Schamus, former studio head, turns director in 'Indignation'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — F. Scott Fitzgerald estimated that less than six people had ever fully grasped "the whole equation" of the movie business. James Schamus would have made it half a dozen.

Schamus is, somehow, equal parts film executive (he ran Focus Features for 12 years), academic (he's taught film theory at Columbia for more than 20 years) and filmmaker (he's Ang Lee's near-constant collaborator and screenwriter). Now, at 56, he's adding first-time director to his schizophrenic resume. And like most things Schamus has been a part of, he's done it with a strong belief in the enduring appeal of smart, adult dramas.

Not that balancing his many personas has always been easy.

"If I could figure out how the compartments work, I'd be a lot happier," Schamus chuckled in a recent interview. "Who's balancing? If you're falling off a cliff at any given moment, you're not balanced."

The film is "Indignation," an adaptation of the 2008 Philip Roth novel. It's a 1950s-set tale about a stringently principled Jewish kid from Newark, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who finds both unexpected sexual freedom and institutional rigidity at college in Ohio. The film's centerpiece is a colossal 30-page scene of back-and-forth between Marcus and the university dean (Tracy Letts).

"Indignation" has won warm reviews, an audience award at Sundance and — most incredibly — the endorsement of Roth, whose books until now have proven difficult to adapt.

Schamus acquired the book while at Focus, which he cofounded. Running the art house division of Universal, Schamus was responsible for dozens of good films, many of them Oscar winners: "Brokeback Mountain," ''Dallas Buyers Club," ''Lost in Translation," ''Milk," among them. He proudly boasts that Focus was profitable every year he was in charge. But after a few lean years, he was let go in 2013.

"When I got the boot from Focus, I made that decision that executives do where they go through the production slate and say 'I'll be the executive producer on that and I'll be the producer on that,'" he says. "I was like: I don't want a producer's credit. It's a clean break. But I want 'Indignation.'"

His first thought was to write it for Lee, for whom he has penned "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," ''The Ice Storm" and others. But Schamus, suddenly with more time on his hands and his youngest kid in college, decided to give it a shot as director.

"It's still going to be a midlife crisis, of course," he jokes. "I told the kids: This could be super embarrassing. But that's the risk, right? I'm old enough. So I'm embarrassed, who cares?"

Instead, "Indignation" is acclaimed. "Beginner's luck," jokes Lee. The pair has been a team since Lee's first low-budget feature, "Pushing Hands."

"He worked out everything for me from writing, producing, selling, what tie I should wear to what event," says Lee. "After our second movie, 'The Wedding Banquet,' I wondered why he didn't direct himself. I think James is a person who does many things at once."

Schamus grew up in Hollywood, but got into producing in New York, where he co-founded the famed "no-budget" production company Good Machine.

Years of working with directors like Lee, the Coen brothers and Gus Van Sant taught Schamus a movie could be made on time, cordially and decisively. "I can work with jerks, prima donnas, 'visionaries,'" he says, "but please spare me the director who cannot answer a question."

"He's not like most other first-time directors," says Letts. "I can't think of anybody else who has that resume. The guy who teaches film theory and collaborates with Ang Lee is not supposed to be a studio head. But he not only was one, he was a good one."

A poster of "The Tingler," starring Vincent Price, hangs in his office. It's a 1959 horror thriller famous for putting vibrating devices in theater chairs that buzzed audiences. But Schamus has seldom relied on gimmickry to electrify moviegoers. He's that rare thing: a champion of the middlebrow who discusses Bergman, Plato and "Zootopia" with equal enthusiasm.

"I like being in the zone in the culture where the stuff can be challenging, the voices are often unheard before and the language that's being used isn't cookie cutter but is legible," says Schamus.

Money may flow in and out of independent cinema (as it is now, courtesy of Amazon and Netflix), but it continues on despite the fears that it won't.

"It's the same speech every four years: It's the end of the adult serious blah blah blah. And then it's: 'The Oscar goes to "Birdman,'" says Schamus. "It's always been difficult."

He's proud that "Indignation" is coming out, like some of his Focus hits ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," ''The Constant Gardener") in the summer, far from awards season. "I always insisted," he says, "that audiences for great films don't just hibernate between January and September."

Schamus is now prepping a Muhammed Ali-Joe Frazier movie with Lee, and has penned an adaptation of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth." Directing, he says, is just one job among many in the movie business.

But he'd do it again.

"Let me tell ya: directors who complain, just get over it," he laughs. "This is a fantastic job."