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Sundance Video: How Screenwriter and Hollywood Exec James Schamus Made his Directing Debut with ‘Indignation’

Sundance Video: How Screenwriter and Hollywood Exec James Schamus Made his Directing Debut with 'Indignation'


Never underestimate James Schamus. The man can do anything, it seems, from writing scripts for Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The Incredible Hulk”) to academic tomes about Theodor Dreyer’s “Gertrud” and teaching film at Columbia University to running a series of specialty companies, from Good Machine to Focus Features. His brain encompasses both business and art, which is not always the case.

So it was no surprise that his debut feature “Indignation”—which he finally had time to pursue in his post-studio-executive phase—played well at Sundance and quickly sold to a major buyer, Lionsgate/Summit. He’s already working on a screenplay about Jesus of Nazareth at Lionsgate for “Harry Potter” producer David Heyman. 

Schamus clearly had a blast adapting this late Philip Roth fable, casting and shooting and editing the McCarthy-era movie, which stars Logan Lerman as a young son of a New York kosher butcher who attends a posh college where he meets a sexually bold young woman (breakout Sarah Gadon). He also runs into the crosshairs of an intimidating college dean (playwright and “Homeland” and “The Big Short” star Tracy Letts) who goes toe to toe with him in the film’s exhilarating 16-minute centerpiece, which drew applause at the Eccles Theatre. “We do several formally strange things,” said Schamus, who explains why the movie is framed by not one but two framing devices. “The writer was already so angry at the writer that the director didn’t have to worry about that.”

Needless to say, Schamus looks forward to doing this again. And of course, I asked him to survey the changing independent landscape at Sundance, from the impact of Amazon and Netflix on festival buying patterns to the ultimate health of the specialty theatrical market. 

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