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James Schamus Talks ‘Indignation,’ Adapting Philip Roth, Cinematic Canons, and More

Written by on July 27, 2016 

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For all his experience as a producer and writer — most notably as the head of Focus Features, and most specifically as a longtime associate of Ang Lee — it was an odd choice on James Schamus‘ part to make a directorial debut in his late ’50s — and especially by adapting Philip Roth, whose psychologically dense prose, to name but one thing, has stifled those attempting book-to-screen translations. But no matter the author’s typically precise and internalized perspective, the text in question, Indignation, should be an easier work to slide into, in some part because its ’50s-college setting creates an atmosphere that could easily be brought to cinema. Here’s the good news: to view Schamus’ own Indignation is to again witness an understanding of time and place.

Even better was the act of interviewing him. The extent of Schamus’ experience and knowledge — it’s only so often you interview someone who’s written a monograph about Dreyer’s Gertrud, and about as often that Mekas is name-dropped to illustrate a point about cinematic ontology — as well as our mutual love of Roth, comes through in a discussion that only grew more specific the longer it ran. But despite how in-depth we ended up going on the subject for which, in promotion, a hotel’s entire basement had been rented out, we began with an unexpected point of note: my tote bag. With one glance, we were off.

James Schamus: Hold on… I have to see what’s on this bag.

The Film Stage: It’s a Jacques Rivette / David Lynch tote that Lincoln Center sells as part of their “Lynch/Rivette” series.

That’s fantastic. I never realized; I never saw the bag. That’s crazy. Way back in the day — I mean, this goes back to when I first showed up in New York and was working for the Wooster Group — MoMA had these tiny screening rooms in the library for film scholars. You could just go and say, “Hey, I know you’ve got a print of x. We’re doing research. Could you screen for us?” If you were an approved scholar or cultural institution, it was free, because they had projectionists on staff.

So I remember Elizabeth LeCompte, who runs the Wooster Group, was developing something, and it struck a chord. I said, “You know, there’s this crazy movie about a theater group and politics and paranoia and the Cold War, which is very much Wooster Group territory, called Paris nous appartientParis Belongs to Us!” And I will never forget: I called up MoMA and they were like, “Yeah, sure, come on over,” and we trouped over and watched the movie. It was insane. What an experience! Yeah, those days are over.

And now it’s on Hulu. Just right there.

It’s crazy.

On the one hand, I feel I’ve grown up in the right time; on the other hand, there’s this option-paralysis issue when you have access to everything and don’t know what to choose.

That’s right. And, of course, the “access to everything” mantra creates another anxiety: you also know you don’t have access to everything, so what is it that’s missing? Because it feels like everything, you don’t even know what to think of what’s not there.

And new canons start forming because of what you can see, so things get swept under the rug.

Exactly.

And then you have to enter elite torrent networks for rare films.

[Laughs]

You sometimes have to beg somebody to make something accessible. I guess it never ends.

No, it does. That’s the point. [Laughs]

As much as I’d like to talk about this all day, I think we’re obligated to discuss Indignation.

Damn. [Snaps fingers]

I’ve known of you in one regard because of your work with Focus and, specifically, Ang Lee, so I was intrigued when I heard you’d move to directing — and then, when I heard it was with a Philip Roth adaptation, became nervous.

You and me both! [Laughs]

They don’t have the strongest track record, as I’m sure you know. Did it at all give pause, this idea that one hasn’t really captured a book’s spirit and you’ll be charging in with that?

No, it did not. In hindsight, it should have! I’m not saying it shouldn’t have! [Laughs] Part of it was that coming at it at that particular point in my life… that is to say, if this entire exercise is one thing, it’s obviously, at least partially, the result of some midlife crisis. I had the luxury of going into it thinking that the odds were so overwhelming that this was going to be an embarrassing failure that who cares about the pedigree of Philip Roth adaptations? Or anything else? It’s probably not going to work out, anyhow, so who cares? [Laughs]

What’s the track record of late-middle-age studio executives who direct movies? That’s not pretty good, either! Let me tell you. Spoiler alert! [Laughs] The whole thing was a misguided lark, in some way. And then, of course, you have daily miracles of just, “Wow, this person seems to be responding,” or, “This person said yes.” Suddenly it becomes real, and then you can start working. That’s when you can start working.

You said you found a copy at the airport, read it on the flight, and, upon landing, started searching for the rights. So I’d like to know what, upon reading Indignation, first created a really strong visual impression. Did anything feel especially tactile and ready for cinematic translation?

You know, it’s funny: I don’t think that way, although, clearly as a producer — and now as a director, and even when I’m writing scripts… “film is a visual medium,” as they say. But I think primarily, first and foremost, in character and character interactions that then look like stories. I don’t have that sense of, “Oh, story structure and three acts.” I don’t really care about acts. What I care about is characters, and then they careen into each other what kind of resultant explosions occur and interactions, and that’s what gets me. It took a while for the visual language to develop. As they say, “Oh, it’s very talky! That seems like theater!” Like, “Yeah, but…” [Laughs] “Yes, but…” And then you get into the mechanics and specifics of the image.

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If it becomes more real when people agree to participate, I wonder about the balance between what the book conjures up and what a collaborator can bring, by which I mean: is it hard to find the person who you know will bring what’s imagined? Or is it mostly a matter of trust that they’ll give you something “good,” regardless of whether or not it’s exact?

Right. There are two answers to that question. Number one is: if what you desire is a movie that you have already made in your head and that you just need, now, to communicate to the 400 people you’ll be working with exactly what they need to do to get exactly that movie you’ve already made in your head, you will fail miserably — or you may succeed somewhat, but, at the end of the process, you will have made 400 people into very bitter [Laughs] unhumanoid things surrounding you. Right? That, I’ve learned over the years, is not what makes directing work.

If, on the other hand, you have a very strong idea of a direction or flow or feeling or overall goal of where you want things to land, but the translation of that into the decisions that need to be made to get there you know is always going to be a process of question-and-answer and call-and-response between you and those hundreds of people, and that you need to establish a few ground rules for them — and that you need to know they are competent, and that they can communicate with you and you can communicate with them — then you have this incredible luxury of being open to surprise and exploration and realizing that what you wanted was less than what you probably are going to end up getting. You can get more, it turns out.

And desire is always very funny. Desire is a thing where you think you desire that — and, of course, that’s the thing, and it turns out, “Wait, I still have desire for what? What happened?” So that alchemy is what you’re looking for, particularly from actors. I can’t stress enough… again, there are always exceptions to this rule. I assume that… even the exceptions, I think, have their own, I would say, very specific counter-narratives. So if you have a kind of Bresson, who’s like, “I just hire models and they do exactly what I tell them to do,” and you’re like, “Yeah, okay, maybe. Maybe not. Let’s see how that actually works in real practice.”

But for me, with the actors in particular, it was important to create a space where, yeah, I was making adjustments. This was not free-range, “Let’s just all roam the prairie in whatever direction you want and I’ll just shoot you.” No, it was really in-context, but everything was about making sure they felt they can just go even further — that they can fly. So it’s that balance that I was looking for.

“Desire is always very funny” would be a good tagline for Indignation.

Yes! [Laughs] Except it’s not that funny! Although it is kind of funny. That’s the thing: people do laugh in the movie. Of course. Yeah.

Roth’s book is very funny. I don’t know if the movie is, which is okay — it’s a different thing.

Right.

Yet I still feel this is a pretty good adaptation, which I mean in the literal sense: bringing it to this new place. What you say about collaborators compels me to ask if you made it a point for everybody to read the book beforehand.

No. No. I didn’t discourage anybody, and I didn’t encourage, as a rule — although I expected people to read the book, of course. So it wasn’t really “a point.” Of course the cast all read the book; I assume that. It became very funny: the closer we got to production, there was a moment where I just put the book aside. Of course I, myself, had a copy that’s practically unusable now. It’s so frayed and marked-up and underlined and marginalia and blah blah blah. But there was a point a few months before pre-production where I just put the book aside and said, “I’m not going to look at it again.” It’s now in a place where I can’t even remember what’s in the book or what I did originally or… “That scene’s not in the book? Are you sure it’s not in the book? Oh, right. I did make that up. I forgot.” I can’t tell. I just don’t want to think about it, right? Because, at a certain moment, you have to turn your back and face forward towards the screen, and the decisions you make have to be decisions for the film.

So, with crew, it was really interesting. For example, the production designer, Inbal Weinberg, is amazing. A research fanatic and unbelievable reader, as well as a visual thinker. So we’d be talking through and she’d say, “Well, in the book…” I’d say, “That’s great. That’s in the book, and if that helps you solve this problem, that’s great. But if it doesn’t help you solve this problem and come back with the options that you think are right, that’s fine, too. It’s really fine.” Those moments started happening more and more as we got closer to production.

With that in mind, I’d like to hear some more thoughts on adapting Roth. I’ve read a lot of his books and feel you could make a good movie from just about any of them — so long as you “work your way around them” in some particular manner. You might have to take a strange approach, but…

Correct. Correct.

Have you read many others?

Yeah.

In those you’ve read, what, if anything, is particularly adaptable? What do you think could give over to movies in a way people might not expect?

[Laughs] Well, here’s what I’d say, and it goes back to something you said. It really triggered a thought in me, which is: the book is really funny; the movie’s not as funny, but that’s okay because it’s still an adaptation. Why is that? I think I have at least a preliminary answer, which is: no matter how stringent or satirical or funny or cutting or biting or whatever you want to say about the book and the tonality of it, the bottom line is, by the end of the book — if it succeeded for you — Roth has created a very elegiac and tragic sensibility in you. The road to that moment when you put the book down, if it worked — if it didn’t, that’s fine — it probably worked because, when you finished the book, there was that gut check, right?

That modality in cinema is almost impossible. You have the same characters, the same situations, the same narrative — but if you try to get to the production of that sensibility at the end of that experience by sticking to the voice that Roth uses to get there, you’re screwed, and what you end up with is a very acerbic, stringent, but, weirdly, less truthful and emotional object. I think it just has to do with the technology, the media, that cinema is, as opposed to the novel. So the technology of the novel, just the use of voice — the modality of it — cinema doesn’t have. I use narration, but that doesn’t make the film a first-person movie. It’s very difficult. There is no such thing, really, as a first-person cinema. I mean, Lady in the Lake — whatever. Right? I always point to Chris Marker or Jonas Mekas — a type of essay cinema. The closest we get. But, even there, there’s something about the technology that says, “No, actually, that’s not a tool in your toolkit.” So we don’t have voice in that way; we just don’t have it.

So hence, yeah, the book’s funnier, but it’s just as tragic — interestingly. So I had to stick to characters. When you make the movie off the Philip Roth book, you’re hiring a dude to wear old clothes and have a haircut and put on makeup, and then, boom, that’s it: you’re filming that. You’re filming those people on the screen. You don’t have the luxury… it’s not a luxury. You don’t have the tool, the set of tools that Roth has. And, believe me, they’re not luxuries: Roth mobilizes them at such a level of genius. This is art at its most strenuous to create the gap between narrator and narrated, for example. We don’t have that, right?

The movie has a first-person narration, but one couched in a separate framing device. I’m very curious about this because it’s not in the book and gives closure to a character who, there, doesn’t have as much.

Correct.

Someone who, as happens with a lot of Roth’s women, just kind of disappears and subsequently haunts the main character. So what was the… I don’t want to directly ask about “the meaning” behind it —

Yeah, yeah. Well, like I would know anyhow!

Well…

[Laughs]

But when did that decision come in?

Part of it was, again, dealing with how to structurally create a gap or a space in which the feeling the book delivers can be approximated somehow — adapted — in cinema. And I realized that, again, this particular woman, Olivia, does exist at the end of the book. She’s there. Her presence is, in a sense, the reason for the book. The novel is, in a sense, a kind of material object thrown into the world 60 years later that brings her… she’s there. She haunts it. She haunts the end of that book, right? And he’s talking. She’s the object of the discourse, of the narration. “I’m talking to you forever.”

So I thought, “That’s really interesting that she exists and that she doesn’t exist,” like everybody else in the book. And then I thought, “This book itself is a kind of thing in the world that triggers the presence of this long-absent and long-dead past,” and so, for me, the older Olivia in the frame is actually Philip Roth. For me, that’s Roth, because he’s in the presence of something that’s there, in front of him, that’s gone. It’s not there. So she’s the viewer, the wall is actually the screen, and blah blah blah, blah blah blah. Blah blah blah! But you get the idea. [Laughs]

I think it ends at just the right moment. It’s not often a movie can do that.

Oh, thank you. No, I struggled with that, you know, and whether her face or just… no, because it’s a wall. There’s wallpaper. Whatever. It’s just a wall. Which is, by the way, what you’re doing, and remember: in terms of the question of time, temporality, and aliveness and deadness, one of the things I did very much, perversely and on purpose, was: as you know, the first rule in film school is, “Never let an actor or extra or anybody look into the lens.” Right? And I was like, “Hmm. Really?” One of the things I love about the reception so far to the movie, whatever it is, is that no one seems to notice that, every few minutes, every single actor in this movie turns — for no reason whatever — to the lens and stares at it. Like, they keep doing that. To me, it’s so crazy that it doesn’t break the world that we create, because the world I wanted to create was one in which the recording apparatus… and, therefore, the complete shift in temporality of what’s really going on; the aliveness and deadness, that moment that both of them are being breached.

So the very beginning of the movie: older Olivia [points forward] right there. And then the Chinese soldier: [points forward] right there. And then Marcus: [points forward] right there. Sarah Gadon. Everybody. They’re all like this: [points forward] “What are you doing here?” And it’s very funny. So it’s crazy. It’s supposed to be some extreme avant-garde gesture, blah blah blah, but it isn’t! It’s totally normal! Nobody even pays attention! And I love that. You know what I mean? [Laughs] It’s like it’s no big deal.

I have to ask about Roth’s reaction, since he’s spoken pretty highly of this film. Is there anything to say about getting to him and screening Indignation? Have you had an experience there?

Oh, yeah, yeah. He’s been so lovely. I can’t tell you. Look, I did something that was probably as stupid a thing you can do as a grown-up in this business: before pre-production, I sent him the script. [Makes grave face] Because he’s Philip Roth, right? What if he hated it? I don’t know; I probably wouldn’t have made the movie. And he did me one of the greatest favors anybody’s ever done me in my entire life: he refused to read it. [Laughs] I was like, “Wow.” What a gift, right? How freeing is that, to a filmmaker? I said, “Oh, that’s the healthy choice,” but still: the gift was to me.

And then I did screen it for him when we were in post, and he was great. And I knew that there would be things in there… because they’re not in the book; they’re really interpretations. The amount of respect he had for the fact that… and his ability not to judge the film as, “Is it faithful?” but rather, “Is this a movie?” It was amazing. We just had an amazing chat and [Claps] there you have it.

Considering his history of calling adaptations “a disaster”…

[Laughs] You know what? In this business, the most important emotion I’ve learned is relief.

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Indignation enters a limited release on Friday, July 29.


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