Oscar Nominated Writer James Schamus Tells It Like It Is

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An interview with the writer of the upcoming film, Indignation, on his writing process, screenplays that aren’t over-written, and the violence of adapting great books.

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

James Schamus embodies what many desire to be in the world of film. He works with legendary directors. He’s been nominated for Academy Awards. He produces. He directs. And he writes. His work is acclaimed by critics and fans alike. With his new film, Indignation, he is wearing multiple hats for the first time. He is directing the work he wrote. Recently, James sat down with LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher to talk about his process and storytelling.

John: James, you’re no stranger to adapting great books and great work. Can you talk a little bit about your process in adapting Philip Roth’s Indignation?

James: Yeah, sure. As usual, I woke up in the morning, realizing I did not have an original thought of my own. Therefore, I felt deeply gratified that yet again, I’d been able to option the result of somebody else’s hard work in that category. The first feeling I tend to have, which evaporates quite quickly, is gratitude. That lasts about 0.87 seconds before anxiety sets in. Then usually, about 47 seconds after that, it’s of course time to get off the computer and have the mid-morning snack.

Usually, that’s followed by sitting behind the computer, realizing there’s a ton of e-mails that have come in that I probably should take care of before I clear my mind and start working. I do those and then it’s time, of course, to pee. At which point, the phone rings and I know I’m not supposed to pick it up, but it is my mother. Then I get back to work, but realize, it’s getting very close to lunch time and I probably should figure out what I’m having for lunch. This goes on for a few months and then somehow, I have written at least seven or eight pages that allow me to lay claim to some idea that I’m a screenwriter. Then real panic sets in and, somehow, I get to the end of a first draft.

John: That is the best answer I’ve ever heard to that question.

James: I know none of your readers can relate to that process.

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John: Except every one of them. Well, talk a little bit about how you take characters that are established and really begin to flesh those out for a visual medium — how we’re going to encounter the internal journeys of those characters in a very external way on screen.

James: That’s right. There’s a contradiction in your question. You don’t flesh these characters out. In fact, you do the opposite. You reduce them to images and actions and words. You do that in the hope that then some living, breathing human — like a great actor — can re-flesh them out. It’s almost a process of dehydration and freezing. It’s a reduction, to the barest minimum of gesture and word and image. All of that is because you’re trying to create a formula for an eventual reconstitution of those characters and their actions, right?

John: Yes.

James: Look, the first part of the process — and again, I know I’m sounding glib, but really — is that often you go through the book and you transcribe any reported dialogue, throw slug lines on top of it, then fill in the briefest descriptions of actions that surround those scenes, and then type “The End” and pray that actually works.

Then you read it and realize, “Who were you kidding? This will never work.” That’s when the real work probably begins. For me, adapting not only great writers, but let’s say great living writers, that’s when the great trepidation sets in, because I know I’m not completely delusional, that the hard work of adapting is going to require condensing and eliding and changing and shifting and moving. In a sense, doing some real damage to the work that inspired you to get up in the morning and do this to begin with.

There’s a certain violence that’s associated with this process and that violence is often associated with those moments of imagination and creation that are unexpected and are not part of the original work. You have to be willing to go to those places. I find that very tough sometimes.

John: Did you know while you were writing that you would be directing as well?

James: No. I originally acquired the option to the book while I was running Focus Features. The idea then was that this would be something that perhaps would interest Ang Lee, who I shared the book with and who shared my enthusiasm for the book. Then a few things happened. Among them, I got fired. Also, Ang really stepped up in terms of his ambitions for the underlying and evolving technologies of the cinema in terms of 3D, in terms of expanded dynamic range, in terms of frame rates, in terms of just the saturation of data on the screen… all those things. You can imagine that this particular chamber drama was not going to be the right prospect for the kind of technologies and the associating expense that Ang is really passionate about exploring right now.

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John: If you had to go back and write it again, knowing that you would be directing, would you do anything different?

James: No, I don’t think so. I tend, when writing with filmmakers that I like in mind, to underwrite by contemporary studio standards anyhow. I tend to write screenplays that leave a fair amount off the page. The people who will be actually making them… not to simply instruct them and boss them into a corner and tell them what do. I think a good script for me is a script that proposes a lot of problems and questions that really smart people can answer later on. It’s still has a shape and it has a form and a feeling that gives you the hope and the optimism that those problems are not insurmountable and that they actually have a target that’s leading to a conclusion that everyone can share as the goal. That’s the right goal to be fighting for. But scene for scene, I do tend to not over-describe. I don’t over-psychologize a lot. I don’t tell you what people are thinking. I just show you what they’re doing.

John: Was there a particular scene or character with this script that was more difficult than the rest or more challenging?

James: Yes. Well, in terms of character and challenge, I think the character of Olivia Hutton, played by Sara Gadon in the movie, who adds to the tragic spice of the whole endeavor. She was a great challenge. In the novel, there was not a lot of page count devoted to her, although she plays such a pivotal role. That challenge was very fun because I got to create whole scenes and dialogue for her that I felt very much in sync with what Roth was thinking and doing in the book, but with a much greater degree of invention and play. Those were really, for me, great and challenging but fun to write.

In terms of scenes, I would say, there’s a particular scene in the middle of the film that a lot of people were talking about between the dean of the college, played by Tracy Letts, and our hero, played by Logan Lerman. It’s a scene that’s rather lengthy for American screenwriting. If you have a scene that’s running much over page three or on to page four, that’s usually quite a red flag.

John: Right.

James:   Yet, in draft after draft of the script, I would find as I would read through my revisions that the scene in the middle of the script — now in the middle of the movie — was stubbornly remaining at an extraordinarily alarmingly high page count. I know how to economize and wanted to get this cut down. I never did. Then I realized that there was a reason for that, of course — that the scene had to be there and it had to be played at that length. We ended up shooting that scene in single takes again and again. Those were 18-minute takes.

John: In a lot of your work, this film included, you’ve jumped around throughout history. Any advice to writers that are trying to adapt something from another point in history about dialogue? Do you research how people spoke at that time? Did you do any research for this film as far as how people spoke?

James: Yes, a lot, actually. But it’s also being true to the kind of voices that you inherit in the literary context of the book. It’s interesting because, think of it this way: Let’s say, you’re in the middle of writing a contemporary romantic comedy. You think, “You know what I’ll do? I’ll put microphones under the bed of people who were just like my characters. I’ll put microphones at the bar where people who are just like my characters are going to be having drinks. I’ll put microphones in the office where my characters would be working.” Then you transcribe what those people say. You will notice that the transcriptions of actual speech in actual reality are nothing like what looks and feels and reads and sounds like “natural” dialogue in movies.

Then, in fact, what we think of as — especially in the American context — a very natural style, it’s just that. It’s a complete fake. If you start with the knowledge that it’s all fake anyway, you just need it to sound real. That’s a relief, but it’s also an acknowledgement that does require craft. There’s no such thing as real dialogue in movies. When there is, it’s usually pretty horrible. That’s why very, very, very, very few directors can actually direct very, very, very few times, very, very few actors using improvisational techniques and methods. In general, that works maybe for certain kinds of comedy, certain kinds of comic geniuses. But even there, the improvisational techniques tend to be used as a developmental or rehearsal tool and are then re-crafted, shaped, and re-envisioned during production or post-production.

Indignation opens July 29 in theaters.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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