Exclusive Interview: James Schamus

Sometimes interviewing a screenwriter can be awkward-- the guy's name is on the thing but it was heavily rewritten by the director, for example, or he's the kind of writer who simply doesn't do well in social situations. But James Schamus is not your average screenwriter. Not only has he written some of the best scripts of Ang Lee's career, including Lust, Caution and The Ice Storm, but he's also the president of Focus Features, one of the few independent distribution arms that still alive.

He's also super super nice and intelligent and ready to chat, maybe as a result of being a professor at Columbia University. Earlier this month we sat down to talk about Taking Woodstock, his new film with Ang Lee that tells the story of the famous event from the point of view of a young Jewish kid named Elliott, who made the whole event happen almost by accident. Schamus adapted the screenplay from the memoir by Elliott Tiber.

On the day of the Taking Woodstock junket there was a G.I. Joe junket in the same hotel, and he started by joking that I should ask him questions about G.I. Joe, even though neither of us had seen the film. If that doesn't intrigue you enough about the interview, know that we also discussed the Manson Family murders, Liev Schreiber's biceps, how Taking Woodstock is like a George Romero movie, and the surprising success of his "tiny little long sex art movie." Oh, and rocket suits. Check out the interview below.

Taking Woodstock opens today, August 28.

You could ask me anything about G.I. Joe. That would be much more interesting. I haven't seen it--

I haven't seen it either!

But I would come up with some great answers.

I hear the rocket suits are amazing.

The rocket suits are amazing. And so much time and energy was put into making those rocket suits feel like you were really rocketing in them.

So, why doesn't Focus Features make more movies featuring rocket suits?

We put them under the costumes. So people actually are wearing rocket suits.

So Demetri Martin is wearing a rocket suit in this movie?

Exactly. It gave the extra edge to his performance.

What are your personal associations with Woodstock?

I's funny. I have very odd memory filters for it. I was a kid living in North Hollywood in the hills, and I and I all my friends were under complete lockdown during Woodstock. A week before Woodstock, a few miles down the road, the La Biancas were murdered, and Sharon Tate was murdered. There was definite fear in the air.

So when you came back into this, did you have to get over the sense of darkness around the event?

I didn't have to push much aside, because I really had a genuine connection with what Woodstock was for people. But part of that is the reality of the surroundings. You think you know this stuff going in. Bethel, New York, for one weekend, was the third-largest city in New York, and there wasn't one reported incidence of violence. So it actually happened. It's not a joke. You don't want to make fun of that. You don't want to be superior, like we know better now.

How did you go about casting this motley crew of theater actors and film actors in all these parts?

Part of it was just collecting friends or something. And of course we did Milk with Emile. This young guy, he's just got the chops. And the story about Demetri has been rehashed so many times. Literally my daughter said, 'Hey, check out this thing on YouTube.' The response to Demetri for me was very personal. The genre of standup comedy has many masters that I admire, but as a culture is pretty mean and hard-edged. That doesn't appeal to me as a person. And suddenly here's a stand-up comedian of a new generation who's got a gentility and a reflectiveness and intelligence that was just awe-inspiring to me. And as I was working on the script, I kept hearing his voice. That is the character.

It seems clear that a lot had to be cut out from Elliott's memoir. How did you make the choices on how to focus the story?

We didn't adapt the book. I described it to Ang like a zombie movie. First one hippie shows up, then a bunch of hippies come, then you all become hippies. It's like a George Romero movie. So that was the story. The original idea was to set up his life here in New York a little bit more. But there was so much going on, and it was going to be a two and a half hour movie.

What was the flash of genius that got Liev Schreiber to play the drag queen Vilma?

Honestly, I was a little bit on pins and needles. It was such a crazy idea. He's the actor of his generation, I think. He's it. But also he's big now.

I'm sure he'd just been playing Sabretooth.

Exactly. That's why, when he showed up, even I did a double take. His bicep is bigger than Demetri's head! I said to Ang, I just insist on having somebody in this part who has good legs. He's just fearless. The guy will just go right in.

How do you include the producer part of your brain when you're writing the script?

I've been doing it for 20 years with Ang, and Ang constantly tries to use that on me. I'll be on set, and I'll say, 'We're losing light, we've got to make the end of the day, just cut the scene here, it's fine.' And he literally says to me, 'But James, your precious words!' On a certain level, once I've gotten through a first draft, let's get to know these stories, after that screenwriting is basically an instrumental craft. [You never walk out of a movie and think] 'That was one of the shittiest movies I've ever seen, but the screenplay was fantastic!' That never happens. On the other hand, you don't come out of Hamlet and go, that was the worst production of Hamlet I've ever seen-- boy, Hamlet must suck. So writing for the screen really is a rhetorical task as much as it is an artistic one. Writing for Ang, I'm trying to write something that's going to get him a little bit scared, a little bit excited, enough to commit two years of his life and let him take the driver's seat from there.

What's the thrill that comes out of writing that you don't get in your day job running Focus?

You get to live in a fantasy life a little bit for a while. You get to see something in your mind and follow it, there's freedom there, funnily enough. Writing, I think for most writers and screenwriters, 90% of the work is when you're walking the dog, taking a shower, staring out the window, these characters are alive and you're trying to grasp that almost meditatively.

The last film you and Ang Lee made together, Lust, Caution, had all these difficulties, in that it was in Chinese and NC-17. How is it making something lighthearted like this?

Yeah, thank the Lord. Lust, Caution was for us such an amazing experience, again it underscored that the current configuration with Ang is really a sense of obligation and responsibility to the work, and also to the audience. The irony of it is here it was considered this tiny little long sex art movie. [But in China] it was probably one of the top two or three most important pieces of Chinese culture in the last 100 years. There's nothing like it. Its probably the most written-about movie ever in the Chinese language, obsessively so. Very controversial, and a massive hit, thank the Lord. It swept their Oscars.

So that's the world I live in. Sometimes it works here, sometimes it doesn't. There's that nuance that helps us keep going. Making sure that he's working responsibly. He's a very good citizen, thank you Ang, so economically we're in a context where you can continue to take risks, and we still know at the end we'll be fine. I feel that responsibility, just to my team frankly. I don't want to give them some loser movie that's just a vanity project.

Do you have a test for that, so you can know that about your movies objectively?

You never know. In this business, half of our hits have always been the ones like-- hey, the gay cowboy movie, sure. Or Sofia Coppola. What you have to do is create an architecture that's open for success, you can seize it, you can ride to it, you can build it. We always have to push out a little bit, always take that risk. But there is no formula.

There have been so many death knells for independent cinema lately. How are you avoiding that? How are you changing your process in response?

There are two things. One, I know this sounds smarmy-- we're doing really well. We're still alive. Look at Coraline, Milk is here. My year is fine. We've got the Coen Bros. coming up [their next movie, A Serious Man], and 9. We stopped playing by the rules a while ago and just started going, what the hell. Everything is falling apart around us, why not just trust our instincts, trust the creativity of the team. And make sure everybody's having fun and working hard, but also know that we're bringing something different out there. That's all. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. Away We Go, not a winner financially. But otherwise we've done well.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend