Writer, producer, and film executive James Schamus has had about as brilliant a career in independent film as they come, and it just keeps getting better. The films he has worked on read like a list of the only films that really matter in the modern trajectory of independent cinema: The Wedding Banquet (1993), The Brothers McMullen (1995), Safe (1995), Walking and Talking (1996), The Ice Storm (1997), Happiness (1998), and the list goes on. His working relationship with director Ang Lee is well-documented, and the two have worked on nine films together, including the recent phenomenon that is Brokeback Mountain.
I spoke to Schamus the day before he left for Los Angeles to attend this year’s Academy Awards. In a surprise upset, Brokeback lost out to Crash, a montage drama about race issues in Los Angeles, for Best Picture. The film did, however, go home with Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay awards.
Rebecca Carroll: It’s a big year for independent film—what’s your position on the ‘indie heavy’ Oscars this year, which includes, of course, several nominations for your film, Brokeback Mountain?
James Schamus: I think that the historical horizon through which we interpret these moments is pretty limited. We look back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and think that’s when [independent film] started, and we always frame it in this independent versus studio kind of way. But quite frankly, a more appropriate horizon—one among many—would be the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when United Artists had movies like Midnight Cowboy, which was an X-rated gay movie that won Best Picture. So what’s so new about Brokeback Mountain?
RC: Right. I was really struck by a comment that I read in an article somewhere. You said that if people have a problem with Brokeback or the relationship portrayed in it, that’s really their problem and that you ‘really, truly don’t care.’ That comment and others made it seem to me like you knew this film was going to be big—how did you know?
JS: Well, you don’t know. You never know. But you do have to do two things. As a businessperson, you have to plan for the worst. But at the same time, you have to create structures that allow for the best. You have to seize opportunities and create conditions under which those opportunities can be seized. So that means you have to be able to at least imagine a happy future and then work towards that.
RC: And how does that strategy work with Brokeback?
JS: In many ways, the film is a very old-fashioned movie, and it maintains old-fashioned virtues—a lack of cynicism and a real commitment to the romance of the story. Of the movies out this year, Brokeback is probably one of the most ‘old Hollywood’ of them all, which of course makes it look totally revolutionary and new.
RC: How do you choose the films you work on—what appeals to you or attracts you to a project?
JS: In general, the initial attraction is not to a film but to a filmmaker. What we [at Focus Features] always try to do is to make movies and, sorry to trot out the chestnut here, but it is true, that if it is a movie we’re going to make, it is a movie that can only be made by one particular filmmaker. It has to be that person’s film, not a generic product. So we’re always looking for films that have a signature to them.
RC: Not films that other people aren’t making, but films that only a particular filmmaker can make—can you elaborate on that a little more?
JS: Sure. You listen to the radio, and you hear pop songs and it could be any number of mass-produced teenyboppers singing them, but when you hear Nina Simone or Bob Dylan sing, you know it’s them. We think of our films in very much the same way—they are the product of individual voices, not of a production line.
RC: Got it. And your relationship with Ang Lee? How did that start?
JS: Back in the day when Ted Hope and I had just started Good Machine, Ted had seen Ang’s short film Fine Line. He shared it with me, and we both said, ‘Wow, what is this guy doing?’ It had been five years since he’d made Fine Line at NYU, and he’d just won some money for a screenplay award in Taiwan. So we were able to hook up with him and help him make his first feature, Pushing Hands.
RC: What a great relationship that has been, right?
JS: Yeah, I’ll say. I’ve done all right.
RC: I’m going to throw out the titles of some of your films and you tell me the first thing that comes to mind—starting with Walking and Talking.
JS: I’m terrible at these kinds of games, but looking back at the incredible intersection of talents in that movie [Catherine Keener, who was nominated for an Academy Award this year for her role in Capote, Anne Heche, Liev Schreiber, and Todd Field, who went on to direct the critically acclaimed In the Bedroom], it’s pretty amazing. I guess the word that comes to mind for that film is nostalgia.
RC: The Wedding Banquet.
JS: It’s funny, I thought that The Wedding Banquet would be the film that people would be talking about this year with Brokeback, and there’s been so little reference to it, I’ve actually been quite surprised by that.
RC: Do you think it’s because the story of Brokeback has gotten lost in the flurry of press and hype and Oscar excitement?
JS: On a certain level, who cares? But I think [The Wedding Banquet] is just not a frame of reference for what’s happening with Brokeback, for any number of reasons, but one is because the framing of Brokeback is about the mainstream and what’s happening across the country. A foreign language movie that did quite well on the arthouse circuit a decade ago is just not a reference point.
RC: How is Brokeback Mountain special for you?
JS: Not to sound like a complete idiot, but this is the nicest movie we’ve ever had to make. From the crew to the shoot—everyone and everything—the whole experience was simply pleasant, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to make a good movie. You can have a very pleasant experience making a very lousy movie. But it’s the ninth film I’ve worked on with Ang, and we’ve both looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, this is just more fun than ever.’
RC: A good time, yeah—you got on ‘Oprah.’ That’s kind of crazy, isn’t it?
JS: It is. It’s amazing.
RC: Another film, Happiness.
JS: Happiness is a real landmark movie, especially for us [at Good Machine] as a company, because we ended up distributing it, and I really got very excited and interested with that aspect of the business through that experience. But more importantly, that film marked a particular moment in terms of the growth and maturity of American independent cinema.
RC: The films you’ve worked on all seem to have really strong writing in common—how hard is it to find a great script in this industry?
JS: It’s hard. We focus on directors, the kind of auteur aspect, but none of that is possible unless there’s a screenplay. And good screenwriters, especially on the independent side, tend to also be the directors. Because if you’re going to devote yourself to the craft of screenwriting, you’re really writing a movie that only one or two people can direct, and that reduces your odds quite phenomenally.
RC: What aspect of filmmaking do you like best?
JS: The good news is that I’m just lucky, because I have such variety in what I do. If I was writing all day long, I’d go stir crazy. If I was a producer all day long, my A.D.D. would take over. And if I was running a studio all day long, I’d start wearing suits.
RC: You don’t ever feel discombobulated?
JS: Stretched, yes, but not discombobulated. It’s all working toward the same goal, which is getting movies made that we like.
RC: And there’s no end in sight for great movies to be made. Whose work do you admire, and who might you like to work with in the future, or do you not think in those terms?
JS: Yeah, I don’t really think in those terms. I think this has been an incredible year for American cinema—the kind of independent or specialized films that are still working inside the coats and conventions of mainstream idioms.
RC: What do you think that says about our culture right now? And what might the fallout be?
JS: These things, these moments, come and go—you can talk about them cyclically, although I don’t know if that’s the right way to speak about them. I do think there is a political side to this, frankly. It was two years ago that Bush got reelected, and I think people finally woke up and started making movies about that anxiety.
RC: And anxiety is an element that makes for good films, right?
JS: I think so, yes.
RC: When you’re reading through a script, or hearing a synopsis or an opinion of a script, what do you wait for—what makes you think, ‘OK, this is a movie.’
JS: Even if you hear a negative opinion about something, you might hear one element that touches your imagination. It could be the context, a character—it’s that one thing, and you just never know what it will be.