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Time for Outrage: James Schamus on Indignation

Walter Bernstein and James Schamus (Photo by Gustavo Rosa)

Whether he is pitching a movie, essaying the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer or teaching his Columbia Film Program students Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, writer, producer and now director James Schamus understands the power of discourse. In fact, if you’re a longtime Filmmaker reader, you’ll have read his arguments in these pages over the years, from his “Long Live Indie Film” debate with Ted Hope back in the ’90s of their production company, Good Machine, to his more recent — and mortal — “23 Fragments on the Future of Cinema” just a few issues ago. Now, Schamus continues one of the most fascinating careers in independent film by stepping into the director’s chair with a rigorous adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel, Indignation, that is both a smart period romance as well as a picture very much in dialogue with the present day.

Set in 1951, as the Korean War is raging, Indignation is the story of a young college freshman, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), who escapes both the dark premonitions of his overbearing father, a kosher butcher in Newark, New Jersey, as well as the draft by enrolling in a small liberal arts college in Winesburg, Ohio. An atheist and a virgin, however, he’s flummoxed by what he encounters in Winesburg, including a first date with campus beauty Olivia (Sarah Gadon) that ends, mysteriously, in oral sex.

If you’ve read anything about this beautifully acted film, you’ve undoubtedly heard of its centerpiece, an intensely argumentative 15-minute dialogue between Marcus and Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Arguing the philosophy of Bertrand Russell as well as the school’s religious requirements, the two go at it in a scene that is, by turns, thrilling, uncomfortable and hilarious. And while the reviews are all hailing the scene’s razor-sharp performances, it’s worth also noting its structural boldness. Bisecting the film, this long, intense exchange gives clarity to the film’s rhetorical designs. Indignation is many things — a Roth-ian coming-of-age tale and a mordant treatise on young love among them — but it’s also a film about how what may seem like the randomness of fate is actually the byproduct of a swirl of cultural and political forces.

To converse with Schamus — who, full disclosure, is a friend who has been (and is at the moment) a producing partner — we were thrilled to have had, sitting across from him, legendary screenwriter Walter Bernstein. In the early ’50s, having spent much of the previous decade as a World War II reporter for the Army’s official magazine, Bernstein, writing then for the Hollywood studios, found himself blacklisted for his support of left-wing causes. But Bernstein kept working, writing secretly and eventually channeling those experiences into the screenplay for Martin Ritt’s 1976 movie, The Front. His many other credits include Fail-Safe — which, in its critique of nuclear war as a foreign policy instrument, is still required viewing — Semi-Tough and Yanks. Bernstein also sits on the council at the Writers Guild of America East and is an adjunct professor at New York University.

When interviewed several years ago about how he teaches his students, Bernstein told The Brooklyn Rail, “What disturbs and distresses me is that the subject matter is so bad. They don’t want to write about anything personal… They don’t want to engage. It’s not that they should be writing political screenplays, but the subject matter should have some kind of relation to the world as it is.” Here, Bernstein and Schamus talk not only about the accuracy of Schamus’s imagining of 1951 but also about the relationship of their work to the world — as it was, as it is and as it may frighteningly be. — Scott Macaulay

Schamus: Walter, I remember when, in the deepest depths of my middle age, I decided to take on my first directing gig, and you sent me one of my all-time favorite emails. You quoted a director with whom you’d worked with, George Cukor. You said he said to you about directing, “Don’t tell anyone, but it’s the easiest job in pictures.”

Bernstein: I remember that. Cukor was very good that way. I mean, he allowed people to do things you would think ordinarily a director would not — the movement of the camera, for example. He was concentrated on the actors. That was his concern — that they be real. There’s a funny story about Jack Lemmon and Cukor. He did Lemmon’s first movie, It Should Happen to You. His first scene, Lemmon was just all over the place, acting up a storm. And Cukor stopped it and said, “You’re doing too much. Cut it down.” He did it again, the same thing. They did it four or five times, and Cukor kept bringing him down. Finally, Lemmon got up and said, “Okay, I’m not acting.” And Cukor said, “That’s it.”

Schamus: You wrote a film for him, which is probably my favorite title of all your movies, Heller in Pink Tights. Which, clearly, because George Cukor directed it, is the most gay Western ever made.

Bernstein: Heller, I think it was originally a novel by Louis L’Amour, and Dudley Nichols had written an outline for it. And then he got very sick. And they’d already started. I don’t know what they started shooting, but we were in production. I got hired, and I wrote it partially from the outline and partially from otherwise, the day they were shooting, basically.

Schamus: Those are the best jobs.

Bernstein: They’re wonderful because you’re a hero if you bring in anything. They say, “Wow, you did it.” And if it’s no good, you have a very good excuse.

Schamus: The words in that email, honestly, were the ones I remembered the most going into the process, and they were, in some ways, quite true. I’m not saying directing was the easiest job, but it was certainly, at least for me, the most fun. But the other thing about directing, especially at a certain age, is that the opportunity to completely and humiliatingly fail rises fairly exponentially when compared to writing. The great thing about failing as a screenwriter is that there really are only two possible paths that the journey can take after that spectacular initial failure of a terrible script. Number one, nobody makes it, so nobody ever knows what a terrible job you did. And number two, somebody makes it, but the mere fact that they were stupid enough to make the movie based on that script makes them much more open to ridicule and criticism than you. 

Bernstein: That’s true. I was lucky in that the directors I worked with put the script on the screen. I mean, they didn’t want to be writers, so whatever was up there, I felt was mine. If it wasn’t good, it wasn’t good, basically.

Schamus: We had this great event that the Academy put on a couple of weeks ago, a screening of your movie The Front, Marty Ritt’s 1976 film starring Woody Allen. It’s less than loosely based on your own experience of having been blacklisted in the 1950s. And we got to screen a 35mm print, which was pretty awesome — the intensity and reality of that particular story on a 35mm print really well projected. And that movie, of course, takes place at the more or less exact time that Indignation takes place.

Bernstein: Yes, during the Korean War.

Schamus: We’re in 1951 in Indignation, and you were initially blacklisted in 1950?

Bernstein: 1950, yes.

Schamus: And I insisted, and you obliged, that you appear in Indignation. You’re there in the shul, in the temple doing Kaddish. Did you ever think in 1951 that in 2016 you’d be onscreen in a movie set in 1951 about repression?

Bernstein: No. (Laughs)

Schamus: Well, talent will out. But let’s talk a little bit about the early 1950s and a little about now. I first got to know you when I got involved with the Writers Guild of America. You’re on the council here at the Writers Guild East, and, about 15 years ago, I got involved in the negotiating committee for the basic agreement. We were preparing for negotiations with the studios at a time when something called “digital” was just an idea but cable was starting to be a reality. There was a discussion about residuals, about how we were going to, as creative workers, figure out how to maintain some kind of connection to the success or failure of the work we were doing as it went downstream in the chain of windows and media. And as those media changed, both in terms of the digital nature of the distribution, but also in terms of ownership and this wild, massive increase in the vertical integration of the business, these new monopolies were sprouting up. The people who owned TV stations were owning movie studios, and then they were also building out the beginnings of what we now know as the Internet.

And those discussions got pretty heated at a moment in time when the guild culture was not that political. There were very few people like you around, who had that consciousness. In the middle of that process, I ended up selling my company, Good Machine, and forming Focus Features and becoming the head of a studio. I was able to stay on the committee because I was also, as you remember, one of the radical faction. And then I thought, it is a little weird that the studio head is actually a card-carrying member of the radical faction of the negotiating team — probably I should find a way to exit stage left! But those discussions led to a connection between guild members on the West Coast and guild members on the East, under your patronage and guidance. There was Howard Rodman and so many others on the West Coast and a bunch of folks here, and a complete shift of the political makeup of the guild leadership. And, eventually, a couple of negotiations later, we ended up with the biggest labor strike in Hollywood history since the ’50s, right? So that was a wild moment to get to meet you and know you. 

Bernstein: The guild did change. It used to be much more insular and much more constricted in what it did.

Schamus: After one of those guild meetings, I remember standing at the top of the stairs going down to 57th Street with Warren Leight, a wonderful writer and a fantastic guild leader. And you exited the building, and then turned back to help somebody else go down the stairs and get into a cab. And the guy you helped down the stairs was a guy named Budd Schulberg. Give us some backstory on that, because the readership of Filmmaker in 2016 probably would not know how extraordinary a sight that was.

Bernstein: Budd Schulberg was the son of a man named B.P. Schulberg, who had been the head of Paramount Pictures at a very young age, before he crossed other titans there and they kicked him out.

Schamus: It was back in the 1920s.

Bernstein: Yes, back then. Budd grew up in Hollywood, went to college at Dartmouth, and I met him there my freshman year. He had graduated the year before and had come back to spend some time there writing a novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Budd was terribly nice to me, and we became friends. And I remember after, we didn’t see much of each other. He came back at one point with Scott Fitzgerald, when they were working on a screenplay. Fitzgerald was drunk mostly, but I liked Budd very much. I looked up to him. He was a good writer, a serious writer, and he was also a Communist. I was beginning to believe in it, and he kind of took me under his wing. When I graduated in 1940, I went out for the summer to Hollywood and visited him. He had gotten married, and he was kind of the young prince among the left-wing writers.

Then, the ’50s and the blacklist happened. He was called to testify, and he gave names. And I never saw him again after that. I was shocked — I couldn’t understand why he had done that. I mean, his book, What Makes Sammy Run? had been very stupidly reviewed in Communist newspapers, and I think that hurt him. And then, about 15 years ago at a wedding on Long Island of somebody we both knew, Budd was there with his then wife. I had known her separately as a friend. There were a lot of people there, and she came up to me and [asked] if I would go and say hello to Budd, that it would mean a lot to him. I had mixed feelings. And then I figured, it’s been a long time.

Schamus: It would have been about 50 years.

Bernstein: It had been a very long time. And, you know, he didn’t kill children.

Schamus: We don’t know that for sure, but yes, I think we can assume.

Bernstein: So I went up to him and said hello, and we talked for a bit. The sky didn’t fall down. And that was it. I saw him and then afterward, he was on the guild council, and I would see him at guild meetings and we didn’t talk about it. We talked about football. He did a lot of good stuff, like working with writers up in Harlem. I said the other night at a gathering that he was a good man who did a bad thing, really.

Schamus: But there was never an accounting. There was never a confession.

Bernstein: No.

Schamus: There was never that moment you would’ve written in a screenplay. Life is different from screenplays, it turns out.

Bernstein: He was a casualty, Budd was.

Schamus: Well, you were a casualty, too, but you soldiered through.

Bernstein: I never thought of myself as a casualty.

Schamus: You were.

Bernstein: Really? You know, I miss some of that period. We had a community of blacklisted people. We helped each other. People needed to pay the rent. We’d get up the money somehow. If a writer had problems, we would help. And it kind of opened up an area of generosity for me, personally, that I didn’t know was there. I miss that part of it, you know? When the blacklist was finished, which was great, people were able to go back to work. It went back to our dog-eat-dog business.

Schamus: I rewatched The Front recently and, of course Zero Mostel, who co-stars in the film, was himself blacklisted, and many of his own experiences got interwoven into your script — the Catskill resort stuff and all of that. When we were preparing Indignation, Inbal Weinberg, our production designer, found a trove of recordings of The Goldbergs. Most Americans reading this now won’t know that in the 1950s, one of the most popular TV shows for a couple of seasons was about a New York Jewish family headed by Mama Goldberg, who speaks in this Yiddishy, shticky, “mama knows best” kind of way. And of course her co-star, Philip Loeb, was blacklisted and committed suicide. I know that he was in your thoughts when you were working out Mostel’s part.

Bernstein: Originally, that was who it was based on.

Schamus: I watched a lot of The Goldbergs in researching for Indignation. I was interested in the accents, especially for Logan Lerman, who plays the hero of the movie, Marcus Messner. Of course you can go back, as we did, and listen to early radio interviews from Roth — clearly there’s an autobiographical element to the part. But [The Goldbergs] made me confident knowing that I could keep the accent pretty down, pretty low. The kids then were already very assimilated in their mannerisms, and in their voice, their speech patterns. Even in The Goldbergs, the children are quite American, and that kind of both cultural and generational divide plays out in the voices.

Bernstein: They had the accents of the street, which was an amalgam of the Italian kids, or whoever was in their neighborhood.

Schamus: To have that kind of melancholic consciousness of Philip Loeb — having a blacklisted actor in this very cheesy, candy-colored mass product — really touched me, because it obviously is about what Indignation is about, what Philip Roth was going back to, that brewing storm of repression and an atmosphere verging on terror. I don’t know if you remember this, but I showed you the rough cut of Indignation, and you had some notes. 

Bernstein: I remember we talked about the length of the scene [in the Dean’s office].

Schamus: I remember some eyebrow raising.

Bernstein: Well, I think everything’s too long. I think movies are too long. I find I’m getting more impatient. I want to get on with it. But that particular scene, I was held by it. [The actors] are both so good in it.

Schamus: For me, the challenge of that scene was knowing that there was a structure to it that would always be latent, that there was a story happening in that scene that was being told, but that that was not a story of the manifest dialogue. First off, one of the characters is in fact literally dying in front of us. He’s being murdered — his body is erupting; his appendix is bursting. You are watching a 19 year old go to the brink of death, and therefore, he starts talking in ways that he’s really not used to talking. He’s also got a guy sitting across from him, who is more than willing to press every button as he keeps on going, and if the scene does work, it’s because Tracy Letts, who is playing the dean, was able to tap into a sense of genuine love for this kid. Really, he just wants this kid to be happy.

Bernstein: He wants to help him.

Schamus: He really does. The other weird structural piece is that, on the one hand you’ve got a villain, or an antagonist, and then you have your hero, your protagonist. They’re going at it and [the dialogue] keeps escalating. And this poor kid just keeps going for it and you’re thinking, “You don’t have to take that bait — no, no, no!” And, as I pointed out to the actors, every single thing that Tracy says is true. It’s in fact our hero who is often lying in the scene. Truth is on the side of the antagonist, which was interesting to me.

That scene was both the easiest and the most difficult for me to write. It was easy because, most of all, I was simply transcribing from the book. And most difficult because I had to amend and edit and synthesize and boil down a few things. It was much longer in the book, even. I had to write transitional stuff — in and out points, things like that. And I sweated it because when you’re adapting, sometimes you can just grab stuff off the page. This particular novel had so much recorded dialogue; it was very easy for me. Roth’s dialogue was perfectly cinematic, and those scenes that I had to create, since I’d had the gift of such a strong set of voices from the characters, were very easy for me to write, even though they weren’t in the book. The hard writing is when you have to actually intercut your own writing with somebody like Philip Roth’s and make it look like it’s all the same. I don’t know if you’ve figured this out, but I’m not Philip Roth.

Bernstein: It’s seamless in the movie — I don’t know where Roth leaves off and Schamus comes on. It works.

Schamus: Thank you, but it’s the fine stitching that kills me.

Bernstein: Well, it also depends on how much respect you have for what you’re adapting. You know, in Semi-Tough, for example, I just threw out the book and kept the names. It’s a football team and that’s it, and then I wrote something. I didn’t have to pay any attention to the book.

Schamus: I wouldn’t say that my relationship to Philip Roth is one of respect; it was more one of just pure terror.

Bernstein: I would be scared.

Schamus: Abject fear pretty much sums up that relationship — oh, man. But he was very nice. He gave me, as a filmmaker, the greatest gift an author can give to a filmmaker who’s adapting one of his or her works. I sent him the screenplay before we started preproduction and he refused to read it.

Bernstein: Good for him.

Schamus: Can you imagine? If he had hated it, what was I going to do? You think I was going to go ahead and make the movie? That was such a gift.

Well, Walter, from what you know of 1951, what did we get right? What did we get wrong? I wasn’t around, so this is all make believe. We’re using digital technology. We’re using people whose bodies have been eating the hormones in the chicken. They’ve been fed a different diet culturally and materially. There’s got to be something weird about seeing a movie that takes place in a moment in time when you were living probably at the height of your consciousness.

Bernstein: I don’t know whether I have an answer to that. I mean, it was the period. There’s a strong sense that this is what the period was. This is how people acted in that time, and I went with it. I was interested in the people. And I didn’t think the mise-en-scène was laid on.

Schamus: I tried. I’m lucky that so far the film has been well received, but there were some dings that we got in Sundance from some of the younger critics, because I refused a visual language that is now a bit of a norm in independent cinema. There’s no handheld, there’s almost no Steadicam. The only reason we used Steadicam was for budgetary reasons — I didn’t have time or crew to lay the track and dolly the way I wanted to. But, also, I wanted a weight on the camera — I wanted the weight of that era to mediate these images. I framed very specifically, and that was, funnily enough, tough for the crew at the beginning. These days, especially when you’re shooting low budget in New York City, you’re working with crews that work primarily in television, because there’s so much television production going on right now. And what that means is that camera operators are working primarily with a Steadicam, or are working handheld, and their job is not to set frame, because in fact they’re shooting often in 4K. Their job is to capture as much of the image and the scene as they can and to move with the action, stay on whatever’s happening. They know that the framing is going to happen in postproduction. Digital postproduction now allows producers and editors to go, “Oh, let’s just zoom in on that guy and do a close-up.” The resolution of these cameras and the way these things are shot are such that you can just kind of set frame later on and you don’t have to worry about it on set.

So I’ll never forget one of the few days we could afford to do a second camera. It was for the big scene in the dean’s office. We brought in one of the really great camera operators in New York. We set frame, and I go back to the monitors, which, because it was very tight in the room, were around the corner. And I say, “Action.” Logan walks in and the camera just kind of drifts up to kinda catch a nicer [angle]. And I’m like, “Cut.” I go on set [and say], “Well, we set the frame.” [The operator says], “Oh, okay, great.” “Action.” Logan walks in. Suddenly the camera is drifting over again. “Cut.” I said, “Dude, what are you doing?” And he goes, “Well, you hired me, and I’m an operator. This is what I do.” I’m like, “No, I hired you because A, the union tells me I have to have a guy standing by the camera to press the button. And B, you’re really helpful to me by letting me know how the frame is going to work, and how [the actors] are going to go in and out of the light. But the minute I say action, I really mean it — don’t fucking move the camera!”

I would say the first hour of the day, he was visibly frustrated — actually quite upset. But by lunchtime, he had gone 180. He just was like, “This is the coolest.” He was so great to work with, really helping invent shots. It was one of those moments when I thought, “Wow, we are doing something actually quite odd here for this era of independent filmmaking.” But I wanted the images, the scenes, the words and the acting to be filtered through, in a sense, a medium that isn’t an imitation of what people would have mediated with in terms of their audio visual images from 1949, 1950, 1951, but that somehow triggered what it was like. So even the editing is much slower. Everything’s much more locked off so that the style of the film relates in its own way to the early ’50s style of Hollywood filmmaking. The camera moves, of course, with the actors, but it doesn’t move as often as you think. And there’s none of that handheld shaky thing.

Bernstein: Thank god.

Schamus: But you never know. The next movie, Allah willing, I direct, I may well be running around with a camera on my shoulder or with an iPhone. It’s really what the movie dictates.

Bernstein: What the movie tells you it should be.

Schamus: Yes. Well, 1951, when Indignation is set, and today, 2016 — the politics are starting to seem almost as interesting. Did you ever think you would see this moment come back?

Bernstein: No. That period was really a period of fear. People were scared. They were scared of Russia. They were scared of the bomb. What you don’t get now that you got then was situations where somebody you knew would be coming down the street toward you and would cross the street so as not be seen with you. But, then, any time there’s a threat in this country, fine, out go civil liberties.

Schamus: For me, just the title alone, Indignation, is perversely inspirational. It’s an oddly un-American word. Most Americans would equate indignation with anger. But being indignant is different from being angry, and it involves a very, to me, complex set of emotional triggers and structures. It has a lot to do with your dignity being taken away from you, but in your being indignant, you are regaining or holding onto your dignity. The only way you get your dignity back is by being indignant, right? So it’s an interesting word and an interesting concept.

I was reminded of another one of my heroes, a guy named Stéphane Hessel, who’s in my pantheon along with a guy named Walter Bernstein. Hessel was somebody who had survived World War II, survived the Holocaust. He had actually escaped a number of times from concentration camps. I believe he had a German Jewish father and a French mother. His parents were the models for two of the three grown-ups in Jules and Jim. He became a diplomat and helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Eleanor Roosevelt, and he became a very radical thinker in France all the way through his nineties. At a certain moment of time, when he was in his nineties, he helped inspire the Occupy Wall Street movement and wrote a pamphlet in France called Indignez-vous!, which is very difficult to translate into English, but it means “time for outrage.” And this became the rallying cry of the Occupy Movement in Europe. In Spain, for example, there was the biggest, most sweeping version of Occupy, a real near political revolution. They were called the Los Indignados, the folks who were a part of that movement. And so, when I think of that narrative and of Stéphane Hessel, and I think of where Roth is going back to with this book in 1951, trying to recover a sense of indignity over the American Empire and the way in which its systems and cultural and political and personal and sexual mutations work to sustain that empire, and what that does to young people; it felt very contemporary to me.

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