INTERVIEW: The Architect/Poet, James Schamus Takes a "Ride with the Devil"
by Ray Pride
After the artistic success of both “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Ice Storm,” it makes an odd sense that Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-born director of six features, would take on an epic Western set during the American Civil War.
Additionally, “Ride With The Devil” began life at Fox, then shifted to Universal under producer Good Machine until Universal (which remains a one-third partner) shifted distribution to USA Films. Beyond the politics of finance, the period film again seems fresh and effortless through Lee’s eyes. The opening shot starts as a swoosh of motion against trees, and that rush of motion against nature is a recurring device. A pack of “true Missouri men” are forced into retreat from their frontier lives, pale, long-haired irregulars who must shed blood to earn dignity. They include Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire), Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich), and as Holt, a slave whose freedom was bought by his now-best friend, the remarkable Jeffrey Wright. (Jewel, and romance, come later.) As screenwriter James Schamus writes in the introduction to the published screenplay (Faber & Faber), “It is. . . an entertainment, a myth for sale.” Come hell or packs of Kansas Jayhawkers, the survivors discover that life’s one lasting impulse, in the film’s original title, is “To Live On.”
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: How do you feel about “Ride With The Devil” being released by USA Films instead of Universal?
James Schamus: We found it prudent as well as in fact good for all parties concerned to try to get a situation going where the people who had handled “Elizabeth” last year and “Dead Man Walking” the year before to be handling our movie. Universal’s still very much a part of this. We have a lot of support from them. It’s funny how we’ve managed to stay through the changes [in ownership], even through [the controversy over] “Happiness,” on very amicable terms with the studio. There’s a lot of goodwill. And of course, Universal has a lot of other rights, even in North America. In a weird way, I know it sounds Pollyannaish, but it’s kind of the best of all worlds.
iW: It’s a different situation, but with “Happiness,” Solondz was out there saying, look, it’s my cut, they didn’t put the movie on the shelf, it’s not being buried.
Schamus: There’s a certain fundamental decency to the people we’ve been dealing with at Universal that shines through in these situations. Yet it’s a very, very, very crowded Fall and Winter coming up. The industry is destroying itself. We’re just watching the gladiators kill each other. Not just movies like “Boys Don’t Cry,” but “Bringing out the Dead,” “Ride with the Devil,” “Ripley,” we’re chasing after a few tickets here. It’ll be, as they say, interesting.
iW: I’m from the South, so I’m responding sentimentally to the mouthfuls of authentic colloquialism in the dialogue, yet you and Ang never seem to be toying with nostalgia, just investigating a story or conflict with a little intellectual distance. You’re not writing autobiography here, you’re both at a remove from your subjects. It’s distant for everyone, the Civil War, but I wonder if you purposely seek out these more metaphorical subjects.
Schamus: It’s two things. It’s how to create a situation, which you hope if you succeed, where you’re establishing a kind of cinematic empathy for characters that’s not based on any kind of AT&T ad formula. That’s getting into the characters’ heads, identifying with the emotions, but that does it in a more — here’s where the abstract word comes in — in an epistemological way. Trying to get into their world so that the knowledge they have feels like the knowledge you’re going to have. That’s different from “My grandfather just died,” “Oh they shot my dog,” whatever. Language plays a big role in that. It’s so interesting the responses to the language in this film.
You’re going to see a real split geographically in the country that kind of replicates what the movie is about! If you go to a trailer for movies, 99 out of a 100 times, a character speaking with a Southern accent will be missing teeth and have an IQ in maybe double digits. To have characters with southern accents who are actually articulate in mass culture these days is just bizarre. You don’t realize how bizarre it is in America. That alone gives a visceral response for southern audiences. It’s about connection. The language the boys are speaking, both from the book and from the script and research, is the way they related to each other, by linguistically performing. There is a real sense of verbal communal bonding.
iW: When Jake finds out a man he’s let go has killed his father, Jack Bull has that great line, “You taught him mercy, but he forgot the lesson.”
Schamus: I spent a lot of time figuring how far we could go with language. In terms of the connection/distance matrix in the movie, the Civil War embodies the tension between those two things. It was the first major conflagration in history in which the majority of the combatants knew how to read and write. The guys killing each other were capable of expressing themselves in written language. At the same time, it was the last major war in which these combatants could actually write down their thoughts and feelings in epistolary form and send the letters off without being censored. People hadn’t figured that out! It wasn’t a part of the process for the establishment yet. Letters played a huge part in the movie for that reason.
iW: You can read letters from that era. You say, this person didn’t have inspired flair but he knows how to say what’s in front of him in rich language.
Schamus: Exactly. This is the reason that Americans relate to the Civil War through the medium of the letter, like the Burns documentary and James McPherson‘s work, that’s the voice of the time. We connect to it that way. There’s again a sense of distance, linguistically, through the letters, which are from someone who is absent, to someone else. But also connection, there’s something that’s very heartfelt in that performance, even if it’s very literary. The world of the movie, both linguistic and emotional, is a lot about those things. I wouldn’t take it that we’re complicatedly distancing ourselves by focusing on those stages of performance, but at the same time, it’s part of what they themselves were incorporating into their own persona.
iW: It’s both strange and wonderful to watch the men who can’t read listening to Jake reading a letter out loud around the campfire, and it’s like they’re listening to a ball game. They can imagine the play-by-play of those lives in their heads.
Schamus: And of course the other hard thing about the movie is that you have this very rich kind of Sir Walter Scott–Shakespeare-inflected language of the white guys, then of course, you have this former slave who doesn’t really say anything the first half of the movie, and then by the end of the movie, you realize he’s the co-star. That was the game of the movie. But he’s got to watch what he says. He says one wrong thing, he’s dead. His speech is not gonna be taking part in this pseudo-chivalric-romanticist-Scotch-Irish-Southern thing. It’s gonna be slave speech, which has a great, historical reality that is very jarring in that context. We worked very hard with Jeffrey and he worked incredibly hard to figure how he would get that language into the movie.
He’s gotta watch it. He’s got to be in the background all the time until he can accede to speech and language and actually say something to somebody. That takes a long time. That’s his story, really.
iW: On both a level of writing and performance, Holt is remarkable: on one hand, he’s like an old man who’s seen it all, taciturn and wry, yet he’s a young man who doesn’t speak until late into the story.
Schamus: Honestly, I just hope the film does well enough so that he’ll get his nomination. Anything else is fine, whatever, but heart and soul, I think this is the guy. I think he is one of the greatest actors of his generation, period, and there aren’t that many roles out there. It’s tough. He does the impossible, which we put in the script. He starts as a character who is wallpaper. This guy doesn’t exist. Slowly he brings himself to language, to speech, to himself, and to, finally, his destiny. At the end, it’s him and that landscape with a gun.
iW: That’s a generous ending, a whole movie to come: A black gunslinger headed south.
Schamus: Hey, we got the whole sequel. In fact, we just wanted to say, here’s a future, here’s a destiny that our film rests on. At the end of the day, this is the future.
iW: You’ve said the studio is confident about the movie after previews. How do you feel audiences are taking it so far?
Schamus: I know we’re going to have a mixed-positive thing overall. The press screenings have been very funny. Overall, they’ve been extremely positive, but then you’ll hit certain screenings where it’s just dead. It’s funny, you would think, some films it doesn’t matter if there’s a big audience or not. At Toronto, the public screening, people were applauding jokes. “Ice Storm,” you could see by yourself. “Wedding Banquet,” there’s the joke, you enjoy it. But this is the first movie I’ve made, really, where I feel very viscerally the lack of context for the press screenings. You need a critical mass for it because people don’t know that it’s funny until they start hearing those titters.
iW: I think the opening scene with Tobey and Skeet at the wedding signals, by how they josh with each other, that it’s meant to be funny. Their looks say so much, and it shows how a scene can be built on eyelines and exchanged looks, and a script is already such distilled text. In general, good screenwriting seems like this unholy alliance of carpentry and poetry. You have to establish structure, but then you can decorate to your heart’s content.
Schamus: Yes. I find myself using, more and more, architectural metaphors to describe screenwriting. So poetry and carpentry definitely works. You build the structure and then you let people move around in it. There’s a certain number of rooms they can move into, they have to get into the room and get out of it. But especially writing for Ang, keeping things a little porous and working them out as you go along is 90% of the time. I always say I underwrite for Ang, leaving these structurally dangerous spots so he’ll get nervous and try to figure things out, as opposed to my writing for the studios — they’ve all been assignments — where you write them like battleships, so even a bad director can’t sink them, they’re so tight.
iW: Peter Weir couldn’t find a script before “The Truman Show,” and he was sick of that style. He told his agents, “Send me the fucked-up scripts, send me the broken ones, the ones no one else can lick.”
Schamus: Exactly. I’d say that, too.
iW: I love reams of dialogue, but there are such effective silences between the articulate talk in your scripts. There are some moments that suit that comment of Wittgenstein’s, “That which we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence.” I know a few screenwriters who should read at least that one line of his.
Schamus: [laughs] That’s right. It’s funny, because as you can tell, I’m rather loquacious. I love writing dialogue and I really like writing comedy and jokes, but it really is true. I was just talking to Richard Peña, we did this little roundtable for October magazine, and I said, y’know, it always floored me how few people noticed in “The Ice Storm,” even at the studio, nobody ever said a word about this: I said to Ang, I’m gonna write the last fifteen minutes of this movie, it’s gonna be a silent movie. There’s like one sentence. We made the movie, we opened at the New York Film Festival. Literally, I can’t remember one mainstream mention of the fact that it becomes a silent movie, this is a studio film with movie stars in it! The last two reels, they’re just walking around.
iW: But the characters in “Ride with the Devil” are chattier.
Schamus: The guilty pleasure of writing this script was I just ripped off the dialogue from the book. The first draft, I felt like I was just getting paid to transcribe Daniel Woodrell’s dialogue into screenplay format. All I did was transcribe the book and, as they say, bill the studio for it. Then they call me a screenwriter!
iW: Writing all that wonderful colloquialism, that ring of old-fashioned southern speech, must have had its challenges.
Schamus: At first, I thought it would be easy because the dialogue in the book is so great. But it was terrifying trying to write dialogue to match his. I was like sweating it. This guy is unbelievable. Then I realized that the book, which is in first person, is filled with these beautiful American languages. I realized the continuum of language and voice, including the violence the book depicted, was embedded in the beauty of the language. They’re saying these wonderful things and the next minute, they’re blowing each other’s heads off and blood is splattering. We had to figure out a way to balance those things, the storytelling and language working together and not apart from each other.
iW: The wedding scene that opens the movie is not from the novel.
Schamus: We had to excise a lot of backstory. But I just want that scene to say, here’s three minutes, here’s what it looked like [before the war], it’s gone. The book starts in media res, and I just couldn’t do it.
Ray Pride’s conversation with James Schamus will continue tomorrow.