Interview: James Schamus- Indignation



If you want to talk about audiences that drive an international culture, you have to start with black men.

James Schamus has been working in Hollywood for three decades. He’s written, produced, and now is directing his first feature film – Indignation. I sat down with Schamus to talk about creating his first feature film, marketing films, and the amazing Logan Lerman.

I have so many questions for you. You’ve been a part of some very important films. Did that experience encourage you to direct your first feature? Were you discouraged? Were you scared?

James Schamus: The easy answer to that question is all of the above [laughs]. On the one hand, I’m working with great filmmakers like Ang Lee, The Cohen Brothers, or Gus Van Sant and I’m having a great time. On the other hand, my youngest daughter was going off to college and I thought this was a great opportunity. I’d been working on a script and thought maybe this was a good moment to give it a shot. I told my wife and my kids, “This will probably be a humiliating experience. If I’m lucky it won’t be.” The odds were against me. We didn’t have a lot of money and it was a 24-day shoot.

24 days! You banged that out quick.

JS: Yes we did – ruthless efficiency. We had a great crew. I prepped the crap out of the film.

Was that preparation from your experience as a producer?

JS: It was and it wasn’t. Even though I had the desk job at Focus, I was increasingly removed from the experience from being on set. You can really get rusty. I’ve been visiting sets for years, but the lived reality of how to foresee and plan as a first time director was new. How long is a scene going to take to shoot? What happens if the actors aren’t in sync? How do you manage all of that? I’ve never been in those shoes before.  You can’t prepare as a first time director to know how you’re going to manage it. Nobody, in all my years, has asked me where to put the camera before. Nobody ever said, “We’re busy, can you go rehearse with the actors?”

Taking a step back, how long have you been involved in the film industry?

JS: I did my graduate studies in Film Theory and History so that goes back to 1742 [laughs]. I really got my start in New York at the beginning of 1987.

What was it that made you fall in love with film?

JS: I was disliked as a child. Watching movies was an outlet. I was an outcast, and a child who had very few social skills. The cinema was always a place I went, even as a young kid. I had the luxury of just being odd enough, that I would watch TV and things that were just outside of my demographic. Friday nights in LA during the 60’s, a local film critic would play silent movies on PBS channel 13. Trust me; I wasn’t doing anything else on Friday night.

You have the pleasure of working with two of my favorite young actors – Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon. I just watched Sarah on Hulu’s 11.22.63.

JS: This is the crazy thing; I’ve been a fan of Sarah’s for so long. She’s shown up in movies again, and again, and it’s taken a while for her star to rise. Logan’s been acting since he was 8. He took a break after Fury and decided he’s not going to take on another movie unless he really liked the part. His agents were impatient considering people were waving very large checks. It took a year and a half and I was very lucky he read the script. I went to LA to chat about the script and we talked for hours. If you ever get a chance to meet him, he’s a true cinephile.

I remember watching Percy Jackson, leaving and thinking he was really good in it.

JS: He is a serious craftsman. His will, determination, and work ethic is amazing. I got to round out the cast with a lot of young guys from the New York theater world. All of them have legit Broadway credits.

You could’ve done anything for your first feature, what made you want to tell this story.

JS: I love these characters and I love this kid. As a first time director you get to identify with your hero and cast someone who’s 20 times better looking [laughs]. There really was something about all these characters. Our hero, Marcus, is a combination of a lot of things – self righteous, smart, passionate, idealistic, and pretty clueless. I liked the other characters too, especially the arch nemesis Dean played by Tracy Letts. In those scenes with Marcus, everything Dean says is true.

Those were my favorite scenes. They reminded me of situations I’ve been in.

JS: I teach at Columbia, and at the end of the term I screen a film I’m working on. I screened the almost finished version of this film and I had office hours the next few weeks. I knew it would be an older upscale audience, but for this semester I had a great cohort of African-American students. They were the most passionate about the movie. It’s hard to imagine, but being Jewish in 1951 there were quotas. I deal with a lot of political stuff at school, so it’s been fun and moving to make these connections.

It’s easy to relate if you’ve ever felt discrimination.

JS: I hope we can bring in a younger audience. It’s hard making a grown up movie. If you had to describe the audience for the top 10 Foreign Language films, how would you describe the audience?

I would say they’re older, white, and female.

JS: Completely wrong. The success of foreign language cinema in this country is driven by young black men. 5 out of the top 10 movies are martial arts films. It turns out the idea that black guys won’t go to subtitled movies is crazy. It goes all the way back to Bruce Lee.

Growing up, my uncle had a Bruce Lee poster from Enter the Dragon on his wall.

JS: If you want to talk about audiences that drive an international culture, you have to start with black men.

A lot of those films showcased black men as strong figures. That didn’t exist outside of black exploitation films.

JS: It was a class analysis, more than anything else that drove those narratives. The way films are marketed is pre-digested, but the experience at the theaters is different.

Of course my friends would like Dope, but they would like It Follows or Room, but those movies aren’t marketed to them.

JS: The same goes for gender. The statistics for slasher films say they over index for females – 53-57% of the saw movies were a female audience. The audience is ahead of how they market films.