Story hour: James Schamus entertained both the audience and his interviewer, B. Ruby Rich, as he accepted his award for screenwriting.

SFIFF53 Reports: James Schamus, Roger Ebert and the Writing Life

Dennis Harvey May 3, 2010

James Schamus, on Writing What You Don’t Know
Few would argue that with rare exceptions, a good movie starts with a good story. Yet it has been the screenwriter’s lot to go underappreciated while the director usually gets primary credit for a job well done. That injustice has largely been spared James Schamus, though, since his nearly two decades of collaboration with Ang Lee on a startlingly disparate series of films have made it hard to overlook or underrate either half of their remarkable partnership.

In town to accept this year’s SFIFF Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting, Schamus took the stage Saturday afternoon at the Kabuki for a conversation with Bay Area based film critic B. Ruby Rich. It was frustratingly short–one suspects the audience would have gladly let them go on talking ‘til dusk. The day’s guest of honor did not need much prodding by his longtime friend to reel off frequently hilarious and/or insightful anecdotes and observations about the film business.

He’s certainly in an authoritative position to do so, as not only Lee’s writer on 11 projects to date, but as head of Focus Features since 2004 and a producer, there and elsewhere, of adventuresome films for two decades. (Among them are such key 1990s U.S. indies as Swoon, The Brothers McMullen, Safe Walking and Talking and Happiness.)

Asked how he started out in the business, the bespectacled multi-hypenate (and holder of multiple UC Berkeley degrees) laughed that surrounded by so many talented friends in the late ’80s, he realized “I had no skills so…all I could do is call up people and ask for money.” (He also opined “The definition of a screenplay is 125 pages of begging for money.”)

That is, of course, no throwaway skill in the perpetually cash-strapped world of indie filmmaking. So, in 1990, Schamus found himself producing Raoul Ruiz’s first American feature The Golden Boat, shot in 16mm over two long weekends. He marveled at the professionalism of a crew with no apparent prior credits–then learned they’d all worked plenty, albeit in porn flicks they didn’t put on their resumes. The same year he produced Todd Haynes’ New Queer Cinema groundbreaker Poison.

He’d seen an NYU student film by Ang Lee and been impressed. Though when the latter pitched what would become his own first feature, 1992’s Pushing Hands, Schamus recalls “It was the longest, worst pitch in the history of cinema.” Nonetheless that project went ahead–largely thanks to Lee’s Taiwanese production grants–with Schamus as both producer and (for the first time) credited screenwriter. He repeated those roles on the next year’s Wedding Banquet, which he “reconceived as a screwball comedy” after gandering “the most turgid, depressing, melodramatic script” form it initially came in.

Schamus discussed the curious intricacies of writing screenplays in English for Lee, knowing they’ll never be heard in that language–five of their features to date required dialogue translated into Mandarin. But when perennially asked how Lee manages to work so well in so many milieus foreign to him (The Ice Storm’s ’70s New England suburbia, Sense and Sensibility’s Victorian England etc.), he rolls eyes. “Internally my answer was always ‘Shut up, asshole.’ But externally it was ‘Well, he’s really good at his job.’”

Proclaiming “Write what you don’t know” might be a better rule of thumb for aspiring scenarists than the usual trope, he attributes the diversity of his collaborations with Lee to their “pure film-buffdom” that turns moviemaking into “an eternal film school for us.” Even in their surprise ventures into such pop territories as the martial arts epic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and comic-book flick (Hulk), he insists things are taken very seriously. “The only thing you are never going to be is smarter than the genre,” he advises.

After Schamus and Rich left the stage the Kabuki audience was treated to a newly assembled Director’s Cut of his and Lee’s Ride with the Devil, the exceptional Civil War drama that died with a whimper at the 1999 box office. (He said Universal congratulated them on making a great movie, then explained that it hadn’t cost enough for them to bother spending more on marketing its release.) The studio requested 15 minutes be cut to fulfill a contractual length limit. For the film’s new Criterion DVD release that footage was restored, conversely making the whole “actually play much faster.” He modestly attributed most of its wonderful period dialogue to “just being ripped off from Daniel Woodrell’s book [the novel Woe to Live On].”

Schamus is proud that under his leadership nothing from Focus Features has gotten or needed a “Director’s Cut”–“Because we deliver movies that directors actually approve of.”

He is not writing Lee’s next film, an adaptation of the international bestseller Life of Pi, because he “couldn’t crack” the puzzle of how that story might work cinematically. But Schamus confessed he continues to work frequently on multiplex-bound “big, big superhero type things” you wouldn’t think to associate him with–especially since he seldom gets or asks for screen credit on them. His next personal screenwriting project is “my adaptation of Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Aulis,” that saga of war and human sacrifice. “It’s an absolute laugh riot,” he cracked. (Dennis Harvey)

Novikoff Tibutee Ebert Basks in Filmmaker Tributes
A Murderer’s Row (as Jason Reitman put it) of iconoclastic directors raucously and poignantly saluted Mel Novikoff Award winner Roger Ebert at the Castro Theatre Saturday afternoon. The award, given for the last 22 years to “an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema,” has rarely provoked an audience outpouring of such affection and exuberance. Seated onstage alongside his wife Chaz, the longtime Chicago Sun-Times critic reveled in the testimonials proffered by Terry Zwigoff, Errol Morris, Reitman and Philip Kaufman.

Zwigoff opened the program with his disarming brand of acerbic self-deprecation, recalling his first interaction with Ebert at the Telluride Film Festival in the mid-‘80s. He was selling LPs (“at least they weren’t 78s”) tied in to Louie Bluie, the music doc that marked his directorial debut. Ebert wanted to buy a few records, only Zwigoff wouldn’t let him pay. That seemed to take the critic aback, as if maybe Zwigoff was clumsily trying to buy him off.

After crediting Ebert for discovering and touting Louis Bluie and, nearly a decade later, Crumb, Zwigoff said admiringly, “The guy loves films so much that it’s sort of contagious.” Honoring Ebert’s gift as a writer, Zwigoff concluded, “He manages to make you think more critically without making it feel like homework.”

Errol Morris spoke next, likewise acknowledging the pivotal role Ebert played early in his career by championing Vernon, Florida and Gates of Heaven. When the Oscar-winning documentary maker declared, “There’s something very odd about this man,” Ebert brought down the house with a succinct hand gesture that said, “This guy is calling me odd?”

Jason Reitman bounded to the podium to proclaim, “He is America’s critic. He is ‘The Thumb.’” Recalling how Ebert got behind Juno at Toronto and helped propel a festival film to mainstream distribution and success, Reitman explained, “He’s America’s best friend who won’t stop nagging you until see this film.”

Reitman scored big laughs by reading a few choice lines from a relentlessly negative Ebert review, noting, “There’s a joy to Roger even when he doesn’t like a movie.” Acknowledging Ebert’s inveterate opining on politics, current events and technology, as well as movies, he observed, “I know teenage girls who tweet less than Roger Ebert.”

Philip Kaufman, a Chicagoan who left for San Francisco with his wife and partner, Rose, around the same time that Ebert was starting his career, placed the critic in the tradition of legendary Chicago tough guys Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and Mike Royko– “give ‘em hell, take no prisoners, no bullshit, tell it like it is writers.” He cited the title of one of Royko’s collection of columns, I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It, as a good fit with the honoree.

Kaufman spoke movingly as an old friend and a fellow veteran of the culture wars, recalling how Henry and June benefited from Ebert’s long and ultimately successful fight to replace the stigmatized X rating with NC-17. They shared a love for movies that “were not for children of all ages,” as Rose had once put it. Kaufman’s comments served as a tribute not only to Ebert but to his wife, a screenwriter and his joined-at-the-hip partner who passed away in December. The director read a proclamation from Mayor Gavin Newsom declaring May 1 to be Roger Ebert Day in San Francisco, then awarded him the Mel Novikoff Award.

Ebert, who speaks via a software program on his laptop, delivered a brief, appreciative speech. He reminded the audience of the importance of seeing movies on the big screen, in a theater with a roomful of strangers. “It shapes our collective dream,” he declared. “It is how we become a society.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic tempered his usual optimism about the future of film with the observation, “We are at a curious point in the history of good movies.” Ebert went on to take a jab at Hollywood’s embrace of 3-D, “whose primary purpose is raising ticket prices,” and praised Erick Zonca’s ambitious 2008 drama Julia, the film he selected to screen after he accepted a last round of huzzahs from the crowd, and left the stage with Chaz. (Michael Fox)

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