INTERVIEW: The Architect/Poet, James Schamus Takes a "Ride with the Devil"-Part 2
by Ray Pride
[Read Part one of this article here.]
An hour with writer-producer-distributor-professor James Schamus could be entitled "To Talk On." Emma Thompson, in an acceptance speech for her award for "Sense and Sensibility," called Schamus a "most curiously erudite person," and he's fond of musings and pronouncements on a wide range of subjects, including the role language played during the Civil War, the "architecture" of screenwriting, his optimism about the movie industry, how he met Ang Lee, and their next project, the martial-arts period piece, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," now shooting in China.
indieWIRE: We know you can talk a good game, but where's Ang? Are you still shooting the new one?
James Schamus: My esteemed director is in the north of China. Making a movie called "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which I co-wrote. We'll be shooting all the way to Christmas. We started in July. It takes place in the Ching dynasty, it stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat. And Ang, god bless him, is not Mr. Pitchman, but he came up with the greatest pitch. It's "Sense and Sensibility" with martial arts. And it's like nothing you've ever seen in your life -- very brutal, very difficult.
iW: So why can Ang go from culture to culture so readily?
Schamus: Often, my answer to that question is, he's really good. The way he breaks a mold that has attached itself since the rise of the so-called American independent [movement] of the auteur -- that auteurs are auteurs, they have their signature thing, they always do their movie. He goes back to more of a Howard Hawks model -- let's jump from genre to genre and be filmmakers and see what we can make of these gifts, whether from Hong Kong or Hollywood, these genres which are now so often ossified relics, go back in there and shake 'em up. It's fun as a filmmaker to work with someone who always wants that freshness.
iW: Let's talk about the way you move around in these genres and in the marketplace.
Schamus: It's a privilege these days to have the articulation of the film marketplace into these pockets: independent, foreign, Hollywood, pseudo-independent Hollywood thing, like us, I guess. It does give the ability to maneuver.
iW: "Ride with the Devil" is probably your highest budget so far?
Schamus: They'd probably shoot me if I gave it to you, but I can say exactly we were one half the average cost of a Hollywood movie. Exactly.
iW: And the average cost is...?
Schamus: Between 57 and 65, depending on who you ask. That was big for us. And we're cheap shits. We really love stretching a dollar.
iW: So working in China with a six-month schedule must be great.
Schamus: It was amazing, but we were kicking ourselves a lot. It's also having a team. Two factors. One is that, god bless us, it's the third film we've made in the Hollywood system, and we've managed not to be cynical about it. Usually, the idea is that you get your Hollywood gig and you immediately go into subterfuge mode. "The studio would never let us do that" kind of thing. But it's not a way to live a life. We've managed to always work with studio people who are into the movies. The studio system is kind of at a moment where it doesn't quite know where it's at or what it's about or what it's doing. There are a lot of good movies coming out, and for us, it's tough. In a weird way, it reminds me of Hollywood in the seventies when the system hit a kind of crisis point and all of a sudden the Coppolas and Scorseses and the Demmes could start to wade their way through that system and find the fissures and gaps in the architecture. So we're getting the benefit of that. And the second part, it's like a family.
iW: You also have the virtue of having all these interests: you know how to squeeze a budget, how to write but also write for budget, how to plan distribution domestically and internationally, also teaching at Columbia University. How do compartmentalize this, do you have to wear just one hat at a time?
Schamus: With writing, you can satisfy a curiosity that's historical and abstract and philosophical. To research is being nerdy, and I love that. All the material you go through. But as a producer you're working with people, and the curiosity is really about how we're all going to do this together and is this actor going to make this come to life? Then you're dealing with a much more experiential kind of feeling your way through the world. It's fun to have both of those. I always think of them as on the same continuum of activity. Both of them are about getting Ang what he needs to make his movie, but one of them is negotiating with ideas and structures and words and the other one is negotiating with, in one movie, I do what, four thousand separate negotiations? From the cost of breakfast on set to the star's back-end salaries, blah-blah-blah, whatever. But it's fun, because it's all contextualized in the same continuum.
iW: More concretely, could you be working on line-producing "Ride with the Devil" while working on ideas for "Crouching Tiger," then maybe brainstorming some ideas for how Good Machine International is going to sell a film overseas?
Schamus: It's one big, gigantic psychic mosh pit. The only thing that has to get separated is the actual, physical writing. I have to kind of go away. I am not one of those people who can sit here, and go, all of a sudden, "Wow! An idea!" and then "Oh yes, what were you saying?" Jane Austen wrote her novels in a room this size that was also a kitchen and a living room for seven other people. to me, that's just like superhuman, that idea. But then people have different ideas of space and relationships and how they focus. I went to that cottage on "Sense and Sensibility," then I said [of Austen], "This is a hero."
iW: One of the chances you took that pays off here is the sweet, gentle performance that Jewel gives. Were you worried at any point?
Schamus: She worked like crazy. It's so funny. She is such a hard worker with great process. What she was not prepared for was energy management and expenditure. I was there that first day she was on set, she came on and for the first two hours, it was like watching one of the greatest actors in history just take off. It was a rocket. Everybody was like "Wowww!" But after two hours, which means she had another twelve hours or so to go in our workdays, the concert was over, as Ang put it. Ang knew it immediately. Now she's going to have to go to sleep for twelve hours. the physical energy of rock stars, they put on a show, you take them out on a stretcher. As the day progressed, it wasn't going to happen. We had to get her used to a workday that was radically different. After that it was great. It was scary to see, "The witch is melting! She's going! She's gone!"
iW: You couldn't shift the schedule?
Schamus: No. Because the film was so exterior, we had to, when we were at a location and the weather was good enough, we had to shoot. For a Hollywood movie to have all these exteriors, it's quite a different thing. You don't see that many. There's a reason for that, starting with, it rains.
iW: What about the physicality, the seasonal atmospheres? You have wind in the trees, the light creasing the hillsides from that first, marvelous shot of the camera galloping along a stand of trees before we pick up Tobey on horseback.
Schamus: Ang has it. You hope that through accretion that audiences will allow the emotions that those images are meant to convey to build. There's storytelling going on in those shots but it's a different kind than you're used to in this kind of genre film.
iW: How can you market this today? Tell me the relevance to audiences.
Schamus: In America and around the world, these political and ideological issues are unfinished business. From a content point of view, there's stuff that's very different [from other movies today]. But I hope that's part of what will sell the film. It's a tough marketplace.
This is our third period piece in a row, and I think period gives you a certain freedom, like the rock star look of the [long-haired] boys, the freshness Jewel brings to it, the landscapes. You're allowed to appreciate it in ways that you can't in a contemporary piece.
iW: I don't think I've ever heard the long version of how you hooked up with Ang.
Schamus: Ted and I, Ted Hope, my partner, had just started Good Machine, and he had made this list of filmmakers who had made short films that he admired who were yet to make features. He was really interested in working with people on their first features. One of those people was Ang, who had made his film as a student at NYU five years before we started the company. He made this incredible film called "Fine Line." We called his then-agents, I know it sounds apocryphal, but it's really true, we called his agent, and said, "What's happened to Ang, he like fell off the face of the earth." We said we'd just formed a company, which meant we just put a name on our stationery and a fax number. [laughs] We formed a company, what does that mean? They were like, "We know you guys made these no-budget movies, American independent, blah-blah-blah, whatever, and Ang has got this script at Universal, Warner Brothers, you can't touch him." Two weeks later, purely by coincidence, he had no idea we were trying to reach him, through a mutual friend, he got in touch with us. He said, "I just won a screenplay award in Taiwan, won a little bit of money, and if I don't make a movie, I'm going to die." "Did you know," we said, "did you know we tried to reach you?" As you can imagine, those aren't his agents now.
It was wild. It's just one of those things that happen.
iW: You spent months on location in the Midwest. How was that?
Schamus: At the beginning, some people were like "we're spending half a year in Kansas City? Yeeesh." And then you get there, it's one of those things that you learn if you're a coastal snob, it's that medium-sized American cities have made a comeback that has been unnoticed by the culture as a whole. Just in terms of the diversity of Kansas City, the architecture, all that stuff. We were so surprised and happy. We grew to love being out there. The support was unbelievable. We came off of "Ice Storm," which we actually shot in New Canaan, Connecticut. It's not exactly a supportive look at rich white people culture. People were horrible, literally horrible to us. "Sense and Sensibility," the English were great. One day, Ang turned to me and said, "Why are people being so mean?" And I said, "Ang, the reason you live here is because you hate people like you!" To go from a place like that, to people saying, "We can't believe you're here," it was much different.
[No stranger to indieWIRE, Ray Pride is also a contributing editor to FILMMAKER Magazine and longtime film critic for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies and the business for a range of other publications including Playboy Online. He is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.]