Kelly Reichardt and James Schamus are stalwarts of the independent world, and both debuted excellent films Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival. And though Schamus is, in his own words, "at the tender age of 57 a first-time director" and Reichardt is a veteran who has been behind the camera for more than 20 years, they have both succeeded at the same daunting task: making first-rate cinema out of outstanding literary work.
Reichardt's "Certain Women" stars the powerhouse trio of Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams, a virtuosic Rene Auberjonois and a radiant Lily Gladstone. It's turned a trio of astute and emotionally powerful short stories by Maile Meloy into what the director has called "a drama about small life stories," finely modulated and taking place in Montana.
Schamus, for his part, has taken on "Indignation," a disturbing novel by Philip Roth set during the Korean War, casting Logan Lerman as college freshman Marcus Messner, the bright son of a Newark, N.J., kosher butcher, who falls in love with the beautiful, WASPy but troubled Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).
"The film itself is about desire, about how in placing it you misplace yourself, you lose your footing," said Schamus, whose screenplays include "The Ice Storm," "Lust, Caution" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." "Everything I adapt has that aspect."
In talking to both Schamus and Reichardt about the challenges, difficulties and satisfactions of adaptation, it was striking that their experiences were both similar and disparate, that the way they approached material reflected, as might be expected, their personal attitudes and philosophies about the filmmaking process.
Both writer-directors, for example, to a certain extent encountered the work they adapted by chance. "To say I've been blessed to come across Philip Roth's novel as a mass-market paperback in an airport would be an understatement," Schamus said, whereas Reichardt discovered Meloy's excellent short-story collections "Half in Love" and "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It" at a point "when I was feeling pretty lost and sort of searching."
Reichardt had made several films with the writer Jonathan Raymond, but when he became unavailable for a new project the quest that led to Meloy began. "Coming across her was lucky happenstance, but I liked her writing so much, I just knew as soon as I read it. She is such a vivid writer, I immediately felt the landscape and people who were really tied into it, a lot happening that is not in the dialogue."
Meloy chose not to be involved with the screenplay but, Reichardt said, "She told me, 'You go ahead,' she gave me the space to do that, which is a brave thing for someone to do."
Working by herself was for the director "a much lonelier experience. Because the film is a lot about loneliness and alienation, it was a very weird ride, you end up living what you made." So it was a key moment when, waiting for her luggage at the Salt Lake City airport on Friday night, Reichardt got a text from Meloy, who had just seen the film. "She said, 'It's beautiful.' I was so happy to get that text."
Schamus, interestingly enough, had a similar relationship with his novelist. "Philip Roth gave me the greatest gift," he explains. "I sent him the screenplay and he declined to read it, the nicest gift anybody gave me in my life. I asked him to visit the set, I didn't want to ice him out, he was the prime mover, but he said, 'When can I see the final product?' He's seen it, and he provided a very generous statement."
For both Schamus and Reichardt, the process of adaptation is, in Reichardt's words, "breaking free of those stories to write your script, and then when you're filming undoing the whole script as it becomes a visual experience. Every part is a letting go."
Reichardt ended up creating a narrative link among the three stories, and in the third section, which features Stewart, changing the sex of one of the key characters from a young man who'd had polio to a young Native American woman played by Gladstone. "It's really a process of a lot of trial and error," she explained. "It evolves into something that is totally its own thing."
A key decision Schamus, a former chief executive of Focus Features who teaches at Columbia in addition to being a screenwriter, had to make was whether to direct at all. "The desire to direct is a disease that tends to strike late-middle-aged producers, and I'm not immune to that disease," he said, smiling.
If Schamus was to direct, however, "I honestly felt, when I sucked it up and said, 'Let's do it,' that it wouldn't be worth doing unless the fear of abject failure was real. And the highest-risk proposition these days is emotion. We're way too smart for our own good, and tackling a project that says to an audience, 'It's time to have an emotion,' that's scary."
As someone who's done numerous adaptations ("Clearly I don't have an original thought in my head," he joked), Schamus has thought a lot about the process, starting with the nature of fiction itself.
"The reason you fall in love with a novel are the pheromonal qualities, the deep satisfactions it produces when you turn the last page," he said. "It's a very, very particular emotion, not pure joy, not pure sadness.
"A bad adaptation simply reproduces every beat that got you to the last page. You can't do that, you can't shorthand the interior life of characters, it's never going to work. It has to happen on set through interaction with actors."
Similarly, Schamus takes issue with the frequently heard notion that "an adaptation was faithful to the spirit if not to the letter of the book. That sounds like a bad marriage, like saying, 'He was faithful in spirit but not in practice.' That's not something that passes muster in the real world.
"A film lives or dies not by whether it's a good adaptation but by whether it's a convincing interpretation. As a screenwriter you're always interpreting. You can't just do the book."