Over the last two decades, James Schamus — co-founder of Good Machine and former CEO of Focus Features — has been a beloved creative force, writing and producing too many movies to count (but here are a few: Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman), and finding himself as a frequent visitor at the Sundance Film Festival.
But this year, Schamus is in a brand-new position at the fest: first time director. Indignation, written and directed by Schamus and adapted from the 2008 Philip Roth novel, tells the story of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who in 1951 leaves his overbearing family and kosher-butcher shop in New Jersey to attend college in Ohio, avoiding the Korean War draft. It’s there that he falls for a beautiful co-ed (Sarah Gadon) and butts heads with the headmaster of the school (Tracy Letts) all of which threatens his family’s well-laid plans for him.
Schamus picked up the Roth novel at an airport in 2011. “I fell in love with these characters,” he says. “I had a real affinity for them.” But adapting and directing the film himself wasn’t necessarily the plan. “If you have the luck of writing screenplays for a quarter of a century and ask the question: ‘Should I direct this or should, I don’t know, Ang Lee direct this?'” He laughs. “It’s an easy question to answer so I never asked it.”
But after approaching a few different directors with the project and finding them all too busy, Schamus decided it was time to try his hand behind the camera. He first secured the rights and the blessings of Philip Roth. “Philip has been so supportive and respectful. Once the project was in our hands he stepped aside and said, ‘Do your own thing.’ He’s been nothing but generous that way.”
Finding an actor to portray Marcus was key, and Schamus, a fan of Lerman’s work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (“For a young actor to pull off that kind of work… I loved his restraint”) and Fury (“He was unbelievable in every scene in that movie — just incredible”) found he chose wisely.
“He’s the world’s nicest actor,” he says. “Everyone on the set was lovely but it’s great when you have a star help set the tone.”
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Production was just 24 days and filmed all over New York. Through it all, Schamus had a blast.
“I know this will sound silly,” Schamus says. “I’ve worked with 100 directors and I’ve written for them and produced for them. I’ve distributed them. I’ve financed their films. Very few of them ever let on just how much fun a job it actually can be. It was ridiculously fun. It was a very joyful experience.”
Indignation will premiere on Sunday night at the Eccles Theater.