UC Berkeley graduate, Oscar nominated filmmaker James Schamus talks directorial debut ‘Indignation’

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To say that Berkeley alumnus James Schamus is no stranger to the art of film would be quite the understatement. As the former CEO of Focus Features, long-time screenwriter (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The Ice Storm”), frequent Ang Lee collaborator and film professor at Columbia University, Schamus had seen pretty much every side of the cinematic arts — except for directing.

That is, until he picked up a copy of Philip Roth’s “Indignation” at an airport.

“When I finished I thought, ‘Wow,’ ” said Schamus. “I was reading it just for the pleasure of reading Philip Roth. I had no thought that anything he wrote could be turned into a movie, frankly.”

At first, Schamus had Ang Lee in mind to direct the adaptation, but Lee was busy with “Life of Pi.” And after just being fired from his studio job at Focus Features, Schamus found himself happily rising to the occasion for his directorial debut.

Even taking on the intense prose and sometimes uncomfortable subject matter of Philip Roth, which spawned less-than-favorable adaptations, did not scare Schamus.

“I’ve been told that the track record on adapting Philip Roth novels has a rather mixed record. But I think that track record is even better than the track record for middle-aged producers who decided that they could direct,” laughed Schamus.

Schamus pointed out that “Indignation,” which follows the story of a young Jewish man’s experiences in college in 1951, was an easier Roth novel to adapt. “It’s more fable-like, more elegiac, to me, that made it easier to see the translation from script to screen, a translation that would get us closer to these characters.” And it’s these characters that ultimately had the potential to carry a whole film, Schamus added.

With this in mind, Schamus tapped into his day job as a college professor, venturing deep into research. Schamus took great care in examining the characters of “Indignation” and assigned the actors homework: Logan Lerman memorized Bertrand Russell’s whole speech of “Why I Am Not a Christian,” and Sarah Gadon, who played Olivia, worked on making sure her handwriting matched poet Sylvia Plath’s for a month.

“For Sarah Gadon’s part of Olivia, it was a connection I made almost serendipitously that I hadn’t originally made when first adapting the novel. She’s not a version of it, but there’s a lot that connects to Sylvia Plath,” explained Schamus. “I don’t think that they’re odd occurrences, I think they’re there for a reason.”

Schamus also made sure the so-called antagonists of the film, such as Marcus’ mother (Linda Emond) and Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), got their due by fully trusting the actors. There were no big rehearsals for the centerpiece scene — the 16-minute tête-à-tête between Lerman and Letts — and Schamus didn’t tell the actors that they were shooting in single takes.

“I really relied on their superhuman energy,” said Schamus. “Everybody I think was terrified, but everyone was pretending they weren’t.”

Ironically, Schamus’ decision to stray from the book by adding a second framing device was what probably contributed to Roth’s sincere approval, that “Indignation” was the “most faithful and truthful adaptation” of his work. The second framing device, which is absent from the first-person narration of the book, was a risky move on Schamus’ part as it gave a new, retrospective point of view. But he realized that it was an integral part in retelling “Indignation.”

Schamus believes that “Indignation” was a way for Roth, who was in his mid-70s at the time he wrote the book, to reach out to a young woman from the past. Roth’s first-person voice in the novel, manifested through the clueless Marcus, naturally gives a way to distinguish between life and death. There’s already a gap between what Marcus is narrating and what consequently happens to him. Thus, layering a second framing device allowed the director to establish the gap instead of just showing the story.

Schamus’ commitment to reading between the lines can be traced to his UC Berkeley roots, where Schamus earned his Bachelor of the Arts, Master of Arts, and doctorate in English and worked for The Daily Californian.

Schamus smiled as he recalled a memory from his time at Berkeley when he and Ang Lee spoke for the “On the Same Page” program in 2008 at Zellerbach Hall. “There were like 2,000 people trying to have selfies with Ang. Then there were like 80 lining up to have a selfie with me,” said Schamus. “So my daughter decided to give me a new nickname: VFS.” VFS, Schamus explained, stood for “Vaguely Famous Sidekick.”

Whether he’ll shed the VFS label or not, James Schamus pulled off Philip Roth on his first go as director, a heroic feat all on its own.

Contact Adrienne Lee at [email protected].