EXCLUSIVE: As a buyer when he ran Good Machine and Focus Features, James Schamus has been as much a Park City fixture as snow and thin air. Tomorrow, he takes on a new role: first time director, when he premieres his adaptation of the Philip Roth novel Indignation. It’s an acquisition title, which puts Schamus on the opposite side of the bargaining table where he bought and released such films as The Kids Are All Right, The Motorcycle Diaries, Pariah and, yes, Hamlet 2. Despite his tenure as studio head and academic, Schamus has always dabbled in other roles, including his status as writing partner of Ang Lee. The indie sector flew its freak flag at half mast when Schamus was unceremoniously fired by Comcast and Universal, as Focus Features became a Hollywood-based company. While Schamus has been relatively low-key about his exit, you can stop feeling sorry for him — turns out he feels no indignation. He’s having the time of his life. Here, he speaks about his excitement for Indigation and everything else that has happened since his ouster, along with his Sundance memories. He covered so many topics that this will be presented in two parts.
DEADLINE: Since that Focus Feature shakeup left you jobless, you hunkered down and are back with Indignation. You chose for your directorial debut a Philip Roth novel in which a promising young man leaves his sheltered neighborhood in New Jersey to attend a repressive Ohio college in 1951. Logan Lerman is your protagonist, the son of a kosher butcher who increasingly obsesses over his son’s safety. He constantly brings up the terrible things that happened to other good Jewish boys in the neighborhood. One he calls “the Karpen boy.” Was that a Philip Roth invention, or a shout out to Andrew Karpen, who ran Focus with you and now runs Bleecker Street?
SCHAMUS: [Laughs]. That was not in the book. I don’t know if you caught it, but the Rabbi, at the very beginning, is played by my former head of business at Focus. My nickname for Avy Eschenasy was The Rabbi, and I told him, ‘Avi, you’re going to be the Rabbi, and that’s all there is to it.’ Other than that, we were all professional, all the time.
DEADLINE: Was your Focus exit as big a surprise to you as it was to the community?
SCHAMUS: Not at all, for me. The surprise came in that about 90 out of my 100 colleagues were asked to move on. I didn’t realize it was going to be quite that much a sea change.
DEADLINE: How tough was processing that shakeup?
SCHAMUS: After that many years in the trenches, when you have a change of regime, you’re going to have a different culture. Look, it was their choice. Me? I’m very proud that between Good Machine and Focus, I ran companies in this art house space that made money every year, but I was vulnerable that last year and-a-half. We didn’t make that much, frankly. But you have up years, and down years. I can still pat myself on the back and say that I ran the thing like a business. It was not my little backyard artsy thing.
DEADLINE: Is it fair to surmise maybe they felt you got a bit precious about green lighting commercial movies?
SCHAMUS: No, completely wrong. I was running a profitable company year in and year out. But look, I loved making and distributing those movies. Great movies are great movies, and even though I played in that specialized space, if you look at the movies and filmmakers, you would be surprised at how un-snobby those slates were. Remember, we started Rogue, for example, and made a lot of great genre movies before the studio sold it to Relativity and stopped us from playing in that space as much as I would have liked. We started Focus World, which became a nicely profitable place for genre stuff, before I left. Between that, and our pursuit and co-acquisition with Universal of the rights to Fifty Shades Of Grey…you can’t really call me too much of a snob as I was standing there, crooning about how Focus was going to do Fifty Shades of Grey, right?
DEADLINE: So why did Comcast and Universal change Focus?
SCHAMUS: The luxury of being the guy who was offered the door is that I don’t have to speculate anymore. I can just do my thing. But look, commercial doesn’t necessarily mean profitable. There are real challenges in that space; we were feeling them and everybody who works in that space feels them. But there are also challenges in the big studio space, and who knows what the narrative was? Their pickup of FilmDistrict, and planting that inside the architecture of Focus…it was clearly the case that there was a decision made to really pursue genre as the essence of the company. They have the benefit of occasionally having some of these films, like the ones they get from Working Title that are appropriate to go through that system. You know, I wish them well. I still have very good friends at that company. And who knows? I might be selling my movie to them. I am not that guy, who sits around and sulks. That was just never going to happen.
DEADLINE: All the great movies you were involved in as writer, producer and studio head. How close did you come before to directing and why this Philip Roth novel, a coming of age story set when young men were being drafted and dying in the Korean War?
SCHAMUS: Never came close at all before but, clearly, being unemployed helped. While I was doing those other things, imagine I write a screenplay and I could choose to direct it myself, or maybe I could instead get, I don’t know, Ang Lee. I think I made the right choice, all those years. I had fun helping filmmakers make movies. To me, being a director is just another job. A great job, but not one that feels like an existential change as much as taking on different tasks to get the film done.
DEADLINE: It is a whole different set of muscles. How close was it to what you imagined?
SCHAMUS: As a producer, or a studio head or as a writer, as a friend of the court to a lot of filmmakers, I’ve been asked my opinion about just about everything and was never shy about sharing. But if you go over the near 100 films we did at Focus, you’ll never find a director’s cut of one of them. Even though I had final cut on most of those movies when I was running the studio, we always figured out a way to release a film the director could own. There were a few new things here nobody asked me, like where do I put the camera. That thought process was fun, having that blank slate and that canvas. I loved preparing and took shot listing and thinking through the movie very seriously. But I also let go when I was on set. I took advice from crew members, after letting them know upfront I hadn’t done this before. I promised the crew, if I didn’t know the answer to a question, I would never pretend, even if it made me look like the biggest idiot on earth. It was reassuring to people, knowing they could point things out to me, and talk to me. I also said, that once I figure it out, I guaranteed them I would always make a decision, because I know that’s the key to all these jobs going smoothly. You have to be able to make a decision and not leave stuff hanging out there.
DEADLINE: Is that where many films go off course?
SCHAMUS: Yes. If Indignation is a bad movie, I made decisions that made it bad. I’ll own it. I’ve always said to people, “There are two ways in which directors, in particular, can be assholes. Number one, is to be an asshole, and number two, is to not make decisions.”
DEADLINE: How helpful were your Ang Lee collaborations in making the leap?
SCHAMUS: I’ve sponged off of Ang, but I’ve also sponged off Edgar Wright, Gus Van Sant, the Coen Brothers. I’ve always had the benefit of a front row seat, watching these filmmakers and maintaining a conversation with them. One thing I learned was not to learn too much from them, because every filmmaker’s different. They run sets differently. You can’t just say, “Well, Ang does it this way so that’s the way to do it.” Ang does it that way because he’s a genius and he can get away with doing it that way, but you don’t want to do it Ang’s way if you’re not Ang.
DEADLINE: Well, what’s an example of something that he does that you should not?
SCHAMUS: Ang deals very differently with his actors than I do. He maintains a very distinctive relationship with different intimacies. His rules of engagement and communication are different; that’s the most important difference among directors. Ang and I share a mania for research and preparation. What goes on behind the closed doors of rehearsal with Ang is very special, and very specific to how he works. I understood from day one that I would never gain my actor’s trust if I attempted to emulate what he did.
DEADLINE: All those directors you mentioned have styles distinctive enough that you can tell whose movies they are, without knowing. As a director, are you conscious of wanting to impose a signature, a style? And what was yours, as first time director?
SCHAMUS: Very good question and the answer is two-fold. As a first time filmmaker here, my primary job was to make sure that there was an honest relationship between the actors and the film, so I wanted to remove the idea there was some style I needed to impose. At the same time, the film has a distinctive look, and I set up the parameters for that extremely carefully with my crew, and through my research, and my own thinking. That style was not something to impose on the work of the actors; to me it was about the creation of a world that they could be comfortable living in. I found often with first time directors who have a very strong idea of exactly how the film is going to look, that when they get to set they are basically wrangling a lot of cats to try to fit into a box that nothing’s fitting into. They’re asking actors to do things that aren’t true to who they are, and how they approach their work, and that ill fit shows. I did not want to push people into a box.
DEADLINE: Why that particular book?
SCHAMUS: I loved the characters, and that it was Phillip Roth going back to a time before there was a Phillip Roth. This kid, Marcus Messner, is so relatable, and I feel like we all know him. You don’t associate Philip Roth with love stories necessarily, but embedded in that work was a genuine tragic romance that is very difficult to do in American cinema right now. Real love stories, that genuine sense of youthful vulnerability and where it can sometimes lead, you don’t see it a lot these days, when we’re all so cynical.
DEADLINE: You have been to so many Sundance festivals, but this is the first time you come hat in hand.
SCHAMUS: I’m like every other guy coming there sitting at the booth, putting out my stuff to sell, hoping they like it.
DEADLINE: Now you appreciate the plight of all those past Sundance directors, watching James Schamus watch their movie, praying he doesn’t walk out…
SCHAMUS: That is a tough business, and I’ll say this about my own experience as a buyer at Sundance that spanned over a dozen years, longer if you count Good Machine and we bought international rights. You go to four or five movies a day. That means I’d see 25 movies at any given festival, 300 films over 12 years. I always said to my team, “I know this is really tough, but here’s how it goes down. I don’t care how bad the film is or how much you hate it, these folks have worked their asses off to get here, and somebody saw something in this film that maybe you need to think about, even if you’re not immediately relating to it. So guess what, you sit through the whole fu*king thing.”
DEADLINE: So you never walked out of a film there?
SCHAMUS: There was only one movie I ever walked out of in my entire time at Sundance. It will remain unnamed, and it was my fault and not the filmmaker. It was on principle. Outside of that, if I’m in, I’m in. Filmmaker first, and even as the head of a studio, and even if after five minutes I knew we’d never buy the movie in a million years for whatever reason, who cares. I am in the hands of that filmmaker for two and a half hours.
DEADLINE: When those movies work, it’s fun watching the aftermath as buyers buzz around the filmmaker. I’ve never seen you as animated as I did after the premiere screening of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right.
SCHAMUS: That was at the Library Theatre. I was not going to let go of that film for a second. Lisa had been a student of mine at Columbia, but we had not been suitably aggressive at the packaging stage. That night, there was no way I was not going to acquire that film. I loved that movie. A more recent one was Dee Rees and Pariah. That is what is amazing about Sundance, when you get to see the breakout first moment of a voice you know is going to grow and be around a long, long time. I remember our very first one at Focus, Motorcycle Diaries.
DEADLINE: Ever catch what they call “Festival Fever?”
SCHAMUS: Absolutely. I’ve gotten caught up in it myself, but I don’t regret it. We spent a lot of money up there on Hamlet 2, which I just fell in love with and…
DEADLINE: Wasn’t that a record price?
SCHAMUS: Close, but I think that belonged to Happy Texas, or Spitfire Grill. The year after, I was on a panel with some fellow distribution folks who were making fun of me, saying, “Festival fever,” and I said, “Look, guys, I love the movie. It didn’t work for us, but we bought the world so I was able to put it through our TV deals. We probably lost a little bit, or broke even, which for us is a lost opportunity. When you run a studio, you’re not in the business of breaking even. But I will say that if my team had come in with that script and said, ‘We want to make this movie, and here’s our budget,’ I would have paid that same amount of money to make that film, and lost, or netted out, because a studio like Focus was there to spend money to make movies. I don’t have any regrets. Sometimes you get carried away, everybody has. Comedies, in particular, are very difficult to gauge at Sundance, and anything pop or contemporary. I hope Indignation falls in with films that have worked, like Motorcycle Diaries, or Brooklyn, films that appeal to a broad spectrum audience, including older folks.
DEADLINE: What else did you put your energy into, post-Focus?
SCHAMUS: Like I said, it wasn’t as unexpected as you would think, but the timing was a little earlier than I’d imagined. I spent a quarter century on the hamster wheel, in this great job I took seriously and where I worked my ass off. But I never thought that my identity was studio head, just as I never thought that way when I was writing scripts or working as a college professor. It was pretty freaking awesome to wake up that next morning and go, wow. I can actually take a deep breath, read a novel, take a walk. And fun things happened. Morgan Spurlock called and asked if I would do a short documentary for his series. I started my own little company. We’re developing stuff, we’re going to be investing in our first movie, soon, and we’ll be financiers of another movie. These transitions happen, and then you get a lot of phone calls, and people are like, “We’ll set you up here,” or, “So and so wants you,” or “There’s a job over there.” I said to my wife that I was going to say no to everything unless it’s just so weird and different. And so I am having breakfast with the great producer David Heyman who tells me he just optioned this book Zealot, about the life of Jesus Christ, at Lionsgate. And if there’s one headline for this interview, it should honestly be, ‘For James Schamus, it’s all about Jesus.”
DEADLINE: Elaborate, please.
SCHAMUS: Lionsgate and David have been so understanding, because I took a year to break down all of Reza Aslan’s research, and another half year writing a script. I turned in a first draft that was accompanied by a 300-page research bible, so that every single aspect of the story I’m telling about Jesus is in a world that I feel confident current scholarship can back me up. The gift that Reza Aslan gave is there’s been basically 100 years of amazing scholarship about first century Palestine, and Jesus, and Judaism in that era, and nobody’s ever paid attention to it in the culture. Reza was able to synthesize and tell a story that really reflects the current scholarly consensus, or at least the engagements of discussions about Jesus, and it is mind blowing. It’s a whole other story than you’ve ever imagined, and so, I did that first draft. And then I directed this movie, and finally, this month I’m back to it. I’ve been working on it every day. Here. I go back to my own little, I’d say, bible. [He hoists a hefty bound copy].
DEADLINE: You’ll direct this?
SCHAMUS: No, this is a screenplay gig. It’s up to them, we don’t have a director yet. Every single scene in the movie is informed by this research. Every single aspect of it, when they eat, when they travel, when you go to Jerusalem, I’ve got the map. When he visits the Essenes at Qumran, the Dead Sea Scroll people, I’ve got the layout, and I put the characters directly in. So the big surprise of my life is that right now, honestly, it’s all Jesus. I hope to finalize my next draft on that script shortly.
DEADLINE: We saw Jesus covered in The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, a devote traditional Catholic…
SCHAMUS: He’s even anti-Catholic. He and his dad are a part of a sect that is a breakaway from the Catholic church.
DEADLINE: But the faith audience embraced him as a believer and it set a record for an independent film. Ridley Scott directed Exodus, the Moses story that should have been accessible not only to Catholics, but Jews and Muslims. It didn’t work nearly as well and probably wasn’t helped by the director’s admission his own beliefs run toward atheism. You have a long business background. Who is your Jesus, and who will he appeal to?
SCHAMUS: The first thing you do, and it’s something that was so reassuring from the studio, and from producers, and everybody, I said, “Respect. Don’t try to glom your own thing on top. Respect. Respect for what this guy has inspired, that’s number one. And number two, be open minded to what we really know, what the actualities of Temple practices really were. People don’t know what the lived reality was back then; scholarship has opened up whole worlds of imagination that you can live, and breathe in, and feel what life could have been like for these people, including Jesus. Once you take that leap, you have to allow it to lead you where it will go without ever losing track of the fact of who you’re talking about. It does not detract, in fact, from whatever your relationship to the various faiths that keep Jesus at their center. You can actually try to inhabit that world, and tell a story that is not fake.
DEADLINE: Does your script buy in to the miracles in the New Testament?
SCHAMUS: I’m going to stop talking about the script, because I think when the studio and David get a director I’m sure there’ll be other factors. I’ll say, there’s no disrespect towards it.
DEADLINE: You can tell that story without taking a position?
SCHAMUS: There is enough of a story there, and I won’t go into other specifics, because I’m actually just in the thick of it right now. But I just love these characters, I love this world, and it has renewed, for me, incredible interest in the birth of that particular spiritual construct. And also, in terms of Judaism itself, and what it is now, but what it was back then. Jesus was Jewish, as was his family. They were under Herod in the north, but they’re directly under the Romans in Judea, and so there are questions of occupation, and justice. It is truly amazing.
DEADLINE: Are you covering Jesus from birth to death?
SCHAMUS: That’s still to be determined, but in the current draft we’re very much focused on his ministry.
DEADLINE: When he becomes self-aware and begins to change the world?
SCHAMUS: Who knows exactly where we’ll land, we’re still in a process of discovery. But it’s been…I’d say, what a gift, and I would not have gotten this gift if I was still running Focus, so it’s amazing, isn’t it? What a year.