Asked during our recent chat (listen above) as to what made him choose Philip Roth’s “Indignation” for his directorial debut and Oscar-nominated producer, writer and lyricist James Schamus readily admits, “The honest answer to that question would probably reveal a depth of neurosis, anxiety, and politically incorrect urges that I probably should not be sharing with your readers.” Set in 1951, his acclaimed film stars Logan Lerman as Marcus, a working class Jewish student from New Jersey who grapples with sexual repression and cultural dissatisfaction when he attends college in Ohio and falls under the spell of the beautiful Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).
This one-time CEO of Focus Features also adapted the 2008 novel and was well aware of the difficulties of bringing a work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author to the screen. “Philip Roth novels are great because they’re novels,” says Schamus. “That voice, that sheer, brutal intelligence and honesty of that narrative voice, is unmatchable anywhere else.” In cinema, however, “what you’re left with is the characters, and what they do and what they say.”
Prior to stepping behind the camera for the first time, he reveals, “I decided to forget that I had the phone numbers of a lot of Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated artists who may have considered, if I called them, the opportunity to work with me.” Instead, “I decided to work with people who I felt are those people, and they just haven’t necessarily been recognized yet.” This included cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (“The Bling Ring”), production designer Inbal Weinberg (“Beasts of No Nation”), and costume designer Amy Roth (“Top Five”).
Schamus has received three Oscar nominations throughout his career: both Adapted Screenplay and Song for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and Best Picture for “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). He believes these awards “to have been an incredible boost to the profile of independent cinema, as Oscar voters have started to notice that great art doesn’t necessarily have to come in a $150 million package.” However, he notes “the costs of entry into the game for phase one and phase two campaigning have become increasingly prohibitive.”
During his tenure at Focus Features, Schamus chose to release films such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) and “The Constant Gardener” (2005) during the first half of the year, turning them into box office hits and Oscar champs. To that end, he’s thrilled to have this film premiere in the summer. “You don’t have to be released in October/November/December to take it all the way to the finish line.” In the case of his well-received debut, which merits a score of 81 at Rotten Tomatoes, he may well be right.