For many years James Schamus was the articulate, quizzical-looking, bespectacled man seated alongside Ang Lee at press conferences, because together with Ted Hope he’d been behind the powerhouse independent film company Good Machine. He’d co-written and produced Lee’s debut movies Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet and subsequently they achieved enormous success with The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, which he produced via Focus Features.
Schamus had co-founded Focus Features, the arthouse arm of Universal Studios, in 2002. When he was sacked as CEO in 2013, the film industry was in shock.
“I had such a great run at Focus Features and I had fun every day,” the 56 year-old admits. “I’m always proud of the fact that we made money every year. Probably it was time to leave, but I would have loved for it to have been a little later. When it happened, I took it as a gift from the first day.”
Now Schamus is bemused that as a first-time director, he made a film for Anthony Bregman. “It’s been 23 years since I hired him without pay for his first job in the business, and with Indignation I now work for him!”
Schamus’s film is based on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, which he read quickly on a plane. “By the end of the flight I thought it could make a great movie, probably for Ang Lee to direct. But Ang was busy,” he quips.
Schamus personally identified with the main character, who like himself and Roth is Jewish. Set in 1951, the film was inspired by Roth’s own years at university.
“At the end of his career, Roth was finding something very innocent and tragic about a human connection with another soul, even if it’s a lost soul,” Schamus explains.
Logan Lerman (the Percy Jackson films, Fury and Noah) plays Ohio University student Marcus Messner who may be intellectually astute, but is hardly adept in the romance department. He is shocked when a beautiful fellow student Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon, from three Cronenberg features, A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis, and Maps to the Stars), whom he connects with as a fellow outsider, gives him oral sex on their first date. As it turns out she has other problems.
In writing, directing and producing the film, Schamus says he didn’t look for any industry favours. Though he conferred with Ang Lee on one thing.
“We both agreed especially for a first film, everything was about making sure that the actors felt comfortable.”
He particularly wanted Lerman for the role of Marcus.
“I’ve been a fan of Logan’s for some time. There’s something transcendent and honest in his ability to relate to the audience.”
“G’day!” says Lerman when we meet. Beaming a huge smile, the 24 year-old displays the accent Russell Crowe taught him not only on Noah, but also on 3:10 to Yuma. “I’m like an honorary Australian. Russell was a kind of mentor figure to me. I was 14 when we met and he’s always been very kind and supportive of me over the years.”
Lerman is the first to admit he still looks like he’s 15. “It's a blessing and a curse”. A seasoned professional, he actually started out working with Mel Gibson on 2000’s What Women Want and The Patriot, and stole the thunder from Renee Zellweger on the little-seen gem, My One and Only and Emma Watson on the cult hit, The Perks of Being Wallflower.
With Indignation, he received acclaim in Sundance for delivering a nuanced lead performance that signals a new maturity, especially when it came to Marcus’s verbal battle with Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts).
“It was very challenging and it was the reason I wanted to do the movie,” Lerman explains. “That’s what I work for, what live for, to find interesting material – and there’s not enough of it for people my age.”
Lerman came on board months beforehand to try and make sense of the scene. “It was a very intense day with 20-minute takes. We didn’t chop it up into pieces, which would have been the easier choice for us actors. We ran it from beginning to end each time.”
Is he as smart as Marcus? “Marcus is way more intelligent,” Lerman insists, though admits he shares other similarities with the character.
“I didn’t go to university but I’m an opinionated person. What good are we if we don’t have strong convictions? We should have our own beliefs and vocalise them.”
Lerman says he was religious growing up. So I suppose he’s not an atheist like Marcus?
“I pretty much am, but I love Jewish culture and the holidays and the family times. I’m very proud of my background.”
Watch 'Indignation' trailer:
'Indignation' screens at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival on August 9, and opens nationally on August 18.