Close Mobile Menu

The Man Behind the Movies

September 10, 2013
by Pat Joseph
Painting of James Schamus

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Interview James Schamus

(Note: Schamus, profiled below, has since been replaced as CEO of Focus Features, the art house division of NBC Universal Pictures he co-founded more than a decade ago, by Peter Schlessel—described to Hollywood Reporter by an unnamed executive as someone who “cares about art-house movies to the extent that they can make money.” Ted Hope, Schamus’s former partner and now head of the San Francisco Film Society tweeted: “With [Schamus’s] bow tie no longer the Focus brand, we can firmly say that the corporate suits see no business in art.” This is an old story, of course. Schamus told us back in August, “Most of our films are pretty off-center, so the fact that we manage. consistently be a home for the weird stuff feels like an accomplishment, no matter how tenuous.” Perhaps he knew, even then, just how tenuous it was.)

James Schamus is a rare specimen in the film business. Not only is he a high-powered movie executive—CEO of Focus Features, the art house division of NBC Universal—he is also a writer and producer of the first order, with a long list of credits that include The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, and Lust, Caution. He received an Academy Award nomination for Brokeback Mountain (Best Picture) and two more for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, including Best Original Song (he wrote the lyrics). And, as if all that weren’t enough, Schamus is also a professor of film theory at Columbia University in New York City.

As you might expect from that last item on the CV, he has a Ph.D., but he only finished his dissertation in 2003, after Berkeley asked him to deliver that year’s commencement address to the English Department. Tim Gray, editor-in-chief of Variety, told a reporter, “He’s the only person in the business I’ve ever seen who said, ‘I can’t go to Cannes because I’ve got to work on my doctorate.'” He had to sweat to get it done, but in the end, Schamus—the CEO, the Academy Award nominee, the Columbia professor—walked across the stage to accept his diploma just like all the students he was about to address.

When he first agreed to be interviewed for this issue of California, I asked Schamus if his longtime collaborator, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, might consider doing the honors—that is, asking the questions. (Wouldn’t that have been cool?) The answer was polite but firm, and totally to be expected.

“No, he’s completely burnt-out from Life of Pi press and publicity.”

Well, of course he is. Still, it was worth a shot.

From there, we approached a variety of other potential interlocutors—like the directors John Waters (Hairspray, Pecker) and Cal alum Joshua Marston ’90 (Maria Full of Grace), the novelist Daniel Alarcón, and Berkeley professors Linda Williams and Carol Clover. (Clover has the added distinction of having been Schamus’s dissertation adviser.) All of them were excited at the possibility, but also, for various and sundry reasons, unable to do it.

Weeks passed and I began to grow anxious about finding someone. And then I had a dream.

In this dream, I was a journalist. I knew this not because I am one, but because, in the dream, I was holding a reporter’s notebook and a pen. I was on a film set where actors and stagehands were busily going about their business, and I began inquiring after James Schamus, whom I knew to be part of the production. When I approached them, the cast and crew said things like, “He was just here, but I don’t see him now,” and “If you find him, let me know. I need to talk to him.” Banal enough, yet there was something uncanny about their responses, and suddenly it dawned on me: These people weren’t just answering me, they were delivering lines. They were speaking dialogue.

“Hey, wait a minute!” I cried out. “Am I in a movie? Is this the movie? Is someone filming this?” Through the glare of the stage lights, I could make out microphones hanging from the scaffolding. A camera tracked my movements. “If this is dialogue,” I demanded to know, “who’s writing my part?”

Just then, a hidden doorway opened from a wall of the set, and a head peeked out. It was James Schamus. He was wearing a pair of headphones around his neck and he looked directly at me. Very calmly, he said: “Can I help you?”

Pat Joseph: You have three degrees—your bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D.—all from Berkeley. What first brought you to Cal?

James Schamus: God’s truth: I applied to Santa Cruz, didn’t get in, and was sent to my second choice, Berkeley. This was in keeping with my somewhat circuitous path to Berkeley. Of course it’s impossible for me to even imagine what my life would have been had I not ended up at Cal.

PJ: Why was Cal so important? You wound up in the film business, after all, and Berkeley isn’t the first place people think to go if their sights are set on Hollywood.

JS: Cal was one of the first great research universities to embrace genuine interdisciplinary work in the humanities. As a grad student in the English department, I was able to shift focus from Milton to cinema studies, finally ending up with a dissertation on a Danish filmmaker, supervised by Carol Clover in the Scandinavian department, and each step of the way was supported and encouraged. I’ve spent nearly a quarter century teaching film history and theory at Columbia since—so, while you may think of me as a moviemaker, my real day job is still academic! I more or less fell into the film work accidentally when, after my coursework was completed, I took some time off to explore New York and got sucked into the independent film scene there in the late eighties, all the while doing adjunct teaching at Yale and Rutgers before getting the job at Columbia.

PJ: I’m glad you brought up your dissertation, which deals at length with a single moment in Gertrud, an obscure and notoriously “difficult” film by Carl Theodor Dreyer. What possessed you?

JS: It’s funny you use that word, possession, as the moment I chose to write about is a moment in which someone is, in effect, possessed by an image. That kind of transgressive relation to images is very much akin to the feeling of cinephilia that overcomes moviegoers at the height of cinema pleasure, the way people say sometimes that they “lose themselves” at the movies. Which is something I somehow ended up doing through and after my dissertation, I guess.

PJ: Your answer makes me think of Pauline Kael, of course; another Berkeley alum who famously “lost it at the movies.” As a student, were you aware of a homegrown film culture in Berkeley?

JS: I didn’t know of the Kael connection at the time (though I’m glad you caught the reference!), but I was absolutely drawn to Berkeley’s amazing film resources, virtually camping out at the Pacific Film Archive and the old calendar houses like the UC [Theater]. As an undergrad, I was there the night Errol Morris, who at that time was a philosophy grad student, premiered his first film—made on a dare by Werner Herzog, who promised to eat his shoe if Errol made a movie. And indeed, that night, Herzog showed up and, having pressure-cooked a boot, ate it in front of the audience as the great Berkeley documentary maker Les Blank filmed the scene. Berkeley was also home to the great wave of early feminist film theorists and critics, who as grad students started influential journals such as Camera Obscura. There was a lot going on.

PJ: Before we move on from this notion of “losing it at the movies,” I wonder—do you cry at films?

JS: I cry all too easily at movies, a source of some wry embarrassment to my daughters. And the movies don’t have to be all that good—I’m afraid the cinema is proof that cheap emotions are just as emotional as the more legit kind. That said, my most recent movie tear was shed at a good one, the Japanese filmmaker [Hirokazu] Kore-eda’s recent Cannes prizewinner, Like Father, Like Son.

PJ: Interestingly, you’re not the only English major from Berkeley to become the CEO of a major entertainment company. Peter Chernin, formerly an executive with Twentieth Century Fox and now head of The Chernin Group, also studied literature at Cal. What do you think: Does your success serve as a rejoinder to critics of the liberal arts?

JS: Not really. Many successful entrepreneurs grew up in slums, and it’s still fine to criticize slums. The defense of the humanities (which we sometimes call the liberal arts, although the liberal arts include mathematics and many of the sciences, of course) probably isn’t buttressed by pointing out the outlying success stories. First, I suppose, one should make the case for the value of the humanities in and of themselves, which is the same in some sense as making the case for non-instrumentality as a kind of value, for the usefulness of the useless—a hard case to make in a capitalist context, for sure, but not an impossible one. As the philosopher Theodor Adorno pointed out, though, that argument assumes the “usefulness of the useful,” and in these days of life-destroying economic “productivity,” that’s not a given, is it?

Or you could take the safer, simple empirical route and just give in to instrumental thinking: The fact is that well-educated humanities majors, with their critical thinking and communications skills, are much more hirable and more productive than the stereotypes would suggest. Just today I read in London’s Financial Times about a major study in the U.K. on the hugely positive role humanities graduates have on the British economy. The study was entitled “The Hidden Impact”—hidden, of course, to people who cling to the stereotypes and not the facts. So, no, my or Peter’s success is not the argument to make—it’s the overall success of English majors everywhere.

PJ: That bit about the “usefulness of the useless” reminds me of something you wrote in the introduction to your book on Dryer’s Gertrud. You said there that, “perversely,” you hoped to preserve the film’s obscurity even as you set out to “spread the reflected glory it radiates.”

“To praise Gertrud,” you continued, “is to praise paradoxically the ultimate cinephilic fetish, for we all know that what the cinephile most loves is the unseen and unseeable.” Is that what you love in movies?

JS: Pithy sayings only get you so far—they tend to work well enough in context but perhaps less so as general truths. So to put this in another context: We are, today, awash in moving images; and moving-image culture is only going to mushroom further, as telephony and text blend with photo and video as communication tools.

The cinema, as opposed, say, to the televisual, still clings, regardless of how or where it’s consumed, to a kind of entitlement (no matter how illusory) to the idea that its images unfold without interference from the consumer. Even if films are now technically rewindable and pausable in most of their viewings, they’re produced as if the filmmakers, not the consumers, were in charge of the remote. That archaic rhetoric, among other things, gives the cinema its paradoxical claim to two seemingly opposed temporalities: It’s at once evanescent (the images pass by; we can’t control them) and timeless (films, as objects, are not just passing images—they have an identity and form that exists outside of time, so to speak, and so outside of what’s seeable). So while moving images become as a rule more immediate and malleable for us, cinema still gums the works of our relentless presentism.

PJ: Hah! Maybe that should be Focus Features’s new tagline: Gumming the Works of Our Relentless Presentism, Since 2002. Seriously, though, I’m made mindful of something Carlo Rotella wrote in his profile of you in The New York Times Magazine. He observed that in your role as a professor, you occupy a corner of academe (i.e., film theory) that is “usually as far removed from the actual sausage-making of the film industry” as it gets, where the “elite discourse” is often “impenetrable to nonspecialists.” But you’re also a sausage-maker par excellence. How do you move so easily between the esoterica of film theory and the praxis of film production?

JS: Well, one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, worked for an insurance company, so me working in the film business isn’t much of a stretch by comparison. I do find it funny that, for various reasons, our culture thinks there should be, or just is, a natural gap between doing and thinking, especially in the arts. Part of this probably stems from the American Protestant ethos of “authenticity” that’s migrated into the idea of art—we now think of art as most truthful when it’s a kind of paradoxically artless expression. So thinking about art kills it. And then again, there’s just good old anti-intellectualism. In any case, both jobs inform each other, but neither requires the other.

PJ: And in addition to being an executive and a university professor, you’ve also distinguished yourself as a screenwriter. Are you still writing scripts?

JS: Right now I’m actually working on two scripts (not a recommended practice): an adaptation of Philip Roth’s great short novel Indignation, as we also polish a screenplay about the life of Fela Kuti, for Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu.

PJ: What about directing? Is that an ambition as well? If not, why not?

JS: Producers and executives who start to get the directing bug should see it as an early warning sign that they’re no longer fit for the business. In any case, if you had a screenplay to produce and you had a choice between two directors—you and Ang Lee—who would you choose?

PJ: Good point. Ang Lee’s certainly a fantastic director, and you two have a collaboration going back more than 20 years. So, let me ask: What has allowed you to work together so well for so long?

JS: Creative chemistry is its own mystery. At the end of the day, it’s fun to work with someone who takes on each new film as if we were just starting in the business and needed to learn everything from scratch again.

PJ: I assume the two scripts you mentioned earlier will become Focus Features productions. How do you choose which stories to bring to the screen?

JS: There’s no formula for a Focus film, except that it can’t be expensive. And though we aren’t making films for broad, general audiences (crossover hits are always welcome, however), we always like to know that there’s at least a targetable core audience for each film.

PJ: Focus is currently working on an adaptation of E.L. James’s erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. That would certainly seem to have a targetable audience just based on the popularity of the books. It also seems, if you’ll forgive me, a little trashy by Focus standards. Do you worry the project could sully the Focus brand?

JS: I think the brand’s ready for a bit of sullying, though I’m not sure Fifty will be the film to do it! Our producer, Mike DeLuca, has had two films in a row nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars these past two years; our writer, Kelly Marcel, wrote the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson; and our director is Samantha Taylor-Johnson, the renowned artist, photographer, and director. All these talented folks see the same opportunity to do great work as I do; indeed, I find much of the nose-in-the-air posturing around the book pretty funny. Male-centric genre hits never get this type of treatment in the press, and as an English major I look back at the same kind of moralizing and very masculinist judgments made about the first real hit novels in English, such as Richardson’s Pamela, which, in their day, were filled with sensational sexual content aimed at women readers. (It wasn’t really until Sir Walter Scott came along later that novels were made respectable for real men.) So the assumptions behind your question are an old story, and happily one that’s often proven to have little to do with reality.

PJ: Focus Features marked its tenth anniversary last year. Just scanning the titles you’ve produced reveals a remarkable diversity—everything from dramas like The Pianist and Brokeback Mountain, to comedies such as Pirate Radio and Shaun of the Dead, animated features like Coraline, to documentaries like Alex Gibney’s We Steal Secrets. You’ve done biopics and period films, superhero movies, martial arts extravaganzas. It’s a remarkable portfolio, to say the least. Looking back, what are you proudest of?

JS: I’m probably most proud of simply running a decent business while being able to release films that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. Most of our films are pretty off-center, so the fact that we manage to consistently be a home for the weird stuff feels like an accomplishment, no matter how tenuous.

Share this article