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Qumra: James Schamus Discusses the Filmmaking Process in Extensive Master Class and Interview

Qumra: James Schamus Discusses the Filmmaking Process in Extensive Master Class and Interview

In the Qumra Master Class 2016 where James Schamus and Richard Peña, former long-time head of Lincoln Film Society in NYC, carried on an informal and open-ended discussion, James gave a personal view of himself before going into the professional ins and outs of his film production and distribution life.

I was surprised to hear that James, who seems like a quintessential New Yorker, is not a native New Yorker but is an Angeleno and attended Hollywood High in Los Angeles.

When I spoke with him afterward, he said that he actually was from North Hollywood but had attended JD Melton at Hollywood High.  On looking the school up for this article, I was even more pleasantly surprised to see that their branding is serendipitously, “Home of the Sheiks”.

James grew up in L.A. in the 70s and Hollywood High was equivalent to Jodie Foster’s school in “Taxi Driver” only it was in L.A.  It was a working class and poor school where only half of the student body took the SATs (College qualifying exams), and he was definitely the nerd in the herd.  He would spend his Friday nights watching a little known TV show on the local Channel 13 moderated by the L.A. Times critic Charles Champlin.  The show was of silent films and there he saw “Birth of a Nation” and the German Expressionist movies among others.  Later he wrote his PhD dissertation Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘Gertrud’: The Moving Word, and it was published by the University of Washington Press. He moved to New York to write it after completing his Bachelors, Masters and PhD studies at UC Berkeley.

He said he does not remember much about his high school days, but recently as he was unpacking some old boxes, he came across his high school yearbook.

 You know how people signed with little paragraphs?  One of these said ‘Thanks for persuading me to skip school with you and going on the 93 bus to see movies’ and it was signed ‘Frank’.  I had no idea who Frank was but as I tried to remember, I recalled skipping school to go to L.A.’s only film festival which was new and called ‘Filmex’. 

 (Editor’s note: Filmex was the creation of ‘The two Garys’, Gary Essert and Gary Abrahams, both of whom died of Aids during the Aids epidemic. Gary Essert was a UCLA Film School student in the 60s where he started Filmex with marathon screenings in the Quonset hut which was the film school.  The two Garys are both vividly remembered today by the American Cinematheque crews and others of us from L.A. because the Cinematheque was their creation.)

 It was at Filmex that I saw a film made by a film student from USC.  It was a sci-fi film and there was a Q&A afterward.  The film was called ‘THX-1138’ and it was by George Lucas.  Then I remembered!  Frank was Frank Darabont!  And we were now sharing the same agent, so I gave him a call and yes, he went to Hollywood High too.

James combines his acclaimed filmmaking career with other roles within the industry: he is a revered film historian and academic.  He is also a multi award-winning screenwriter, director and leading U.S. indie producer, best known for his long creative collaboration with Taiwanese director Ang Lee. He has worked with Lee on nine films, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), which won four Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography, and remains the highest-grossing non-English-language film in the U.S. He was the screenwriter for Lee’s “The Ice Storm”, for which he won the award for Best Screenplay at the Festival de Cannes in 1997 and co-wrote “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994), the first of Lee’s films to achieve both critical and commercial success.

As producers, Schamus and Ted Hope (today head of production at Amazon) co-founded the U.S. low- to no-budget production company Good Machine in the early 1990s. 

It was macho to brag about how we made films with no money.  ‘I made my movie for $5,000.’ ‘Well, I made mine for $4,000.’

Ted also loves lists and he made a list of all the short films made in the past 10 years by filmmakers who had yet to make feature films.  We got the VHS tapes and one of the films we saw was by Ang Lee when he was studying at NYU.  It was called “Fine Line” and was Chazz Palminteri’s first film.

“Fine Line” was about an Italian guy on the run from the mob.  It takes place in New York’s Little Italy and Chinatown.  Ang Lee had an agent and we called him.  He said Ang Lee was working on three great films before hanging up on us…

To hear James tell this story, watch him speaking here with Richard Peña.

What was cut out of the above online story was that at the time of “Pushing Hands”

Ang had no idea we had just contacted his agent and he also thought we would steal all his money.  He was 38 years old, an unemployed stay-at-home parent with a working wife and two kids living in a little apartment in New York. In his spare time he had become a great cook.  He came in and pitched a comedy for one hour.  It was awful.  We were such no-money producers; our office was upstairs from a strip club and the music would blast into our offices starting at 2:00 every day. With this pounding beat, he pitched the worst pitch we ever heard.  But there was a $5,000 fee for us.  I then said that though his pitch was poor he had actually described the entire movie in his head to us scene by scene.  He was not trying to sell the film. 

So we made the film and then made his second film “Wedding Banquet” which shared a first prize in Berlin.  The third film was “Eat Drink Man Woman” from an original idea with a Taiwanese writer, very TV in the open-endedness of all the characters feeling the push and pull of letting it happen.  But in this was a Hollywood 40s style screwball comedy that could be imposed.

Again, when James and I spoke together, I challenged him on the claim that “Dim Lake” was Chazz’s first film because my own partner in life and business, Peter Belsito, claims to have produced Chazz’s first film, “Home Free All” at which time Chazz took Peter aside and said, ‘I am not just a dumb guinea hoodlum, I am a real actor destined for better roles. I can act serious.’ So James and I checked IMDb to see and sure enough, “Dim Lake” was his first film and “Home Free All” was his second, but it was Chazz’ first feature film.  We then looked at the rest of his 68 film credits and in every single one, he is playing the Italian.

Doing this with James gave me a momentary feel of his love for research.

“For my first time writing with Ang I needed to research food in Taiwan for ‘Pushing Hands’, the position and placement of food, families and food….The script would be translated from English to Chinese, but Ang was not satisfied with it.  I was having trouble tapping into the mentality of the Chinese family so I took all the characters’ names and changed them to Jewish names and rewrote the script totally as a Jewish family.  Then I changed the names back to their Chinese names.  Ang read the script and said ‘This is really Chinese!’  And so I got ‘the cross-cultural idea’ — not really…I still don’t get that.

The first day in Taiwan we were shooting the film in a fast food restaurant and I as I watched the rushes, one of the character’s name was Rachel and I realized I had forgotten to change the name back. I asked if we needed to reshoot, but at that time it was a fad to change Chinese names to Anglo names and no one thought it was out of place, and so it stayed.

The most difficult part of the film was shooting the opening title sequence of the father cooking a meal.  It went over schedule because it had to be perfect.  We used the food so many times it was held together by glue by the end.

Preparing a shot list is very important for Ang and he constantly reduces the list and his vision jells as he does this.  By his third film, the process was very internalized.  Next he had to communicate it.  The plan is always the result of the overall idea.  That’s why his style always changes.

As he shoots, the relationship with the editor is very close.  He has a long-time relationship with his editor Tim Squyres.

The “Wedding Banquet” was the first film edited on AVID.  Before “Wedding Banquet”, four minutes was the full length of films edited on AVID which is now ancient technology.

Tim cuts several versions and talks them through with Ang.  They have spent more time in the dark together than most married people.  Ang is in the editing room from the beginning to the end.  Tim talks very directly, like he might say Ang should have spent more time on a scene or should have shot a scene from a different angle.  I used to watch Ang’s face tense up as he listened to Tim’s criticism and often they would fight, but they have spent 25+ years together.

On the transnational global reach of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”:

Critics said it was not an authentic chop-socky movie.  But the Hong Kong chop-socky genre itself was a regional hybrid.  The origins of chop-socky were from Shanghai and Singapore.  It was not so “Cantonese” as critics claimed.  Bruce Lee himself was U.S. based.  So the transnational aspect was already there.

From 2002 to 2014 Schamus was CEO of Focus Features, the motion picture production, financing and worldwide distribution company whose films during his tenure included Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist “ (2002), Henry Selick’s “Coraline” (2009) and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (2003).

On actors:

Character is secondary to the action.  You only have action and words in a script.  Working with good actors, you need images.

Actors are at such high risk, they are very vulnerable.  They need respect.  Sometimes they act out.

On casting and directors:

During the casting process, the director must direct the actor, set the tone for the part.  Most of the film’s directing can be done during the casting process. 

On storyboarding: 

“Ride with the Devil” was the first film Ang Lee storyboarded.  He also storyboarded “Life of Pi”.  Storyboarding could take the life out of a movie.

On production design:

It takes lots of research.  It includes the worldview of the film and everything ties in to that.  It first starts with costumes.  Research is not done only by the department but by everyone.

On film distribution and Focus:

Where is distribution now for specialized films?  Focus was everything, attached to the studio system as its specialized film division, Focus’ model was not Fox Searchlght’s which is locked into the domestic U.S. market.  Seachlight bought global rights and produced by way of its international TV deals.  Focus didn’t have that.  It had to presell theatrical rights to independent distributors worldwide.  Driven primarily by the international marketplace, it could not be driven by U.S. Its primary focus for production was London.  It was all international but also driven by flagship releases in the U.S.

In 2014, Schamus turned his hand to directing with the short documentary “That Film About Money” (2014).

Paul Allen of Microsoft started Vulcan with a commitment to shorts. I did a doc with a crew of people I had never worked with before.  And it was about people like Paul.

In 2016 James made his feature directorial debut with an adaptation of Philip Roth’s “Indignation”.  It had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016 and screened at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival in the Panorama section.

Schamus is also Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches film history and theory.

On Doha’s newest foray into Hollywood:

Doha-based beIN Media Group’s acquiring Miramax could be a great deal depending on the price paid.

Much of the 600-plus films in the Miramax library is probably locked into licensing deals already around the globe, but depending on when those deals are up for renewal and what other rights can be exploited, if the price point was right, it’s a great way to get into the game because they are sitting on top of so much intellectual property.

Just integrating into the deal structures and understanding the economics, from the end point where the money is coming from to the rights holder, is a good idea.

Miramax, under the leadership of Zanne Devine, has also co-acquired with Roadside Attractions, the 2016 Sundance premiering feature, “Southside with You”, the narrative feature of Barak Obama and Michelle’s first date.  That will bring beIN into the Roadside Attraction/ Lionsgate sphere of distribution and international sales.

On Hollywood interest in territories like China, India and the Middle East:

The less successful pattern is to find a Hollywood producer who flies in on his private jet and give him hundreds of millions (ed: STX?) to make movies. This is a very different version, this is owning intellectual property – it’s a good first step.

On moviegoing in the Gulf:

The next step is to build a cinema culture that makes movie-going a practice in the region far more than it is now – movie exhibition and movie-going as a power lever.

On TV in the Middle East:

My intuition says new media, television in particular, is going to be a space that is very dynamic once it breaks open, here in the Gulf or elsewhere.

During this week at Qumra, James is also mentoring 10 filmmakers working on five DFI-backed projects: Mohamed Al Ibrahim’s “Bull Shark”; Hamida Issa’s “To The Ends Of The Earth”; Sherif Elbendary’s “Ali, The Goat And Ibrahim”; Mohanad Hayal’s “Haifa Street” aka “Death Street”; and Karim Moussaoui’s “Till The Swallows Return”.

Elia Suleiman, the Artistic Advisor to Doha Film Institute, recalls how he and James “grew up together” in New York as long-time friends. James introduced him to the Chilean master filmmaker Raul Ruiz.  While at Good Machine, Schamus helped him with his short film.  He helped edit the script and was his guardian angel helping with his first contract.  They even had a code for “urgent”.  When Elia was in Jerusalem and James in London, they used the code whenever Elia was overwhelmed by the paperwork needed.  James would answer within 15 minutes.  Now James has come full circle on his own, from being one of the most important producers of the decade to directing his own film.

When asked by Qumra what was most important, he said “first time filmmakers are the most important”.  And he has always been able to spot the most talented of emerging filmmakers.

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