EXCLUSIVE: James Schamus today brings his feature directorial debut Indignation to Sundance. Here is the second part of the interview that Deadline began yesterday. Schamus discusses the fast-changing indie film business, the Oscar diversity controversy, the Ang Lee-helmed 3D Thrilla In Manila film about Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali’s classic brawl, and frustration over the mistaken confusion that there is a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel coming.
DEADLINE: It’s remarkable how far you have come since the first time I met you and Ted Hope, just after you stopped editing what became Filmmaker magazine and dove into the indie film business.
SCHAMUS: I remember. Keens Steakhouse. I still feel guilty.
DEADLINE: Presumably there is a statute of limitations on abuse of my Variety expense account, so it can be revealed you and Hope knocked back many single malt scotches, along with those steaks.
SCHAMUS: This huge bill came and and you were like, “Holy sh*t, I can’t believe I have to pay for this.” We were like, “We don’t got it. I don’t know.”
DEADLINE: Back then, how much of your path did you anticipate, including being the writing partner of Oscar winning director Ang Lee and having your name on Chinese language scripts and getting a Best Original Song nomination for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
SCHAMUS: I anticipated none of it, but I have always kept myself open to accidents and being changeable. It wasn’t as if I ever said, ‘I’m going to go start writing, and producing for Chinese people, but now my connection with China continues to be a source of continued wonderment and our backers have been great. I have a development fund, a production fund. We’re being very modest about it right now, but we’ve got probably five things in development, and a couple of movies we’re going to make.
DEADLINE: How did you and Ang Lee begin collaborating?
SCHAMUS: Well, it’s hilarious. Ted had been tracking all of these wonderful student filmmakers making great short films, and if you know Ted, you know he’s famous for his lists. I’d watch all the VHS tapes and focused on Ang Lee. We called his agents and they said, “Oh, you can’t touch him, he’s in development at Universal on something, he’s doing a film with Julia Roberts.” He’d been out of film school six years, but hadn’t yet made a feature. But we were these no budget guys and we hung up. Two weeks later he called us; he had no idea we tried to reach out to him. “Look,” he said, “I’ve won these prizes in Taiwan, but I only have about 300 thousand dollars to make a 35 millimeter movie, and people say you can do that. Can I come in and talk?” He came in and made a disastrous pitch; Ang couldn’t pitch his way out of a paper bag then, and that was for his first film, Pushing Hands. When we were in pre-production, it was clear that the script…there were certain things that were just not idiomatic, in terms of the English. I was just helping out, and that is how we got to know each other.
Ted actually did most of the producing on Pushing Hands, it became a huge hit in Asia, and Taiwan, a number one hit that year, and we immediately got money from the Taiwanese production company to make Eat Drink Man Woman. At that point the script was a very turgid melodrama, there wasn’t a joke in it. Having worked with Todd Haynes, and doing a lot of work politically with friends who were in the LGBT community, I thought strongly that the film’s treatment of that community could use some more nuance, a different approach. I pitched to Ang the idea that the story lent itself to screwball comedy. There were so many that dealt with remarriage: Philadelphia Story, Lady Eve, it’s always the couple’s broken up and gets back together again. Ang didn’t blink and said, try it. I only had a month before pre-production, I just went in and wrote this screwball comedy.
DEADLINE: What was his reaction?
SCHAMUS: I’ll never forget, his notes were mind boggling. I was actually writing it while I was traveling in San Francisco, before cell phones. I would fax him pages, scene by scene, and said, Ang, give me notes. He says, “Just make it funnier.” I go, “Thank you Ang, that’s really helpful.” But of course it was actually quite empowering.
DEADLINE: So from there you just became…
SCHAMUS: We just keep going. We never formalized a partnership, there was no contract. That’s the way life should be. Some movies he’s working on and I’m not involved in, and of course, another thing that’s taking up a really good chunk of our time is the continued development on his boxing movie, the Frazier-Ali Thrilla In Manila film. The script is amazing. We have set it up again now with Jeff Robinov at Studio 8, and we have an amazing team there on the post production side, just revisiting the overall approach. As you know, Ang is pushing technology every second of his life.
DEADLINE: When you first met him, was it clear that would become his passion?
SCHAMUS: Never. What sparked it was the experience of pushing 3D to a whole new place in Life of Pi. He had a tremendous amount of experience built up from Crouching Tiger, and Hulk, in particular in the effects world, knowing that there are ways of doing things, and then there’s the Ang way. He got amazing feedback from the effects community that he was thinking differently, and pushing them to do work that was really always fresh. He pushed through the 3D barrier on Life of Pi, and proved 3D is not just some hand coming out at you from the screen, but a volume metric experience that’s dramatic but doesn’t have to be showy…it became a tool, not a spectacle. He’s finishing Billy Lynn, which I’m not involved in and was why I could go do Indignation. We hope to make Frazier-Ali after that.
DEADLINE: Why is he obsessed with that fight?
SCHAMUS: There is something so spiritual about the story of these two men facing each other, how they got there, and what Ali and Frazier meant to each other. The Fight of the Century and then the Thrilla in Manila were the biggest sporting events in the history of human kind. I mean, the closed circuit television projection in theaters around the world, hundreds of millions of people watching those fights in real time, it was a worldwide pop culture event. When he was growing up in Taiwan, this was the biggest thing there. People don’t realize they generated more income in 45 minutes than the entire seasons of basketball and baseball combined at that time, before HBO. The social energy going in is one thing, but the personal, spiritual battle is another. They both saw it as a battle to the death. And Ang has analyzed every single round of both those fights, every single punch.
DEADLINE: We’ve seen convincing ring action, most recently in Ryan Coogler’s Creed. What does 3D add?
SCHAMUS: It puts you, the viewer, in the ring, in this battle for survival, and no one can do that like Ang. Think about it, 3D in the ring. It will be unlike any other boxing movie ever made.
DEADLINE: It took a year for Michael B. Jordan to get in the ring shape he did. Are there two actors right now quietly training to play Ali and Frazier?
SCHAMUS: You’d have to take me back to Keens and get a lot more scotch in me to get me to tell you beyond what I have. But good try, dude.
DEADLINE: We move on, then. There is a lot of talk about Oscars right now. You produced Ang’s Brokeback Mountain, and it still seems hard to believe it lost Best Picture to Crash. The preoccupation now is about the disappointment there were no black nominees the past two years. Back then, it seemed the forbidden romance between two men turned off the voters. Why didn’t it win?
SCHAMUS: I’ll tell you exactly why. I know. Crash got at least one more vote than we did. That’s why we lost, ten years ago. On the day the ballots were closed I gathered the entire company at Focus together for a conference, London, LA, New York. You could imagine the passion those people had for this film, and its importance. I shared that. I produced it. I announced to them that we had lost.
DEADLINE: How’d you know?
SCHAMUS: I knew. You fight the fight, and I could feel it, and I knew that there were just enough…and we’d won every fu*king award up until then. It was getting so boring. The sense of inevitability is something that had a lot of people saying, “Fu*k it.” My friends at Lions Gate waged a fantastic campaign for Crash. They fought for their film and didn’t go negative on ours. It was a nose thing, I felt it, and said to the team, “Guys, we’re going to lose, and when we do I want everybody on their best behavior. If you see anybody associated with Crash, congratulate them. I don’t want anybody to be bitter, or blame homophobia. Because, who knows? The fact is, there are a lot of homophobic people, and many of them were voters, many of them were very public about it, if you recall. And obviously they didn’t vote for us. At that point, we did what we needed to. We made a great movie, we fought a good fight. And remember, it’s business. It’s a blue ribbon at a talent show, and if you think that your life is going to be more meaningful and better because you got the blue ribbon, think again. I’m not being skeptical or cynical when I talk about the Academy process as a business. Look, I’ve been nominated many times, and Focus won I don’t know how many Oscars and were nominated for so many more. I’ve been at that ceremony, 20 or 25 times. But the fact is that it’s a trophy.
DEADLINE: Most of the industry doesn’t see it that way.
SCHAMUS: My speech did not mean people behaved as copacetic as I’d hoped. A couple of people were a little too angry, and I pointed them out to my daughter at the Governor’s Ball, and I said, “You see that person over there kind of crying and muttering, and being kind of rude about us not winning? Here’s a life experience, never act that way when you don’t get your trophy, ever. I never want to see that. You’re my kid, don’t ever act that way.” Remember, if you’re an envy-filled, overly ambitious, way too thin-skinned person in this business, and you win an Oscar, I can guarantee you two weeks later you’re still the same person. If you’re happy with your life, and you’ve got great relationships, a great family, and you do good work, and you lose, guess what? Two weeks later, you’re still the same person.
DEADLINE: The validation is fleeting?
SCHAMUS: Well, it’s a great tradition, and the industry does it right. I’m not one of those people who complains about the Oscar ceremony being too long, or too boring. I actually love the Oscars. Obviously, the season, which is now nine months long, that is a joke, it’s just ridiculous. But the actual Oscars ceremony? I’m old school. Sign me up, put me in my monkey suit, I really do love it.
But I have worked with a lot of artists we’ve run campaigns for. I always sat them down at the beginning of the “season” and said, “This is important, it’s good for my business. But I’m not going to overspend on this, I’m going to be calculated. I love the Oscar process and we’re really good at it, and we’re going to go for it with you, and that means a lot of work. You’re going to be kissing a lot of babies, shaking a lot of hands, but you should enjoy the process because you’re going to have to work to get it. Then I said, while I’m on the subject, who won best screenplay two years ago, or best actor.” They go, wait, it was…I know it…” I say, “Excuse me, my point exactly. We’re not curing cancer here.”
DEADLINE: There is current consternation over the lack of diversity in the nominations that is reflective of the voting body. Older, mostly white voters and not enough people of color who might filter films and performances differently.
SCHAMUS: Yeah. Look, culture and business take time to change organically. We live in a culture of society where there has been a very white picket fence that has surrounded a lot of the precincts where decisions get made. We all know that, and these things don’t change overnight. It’s going to take time for Academy culture to broaden, but to their credit they are making really great efforts. It’s just that if you’re going to ask an Academy member, like me, an old white guy, to die sooner so that somebody else can come in that doesn’t look like me, I will demure. On the other hand, I’m very excited when I read the list of new members joining me, people who wouldn’t have been members 10, or 20 years ago. I think a lot of the older members, most of whom are not people of color, share that. It doesn’t necessarily mean that when they do their ballots they’re calculating diversity. They’re saying, “I like this movie, I like that, I like this person.” It’s very difficult to make that translation immediately, but as the surround changes, and as the conversations change, and as people remind you…I think substantive change is on the horizon.
DEADLINE: A final query on Sundance. Your old scotch-drinking buddy Ted Hope is leading Amazon Studios into acquisitions, just one of the shifting paradigms of an indie business that was so different 10 years ago when you could watch a movie, and work out in your head how much of a minimum guarantee and P&A spend you would need to successfully…
SCHAMUS: No, you couldn’t really ever do that. We’ve discussed Festival Fever. This is an easy default narrative about the business, but people forget what we had six years ago; “Oh, last year there were a lot of big purchases, and then they all busted.” And then the next year, a lot of bought films did really well, or that happened the next year. This year nobody bought much at Toronto. That doesn’t mean they won’t buy now at Sundance, because everybody needs films.
DEADLINE: So you’re still bullish.
SCHAMUS: You still have a very lively and engaged specialized theatrical release space with new players coming in all the time, Like Broad Green. Look at A24’s achievement this year with the seven Oscar nominations. Who would have thought that five years ago, a new player could make such a mark? But they’re consistent, and they take risks. You know, they do different things, but at the end of the day they’re also releasing really interesting movies to specialized audiences. My old pal, Mr. Karpen, really flew under the radar with Bleecker Street, but up until a couple of months ago, the biggest movie to come out of Sundance last year was Andrew with I’ll See You In My Dreams. Big win. So there are narratives inside the narratives.
I don’t think that there is a sea change. What I do think is there are enormous structural changes that are happening, and new players coming in and out in different iterations. The impact of online, to a certain extent, is replicating, in some ways, what we felt even 25 years ago at the rise of home video. Do you remember Vestron? At one point, they had a quarter of a billion-dollar war chest. They also went belly up a few years later.
DEADLINE: Before they ever made a sequel to Dirty Dancing, their biggest hit…
SCHAMUS: Yeah, but the people who were heralding Vestron as the future of the business were right, in that the studios themselves had to catch up and realize that VHS is actually not our enemy. Remember, that was when the MPAA was trying to stop VHS tapes from being circulated. They were suing on a copyright basis.
DEADLINE: I forgot that.
SCHAMUS: We always forget. But it is important to understand that while there are huge changes, we don’t know exactly where they’ll lead. Nobody has the crystal ball to say how the marketplace will consolidate and restructure. It changes all the time.
DEADLINE: Beasts of No Nation was released by Netflix, which paid for an awards campaign that didn’t result in much. What is the viability of streaming services as an alternative to the traditional specialty theatrical play?
SCHAMUS: Well, they already are viable. Remember at the beginning of HBO when people said they were crazy, spending all that money on x, y, or z. Netflix is just providing an alternative to that subscription service model that requires people to pay that monthly charge. They’ll make loss leader deals, to stay ahead and keep their customers satisfied. Netflix, Amazon, all the stuff that’s going on in China. Remember when China used to be the source of all piracy, and you had to, more or less, hold off releasing there until way after the American release, or it would kill you? Now look what’s going on. China’s made considerable efforts to clamp down, and they’re the future of the online business as well as the theatrical business. I say the future of the online business, because in China the economics of the film business look like 1930s Hollywood; 90 percent of the revenue is theatrical. We’re not there yet.
Sometimes it’s funny to see how these things work out. Ang Lee and I get emails, phone calls, or we bump into people congratulating us on our sequel to Crouching Tiger. I’m like, “There is no sequel to Crouching Tiger. We have nothing to do with it. God bless Harvey; we did ask him politely to please try to inform people that it’s not a sequel to Crouching Tiger, and that we had nothing to do with it, but of course Harvey clearly did not get my memo. He’s even calling it that. Of course, it’s based on another book with a different name in the series, but Ang and I are not the kind of people who are going to give more publicity to that. But it is kind of ridiculous that they would go out and spend, what, five, six, seven times more money on the so called “sequel.” Please throw quotes around that because it’s not a judgment on the film, which I haven’t seen, and don’t know if it’s good or bad. I’ve seen the trailer and I will not make any comment, but they’ll spend multiples of what we did, and it’ll be online. I mean, God bless, but please realize, we had nothing to do with it, and so calling it a sequel to Ang’s movie, that is just ridiculous. That ought to get some Tweets.