“The Key Is Failure”: James Schamus on Indignation

Movies Features James Schamus
“The Key Is Failure”: James Schamus on Indignation

James Schamus has just begun his career as a director with this year’s Philip Roth adaptation Indignation, but he’s already had at least two other enviable careers. He’s an Oscar-nominated and double BAFTA-winning screenwriter, having penned the Ang Lee classics The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among others. And as the CEO of Focus Features, he produced and otherwise shepherded such films as Brokeback Mountain, Happiness, Walking and Talking and She’s the One, among many others. Having achieved success in these realms, Schamus set his sites on an adjacent one, the director’s chair in Indignation. He joined Paste recently to speak about the new film, and about what he’s learned over the course of a very full career.

Paste Magazine: Let’s talk about Indignation. Given everything that you’ve done in the past—working with one of the greatest film makers alive in Ang Lee and shepherding so many iconic, great projects as CEO of Focus Features—how do you sit down to write and then direct with a clear head? Without all of those experiences echoing through your brain as you sit down to direct for the first time?
James Schamus: The answer’s very simple. You could be the most accomplished, Nobel prize-winning physicist, the president of the student body of your high school and have starred off-Broadway in a Pulitzer prize-winning musical, but the fact is when you’re crossing the street and a truck turns the corner and is coming at you at 50 miles an hour, you’re going to jump. No matter who you are or what background you have. Your panic really helps overcome any of the potential challenges of being old and having an overblown ego.

Paste: But then also there’s just a question of influence. There’s just a question of sitting down to write a song when you’ve been working with Dylan for 20 years—how do you sort through and find your own vision?
Schamus: It’s a good question because I did have to face those kind of issues. First, you just to admit failure before you begin. When you’re someone like me, having run a movie studio for example, the odds are pretty overwhelming that when you go out to make a movie, you’re probably going to be kind of embarrassed. I think I got lucky on this one. Maybe if they let me do it again, I’ll be embarrassed on the next one. But that’s everybody. I did sit down with my family and say, look, I’m going to try this and guess what? It will probably be pretty embarrassing. But that happens with all directors. There are great directors out there making great movies and then their next movie is, well, not so great. And then they go out to make another movie. The key to these kinds of careers is failure. You constantly run that risk, no matter what, so don’t let that stop you.

Paste: Sure.
Schamus: As for the question of influence—I did have to deal with that, very strong influences. But I made absolutely sure, once I made a commitment to make a movie, that those influences would be as subconscious as humanly possible. If I’m going to get a team together and make a movie, it’s going to be our movie. If it’s going to be a movie that we’re making in the shadow of, or in homage to, or in any way shape or form conscious of imitating somebody else, then the odds are it’s going to be a much worse movie than it otherwise would have been. I can’t make an Ang Lee movie, and if I tried I’d make a really bad one. All I can do is hope to make a really good James Schamus movie. So I just pushed aside any question of influence or any sense that I had to find a style to imitate, and we just went at it fresh.

Paste: And after?
Schamus: When the film was done, I was looking at it, sitting with friends and one of my assistants turned to me aand asked the same questions—who were your big influences? I still didn’t know yet. Looking at the film and trying to figure it out, you find some really weird surprises. It’s all so subconscious and repressed, but I was looking at it and thought, ‘This reminds me a bit of kind of mid-period Louis Malle.’ I never really thought about Louis Malle. I probably haven’t re-watched a Louis Malle movie in years. But when I was looking at it, I was like, oh right because he’s kind of weird, but he makes it look normal. The characters were actually completely on the edge of what would seem to be sustainable personalities for 20th and 21st century capitalist culture. And yet somehow the narratives work.

Paste: Yeah.
Schamus: But again, I have no idea because I didn’t sit and re-watch Lacombe, Lucien or whatever while prepping the movie.

Paste: It is wild what comes out that you didn’t necessarily intend. But the film gods wanted him there.
Schamus: Exactly.

Paste: I love what you said earlier in the answer about sort of embracing your mistakes. I don’t know if you saw Don Cheadle’s movie Miles Ahead, but there’s a part where Miles, right before they’re about to start recording, turns to his band and he says, “Alright if you’re going to be wrong, be wrong strong.” (Schamus chuckles) And he told me that he actually did take that from something that Miles Davis used to say. Be wrong, strong.
Schamus: Exactly.

Paste: You have gone through the process of releasing the film, going through the festivals, going to Sundance, and then theatrical and now DVD and awards season coming up… I’m wondering how different the experience is for you; you’ve seen your directors go through it so often. Does it feel a lot more personal this time? More vulnerable? Or is it similar to experiences you’ve had as a writer and producer in the past?

Schamus: Well, one of the things that I’ve experienced in three decades in the film business is that the fundamental disconnect, or I should say the fundamental arbitrary connection between the work that I’ve always cherished and the filmmakers that love the films on one hand and the so-called award season on the other. And to be honest, I’ve had such great runs, great luck, but I do treat the awards stuff as part of the business and not part of the art. And when I was running Focus, we were quite well known in this so-called community for releasing films throughout the year, even so-called “award films,” to get their audiences when we should get them and treat them correctly. We let the awards thing work when it worked and not work when it didn’t. The guys at Roadside have the exact same philosophy. They need to run a business. I don’t expect us to have much of an awards presence this year. I mean we did very, very well in the specialized theater circuits and the art houses, but we did not cross over. So we were not creating box office history here. But the reviews as you know have been tremendous and the audience scores have been unbelievable—it’s so gratifying. If there’s something that percolates out, that’s great. If not, fantastic—I get to sleep in on awards announcement day.

Paste: Well, I really enjoyed it, have loved what you’ve done over the years, and can’t wait to see what’s next.
Schamus: That’s fantastic. Thank you for the chat—I really appreciate it.

Indignation is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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