James Schamus interview: ‘I might as well risk flopping’

17th November 2016

The first thing James Schamus says when we sit down to chat is that he likes my shoes. They are a pair of slightly scuffed brown Dr. Martens – and he is wearing exactly the same ones. Whether I dress like a 57-year-old film director or he dresses like a young woman is debatable, but one thing is clear: he is extremely observant.

This much is also obvious in his painstakingly well-crafted directorial debut, Indignation. Having previously worked as a producer and screenwriter with such names as Ang Lee, Schamus turned to directing after being sacked from Focus Features in 2013. Based on the novel by Philip Roth, Indignation tells the moving story of Jewish student Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who attends college in Ohio in a bid to avoid inscription for the Korean War. There, he is forced to confront authority, religion and sexuality, while navigating his feelings for his troubled fellow student, Olivia (Sarah Gadon).

A piece of work by Philip Roth is not exactly the safest choice for a first movie – why did you choose to interpret this novel in particular?
I did think about the risks because it’s an odd film to try to take on, especially as a first-time director. But then I thought well I might as well risk flopping than playing it safe and coming out with something that never tried to do anything different. Indignation is a very late novel for Philip Roth and there is something different about it, something a bit more elegiac. I found I was able to separate Roth’s voice, which is so essential to his work, from the actual narrative destinies of these characters. When you’re transposing something from page to screen you lose the authorial voice, and in this case what remained was more than enough to try to make a movie.

If you lose that authorial voice, how do you go about bringing such a novel to the screen?
I think that a lot of people, when they adapt novels, attempt to somehow recreate stylistically in cinema what you associate with voice, that modality of great authors. And I think that can be a productive spur to doing something really cool stylistically but more often than not it’s a trap to attempt to do something that the medium doesn’t allow you to do. Cinema rarely does first person, it’s a weird thing. So I tried another approach, staying close to the characters and letting them come forward a bit more than in the novel format.

Is this why you chose to frame the movie using the character of Olivia?
The novel is so tightly embedded in this split consciousness between a 19-year-old from the 1950s who doesn’t understand anything and this older version of that self whose consciousness is still very much circumscribed by the point of view of that character. What this means is that characters like Olivia are always going to exist in a kind of cloud. But when you’re in the film, Olivia is as present as Marcus, even though the film is still tightly constructed around Marcus’s point of view. I needed a frame and I realised that the film is as much about Olivia, even though she is a relatively minor character. Also there is this way in which you can move your point of view through different characters even though that point of view remains the same. For example, in my mind, for what it’s worth, that old woman in the movie is actually Philip Roth: he’s sitting looking at something – and something is going on.
You definitely keep Roth’s acute observational detail throughout the film – was this something you gave a lot of thought to?
Yes, definitely. One of the great things is that Roth provides you with the chance to completely nerd out and to get the texture of things right. You really have that obligation. We would have near infinite conversations about all those details and we did try to work out various structures. Whether or not an audience consciously sees them, there are a lot of structures in the movie that I think give shape to it. It doesn’t really matter on a certain level, but it meant we had certain kinds of stories that at least subconsciously we were telling the audience.

You gave a speech some years ago about the future of cinema in which you argued that cinema is “already dead”. You have previously spoken about how you were thinking of Indignation when you wrote this speech. Was making this film, then, an exercise in catharsis?
Obviously that's part of the culture, tragedy is catharsis, and the aesthetic takes over and gives shape to something that allows you to purge all these huge, otherwise untenable, emotions about things like dying. I think this is, in a way, one of the functions of the art when we go to see movies like this. On the other hand, the actual making of that movie is anything but cathartic. It’s just getting up in the morning and going to work! And, weirdly, we had a blast making the movie.

Do you think in hindsight, though, the film is a representation of what you think about the future of cinema, given that it is a reflection on the past?
You get to meditate on these things on many different levels, yes. We shot digitally, but we are representing an era in time when people were mediating their own memories with film. So its strange, you’re doing a period piece using media that is foreign to the period in some ways. But you really have to figure out a bridge through media to get to the way in which people convey their own relationships, self images and images of others. So, you’re constantly ruminating on that gap in time between what you’re representing and how you’re representing it. But that has always been the case – all memories are constantly being constructed with new material.
Words by Imogen Robinson
Indignation is out in UK cinemas from November 18th.

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