James Schamus is a veteran within the movie industry writing and producing some of the best independent box office hits such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Lost in Translation to name just a few. However, with Phillip Roth’s novel adaptation, Indignation marks his directorial debut with a period coming of age love story which will resonate with so many in our modern times.
We spoke to James about his inspiration to adapt Roth’s novel for the big screen, his choice in actors with Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon to play the love struck leads and what exactly is his secret to success to making a box office hit.
Indignation marks your directorial debut what was it about Philip Roth’s novel that made you want to adapt it for the big screen?
It was certainly not the things that usually make Roth’s novels great. The things that usually make them great are things that are almost impossible to make Philip Roth novels into movies. The voice, everything. What I loved after finishing the novel were the characters, I thought if we just boil down the characters actions, emotions, and word, their destiny’s does that make a movie? And in this case, the novel really did speak as if it could translate well just with those basic ingredients.
Did you feel any kind of affinity with any of the characters in the film?
Of course, the extremely handsome, smart, cute Jewish guy clearly [laughs] there was just an immediate connection there. Yes and no but I really loved all the other characters. I could really relate to the parents, even the angel of death antagonist, the dean of the college played by Tracy Letts. Here’s the crazy thing, this is the gift of Phillip Roth, think about this guy who really is the antagonist, he is the opposition party for our cute hero and yet everything the guy says is true. Sorry, you’re like: “Wow how did that happen?” So you have to think about that, there is something else going on there.
Indignation in some ways breaks the normal stereotypes by featuring a young Jewish boy who is actually an atheist which we very rarely see in film - Do you think this will resonate with the struggles of anyone from a particular background who wants to break free of the stereotypes and assumptions even in these modern times?
For sure, you all get tagged, especially in cinema very easily. I found it in the novel, and I hope it translates to the film, where the characters are coherent, believable and yet they end up doing very unpredictable things that are still completely in character. Most movies of course, if you have a character that is coherent then everything they do is completely predictable, and if they do something that isn’t predictable you think well that’s not that person. When you get the chance to work with characters who are still completely believable even when they do things that you can’t predict is wonderful.
When I screened a rough cut of the film to my students at Columbia University, it was lovely to get their responses and reactions, in fact, it was often my students of colour and students coming from other backgrounds who were like: “Oh My God, I just lived through that”, like that’s me now and I thought of course. There was that moment of connection where you realise no it’s that outsider status whatever it is - it doesn’t even have to be tagged that strongly - When the thumb comes down, even when they don’t want it to come down when the dean is trying his best he kind of likes this kid.
The film differs slightly in its theme where it’s the Korean War looms larger in the book and the film is concentrated more on a coming of age love story between Marcus and Olivia. What was the catalyst for changing the story?
It’s a natural process of sticking close to your characters. The book, the voice of the book is so all encompassing, it’s almost sort of a sociological tone to it sometimes but you can’t do that in a film. The movie did in its own organic way, in a sense make the same narrative more of a love story just because once you remove that surround, that voice you just have people doing what they are doing You’re close to that and the cameras are on them all the time it just happens.
When it came to casting Marcus and Olivia what made Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon the perfect fit for these characters?
When writing screenplays I try not to cast in my mind, not having that pre-disposed set image but realising the script is just the beginning point of a collaborative piece of work. You have to let it happen and go where it’s going to go and shape it as you go along and keep the cats herded [Laughs]. Once we started casting it became immediately apparent who these people were going to be and I had the great luxury of having no money so I could not even begin to have the conversations that you would have at a studio level, like you have to get A, B or C. Both of these actors have tremendous profiles in many ways. Logan’s been part of a million dollar franchise, but the luxury I had was saying no these are the people I really want and let’s go and try to get them.
With Logan’s audition, I came to LA and we chatted, and that turned into almost four hours. Logan is a filmmaker at heart, by that I mean someone who loves cinema, what he loves about it and what he loves about filmmaking, is the same question that Ang Lee will annoyingly ask me when I’m writing, is why? Which is really a terrible question [laughs], I hate to tell you, it’s like why? Because they paid me to write the script so that’s what I did [laughs]. So the why questions are really interesting because they force you to put a new frame around things, think it through and be on your feet. That’s who Logan is, he just constantly questions what he’s doing and it’s a great challenge.
With Sarah, she is somebody over the years I have watched, sometimes when half an hour into the film my eye goes whoops, what whose that. She’s got such an incredible body of work but she hides inside of it, it’s kind of crazy. I really want these people to be superstars one day. They aren’t going to become superstars by making weird art movies like Indignation [laughs] so I’m happy I had that opportunity but still let’s get them going.
Logan Lerman plays the lead Marcus Messner – after seeing a photo of Philip Roth I noticed a striking resemblance.
Logan was great; we permed his hair and cut it just so. Part of it is him Logan inhabiting what a 1951 19-year-old smart Jewish kid off to college what look like and be like and he really sells it. The great thing about Logan is he really is a nice Jewish boy, honestly.
Sarah Gadon plays Olivia Hutton - Marcus’s love interest – Did you develop the character with Gadon? Was there any one person that influenced the character?
Sarah is so smart and so dogged, the intensity of her process it was such a pleasure because I could throw anything at her. When I started going deeper I did make this weird connection, which was never apparent to me before, which is among Phillip Roth’s contemporaries, in fact, someone who is just one year older than he was, started college a year before he did, was Sylvia Plath. Suddenly a lot started to make sense to me, not that the character of Olivia is Sylvia Plath but the character started her first year at University at Mount Holyoake College, A women’s college, which is just one mile down the road from Smith College where exactly the same time Plath started college. Then I realised that Plath’s journals had been published just a few years before Roth was writing Indignation. I never asked him whether he had read them, but I started reading them and I started finding all these crazy… of course she was at college at the same time as Roth, the dating and the dorm room and the matrons and sexuality and the creepiness of it all. Then if you keep reading to 3 months before she died she was reading Phillip Roth, and she wrote it in her journal that one she hoped she could write as good as Phillip Roth. So Sarah Gadon, we even had her writing the letter in the film, she practiced for 2 months to write like Sylvia Plath’s writing.
Olivia has her own problems which she keeps to herself but there is a slight hint into what’s causing her fragility. What kind of research was taken to getting the situation right and how her issues were dealt with back in 1951?
We did an enormous amount of research. Two things, there was a delicate line and I hope we succeeded, it’s very hard. You have a protagonist in the film who is a 19-year-old, very smart kid on the one hand but on the other hand, he’s a putz. He doesn’t understand anything, and he really doesn’t understand what this young woman has been going through. He might be falling in love but he has no idea. It’s very hard to ask an audience to identify with a main character who is absolutely clueless because it’s almost unforgivable but I hope you forgive him. We have to keep our own consciousness linked to his we see what he sees. We also have to see a bit more otherwise we are as stupid as he is. One of the things we have to see is those hints that she has lived terrible, terrible things have happened to her. The reason for her mental illness and her tragedies she’s living and acting out are very real. In 1951 there wouldn’t have been a lot of language available to her to express this, not a lot of discourse around to support and a lot of judgment, yet she’s fighting back.
Your name is synonymous with groundbreaking independent films as a writer with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Producing Brokeback Mountain and overseeing the production of Lost in Translation as well as many more. What’s the secret of your successful eye for box office smashes?
Well, the secret is when you give interviews like this the people who interview you are polite enough not to list all the box office bombs [laughs] that you also make, so you always look pretty good. The serious is look, you have got to be able to absorb your failures and acknowledge that more often than not you will fail and somehow figure how to pick yourself up and keep going. You have got to assume the worst as a rule as in fact it doesn’t usually work out [laughs]
Indignation hits cinemas on 18th November.