INDIGNATION: ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEW WITH JAMES SCHAMUS AND LOGAN LERMAN
JULY 18, 2016, WASHINGTON, DC
– FLO DWEK, WOMEN IN FILM AND VIDEO (WIFV)
– DEAN ROGERS, THE ROGERS REVUE
DEAN ROGERS: Thank you. Let me start with you, Logan, I would like to know what drew you to the role of Marcus Messner for this film?
LOGAN LERMAN: Well, the strength of Schamus’s adaptation. I mean, above all, if anything else, that’s really what drew me to the role. I guess initially, the first thing that really sparked my interest was the fact that James was making a movie and I was a big fan of his. And that made me read it quickly, knowing that this was James’s project; and I read it right away and was amazed by the script, particularly the scene in the Dean’s office, where I was just in shock that this was happening, that this was a real scene in a script; that was unusual. And yeah, I was just excited about it, and started working on it right away.
DEAN ROGERS: Amazing.
WIFV: I’d like to start by thanking you both for being here today; I feel privileged to be here. Right off the bat, I’d like to know what made you decide to jump in and make this film, and now that you’re directing, what your thoughts are on the future of indie films.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Well, I’ve been swimming in that pond for a long time. Almost 30 years. And although the independent film landscape is constantly changing, if you’re willing to stay in the trenches and just keep fighting – you can and do have the privilege of making movies that aren’t necessarily cookie-cutter.
And I think there’s still a vitality to the American independent film scene. I know that every year there’s always the annual, “end-of-the-American-independent-cinema” essay that one is obliged to write or read; but then you pick yourself up, and say, wait a second, there were actually some very cool movies this year; people seem to be making them.
So, you know, look at the nature of the business – of those ups and downs. I had the opportunity to make it, because I have the privilege of getting fired from my studio gig doing features after 13 years and finding myself happily unemployed. And I thought, what a luxury this is, at this point in late middle age to try something new. And obviously we had to do it responsibly for a price. I mean, we only had 24 days to shoot the movie – it wasn’t what I’d call a luxurious shoot. Mr. Lerman did not have his own dressing room!
WIFV: That’s a good one!
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, Mr. Lerman did not have the ability to go back to his trailer between scenes because he didn’t have a trailer.
LOGAN LERMAN: Yeah, that’s true (laughing).
JAMES SCHAMUS: No, and no “honey wag” – we didn’t even have a honey wagon. We didn’t have it in the budget.
LOGAN LERMAN: Okay, I can’t stand trailers anyways, I don’t use them. It’s nice to have a private toilet, though. That’s always good.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah. (laughter)
WIFV: So, what happened?
JAMES SCHAMUS: So, I said to everybody, look, because Logan is in every single movie, and this is a tough show, if after the first couple days he comes and says, I need someplace just to go take a nap, or just to get away – then we would have found at contingency.
LOGAN LERMAN: You guys accommodated me with a room in most of the buildings.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, we would have found a corner or something, but still basically we’re still just all hanging out all day long.
LOGAN LERMAN: Yeah, I like to be on sets.
WIFV: Well, it felt very pulled together, trailer or not; on screen you looked like you were very well rested!
LOGAN LERMAN: Oh well, you know, I was well rested but that had to do with James making this a very comfortable shooting experience in terms of the hours we worked. I mean, we did not work long hours, compared to other projects.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Look, I really learned from people at the top that you can make pretty good movies and not kill your crew and cast, and I was really determined to do that.
LOGAN LERMAN: It’s the best set to work on.
WIFV: That’s very empathic of you – to be such a caring director is marvelous. Dean, your turn.
DEAN ROGERS: James, I’d like to know whether you feel the themes of INDIGNATION are prevalent to today’s issues.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Well, let me ask this question. (I’ll ask a question of the question.) So, it’s 1951 – and there are folks who actually had a burst of liberation during World War II out in the workplace. And now, this gigantic thumb of repression starts to come right back down on them in this weirdly hyper-sexualized culture. But along with this kind of weird shaming, you have this bizarre foreign policy that has us embroiled in these wars overseas that nobody can figure out why we’re in. And it just seems there’s no resolution in sight. And in fact, millions of young Americans are getting caught up in this, in a war in a place where people don’t even really confront on a map.
And you’ve got the rise of a paranoid, almost fascist political movement with the McCarthy era…so, obviously, this has nothing whatsoever to do with 2016. [Right?] I object to the assumption behind your question, quote, end quote. It is where Philip Roth is towards the end of his career. He’s in his 70s and he knows he’s going into retirement, and he’s going to stop writing, and he goes back to his youth at this moment. And I think there is a reason why he calls the novel Indignation. I think that he is tapping into a kind of anger at where the world is returning and has something to say about it.
WIFV: Yes, absolutely. I really wanted to know a little about Philip Roth himself. I take it that he has looked at the adaptation, and he has actually talked to you. Is that correct?
JAMES SCHAMUS: Well, here’s how it works, which has worked out, okay, because I did something very stupid, at least in my career, one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.
WIFV: What exactly did you do?
JAMES SCHAMUS: Before we started pre-production I sent Philip Roth the screenplay.
JAMES SCHAMUS: I thought, just ethically, it was important, but the fact is, if he would have hated it or disliked it strongly, I probably would have called off the shoot.
DEAN ROGERS: Right.
JAMES SCHAMUS: So, he’s Philip Roth, we’re not, and he did me an incredible favor, I mean really one of the greatest favors anybody has ever done to me in my life.
WIFV: Tell us!
JAMES SCHAMUS: He refused to read the script.
DEAN ROGERS: Wow.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah. And that was such a gift, what a relief, right, it was just a relief. He said no, it’s your movie, you make your movie. He did watch the film when we were in post-production. I invited him to come to a screening, and he wrote us the most beautiful statement, which my producer got to read at the World Premiere at Sundance, so we’re just blessed. I mean it’s the best possible version of that story that I could ever give you.
WIFV: That is so moving to hear. I’m really so glad to know that.
JAMES SCHAMUS: It was lovely.
WIFV: He’s one of my favorites, and I think this is his 29th novel, so that says a lot about him, his character and his empathy as well.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, it was a hats-off.
WIFV: Amazing. Thanks for sharing that.
DEAN ROGERS: All right, Logan, this is for you. And this is related to the last interview we had four years ago. I’d like to know how does the role of Marcus compare to the role of Charlie in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER – were there any similarities or differences?
LOGAN LERMAN: Yeah, I mean it’s about two young men trying to find themselves in this world that they live in, and they discover who they are and, I guess, who they want to be.
DEAN ROGERS: Thanks.
WIFV: So, back to our audience of independent film makers – where do you see indie films going, in light of what’s happening now – with so many newcomers making films on a shoestring, even on their iPhones, and all these high-level actors coming into indies. What’s happening there?
JAMES SCHAMUS: Again, you know, what’s new is old, what’s old is new; the details change and so do the challenges. In many ways, you have to relearn things constantly. But to be honest, I don’t feel there’s a real difference or a crisis. And I know that’s funny, because people really want to cling to that narrative, that’s meaningful for them.
But look, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, suddenly filmmakers in places like the United States and France were picking up these new-fangled 16mm cameras that have been lying around since World War II. They had essentially been military tools for recording. And then, in the 70’s somebody said, you’re recording sound on magnetic tape, and the technology is actually pretty much the same for recording image, so what the heck, let’s give that a shot.
And then in the early 70s people started incorporating videos in into their work. And suddenly, we have these magnetic tapes popping up in people’s homes, and the MPAA and Jack Valenti (may he rest in peace, very funny guy), sues because it’s the end of the film business as we know it, right – VHS tapes! But then again, TV was the end of the film business as we knew it – remember that one?
DEAN ROGERS: Yeah.
JAMES SCHAMUS: And then DVDs were kind of in – and then, of course, they all saved the film business.
WIFV: Yes, so obsolescence was always just on the horizon.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yes, and it always is, it always is. You know, the fact is, that in places like the United States, movie audiences are getting more into movies. I mean, it is true, on the one hand, there is just more to distract you from the big screen. But on the other hand, even with DVD sales, there haven’t been plummeting DVD sales [in response to] the rise of online that was supposed to basically wipe out the profit margins of studios. Instead, they flatlined; they haven’t been dropping in the last few years. They dropped precipitously for a couple of years and then they just adjusted. Meanwhile, in terms of global audiences, we’re seeing the beginning of a real rise in viewership; that rise is coming primarily from younger audiences in Asia and China, but those are real movie audiences. It’s not, you know, like people who say “oh, now Hollywood is going to be catering to Chinese audiences.” And I say: Well, so what? They’re your audience, so suck it up. So, anyhow, I could go on about this, but all I’m saying is, to be honest, you just have to get up in the morning, stop complaining and get back to work.
WIFV: Right, thank you.
LOGAN LERMAN: Or keep complaining as you work, that’s what I do.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, of course. Whatever works.
LOGAN LERMAN: Yeah, whatever works.
WIFV: I think that’s very encouraging to our film community, particularly the young people who are just starting out, who look at you as a film guru.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Oh, well, not only do they make the wrong choice professionally, but now they’ve made the double wrong choice of, you know… (chuckles)
WIFV: You’re a wise guru, like it or not. Dean?
DEAN ROGERS: In the history of film, we’ve seen love stories, about two perfect people or two imperfect people, and this film focused on two outcasts. So, I’d like to know was it important for you to tell this tragic tale of two outcasts?
JAMES SCHAMUS: I think that it’s really interesting. Love stories are very difficult to tell these days in a cinema. I think we’ve become very cynical as a culture, and a lot of it is because most love stories, for a long time, tended to be basically male, multi-national corporations who get $20 million plus gross per picture, pretending to enjoy kissing female medium-sized regional brand companies who get $7 million dollars a picture. Right. And it’s like there’s not really that much, shall we say, surprising about those narratives.
You know, going back to films like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, I think INDIGNATION, for me, bears some relationship to those [themes]- when you find that there really are impediments to people, not just falling in love, and being able to make that union work, but even the impediments within themselves. In this movie, for example, Marcus Messner has no real understanding of this young woman [Olivia]. He has no understanding of the pain she’s gone through, or of her trauma, or what she’s dealing with – none, and yet she sees in him, rightfully, I think, somebody who shares her status as an outsider. And there is the potential, there is the possibility, maybe someday, for that communication to take place. But this is not a meeting of lines; they’ve missed each other from the first day. And so that, to me, is both very lovely and also very tragic.
WIFV: To that point, could you talk a bit about your interest in portraying mental illness and the stigma of that and how it fits in with all of the other stigmas and repression of that time?
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, I really fell in love with the character of Olivia, and Sarah Gadon was just a dream come true to work with.
WIFV: She was remarkable in that role.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, but who else can really own that pain and present… you know, she’s trying to control her self presentation, control her diction, her perfect elocution, everything about her, and yet you see immediately under that surface what’s happening if you’re capable – unlike Marcus. You can’t see it, right? So how do you play it so it can be seen and not seen at the same time. She has no language to talk about what she’s going through, and mental illness is one way of translating her experience, which is also a clinical experience; it’s an experience with depression and repression. So, it’s a language that she has, but even that language is almost unintelligible to the people around her.
WIFV: Yes, but to her credit, it comes through beautifully. You see the sexuality and neediness, and then you see that razor sharp edge, no pun intended, but it does come through both ways.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, and then prepping the film I recognized something I had not understood before, that Roth was the exact generation of another American writer, who I never thought of him as paired with; she was one year older, and that was Sylvia Plath.
WIFV: Oh that’s right, with The Bell Jar, yes.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Absolutely, and it turns out that Plath started her first year of college at Smith, down the road, the same year that our character, Olivia Hutton, started going to Winehurst college. And it turns out Sylvia Plath, three months before she died, wrote in her journals the unexpurgated version of what was published just a couple of years before Roth was writing Indignation. So she was writing, three months before she died, about reading Philip Roth, and she was reading him almost religiously. And she wrote, “Someday I hope I write as well as Philip Roth.” It’s crazy, isn’t it?
WIFV: That’s profound, yes.
JAMES SCHAMUS: So Sara Gadon and I spent a lot of time talking about Sylvia Plath, reading her journals, and reading her work. And the writing in the letter that Sara is writing – that handwriting is Sylvia Plath’s handwriting, and her hairstyle is also Sylvia Plath’s.
DEAN ROGERS: Wow.
WIFV: Maybe that’s the disturbing edge that I picked up but I didn’t think about Plath, then…so thank you, that’s beautiful.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, even her diction is a bit like that, but based on a recording of Plath.
WIFV: That same quality.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah, much lower and a little more smoke and whiskey.
WIFV: Yes, she has that same sensibility you find in those Victorian writers, too, who are repressed, that same edge, because they can’t come forward.
JAMES SCHAMUS: Yeah.
DEAN ROGERS: And we’re out of time.
WIFV: Well, I have one last question, if I may. I would like to ask Logan if he has ever read Bertrand Russell.
LOGAN LERMAN: Yes, I have. I tried to respect the material and James’s vision as much as I could, and I put in as much time and effort in reading the proper references and things I found in the script – but yeah, long story short, I read Russell.
WIFV: That’s really wonderful.
LOGAN LERMAN: I memorized [that part in the script about] why I’m not a Christian.
WIFV: Well, you pulled it off great. Thank you!
JAMES SCHAMUS: And you did it!