James Schamus

If you wanted to trace the evolution of American independent film from a struggling cottage industry to a high-rent Hollywood annex, you could hardly pick a better figure to follow than James Schamus. As the co-founder (with Ted Hope) of the production company Good Machine, Schamus played a major role in bringing Hal Hartley, Todd Solondz, Tom Kalin and Nicole Holofcener onto the world stage. He also began a long-standing partnership with Ang Lee, for whom he has often served as screenwriter as well as producer, following him from the chamber drama charm of The Wedding Banquet to the big-budget flop Hulk and the history-making Brokeback Mountain. Somewhere along the way, he went from being a partner in Good Machine to the president of Focus Features, an art-minded subsidiary of Universal Pictures, which has proved to be one of the more successful and enduring of the studios’ dependent arms. 

The multiple roles he plays are bound to give rise to conflicts—as both Lee’s producer and the head of Focus, he is essentially in the position of having to ask himself for money—but he resolves them with even-handed perspicacity, a valuable trait in an industry that has been shaken hard by the economic and cultural shifts of the last decade. Schamus, a Ph.D in English Literature who still teaches film at Columbia, sat down for an animated chat to talk up Taking Woodstock, his latest collaboration with Lee, sporting one of his trademark bowties.

The A.V. Club: Woodstock has become so encrusted with mythology over the years, to the extent that a good number of people under 40 are sick to death of hearing about it. Did you have any trepidation about adding one more monument to the shrine?

James Schamus: Oh, yeah. A couple pieces of trepidation. One is, working with Ang now, we’ve done these six really heavy movies in a row. Auteurs are kind of genres these days, and one golden rule about filmmaking is, “Don’t mess with the genre.” So I said to Ang last week, “I think I’d do a lot better as a studio head on this movie if I could just take your name off it.” Because of the expectations and all that. He really wanted to go into a zone where he could really do something joyful, and just really happy. 

I had trepidation mainly because in movies, really since the early ’70s, in all popular – especially American – culture, any time anybody raises a peace sign or says, “Groovy,” they’re automatically idiots. I’ve never seen quite a cultural lockdown on an era and a style quite the same way. We didn’t just move on from ’60s culture. It was almost as if people just wanted to forget it, really, with an almost instinctive hatred. Hippies in movies, for example, are always idiots, and they’re always funny. And yet here, for example, we’ve got a character played by Jonathan Groff, Michael Lang, who’s actually kind of a genius. Clearly, this guy knows what he’s doing, and what he did was pretty amazing, but he says “Far out” a lot. [Laughs.] That was the hardest part, was the language of the era, not making fun of people. Really trying to be respectful. But it’s a comedy, so you’re still laughing. How do you do that? 

AVC: The resemblance is pretty astonishing. He’s physically very right on, so to speak.

JS: Oh my god, yeah. It’s incredible. Mike Lang saw the movie, we screened it for him a little while ago, and he went and he just said, “That was just an out-of-body experience.” He and Joel Rosenman have been fantastic to work with, yeah.

AVC: Where were you when the festival happened?

JS: I grew up in L.A. We were in North Hollywood, up in the Hollywood Hills. And I was under lockdown along with my friends, the whole neighborhood, because Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas had just been murdered the week before—a few blocks, actually, from where we lived. These were what we thought were random killings by some hippie cult. So while we were watching on TV the news reports of Woodstock and this incredible hippie peace, love and music, there’s blood on the walls that says, “Pig, die pig” a few blocks down the hill. So those two events really coincided for me. In the script we had a scene that was shot, but we just dropped it for pacing, where there was a nod to the Tate murders. At that point, no one knew about the Manson family. That didn’t happen until October.

AVC: One thing that often gets overlooked a lot is how much dark stuff was going on concurrently.

JS: In doing the research I was kind of blown away. Really, you think you know this stuff, but you don’t. Ang and me, we’re like the über-nerd approach to stuff, so we were sort of reading all this stuff and watching all these movies and this footage, and getting all the B-roll from the news agencies. Then I went back and watched a movie, an amazing film that I’d seen many, many years ago but I hadn’t made the connection, which is Gimme Shelter, the documentary by the Maysles brothers about Altamont. And half an hour into the movie, there’s Mike Lang. 

AVC: That’s where I recognized him from. 

JS: It was incredible. I was like, “Wait a second, that’s the Woodstock guy.” He and Chip Monk, who was the famed announcer, the sound guy, they all left Woodstock and went to San Francisco for a truly free concert with the Rolling Stones. Same story. Their permit got pulled right at the last minute. It was going to be in Golden Gate Park, and they scrambled to find a new venue, and ended up at the speedway at Altamont. And the rest is history. So you think of Woodstock as the summit of the ’60s, the ultimate ’60s thing, and Altamont as the end of the ’60s, and yet they were only three months apart. It’s the same guys.

I said to Mike Lang after seeing the film, You know, here’s how history works.” Because of the scramble to move the festival from San Francisco to the suburbs, to Altamont, they didn’t have time to actually build the stage, so they put in the flatbed truck as the stage. If you remember from the film, it was only three feet. Hence, everybody’s pushing forward and the Hells Angels are pushing back. I said, “If that stage had been 10 feet up, Altamont would have been a [successful] free concert.”

AVC: One of the other things that happened around the same time was the Stonewall riots, which were the inception point for the gay rights movement. Elliot Tiber claims to have been there.

JS: If everybody who claims to have been at Stonewall had been at Stonewall, Stonewall would have been Woodstock. Whereas if everybody who claims to have been at Woodstock had been at Woodstock, Woodstock would have been more or less half the United States. So, you know, I think it scales up. [Laughs.]

That’s literally why the key to the movie is that he’s three miles down the road, and he just never gets there. He never gets to the concert. And yet, at the end of the weekend, it’s the most important thing in his lifetime, it transformed him, so that all those people who didn’t get there, this is them, is all of us.

AVC: Did you consider making reference to Stonewall in the film, given that it had a direct impact on your protagonist?

JS: We had originally written and we more of a preamble to the bifurcation between Greenwich Village and upstate. But honestly, we realized from the beginning that we were not filming Elliot’s memoirs. I mean, you could make 20 movies out of them, and he’s got more coming. He just keeps going. But we were really telling that brief few weeks, that story of Woodstock: “Here, I’ve got a permit. Boom!” And this kind of schnooky family and this decrepit motel three miles down the road, and one phone call, and then kaboom: half a million of their best friends show up to help them sort out their problems. So to me, that was the story and the essence, and then we could contextualize it a bit, so we kept in the one scene with his apartment, with his sister. But otherwise the movie would have been two and a half hours long. 

AVC: Did you have a historical basis for the scene where Elliot kisses another man and the people around them applaud? A lot of people assume wrongly now that the counterculture was sexually liberated across the board, but in a lot of cases that wasn’t true.

JS: It’s really interesting, the imbricated histories of gay culture from the ‘60s onward and the ‘60s left culture and hippie culture. I’ve read a lot on this stuff, and I don’t feel that the definitive work has even begun on that. Because it’s really interesting, on the one hand, it’s like, “Hippies, freedom, whatever.” On the other hand, it meant straight guys could sleep with a lot of straight girls.

AVC: And not call them.

JS: Yes, exactly. And yet, interestingly, the deeper history, the structural histories, at the level of culture and style and everything else, the gay presence was really determinate and in many ways overwhelming, and had a lot of different modalities to it. One of the things we did that I really thought was great in the process of working with Liev was taking a guy who was really Times Square—there was that kind of Jackie Onassis drag crossdressing thing—and in the course of his Woodstock experience, he started to open himself up to more of a West Coast thing, like the Cockettes, which I call the gay Jesus look. You think about San Francisco and the Summer Of Love, why did San Francisco become the epicenter of gay culture just two or three years later? We just did this on Milk. There’s a real reason, and part of that reason was hippie culture. It’s really interesting, and then if you look at Milk, the very first scene with James Franco, he’s a hippie. We forget that, because we immediately think, “Oh, well, it was really clones. It went from Judy Garland time to clones.” We forget there was a whole intermediate space that was kind of mixed up. 

AVC: One thing the movie puts across whih you don’t often see is that the hippies were something of a fringe element, and not even necessarily the most political element. If you look at the anti-war protestors in Winter Soldier, or the members of Students for a Democratic Society, they have long hair, but they’re not wearing tie-dye and listening to the Dead.

JS: That’s right. Winter Soldier was a big touchpoint for us actually. 

AVC: And for much of the country, nothing had changed. The Maysles’ documentary Salesman was released the same year as Woodstock, but the people in the movie look much more like what we’d associate with the 1950s. 

JS: Right. And look at the townspeople in Bethel. Salesman for me is a big deal, too. You’re hitting all my faves. So as I explained the movie to Ang, I said, “It’s like a zombie movie from the ’70s. First one hippie, then three, then they all come and they’re all just turning everybody into hippies.” 

AVC: You wear several different hats, and on Lee’s movies you wear several of them simultaneously,. How do you balance the varying roles of studio head and producer and writer? 

JS: I don’t really compartmentalize them. I think there’s a continuum. And also, each one gives me cover for procrastinating on the other one.  It’s like, “Oh no, I’m too busy writing this morning. Whatever. Somebody else do it.” With Ang, it’s just a bigger toolbox. The flipside of that is really feeling the responsibility and obligation to continue to work modestly and continue to really not try to get out ahead of ourselves. You know what I mean? So that even with a Lust, Caution, where here in the states it was just like, “Mmeh,” you know, long boring Chinese art film, but because of the nuances of the business, it does 50 million dollars in Asia. It’s one of the biggest movies ever in the history of Chinese cinema. Dude, that’s awesome.

So we can always figure out a way to let him do what he wants to do, take really extreme chances, and do it in a responsible way so that I’m not just like, “Hey, whoopee! We can do what we want. I run the studio, here’s a check.” He was really, I must say, a good citizen on Woodstock. Made every day on budget, on schedule. It looks pretty big, but a lot of that is just smoke and mirrors. The same extras, one day you’re wearing a green t-shirt, tomorrow morning wear a white t-shirt. You’re in front today, you’re in back tomorrow. [Laughs.]

AVC: You also put some of the more important scenes indoors, like his trip with the couple in the Volkswagen. Better to have them in a controlled environment than outside with thousands of extras.

JS: That’s right. And of course, when you do see the concert, the one vision you have of that concert, that’s when, instead of having “real CGI people,” we could really use our extras and layer them in. Remember, for the vast, vast majority of people who went to Woodstock—this is before JumboTrons and the kind of sound systems we have now. Janis Joplin was about two centimeters high for most people. She was a dot. The sound would have been a low thumping bass line occasionally broken by a piercing scream and/or an announcement.

AVC: Just going back to your hats, I wonder where you think the independent/dependent business…

JS: I call it “specialized.” I always say, “Has anybody ever met a dependent producer?” This is no a self-serving response, but I’m in a weird place, because we’re weirdly doing really well. I get the structural issues and the impending digital horizon, which does make the value chain for all copyright properties very difficult in terms of the way that businesses are organizing. I think that there will be an upheaval. 

Even though we look like a domestic distribution company, from day one, I’ve always been involved in international sales and distribution. We sell and help finance everybody from Zhang Yimou to Pedro Almodóvar to Roberto Benigni, who are distributed by different people in the U.S. So what I look like here is a large piece of my business, but it’s not the essence of my business. So we continue to diversify overseas. We’re going to greenlight 20 more movies next year just for local markets overseas, because I think that people want to see their stuff too. And we have resources and abilities to work with our partners at Universal and different markets, so in Germany, and Italy and France, we’re making a lot of movies right now. And that’s fun. It’s great. Some of them are kind of more pop, some of them are more artsy. Some of them cross over through other territories, some of them don’t. 

So as a businessperson, I’m investing a huge amount of time in that right now, and it’s a blast. It’s really an interesting world. I can’t predict the dynamics of audience participation and change. I know that young folks see a lot of different kinds of movies, which I think is great. They’ll go to a Hollywood movie one night, and maybe they’ll go to an arthouse film. There is not that kind of purity anymore. What it also means, however, is that there’s been a real constriction in terms of the breadth and scope of an alternative culture. There is no alternative culture, it’s just a lot of little things popping up on your Twitter. Maybe you’ll go, maybe you won’t. Without a kind of critical mass of what you think of as culture, that is passion and commitment to an ongoing discussion about alternative voices and visions, then I do feel a little bit of the air going out of the tire. The arthouse audience is aging, and we’re trying our best at Focus to really do distinctive, cool stuff that works both for older and for younger audiences, so you see 9 coming up, you’ll see the next Coen brothers, A Serious Man. So we’re just going to keep at it. 

But we’ve had some good success being a little less on the high horse. Now we’re running into this new zone, which I now call the—I hope—“critic-proof arthouse movie.” Because, the critical context is changing. There’s so much stress points on the business, and people are getting a little crankier. Especially if some of the higher-end critics feel like you’re pandering at all, or you’re trying to do something for the audience that you have — it’s perfectly fine if you’re Michael Bay and then they can understand that, but if you’re Sam Mendes, man, the hammer comes down. There’s fewer of you guys these days, and there’s not as much of a discussion. It’s like, Manohla [Dargis] likes it, this one doesn’t, then it’s all graded on Rotten Tomatoes, it comes out as a number. So the conversation becomes…

AVC: What did everybody think of it, not what did so-and-so think.

JS: Yeah. It becomes a piece of arithmetic. And with me, I actually live this way. If somebody hates a movie I made, that’s perfectly fine, as long as they have an argument. I think that’s cool. But now, it’s all becoming an aggregate number.

AVC: That lack of reflection hurts some movies more than others. I don’t think The Limits of Control would have been met with so much hostility 15 or 20 years ago.

JS: Not at all. Not at all. And we were really proud. Jim sent over the film, it was like, “Well, commercially DOA, but…” We did a great trailer, we did a great poster, we had a beautiful evening. We had a screening with a little party here in New York. We got all of downtown New York together to celebrate him. Really, my job is not simply to take a look at it and say, “This is product.” It’s not like I’m out there throwing money out the door, either. We did it responsibly. But it’s important to support—you know, he’s Jim Jarmusch. I’m not. [Laughs.] And he’s going to keep making movies. He’s made great movies before, he’s made this film. You can’t sit around and calculate this stuff every time. So we’ll keep at it until someone tells us to turn off the lights, but right now, weirdly, we’re kind of doing well.