James Schamus owns an extensive list of impressive credits. He wrote “The Ice Storm” (1997), co-wrote “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and produced “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and “Suffragette” (2015), and now, he directed his first feature film, “Indignation” (2016).
“Indignation” is a superbly-crafted drama about boy-meets-girl on an Ohio college campus in 1951, and Mr. Schamus – who also wrote the screenplay based upon the novel by Philip Roth – stopped in Phoenix and found some time to sit down and speak with the Phoenix Film Festival about his new movie.
“Indignation” opens on Friday, Aug. 5 and stars Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts.
PFF: “Indignation” is a story about boy-meets-girl, and it takes place in 1951, when sexual repression was more prevalent and mental illness was less understood. In 2016, do you look back at this film and think - as a society - that we have come a long way or believe that we really have not changed much at all?
JS: I wish the answer was the former, not the latter. I think things have changed decidedly, and “Indignation” is a story very specific to its time. Our young hero, Marcus (Lerman), has - by any young man’s standards in many eras - a fabulous first date but is thrown in a way that a lot of young people today would find very odd and old-fashioned.
On the other hand, the denouement of that interaction and the way Olivia’s (Gadon) part in it is punished by a social structure which keeps trotting out an age-old rhetoric – in this case, a kind of slut-shaming and blame-gaming – it is remarkable to me that it is very much the culture right now.
It was tricky. We have a main character, a protagonist, who I hope we really empathize with and identify with, and I love this kid, but Marcus is also clueless. He does not read the evidence in front of him of what this young woman, Olivia, has actually gone through. That was a tough balancing act.
PFF: I really appreciate the movie’s pacing. You took your time with the material, and many times the film features extended conversations between two characters. Was the pacing a partial-ode to movies of that time, or did you wish to highlight the dynamics of the characters and their relationships?
JS: It is more of the latter. I was really focused on how to stay as close to these characters as I could and let the emotions sneak up on you. In fact, films from the 50s may not be edited as quickly in our own “ADD-era” now. The flow of this film is really paced to the emotions of the characters and their own journeys. I think for the emotional payoff to (work), we really needed to be able to sit with these folks and to see what they are going through.
PFF: Marcus is Jewish, and I was bracing for a difficult anti-Semitic struggle that thankfully never came. Is this consistent with the novel?
JS: Yes, we took from the book…what we took from the book. I would say that there was this kind of pervasive structural and gently-put anti-Semitism. This is still an era when there were quotas for Jewish students in many major universities, and there were real estate covenants and neighborhoods that would not allow Jews to buy property or homes or join clubs. This was all part of that era, and Dean Caudwell (Letts) is replicating some of those attitudes but in a very seemingly non-personal way. The dean is not a raging anti-Semite, but the anti-Semitism was structural. It was present and pervasive, but it was not always personal.
PFF: The film does an excellent job of capturing the first day on a college campus, such as when Marcus walks into his dorm for the first time or signs-in at the front desk. Those can be exciting - but also anxiety-filled - times, and these scenes took me back to my first day of college. Based on your college experience, could you relate to those first-day scenes as well?
JS: I hope that everybody sees something of themselves with Marcus, because he is trying. He is trying so hard, (but) he makes that detour, when he discovers something in himself that wasn’t planned. He’s thrown off by that, by Olivia, by the dean, by his roommates, and by everybody, and I hope as you enter that whirlwind, you really are feeling as if you identify with that character.
PFF: At one point, Marcus pursues Olivia by standing outside her window for hours or watching her dad drop her off at the dorm, however, she was still receptive to his advances. Do you think Olivia’s acceptance of his behavior was due to the time period or because of her general nature?
JS: On the set, I always used to say to Sarah Gadon, “Remember, Olivia is smarter than Marcus.”
She gets that Marcus is lost. He just doesn’t have anywhere else to go at that point, emotionally, mentally and physically, and she gets it. She’s a lost soul herself.
PFF: “Indignation” is your (feature film) directorial debut. Now that the movie is complete, what are you most proud of and what were a couple key learnings from your experience?
JS: It’s funny, because the learning experiences are the things that I most proud of. It is not for me to pass judgment on what worked or did not. I know enough to separate myself from that level of engagement. To me, it was different from writing or producing (by) working with actors.
I’ve never done that before, and it’s just a tremendous privilege to spend days and days with people where you are really centered on emotion and gesture and voice and tone. It’s very specific work, and you are not telling somebody what to do, because that doesn’t work as a director. Rather, create an environment that the actors need to do their best work and (have them) surprise you. I was course-correcting a lot - as one should - but I was not trying to reign in or pre-negotiate the outcome of each scene. I wanted (the actors) to be as surprised as they could be, so I – and the viewer – can be surprised too.
PFF: I came away from this film with a message that a connection of the heart is special, vitally important, precious, and fragile. Are there ways that we can recognize these connections in the moment and maybe hold on to them a little tighter?
JS: I hope the movie is a reminder of that. You do need to try your best in recognizing it when it’s happening.