James Schamus has had a monumental impact on independent cinema. In addition to being one of the co-founders and CEOs of Focus Features- one of the behemoths of independent film distribution- Schamus has collaborated and written with famed director Ang Lee on some of the most well-received films of the last couple decades. These films include, Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility, and the list goes on and on.
Schmaus’ newest endeavor is a first for the long-time film magnate. He's made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, Indignation. The film, which Schamus also wrote, stars Logan Lerman and will be released on July 29th. Jim Braude and Emily Rooney sat down with Schamus to talk about his new film and his career.
You have been involved with some of the most important films of the last 20 years in this country. Why did you decide to direct a film after all these years of being a collaborator?
Well, it’s great that your listeners don’t have the visuals here because you are obviously speaking to a guy who had something of a mid-life crisis and decided to jump into directing. A whole serious of circumstances opened themselves to me. I got the pleasure of running a movie studio for 13 years. I ran and founded Focus Features. So a lot of the films you’re mentioning were coming out through Focus, and then because we were part of a big corporation, at a certain moment I was shown the door as one always is in these jobs. At that moment, my youngest daughter happened to be going off to college, so it was me and the geriatric dogs. I was unemployed and I said look, this is a profound opportunity at a time in life where a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do something new, and that is to direct. So no, I still drive a Subaru, I didn’t buy a sports car, I directed a little movie.
What did you learn from your years of working with Ang Lee?
One of the things that I’ve learned over the years from Ang and other directors I’ve worked with- in particular, the Coen brothers and Gus Van Sant- is that there are people that tend to make very good movies, and yet still run movie sets that are very respectful of their crews. They tend to make their days, and not lose sleep all the times and get sloppy. It is not a religion to them, it is a job. That was the main thing I learned from those folks.
What kind of collaboration did you have with Philip Roth?
He was pretty amazing, very little in fact. I would almost say none. I did do something that was pretty stupid, and I have a long career and don’t do that many stupid things it turns out, but this was as dumb as it gets. Before we started pre-production I sent him the screenplay. I just thought that that’s the fair and ethical thing to do, and I’ve done it before with writers that I have adapted before. To be honest, if he had had a very negative response or even a negative response- he is Philip Roth- I probably would have called the whole thing off. He did pretty much the greatest favor around a writer could do for a filmmaker; he refused to read the script. It was a gift. He said, ‘Go, go do your thing.’
Did you know that Brokeback Mountain was going to be a hit?
You do and you don’t. When you are making these things, our eyes were wide open. We did not expect quite the pop to this film. I have worked on a lot of LGBTQ films over the years... At Toronto film festival the audience embrace of the film was so overwhelming. You win on emotion, you win when you have characters that you can relate to. At least in my world, part of the cinema is not spectacle, it is not things blowing up, and it's that deep honest reservoir of emotion that gets you over that finish line. That is what you want.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.