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How ‘Indignation’s’ James Schamus went from Focus Features studio chief to first-time indie director

James Schamus, director and screenwriter of the new film "Indignation."
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

It really is quite a resume: Head of the prestigious studio Focus Features for 13 years, an Oscar-nominated producer, screenwriter and even songwriter with an longstanding collaboration with director Ang Lee, author of a book on Carl Theodor Dreyer, a PhD from Berkeley and a teaching position at Columbia University.

As a longtime fixture of the independent filmmaking scene, seemingly the only thing James Schamus had not done was direct. That has changed with “Indignation,” now playing in Los Angeles, Schamus’ feature directing debut from his adaption of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel.

So what took so long? In a recent interview Schamus was circumspect as to whether he had always harbored a secret desire to direct, instead pointing out how he had long been able to turn to his friend and colleague Lee, a two-time Oscar winner for best director.

“For many years I was writing screenplays,” said Schamus, who adapted “The Ice Storm” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and produced “Brokeback Mountain” for Lee. “And it never really came up. But it would have been, ‘Should I direct this or, I don’t know, should Ang Lee direct it?’ Not really that difficult of a question to answer.”

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Not long after being fired in 2013 from his job at Focus — “I think that’s a reasonably accurate way of putting it,” he said — and with both of his children grown and out of the house, Schamus decided it was time for a new challenge.

“It’s fun at that time in your life to really try something new,” Schamus, now 56, said. “And it’s something new that I at least had a sense of what skills I needed. I didn’t have a sense that I had those skills necessarily, but there was some definition to the challenge.”

In the film, set in 1951, young Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) leaves his family’s New Jersey home to attend college in Ohio. There, as he struggles to fit in, he becomes involved with Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a student who is far more sophisticated than Marcus but with troubles all her own. All of Marcus’ developments are closely watched by the school’s Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who has a growing concern for Marcus’ fate.

Schamus first read the Roth novel after picking it up in an airport bookstore. Despite the notorious difficulties of adapting Roth’s work for the screen — the interiority of the author’s voice often proving a special challenge in films from “Goodbye, Columbus” to “The Humbling” — after acquiring the rights Schamus took a crack at the screenplay. Only some time after showing the script to Lee did Schamus come to the decision to make it himself.

For Lee, the surprise wasn’t that Schamus was finally directing a movie but rather why he hadn’t already done so.

“After our second movie, ‘The Wedding Banquet,’ I thought he would direct too. That was in ’93,” said Lee during a recent break from post-production on his upcoming “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a rare project not made with Schamus.

“So right when we started I thought he would go ahead and direct. He knows so much, why wouldn’t he direct?” Lee added. “I think directing is a tedious job, it’s so focused, you do many things but for one movie. James has to do like 20 things at a time.”

“Indignation” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where Schamus found himself for the first time as a filmmaker looking to sell his movie. (Roadside Attractions acquired the film for release.) At the festival, the film received largely favorable reviews, and enthusiastic audiences were reported to burst into applause following one scene in particular.

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Tracy Letts, left, Sarah Gadon, Logan Lerman, James Schamus and Philip Ettinger from the film "Indignation" at the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah, in January.
Tracy Letts, left, Sarah Gadon, Logan Lerman, James Schamus and Philip Ettinger from the film “Indignation” at the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah, in January.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times )

The film’s showstopper centerpiece is a more than 18-minute-long scene of Lerman and Letts (as the college’s dean) having a conversation in the dean’s office. It is a nearly 20-page stretch in the novel and provides an emotional turning point in the story. As the Dean shows genuine concern for Marcus and the ways in which he is struggling to fit in at the school, his young charge takes everything the wrong way, getting increasingly wound up and, indeed, indignant.

The film was shot over 24 days last summer around New York. The production’s tight schedule meant that there was only one day to shoot the long, pivotal scene.

“It is the still center of the movie, it’s exactly in the middle of the movie,” said Schamus of the scene. “And everything hinges on it.”

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“Very rarely do I have an audible gasp, and I was pretty much screaming by the end,” said Lerman of his first time encountering that pivotal scene in the script. “I had such a visceral reaction while reading it. I knew I had to be a part of it. ‘Yeah, I’m doing it.’ Then I was immediately flooded with stress and anxiety over how do I do this.”

Letts, a Pulitzer Prize winner as a playwright and Tony Award winner as an actor, agreed to the project before even reading the script.

“James Schamus directing a Philip Roth adaptation? Sign me up,” Letts said. And it was a decision only confirmed by Schamus’ on-set demeanor. “James, for all his experience, was still a first time director. The truth is he ran a very relaxed set; he seemed to have nothing to prove and he conducted himself like he’d been directing all his life.”

Schamus now has a number of projects in various stages of development and post-production as a producer. A long-gestating project on Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier to be directed by Lee may finally come to fruition. Almost in passing, Schamus also mentioned that he would like to direct again amid all of his other projects, although he doesn’t yet have a specific script lined up.

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It was his old friend who summed up how all of Schamus’ various endeavors come together.

“I regard him as a filmmaker,” Lee said, “not necessarily as a producer or a studio head or a professor or a writer. He’s a filmmaker at heart.”

Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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