A Conversation With James Schamus, Screenwriter Of "The Ice Storm"
by Michael Jones
In James Schamus’ introduction to the published script of “The Ice Storm” he writes, “in adapting [Ric Moody’s] novel for the screen, we were faced with an immediate technical problem: Could we find some kind of filmic equivalent to the novel’s powerful literary devices…?” Ang Lee directs Kevin Kline and Joan Allen, Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver through a story of 24 hours in the fast fall of two families during a sudden emotional, and literal, ice storm. As the parents struggle to emerge in tact from the cold tunnel of love and sex, the children — Christina Ricci and Toby Maguire, Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd — also explore the extremes, sometimes with better success.
As the film debuts tonight at the New York Film Festival, and then opens theatrically this weekend, audiences familiar with Moody’s book of 70’s Americana have a chance to see not so much an adaptation as an interpretation. Jean Luc Godard wrote that he could only adapt a novel to cinema by literally shooting each page of the book. indieWIRE spoke with Schamus about the work to transfer text to action, the importance of source material to the writer, and of “adult self-realization.”
indieWIRE: What were the challenges in adapting this “literary novel”?
James Schamus: One reason we thought it would be impossible to adapt is because it was so complete as a novel. [Ric Moody] is such a good writer and he’s delivering these emotional and intellectual charges that are a result of purely literary means. For example, one of the features of the book is that the first-person narrator ends up revealing himself as one of the main characters. It’s so powerful on the page and so what do I do with that? Another thing is that the book uses a kind of regressive flashback structure in a 24 hour period, starting the day after Thanksgiving, which we found really difficult to pack in..
iW: But a great way to open and close the film, though..
iW: When it opens you see the family waiting for the son at the train station [the last scene in the course of the narrative] and as the film continues you wonder why the sister [Ricci] would want to meet her brother when she obviously doesn’t care enough about the whole thing to even say hello to him over the phone. By the end of the movie you wonder if these people will even ever be together again to meet him at the station.
Schamus: We tried that with the one little cinema trick with the flash-forward in the beginning. What it did was give the entirety of the film an air of memory. You knew at some point that someone was remembering this and we’re going to come back to it. In the last ten minutes you start to feel a sense of closure. And so it was a very funny way of doing that and similarly we tried to set that air of memory on Paul.
iW: And that final image — when [the two kids] watch their father cry in the parking lot of the train station — anybody who has ever witnessed that in adolescence knows that that is not the end of something, but the beginning of something completely new. In that way, the film ends with a gaping hole — not a bad hole, mind you, but one you can see through to where another story is just beginning. The final image of Sigourney Weaver is also like that.
Schamus: Yeah, the book ends with a kind of epiphany which then turns into more of a literary revelation of the narrator. Ang was nervous about what exact image or moment to close the film — something to retain this openness but keep it unambiguous as possible. I think movies with ambiguous endings are real turn-offs to people. ‘If [the filmmakers] can’t make up their minds, why did I just spend two hours with these people?’ And we didn’t want to cop out by saying ‘Uhh… I don’t know. Does it look good?’
iW: I feel that with this movie you couldn’t have handed it off with a neat bow on top.
Schamus: Music is the last thing you put in. When you’ve been living with the film from the script and the shooting, you have a sense of the rhythm and flow of your project and where it’s supposed to go. That said, on all four of these movies I’ve worked with the same composer… It’s a very intense, very focused stage in the process because there is a very fine, but significant, line between traditional underscoring and the kind of way that music can really contribute to the storytelling. In one case, and this relates to Peter [Fonda], one of the decisions that was made fairly early in the music process was to go for a more traditional classic feeling, as I was aware that Peter had a kind of Hollywood quality. And again I think it’s very much a part of what’s working in this film, and gives perhaps a classical feeling to the film.
iW: You always seem to have these instances in your films that are sort of dialogue-free zones. How do you develop those kinds of moments? For you does that come out of the moment and working with the actors, or is it specifically scripted?
Schamus: That’s for sure. We wanted to be emotionally unambiguous, but narratively very open. We didn’t put ourselves in the position of knowing more than what the audience would. I myself get rubbed the wrong way when, at the end of a movie, it’s as if the filmmaker is saying ‘I know, but you’ll never know.’
iW: In thinking of other books of the late 60’s, early 70’s, I kept coming back to Herlihy’s novel “Midnight Cowboy” — a story that early on also puts a thick divide between sex and love. As Joe Buck used sex to reinforce his masculinity and power, so does [Kevin Kline] and certainly Sigourney Weaver.
Schamus: And more importantly with Christina Ricci…
iW: Sure, but Christina Ricci was exploring it on a much more personal level. Towards the end the children and the adults are seemingly inverted. The adults are looking for these sugar-coated packets of remedies in self-help books and even in this strange new-age pastor that turns out to be a fraud in the end. The children are looking for these remedies more physically, but they are connecting a lot more. Christina Ricci is the only one that’s connecting…
Schamus: That’s for sure. We really wanted that to happen. One of the surprises is that she and Adam Hann-Byrd’s character [Sandy] are the two that really come together. That hug they give each other is absolutely the realist thing. And we wanted to fight for that and through that — that kind of pre-teen sexuality.
iW: What kind of source material did you use in developing this picture?
Schamus: A very odd thing. I grew up very differently in California and had no knowledge of this other world of prep schools and “blue bloods”. And Ang of course was born in Taiwan. The joke on set was that Ted Hope, my partner, was Paul [Maguire] because he went to prep school and Ang was the expert on the frayed collar and tape on the shoes, and I was, of course, Sandy [Hann-Byrd] — which I didn’t really appreciate (laughs).
We did an enormous amount of research. We treated the film very much like a period piece, in the same manner we did SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. We read a lot, listened a lot, and watched a lot. And that’s always the fun part. We’re kind of nerdy about how we go about things, and we had a great time. We came across some amazing things — Paul Mazursky movies [of the 70’s], which I think have dipped in terms of reputation. BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE and BLUME IN LOVE — they’re just insanely great. They’re really ruthlessly funny. Also, an interesting Frank Perry movie, THE SWIMMER, that’s based on a Cheever short story — Burt Lancaster in his early 60s in a speedo! An unbelievable movie; really kind of hallucinatory.
iW: How do you think that correlates?
Schamus: There’s a weirdly baroque sensibility that ends up going completely over the top. It’s really too hard to describe. And what we tried to do was assume that sense of mourning and loss and baroque dizziness that accompanies it. [THE ICE STORM] is a much more controlled pattern. There’s a lot of stuff from the 70’s — people reading all those self-help books and pop-psychology. At first, when we were researching this, we’d say ‘Oh, weren’t they cute back then,’ and then we started to think that a lot of that stuff is actually pretty smart.
iW: I wouldn’t say that stuff originated in the 70’s, but certainly all those quick-fix-in-a-box seemed to start…
Schamus: Oh, absolutely. That’s really when that category got its own sign in the book store, the whole first wave of that stuff. Certainly there was self-improvement before that, but there wasn’t self exploration. There were more about getting sales jobs.
iW: Yeah, they were more ephemeral films like “the wrong guy to go out with”. Today that’s turned to more a talk show, confessional format.
Schamus: Also back then it was less cynical. It really was when people thought ‘you know, we can re-invent ourselves.’ And something that is very much tied into the film is this classic American Protestant individualism. That creepy pastor, the original Reverend Edwards, was very much a fire-brand self inventor. A major religious figure that “re-birthed” himself and sparked the second great wave of evangelical Christian activity. And to see him in a new, one-on-one individualistic mode in 1973 is to see where that figure might have taken himself.
iW: The “adult self-realization” as the press note call it — to me their “self realization” was more about finding their limitations which many times was right in front of their face. The kids, on the other hand, discovered a lot more.
Schamus: It’s a lot easier for them, too. It’s a lot easier when that’s your job. It’s not in conflict with your other jobs. Ang and I, particularly as parents, are pretty sympathetic to the adult characters, although it might not seem so.