James Schamus has been an integral part of the film industry for years now, shepherding projects like Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Kids Are All Right as the CEO of Focus Features until his exit in 2013, and working as filmmaker Ang Lee’s close collaborator as the screenwriter behind nine of the Oscar-winning director’s features, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. This year, however, Schamus gets behind the camera himself for the first time on the Philip Roth adaptation Indignation, and the results are—perhaps unsurprisingly—stunning.
The film takes place in the early 1950s and stars Logan Lerman as a sharp young Jewish man who leaves his New Jersey home to attend a small college in Ohio, where he experiences a sexual awakening after meeting the captivating Olivia (Sarah Gadon) and goes toe-to-toe with the college’s dean over his requirement as a student to attend church.
I was lucky enough to catch the film at Sundance and it is an elegant, enrapturing, and enthralling coming-of-age tale featuring Lerman’s best performance of his career. Schamus proves to be a natural director, showing great confidence behind the camera with a gorgeous yet motivated aesthetic that reinforces the film’s thematic undercurrents.
With Indignation opening in select theaters on July 29th, I recently hopped on the phone with Schamus to discuss his jump to directing, his first Sundance experience as a director, how he settled upon his visual take on the film, the extensive preparation and exhaustive execution that went into shooting an 18-minute showstopping dialogue scene between Lerman and Tracy Letts, and much more. We also spoke quite a bit about Hulk, which came before there was a tried and true template for superhero movies, and why he thinks the film failed to catch on with audiences.
Schamus is a fascinating guy and a talented filmmaker to boot, so I do think you’ll find the conversation curious if you’re at all interested in the work that goes into crafting a feature film. Read on below, and click here to read my review of Indignation from Sundance.
First off, I just want to say congrats on the film. I caught it back at Sundance and thought it was terrific.
JAMES SCHAMUS: I don’t write thank you notes to people for appreciating and responding to my work, I think we all have our jobs, and maybe the next one you’ll hate, but I really do appreciate it. I just love it when people respond, you know? And I certainly caught that – it’s been a real pleasure having you having my back.
I mean, you know that Sundance experience, it’s very hit or miss, but that was definitely one of those that kind of flew under the radar a bit and was a delightful surprise.
SCHAMUS: Yeah well, we try to stay under the radar. In any case, going to Sundance was very much really the producers of business’ decision. We needed to dispose of the North American rights, you know? And that was the place to go. On the one hand, of course I love – in so many ways – Sundance. On the other hand, I also know the risks – especially showing up at the film like this one which is taking some pretty – I’d say pretty decisive aesthetic stances that are running somewhat countered to the prevailing indie whims. Those stances could be read as old. Whereas I’m thinking, “No, they’re actually new, but whatever.
Yeah, well that’s one of the things that struck me immediately about it – is that visually, it’s extremely confident. There’s a really controlled quality to the shots and the motivation, and I was curious what were your early conversations with your DP like, in terms of, visually, how you wanted to tell the story?
SCHAMUS: It was great. I was a little nervous about that, because you know Chris Blauvelt, aside from doing astonishing work, often does handheld, and he’s been an operator forever. He was first an operator on so many great films. But he’s a guy that can move at lightning speed and is very adept at managing with grace and kindness low-budget films. So I was a bit nervous, I was like, “Look, you know I don’t think I want to move this camera at all unless I’m motivated by one of the human beings in the movie. Very rarely do I wanna motivate a camera move because I’m so artsy fartsy.” And Chris just embraced it immediately and could not have been more excited at the idea of the set I wanted to impart which is of course this stasis. Not to sound super pretentious, but the aesthetic frame of fate that is entrapping our characters within the frame and I wanted the weight of the time and the tragedy to really sit on these characters and work its way into us, the audience. Chris became much more of a purist than I was after a while. I was like, well maybe we should pan over – [imitating Chris] what do you mean? What is that?
One of the more controlled scenarios – and it’s probably my favorite scene in the film, which I’m sure many people have told you this – is the fantastic tête-à-tête between Logan and Tracy Letts. So I was curious, what was the preparation process like for that scene? ‘Cause it’s this lengthy stretch that’s almost like a play.
SCHAMUS: Yeah, yeah. Well it was for sure months, if not preparation months and anxiety. We only had one day obviously to shoot it, because it was a 24 day shoot. We just don’t have the resources to let it roll, so I had to make some really – it might’ve been arbitrary decisions, but there had to be decisions about it. One was working through a shot list and I shot lists this whole movie with this crazy, what turned into I think a 200 page document, populated with screen graphs under movies, and diagrams, and location photos, and paintings and drawings. Then we shared that with the whole crew, which was fun. So that was really a sign to the crew that no matter what, we were gonna make our days. We had a plan, even though we obviously change the day of often, and the plan could work and could cut together, so there was a certain baseline of safety. However, I had to really think about an internal architecture, visual language that had its own narrative and structure because I knew that if we just went in and “covered the scene”, it would be an amorphous blob sitting in the middle of the movie stuck in the throat of audiences and we’d just keel over and die, right?
So everything from camera angles and framing etcetera, etcetera, all the way through that – how we constructed it I had plotted out pretty carefully in my head, again knowing the day of in the edit, you can, when you need to, break your own rules. I also did a kind of weird thing – which was that I didn’t tell the actresses before we dropped in on the day, but I did this scene, probably 90 percent of what you see – maybe 95 percent of what you see was all resolved on single takes, so we were running 18 minute takes again and again and again and again and again and again on that day. And the crew was kind of like what the heck is going on? At the end of the day, they were all gathered – the camera team – and we said look, we’re just letting you know nobody’s done this before on a low budget movie, we’ve just recorded over a terabyte of data.
You also have to feel confident knowing you kind of have an ace up your sleeve with Tracy Letts in that scene, but I mean, Logan is fantastic in this movie, and especially in that scene as well. What were your conversations with him like? He’s always been a terrific actor, but the range he shows in this film is great.
SCHAMUS: It’s crazy. Logan was really – I gotta say, you know, he’s almost the type and ideal of everything I was hoping for when I was writing the script. So when he read the script and showed interest, I just hopped on a plane immediately to LA and we ended up spending, honestly, hours talking the next day. I don’t know if you’ve ever interviewed him or talked to him or met him, but he’s an A, he’s crew-approved, crew loves him because he’s such a nice guy, and that was an issue. It’s not like it’s a religious principle to maintain a no assholes on the set, but sometimes people with talent have their issues and whatever. But for me as a first time director, it was a blessing to have somebody especially who was in every scene there who was a collaborator who was such a nice person. But his process is really intense, and he was the first person to sign up for this before we had any money at all. So we had months and months and months of Logan focused solely on the script and not his character, and he loves to ask questions and talk and I assigned him tons of homework and he knows Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, he memorized it ‘cause that’s what Marcus did. So we would have mini-seminars on that and his curriculum – I dug up the syllabi for what would’ve been his classes in American government history in 1951 and got the textbook from that era and we went through it, and I assigned readings.
He was really immersive in that way, but that scene – we walked through a lot of it, but we never really rehearsed it in any real way. Tracy came in –we just did the day before we shot it and we sat around and talked a few hours and then they read through it a couple times. But I was not interested in rehearsing the scene, ‘cause I had faith at that point that these guys could go at it. Then I had very specific blocking, which was the one thing that was a little nerve racking for me, because hey, Tracy Letts is Tracy Letts, right? But he was amazing, and we really worked through that blocking very carefully – every move, every gesture. And even though the scene looks like a scene of a couple people talking about God or whatever for a long time, in fact, weirdly and it’s a weirdly physical scene, there’s a lot of touching in it, and it’s kind of invasive and weird, so yeah, I put a lot of thinking into how to image that – those kinds of space violations and tensions.
Well it paid off tremendously, and obviously you’re someone who’s been in the filmmaking industry for a while, but one of the films you were involved with was Hulk in 2003, and it’s a movie that I like quite a bit and people forget that back then, there was no template for how to make a superhero movie. It came out just before Batman Begins and Ang was clearly trying some really ambitious stuff but I was curious, what was your experience on that film like and what’s it been like watching this genre take off and take over everything?
SCHAMUS: You know, I have so many different responses to that question, because I don’t think I have a time in those experiences that I really treasure, ‘cause they’re the mixed ones, and the ones you can learn a lot from and then I always say to people in the film business, whatever you do, don’t learn from your failures. People do tend to learn from them things that then hobble them later on and they stop trying and experimenting, and I don’t even know if it’s failure or not. It is certainly our bad object. If there’s a bad object out there for Ang and me, it’s The Hulk, right? It has its own little theme. It’s actually probably much more profitable than The Incredible Hulk or whatever. If you go onto Rotten Tomatoes or something and look at the user rating, it’s almost identical to many of these other Marvel movies. But you know, it had that kind of bad egg quality to it. So of course you’re gonna think about that a little bit.
The process was very tough. Look, we came in – I had the pleasure of working uncredited on the production draft of the first X-Men and I got to know the Marvel Universe a bit through that experience, and that’s obviously at the very beginning of the rise of the so-called brand, that world. I learned to have a deep respect for what that could represent. But you’re right, there was no template for a “Marvel” movie at the time that we went in and said hey, let’s take The Hulk, and I went back to those early first issues, the first run that Stan Lee had done on The Hulk, and I found this crazy story of how the father murdering the mother and this kind of Oedipal patricidal insanity that drove the entire thing. And the politics of it, the Hulk is really blowback, he’s a creation of American imperialism that’s come back to haunt them, right? So, it’s all totally cool stuff. Okay, so that’s all totally fantastic. And then we go into Universal – by the way, Universal is really the monster studio, and the Hulk is actually, when you think about it, he’s aligned with this great tradition of these wonderful Universal movies from so many years ago, we wanna make the deep, dark kind of a Universal movie too. They’re like great, awesome, you know, whatever. Fast forward to 9/11 where suddenly like there’s this blowback, fighting the American Army in the desert… that’s not cool.
But even moreso, I would say the brand became a genre – I think – the moment that Spider-Man was released. And Sam Rami really, I think – and working with Kevin Feige and working with Avi [Arad], I mean as a team, these guys did something that you rarely see and it’s one of those great miracles of pop culture: they created a genre. I went and saw that film in Times Square and I remember calling right afterwards on, you know, my 18-pound cell phone, pulling out the antenna. And I said, “Ang, I think we’re actually in a little trouble.” ‘Cause the end of that first Spider-Man it’s got that long lens and he’s walking towards the camera, the American flag’s waving in the background and the audience has just gone on a roller coaster ride, rightfully so. I was like, dude, I think that there’s now a genre. And you don’t mess with genre, frankly. You can definitely riff on it, you can develop it, you can ironize it, you can do anything you want with genre except go head-on against it. Genre is smarter than you are and more powerful than you are, it really is. And I was like, whoa, there’s a genre now, oh man.
Well of course now it’s omnipresent, and there’s blowback of these movies all feeling the same, and I feel like we took for granted—if you released that same film today from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, it gets a completely different response and a different context.
SCHAMUS: Yeah, and Ang was pushing –and rightfully so – he was pushing the boundaries working with ILM in terms of that kind of digital animation, and I think it got to the very edge of what was legible. Now, of course the tools he used to brought to bear that experience in Life of Pi, and when you add on 3D remember the other thing that we were doing, which wasn’t as legible or as interesting at the time but I thought was just really great was the multi-image paneling of the screen at times. And a lot of that was driven – you have the visual sense of it – but the real breakthrough there was the sound design, because the sound was actually pulling your eye to different parts of the screen. But now with Atmos and everything else, oh my God, it’s hard to imagine what Ang would do.
Well and speaking of which, I believe you’re involved with Ang’s Thrilla in Manlila boxing film. Do you know if that’s going to be shooting at high frame rate like Billy’s Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk?
SCHAMUS: Yeah. I mean of course the thing with Billy Lynn – I mean there is no theater in the world right now, I think there may be some pop-ups in Asia, we’ll see that can screen them the way that Ang made it. For 120 frames per second, 4K, native 3D expanded dynamic range, etcetera, etcetera. The servers just can’t handle the data, the commercial projectors just don’t have the throws; they can’t stand it. My hope is that one, Ang, Jeff Robinov and I figure how to get this movie started in its production next year, and I think we’re very close, very optimistic. And number two, that by the time we finish the film, there will be places where you can see it in all its glory. I think the down-res in whether you go to 2D in 120 frames per second, or you go to 3D at 60 frames is great, I mean I think the down-res works. But it’s not what Ang is going for. He’s going for an entirely new medium.