James Schamus

Any aspiring filmmaker would be wise to have James Schamus on his or her side. As a founder of Good Machine, Schamus has produced and shepherded films as varied as The Brothers McMullen, What Happened Was..., Poison, Safe, and Happiness to critical and commercial success. As a producer and screenwriter, he's worked with acclaimed director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense And Sensibility, The Ice Storm) from his first feature Pushing Hands all the way up through his new film, the Civil War drama Ride With The Devil. Schamus has even found time to occupy prestigious academic posts at the University Of Chicago and Columbia University, where he is an associate professor of film theory, history, and criticism. Schamus recently spoke to The Onion about his new movie and more.

The Onion: Ang Lee has said that the Civil War marks for him the start of America's cultural imperialism, which is an interesting idea coming from his perspective. When you began work on the film, did he have this notion in mind already?

James Schamus: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that drew him to the film was an initial abhorrence of what these pro-Southern Bushwhackers were fighting for, in terms of the politics of it, but also an incredible empathy for the fact that they were fighting what they perceived as a Yankee invasion. So he had that kind of double-consciousness response to their situation, which I think served him incredibly well. Especially when he got to even more complex characters like the freed slave Holt [played by Jeffrey Wright], where there's a lot of stuff going in a lot of directions. It was really of interest to Ang to film it in such a way that he could find a center in that character that was hopeful, and was embracing liberation and freedom, but at the same time emotionally resonant and true to a guy who would find himself entrenched in that situation. Yes, from an analytical point of view it's right or wrong, but certainly from a heuristic point of view—what would help him get into it—I think it's absolutely right.

O: I would point to the Revolutionary War—which is explicitly about capitalism and democracy—as the turning point of cultural imperialism, the first time people fought for specific ideals. The Civil War might be the first point in American history where people actually fought amongst themselves to ensure what was won with the Revolutionary War. But he has an interesting take on the Civil War.

JS: Well, let's argue! To a certain extent, I agree about capitalism, but democracy I'm not quite as sure of. If you're reading the Jefferson version of it, then yes, but if you're reading the Hamilton version or the Washington version, then I'm not sure there was that much love of democracy going on in the American Revolution. The Revolution demographically in many ways—I don't want to say this as a blanket statement—was fought by a kind of native aristocracy, an American aristocracy that was different from the British one. The populist or popular sentiment might have been tilting far more toward [King] George than we tend to believe now. The politics then were interesting, though overall I think more benign than the politics of the Civil War. That said, I think the Civil War really represented a much more total vision of what was being fought for culturally. There really was that sense, especially on the part of the North. We articulated that in the scene where Jack Bull Chiles [Skeet Ulrich] is speaking with Mr. Evans [Zach Grenier], and he says, "We're going to lose this war because we don't care about what other people think or how they live, but [the Northerners] really do. These guys who are coming down here want everybody to think this way; they want the world to be this way." And that desire for a world in which there's a kind of absolute, pure, formal adherence to the rhetoric—and to a certain extent the formal logic of things like democracy and free thinking and all that stuff... There really was a cultural difference that was very much regional, really Northern. It added a kind of imperial impulse to the war that was quite different. It had a totality, a kind of hatred, a kind of bitterness, and also a sense of zealousness. It had a mission to it that you didn't get prior to it. But certainly it's been carried through in terms of America's vision of itself overseas, around the world. We're always the ones bringing good things to life, even if it means dropping atomic bombs on people; we know we're bringing the good stuff. And I think the Civil War indelibly marked our conscience as a country. I do think that Ang is right, though in a way maybe different from how he states it. It really did mark us as thinking of ourselves as "the good guys." Period. We'll always fight because we're fighting for "the good things."

O: Well, I guess the Revolutionary War showed that we were willing to fight for the basics—whether or not they were populist or aristocratic—but the Civil War demonstrated our willingness to impose those basic tenets.

JS: So we're agreeing.

O: Yeah, I guess so. The only time that issue is ever overtly raised in the film is in that monologue you mentioned. Was that put in there specifically to direct that argument?

JS: Yeah. It was very funny. Ang always wants to go to the very essence. He always wants to know why we're making a movie. I had written a version of that scene which I though was more dramatic and less talk—less philosophy, less history. During pre-production, Ang was saying, "I really want to hear what this movie's about." I kept saying, "Come on, I've got this great scene. It's very dramatic." Ang always said that it was kind of cool to put these kids in the room, because they're like the Red Guards. This guy's a little scared of them. These are the hardcore guys, and Mr. Evans doesn't quite know where he stands, so there's that tension in the room. But he really forced me to write the scene. We shot it with wonderful actors. Zach Grenier was wonderful—he just had this haunted look—and Skeet is amazing in that scene. But even so, I thought, well, maybe we'll just cut it out in the editing room. But the scene plays incredibly well. When we did research for the film, people would often write that that was their favorite scene. There's a real tension. I don't know if you saw it with a lot of people in the room, but the room was [mimics entranced, edge-of-seat behavior]. It ends up not being a history lesson, but a very psychological, tense, freaky scene. It's funny that you should pick up on that, because that was really a source of much discussion for us.

O: It's a real turning point in the film. Not only are you dealing with the "bad" guys—people fighting for things we don't believe in—but you know they're going to lose. Everybody knows the Bushwhackers are going to lose: From the start, it's already at a sort of desperate, guerrilla-warfare level. How did you work around those dramatic constrictions? It's hard to root for bad-guy losers killing families.

JS: We don't necessarily want people to root for them. The hard thing for us was how to get people into the movie, stay with the movie, and by the end be there for these characters. Not necessarily in a typical, "Hi, I'm Bruce Willis and I'm going to kill all the terrorists" Hollywood mode. But we tend to reasonably expect when we go to the movies to see good guys and bad guys, and that's generally worked for a long time. You don't want to mess with it too much. On the other hand, what we tried to do was figure out a way to get the good guys good in ways that were different from the ways the good guys are traditionally good, which takes a little more time. It takes a little more to go with the flow but still find your way to that. So we hope that by the end of the movie, you're rooting for the guys as good guys, but they're good precisely because they're not doing all the crap they were doing at the beginning of the movie. [Laughs.] So you're putting the audience in a somewhat morally compromised situation, but in a weird way. As oblique and vague as the movie is, it's a far more morally compromised position for you to walk in very smugly, thinking that you're so good and great, that you're not racist, that Lincoln fought to free the slaves, and that's that. You know, you get these black/white buddy-cop movies that are just jokes compared to what's really going on. And there's a far greater moral imperative for all of us to sort of walk through this history a little bit and find ways to really deal with the issues, deal with each other, and find ways to make those connections.

O: I think it helps that Tobey Maguire remains ambiguous throughout. Even at the beginning, his heart's not really in the horrible things he's doing, so his shift in priorities makes sense. As a screenwriter, you had to deal with that switch halfway through, where Ride With The Devil shifts from a war film to a very Sense And Sensibility-like domestic comedy.

JS: It's funny. Again, it was a big worry when we started this as to how that was going to play. I said to Ang, "I think what I would love to do would be to make a movie that at the end of the day is about happiness"—without making reference to any other film I've worked on. It's a very hard thing to make a movie about, because people who find happiness or are happy tend to be pretty boring. In terms of narrative, what's interesting about people who are happy? And yet I thought it we could try that, get through that heart of darkness, and not rub it in people's faces, but say, "Look, human beings can get through that," it would be a wonderful thing. I've never really seen that in a movie. It's funny that someone pointed this out to me: I never try to make these references because they're so highfalutin and pompous, but one film I did have in mind was Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion. There really is a sense that they found their comradeship, and that they found their domestic happiness, even if they had to leave it in that movie.

O: Ride With The Devil isn't a short movie by any stretch, but I was expecting there to be more. It almost seems to end abruptly at the end of the second act. Was anything cut off?

JS: There wasn't anything cut off. We had to find a way to give the ending a sense of resolution without having to kill 200 people. It's an interesting thing, how to find closure without going to all those usual, typical, lazy ways to reach closure in films. So we tried to get around that: to reach closure but keep open a sense of hope and possibility.

O: This is the third period film in a row that you and Ang Lee have worked on. The next [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon] is also a period film. Is there a reason for this?

JS: No, it's kind of the luck of the draw. Then you go into patterns and get upset that you're in these patterns. [Laughs.] The thing I'm curious about is that it gives you a freedom you just don't have with contemporary stuff. When people [on screen] are dressed like you're dressed, the amount of cultural stereotyping people bring is so immense that in order to get around people's preconceptions, you have to really fight your way through generically. It's often a losing battle. In period stuff, people give you an enormous amount of leeway. People can act, say, and do things that they just couldn't do if they were dressed in contemporary clothes. Even if they do them now, people don't have a hard time relating. People don't say things about their fathers like, "I disobey him, but in my disobedience I honor him." Some guy now can't say that, but it's a real emotion people now have. It's not like people don't have parents and don't have issues about trying to remain faithful but at the same time disobeying them. Those are big issues. But they could never possibly articulate them the way they could if they happened to be wearing clothes that they wore 150 years ago, and happened to have accents. So it's funny: You can do stuff emotionally much more straightforwardly when you put people in other worlds. It's one of those things.

O: Even The Ice Storm, which is just shy of contemporary, has enough distance to it that it can be approached analytically as well as emotionally.

JS: It gives it a sort of fairy-tale sense. You can do very simple things with it and not seem heavy-handed. I was very pleased that The Ice Storm didn't read much like social commentary, whereas if it had been a contemporary film it would have been looked at like the moral majority or something. But when it becomes a memory, it becomes like a fairy tale. All of a sudden it becomes more emotional, and you're not saying something about "the state of our children and parents." It's more, "What does this feel like?" and "What is this memory?"

O: It's interesting that you bring it up, because American Beauty has its share of similarities with The Ice Storm. One big difference is that the film is contemporary, and it certainly has some heavy-handed moments meant to be Big Ideas.

JS: It's hard not to put yourself in that situation, where it doesn't seem like you're trying to make a statement. That's the luxury of period films: Do we really need to have a strong opinion of British society in the 1800s? No! [Laughs.] We can not like class disparities and gender discrimination, but we have the freedom to explore.

O: I wanted to ask you about Happiness. That was a rare instance where an unrated film, for whatever reason, was accepted by mainstream theaters. It was advertised in major newspapers and was pretty widely distributed. Doesn't that film's relative success indicate that some modicum of financial self-sacrifice can counteract what is widely, if erroneously, considered censorship? There have been a lot of debates over the ratings system lately, but Happiness found its way around that. Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, was contractually made to be rated R, whereas Kubrick probably had enough clout to release that any way he wanted. Happiness, on the other hand, didn't capitulate, and I don't recall anyone involved making a big fuss.

JS: No, we didn't. The focus of our campaign... Seagram's, which owns Universal and October, banished the film, so we had to take it back and distribute it ourselves. Which we did, and we had a great experience doing so. But at that point, we made a very conscious decision which was unlike those of independent distributors of yore, which were like, "Wow, it's a controversy and we get lots of free publicity." My feeling was that this was a really great film, and as a service to the film and the film-going public, I would rather let them know that this is a Todd Solondz movie, that it's a great film, and who cares? Why feed off a controversy that is in fact an insult to the movie to begin with? Why lend credence to that kind of system? So we really stepped away from that, and all our materials—from the trailers to the press kit—were about positioning this film as the work of a wonderful filmmaker who had something to say, not as somebody who had been crushed by corporate America. That said, de facto censorship on these issues is absolute and fundamental and real. To give you one example, by the time it got to the video release, we had to go for a rating. Because the top video-store chains—in particular Blockbuster—will not stock NC-17 titles, because of the market consolidation of these gigantic corporate behemoths, that effectively means that you are removed from one-third to two-thirds of your potential market. You just don't exist. You literally don't exist. And because they had managed to flush out most of the independent video stores over the course of the past five years, you're literally in a situation right now where if you live where most Americans live, you will not have the ability to see this movie. You will not have a choice. That choice was made for you by somebody else. So the means of distribution are very tightly controlled at the closest point of contact between the film and the viewing public. There's no question about it. We ended up with an NC-17 rating on the video release, and I ended up going out with Todd to L.A. to the MPAA to appeal that. And that was like meeting a bunch of people who sleep in coffins. These people are scary! [Laughs.] It's just straightforward: They literally destroyed whatever potential upside to the film we could possibly have, but more importantly they made a decision for every parent in America that now won't even have a conversation about a film like this. It won't ever happen.

More Interview