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‘Indignation’ Director James Schamus: Film Is Dead, And That’s Okay

The distributor-turned-filmmaker claims the medium is on the way out — but that hasn't stopped him from doing something special with it.

James Schamus

James Schamus

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

“Being dead is not the same thing as not existing — many things exist that are dead. Indeed, I would argue that many of the greatest things that exist are dead and this is not necessarily a bad thing.” — James Schamus

In November of 2014, a little more than a year after he had been fired from his long-time job as the CEO of Focus Features, James Schamus was invited to the German Film Academy to give a speech about the future of cinema. Naturally, the underlying assumption of the event was that it had one.

The talk began on a routine note, as Schamus name-checked Theodor Adorno, bridged the gap between George Méliès and Christopher Nolan, and pushed through the obligatory references to the rise of Netflix and the fall of DVD. And then, reaching the fifth point of a lecture that he had split into 23 discrete fragments, Schamus reframed the conversation, and the rest of his working life along with it: “The future of the cinema is not a problem,” he declared, “because the cinema is already dead anyway, and you all know it.”

That’s not exactly what you want to hear from the man responsible for many of the best movies of this young millennium, from “Lost in Translation” to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” That’s not what you want to hear from the co-writer of several modern classics by Ang Lee, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Lust, Caution.” That’s not what you want to hear from a man who’s been teaching undergraduate film studies at Columbia University for 25 years, a job that implies a faith in the future of the cinema, even if the curriculum is focused squarely on the past.

“Think of it this way,” Schamus continued, dusting up the rubble from the bombshell he’d just dropped. “Forty years ago, if we were to gather together under similar circumstances, you would more than likely have asked me to come and talk about ‘The Cinema Today,’ or some such title. Today, no one among us thinks about the cinema today, because we are too busy thinking about the cinema’s future, about trends and threats, and the reason we are worried about the future of cinema is because we know the cinema is already dead and we would rather not think about that fact.”

A compelling point, and yet the plot thickens. Because what nobody else knew at the time of Schamus’ speech was that the man at the podium — the one eulogizing the film medium with the cold precision of a guillotine — was gearing up to direct his first movie.

James Schamus and Ang Lee

James Schamus and Ang Lee (Photo by Dave Allocca)

Dave Allocca

Life After Death

Speaking to Schamus in the plush basement of Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel, almost two years since his seemingly ominous address, he looked like a man reborn, so loose that his signature bowtie threatened to come undone and fall onto his lap. When I first asked him about his remarks in Berlin, he was quick to pick up the thread: “I don’t have to defend cinema! It’s like, yeah, Greek tragedy is dead, but it’s still great. We’re not bemoaning the end of Greek tragedy. Move on!”

James Schamus may be a first-time filmmaker, but he sure as hell doesn’t talk like one. If anything, he sounds like a guy who was thrown out of a burning airplane, only to discover — with a great deal of relief — that he was just a few feet off the ground. And so, the obvious question: What could possibly have possessed him to run back towards the flaming wreckage? If film is dead, why would a recently fired studio executive invest more of himself in the medium than ever before?

In a word: “Indignation.”

Adapted from Philip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, “Indignation” is — quite appropriately — a story about life after death. Set in 1951, at the height of the Korean War, the film is a somber, searching melodrama that unfolds like a Jewish riff on “Atonement” (another film produced under Schamus’ tenure at Focus).

Marcus Mesner (Logan Lerman) is the nicest Jewish boy in the world. The son of an increasingly nervous Newark butcher who worries that his only child will be slaughtered overseas, Marcus matriculates at a small Ohio college in order to dodge the draft and put some distance between himself and his father’s rabid paranoia. It’s a sensible strategy that the upstanding young gentleman adheres to with great focus and tremendous care, but blowjobs have a way of messing with even the best laid plans, and the one he receives from Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) is enough to turn his world upside down. Just a few months later, he’ll be bleeding out on a stairwell halfway across the world, condemned to an eternity of obsessively reflecting on the chain of events that led to his ultimate fate.

He narrates the film to us from beyond the grave. And in doing so, he personifies the most crucial point of Schamus’ Berlin lecture: “The fact that something is dead does not mean that it does not have a kind of future. The cinema, from its inception, repeatedly gives us this lesson: The dead are also, always, in the movies, the undead, not exactly alive, but always coming back, returning, popping up from the grave. To be captured on film is to partake in the announcement of your death, and to participate, however passively, in your protest against this fact.”

READ MORE: “Indignation” Stars Sarah Gadon And Logan Lerman On Philip Roth, Sylvia Plath, And The Perils Of Oral Sex

Schamus chuckled as I quoted those words back to him, admitting that his speech about the death of movies was inspired by his nascent plan to represent death in movies. “When I was writing that talk, I was thinking about ‘Indignation,’” he said. “The book poses a question at the end that to me was very profound: ‘How is it that a dead object and a dead voice moves over time and connects?’”

It’s a fundamentally cinematic question — maybe the most fundamental cinematic question — and the way in which “Indignation” invited Schamus to pose it is key to why this Roth story seems to so naturally lends itself to the film medium, where previous adaptations of the author’s work have been — to put it lightly — strained. When asked if he learned anything from the missteps of movies like “The Human Stain” and “The Humbling,” Schamus’ his response combined his natural candor with his professional diplomacy. “That assumes I re-watched them!” he said. “Look, I never want to speak ill… what we think of as their mistakes may be, in 10 years when we look back, their smarts. That’s not me being polite or obtuse. Also, because I have such strong memories of all of them, especially ‘Goodbye, Columbus.’ It’s hard for me not to have some genuine affection for those attempts.”

Schamus’ film is at once both deeply faithful to the source material and also boldly aggressive in how it reshapes it. By adding not one, but two separate framing devices, “Indignation” flanks Roth’s text with a pair of double parentheses, underscoring the extent to which we are suspended between a past we cannot change and a future we cannot imagine.

Logan Lerman in "Indignation"


Closing The Gap

“If you’re in a novel,” Schamus explained, “you can just do a first-person narration, and then the gap between the narration and the narrated events already creates the gap between life and death. But in our medium you just pay some dude to wear some clothes and say shit and then you film it and it’s like ‘There it is!’ There’s no gap. It’s just all one thing.”

He dismissed the notion that movies like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Lady in the Lake,” regardless of their merits, had found a way to create a first-person cinema: “It doesn’t really work that way — it’s a third-person medium. So that’s why I created one of the frames: To me, the old Olivia stands in for Philip Roth. So at the end you’re contemplating some material effect on the world that is present to you but that you’re not present to that… you’re somewhere else.”

By forcibly recreating the gap that cinema naturally staples shut, “Indignation” renders Marcus as a metaphor for his adopted medium (and highlights how cinema is a medium in more ways than one), the doomed Winesburg student becoming a visible symptom of a condition that afflicts all movies, and all movie characters. For Schamus, this came naturally. “The modality of human subjects as both living and dead at the same time is really kind of what we do for a living,” he said, making me wonder if Schrödinger’s Cat was the first feline film theorist. “We’re reminding ourselves, we’re incorporating our own mortality into our experience.”

Schamus has so inextricably baked this idea into “Indignation” that it has an effect on you even when you may not be able to notice it. In one scene, the director conflated past and present by relying on dead technology to amplify the immediacy of a pivotal moment.

“We shot digitally, and I had to come up with digital solutions to digital problems,” he said. “In particular, how to create a digital representation in moving images of the past.” But sometimes, a digital problem can only be fixed with an analog solution. As an example, Schamus cited the film’s bravura centerpiece, in which Marcus engages in a righteous war of words with a college dean played by an indomitable Tracy Letts. “I love Tracy’s voice, and in the sound edit we ended up filtering the middle highs so that when Letts is speaking his voice is actually coming at you in an approximation of an optical track in a movie from 1951.”

He immediately spotted the blinkered astonishment that was creeping across my face. “Whatever, this is the crap you do! I don’t know if it works or doesn’t, or if it’s meaningful or if it isn’t,” he said. “The point is that problem-solving with the media integrates directly into the bigger questions.” And all I could think was that Schamus doesn’t just believe that cinema is dead, he’s communing with its ghost — his film is a mechanism through which dead technology literally speaks to us.

The Embarrassment Of Making A Movie

He suddenly seemed to feel a bit silly, his humility tipping over into humiliation. It’s one thing for a revered industry figure to risk his reputation at a time when others in his position might be contemplating retirement — it’s another for that industry figure to goad fate by using his first movie to tell the story of a guy whose mortification led directly to his demise.

“Yes,” Schamus sighed, “the odds are overwhelming that this is going to be really embarrassing for me. It is what it is. You don’t know if you have the skill set to do this. And it’s all a bunch of accidents, anyhow — any movie can go off the rails for no reason whatsoever, and it’s really kind of a miracle when they kind of work out.”

He continued. “So I said to myself, ‘Look, this movie will probably get invited to some festival because I made it, and then I’m going to have stand there and put my arm around the poster, and it could be a complete pile of shit and it will be totally embarrassing, but gotta just grin and bear through it.'” Schamus’ worries were ultimately unfounded, as the film premiered to rave reviews at Sundance earlier this year, and grossed a stellar $89,072 in four theaters when it began its platform release last weekend. But it may not have made much of a difference to its director. “I’ve always stood by every movie I’ve ever made,” he said. “Objectively speaking, some of them were not like classics of world cinema, but you go out there and have your picture taken.”

The cast of "Indignation" (photo by Daniel Bergeron)

The cast of “Indignation” (photo by Daniel Bergeron)

Daniel Bergeron

On the other hand, many of them were, like, classics of world cinema — and the best of him seem to bear Schamus’ signature. As the idea of the studio as auteur gains traction, it’s tempting to reflect on how the films he spearheaded at Focus were bound together by a shared tonality, a soft hue, an emotional opulence, a shimmering moroseness. But, more than anything else, they were defined by their pedigree, and even the niche genre stuff they produced had a way of pushing the needle forward (Schamus cites “Hanna” as a personal favorite). One of the great joys of “Indignation” is that it feels like Schamus is still making Focus features.

Schamus laid it out like this: “I was always in that middlebrow space, and I have always defended the middle of the brow as an equally reasonable space to live because it’s a place where people are talking to others. The way I thought of it was that a Focus movie was going to be something that someone had to say that maybe you hadn’t listened to before.” If only it were so easy. “The last year or two that I was there was really a fight to preserve that culture as things were changing,” he said. “But hell, we made money every year, so what the fuck?”

The Indignation of James Schamus

And, really, it’s hard not to think that “Indignation” wasn’t at least partially motivated by the chance for Schamus to deliver a big “fuck you” to the people who had hung him out to dry — hard not to think of it as an act of defiance in the face of an industry that was no longer interested in saving a seat for him at the table. “Fire me from Focus Features? I am Focus Features!” (That quote, alas, was imagined by me, and not spoken by him).

It’s certainly easy to understand why Schamus may have been pissed — he may think the cinema is dead, but nobody wants to be the canary in the coal mine. Still, true to the spirit of the speech he gave in Berlin, he seems at peace with what happened, perhaps in part because he had prepared for it so well. “I loved every minute of my time at Focus,” he said, leaning into the padded grooves of his chair, “even the last couple of years when it was just too many Powerpoint presentations, too much corporate crap.”

He smiled slyly. “But come on, these jobs are ridiculous! This business is hilarious. I drive a freakin Subaru. I live in Columbia University housing. You could have fired me 10 years ago. There’s no ‘How am I going to make the payments on my Lexus and my house in the Palisades!?’ I just don’t give a shit!”

He really doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean he lacks ambition. “I would love to direct again,” Schamus continued. “But either way, it’s all great. Am I really going to complain that I might be producing Ang Lee’s next movie, which I think is going to be pushing cinema art and technology to a whole new level? No. If I do, just shoot me now.”

Schamus may think that the movies are dead, but that doesn’t mean we should making them. It certainly doesn’t mean that he will. No wonder Schamus gravitated towards a story about a kid who works as a butcher, no wonder he couldn’t resist adapting a novel about someone who knew that death is never the end of the conversation.

And the subject of Schamus’ next screenplay?

Jesus Christ.

“Indignation” is now playing in theaters.

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