a producer for most of his own filmmaking career.

When he first acquired the rights to Indignation, Schamus had wanted Ang Lee to direct it. Lee, though, was deep into making highly technical studio movies such as Life Of Pi and his soon-to-be-released Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. A low-budget Roth adaptation was too much of a chamber piece for him at this juncture in his career. Schamus therefore took on directorial duties himself.

“Ang came by and visited set one day.” Schamus recalls. His old partner made very complimentary remarks about the movie but also made it clear that he still needed Schamus as a writer and producer. (The duo are currently developing a 3D movie about Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and the Thrilla In Manila.)

Schamus is famous for his ability to compartmentalise. He’ll generally be writing and producing Ang Lee movies at the same time as he is marking students’ essays and taking corporate decisions affecting his new company, Symbolic Exchange. For once, while shooting Indignation, he devoted himself entirely to the task in hand. “You realise when you get into that workflow what a luxury that is,” he reflects of the weeks he was able to spend without other distractions.

Earlier this year, Schamus showed Indignation to his students at Columbia. “The people who most connected with Marcus really with a passion were my students of colour, often students who came from working-class backgrounds and were the first (in their family) to go to college.” These students may not suffer from the veiled anti-semitism that Marcus had to deal with in 1951 but they are patronised by the university authorities in exactly the same way and still sometimes made to feel like outsiders. 

Gadon plays an unstable college student in ‘Indignation’

On the autumn morning I speak to him, the US presidential election is still a few days away. Schamus cheerily remarks that he regards both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as representative of “an utterly corrupt and disconnected political and financial elite”. At the same time, he urges a sense of context. Indignation, he points out, is set in an almost equally vexed time in recent American history, at the start of the Cold War and in a period when McCarthyism is distorting public life. It’s not as if there was some age of lost innocence: “It was ever thus.”

Whatever happens in US politics now, it looks as if Hollywood, at least, will endure. In recent years, big Chinese companies have invested heavily in the US studios and in American exhibition. Schamus doesn’t see that as anything too startling. “Hollywood has always been spectacularly successful at vacuuming up other people’s capital, [but] less successful at redistributing it back to them. We’ve seen this story before.” 

In the Eighties, he notes, there was paranoia that the Japanese were taking over Hollywood. In recent years, South Koreans, the Gulf states and India have pumped money into the US movie business. Now, the Chinese are doing the same. 

“The difference is that the capital from China is coming from what is the fastest growing market for motion pictures in the world. They have a huge domestic marketplace,” Schamus suggests. He predicts that Chinese investment will have “a long-term” and “structural” effect on the studio system but, even so, he doesn’t expect Hollywood to be toppled any time soon. 

As for Schamus himself, having taken the time off to make Indignation, he is back in his normal, plate-spinning routine. He’s “teeing up” the Ali-Frazier movie with Ang Lee, running his new company, exec-producing several new films (including one about the private lives of Marx and Engels), and finishing off his Jesus of Nazareth script Zealot (which is being produced by Harry Potter’s David Heyman.) He is still teaching too. Whether he’ll have time to direct another movie remains open to question. On the evidence of Indignation, he clearly has the knack for it. 

Indignation is released on Friday 18 November