Woodstock Film Festival - Conversation with James Schamus - Oct. 4, 2008
Conversation with Honorary Trailblazer James Schamus
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Ang Lee and James Schamus at Woodstock Film Festival Awards Ceremony. Photo by Brian Geldin.
Film critic Karen Durbin sat down with Focus Features CEO James Schamus Saturday during the Woodstock Film Festival for a conversation with distributor and often producer/screenwriter of Ang Lee’s films (Crouching, Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Hulk, Lust, Caution) about his career and what he’s currently up to as he would later that evening be bestowed and Honorary Trailblazer award. Below are some highlights of that discussion.
Durbin: What’s the first movie you ever saw at a theater?
Schamus: It’s so hard because for a lot of us for a certain age, I started film going at theaters under conditions that were quite different than now…back then the theaters didn’t list the starting times of movies…There was a very profound shift in distribution and exhibition practices that came in the wake in particular of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from Universal who insisted the starting times be published so that people would not be admitted into the theater after the start. It was a publicity stunt. It was something that would change the whole nature of film going, because up until that time, it was also a coincidence the rise in television as a competitor…the movie theater used to have an open door…It’s impossible to have a first movie, because it was more about the experience of being at the theater…It’s really hard. I have so many memories…Like Sarah Palin, I actually dodged the question.
Durbin: I read that at the age of 10, you wanted to be an architect and at the age of 18 you wanted to be an academic in literature. When did you see the light?
Schamus: At the age I’m at now…I still want to be an academic. I did get my doctorate two years ago in English at Berkley…I was hired as a film historian 19 years ago at Columbia and that’s where I still teach…My undergraduate lecture this semester is Introduction to Classical Film Theory.
Durbin: How did you start producing?
Schamus: I was in Berkley and went back to New York for a while. It was at that moment in time when what we called an independent film…the late 80s…when a lot of them were picking up cameras and started making feature length narrative films in a context that was outside of the studio system…It was the work of avant-garde filmmakers, but they were studio filmmakers…Pulling together all these different strands both financing, exhibition and the critical community…it was all happening in the 1980s with Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and moved into…Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon.
Durbin: What was your very first movie?
Schamus: Because I had absolutely no skills and I was surrounded by people who were all genius artists, the one thing I could do was say, ‘hey, does anyone need help raising money?’…There were certain limited partnership models and there were also pre-sales, particularly European television that they don’t have any more…you could patch together that, and believe it or not, there were grants. Then finally in the States, there were certain people who weren’t necessarily invested in independent cinema in the beginning, but who opened the door to stabilize and adjudicate at least some of us…for example American Playhouse on PBS…Lastly of course was the rise of video, which people remember when VHS tape came, it was the end of the film industry. Jack Valenti said this is going to kill the studio system…What happened was the first company that ever got capitalized to make and distribute movies for that market was a company called Vestron.
Durbin: What about Good Machine? When did you form that with Ted Hope?
Schamus: It was a great time, because Ted Hope actually knew how to make movies. What the idea was…we’re just here to help get the movie made…We really didn’t care if we were the producers, executive producers, the financiers, the salesman, the line producer, production manager…whatever it took, however we fit into the puzzle, we would just drop our piece in there and make sure the film got made.
Durbin: When did you start writing?
Schamus: I got to New York…and took an internship…I was the oldest living production assistant. I was in grad school…I was 27…It was a lesson in humiliation.
Durbin: When did you hook up with Ang Lee? Is Taking Woodstock a comedy?
Schamus: It still is. We’re shooting our 11th movie right now…Taking Woodstock…we’ve made six suicidingly depressing movies in a row. I realized, this is the longest mid-life crisis in the history of cinema…I don’t think anyone here was laughing too hard at Lust, Caution…I wouldn’t mind if somebody called it (Taking Woodstock) a comedy. It’s like our earlier funnier movies like The Wedding Banquet…they’re not knock it down funny movies. They’re funny because people are funny…(Taking Woodstock) is story based on a memoir…This is very difficult for me to say, but the way we got the material for the movie was that Elliot Tiber who wrote the memoir was in San Francisco. Ang and I were out there promoting Lust, Caution…(Elliot) gave Ang the book…that’s difficult for me to admit...because you get sued every time you read something that hasn’t gone through the agency, but that’s how it happened.
Durbin: What’s the story of Taking Woodstock?
Schamus: Elliot at the time was a schnook. It’s ’69. He was living in Greenwich Village where he’s an interior designer for the mafia at night clubs. Not getting paid. Completely broke. Gay. He has these insane tyrannical Russian Jewish parents who operate a kind of Jewish Bates Motel in a shitty Catskill dump called Bethel…Now it’s really nice. The bank is about to foreclose on (the motel)…which he’s not that sad about…Up in Bethel, he’s the president of the chamber of commerce…One day he hears the radio and it’s news that the town of Wallkill has pulled the permit on this hidden music festival. He goes, maybe I can have it my barn or the motel and he calls up Michael Lang…three weeks later, a half million people show up and his life is completely transformed and the motel is saved. This character has little as possible to do to making Woodstock happen, on the other hand, if he hadn’t picked up the phone, it wouldn’t have happened. We can’t tell the story of Woodstock. It’s too big…there’s too many perspectives on it…it is one of the great stories of American culture.