Professor James Schamus Discusses His Feature Film Directorial Debut

James Schamus is a longtime film professor at the School of Arts, where this fall he will teach courses on “Topics in American Film” and “The Western.” Last year, he was inducted into the 25 Year Club at Columbia. “The dinner was great fun and I was presented with a very nice Tiffany picture frame,” he said.

Eve Glasberg
July 22, 2016

He is also the producer of 50 movies, the writer of 13 screenplays and director of two short films. He has written one book and is working on another. And until 2013, he also was the CEO of Focus Features, the motion picture production, financing and distribution company whose award-winning films include Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, The Dallas Buyers Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Coraline.

As if he doesn’t have enough to do, Schamus will make his feature directorial debut July 29 with Indignation, an adaptation of the 2008 book by celebrated novelist Philip Roth, whose works are famously difficult to film. Columbia News asked him to discuss his latest venture.

Q. What prompted you to direct your first feature film now?

A. It was most likely an undiagnosed case of midlife crisis.

Q. What are the differences or similarities between producing, screenwriting and directing?

A. Screenwriting: Sitting in the front passenger seat shouting out directions. Producing: Sitting in the rear passenger seat shouting out directions. Directing: Sitting in the driver’s seat with everyone else shouting in the car.

Q. What made you select Indignation? Did you have any contact with Roth during the process?

A. I loved the challenge of adapting Roth, who writes real novels, not the film treatments that pass for novels we so often see show up on the bestseller lists. I sent the screenplay to him before we started shooting, which could well have been the greatest mistake of my professional life. What if he had hated it? He did me a tremendous favor: he refused to read it. We screened a cut of the film for him in post-production: he has been very complimentary.

Q. How does the intersection of teaching and your film work affect you?

A. While I teach in the School of the Arts, I never teach anything practical at all; I was hired as a film theorist and that’s what I teach - very dense, very philosophical texts that will not help a single one of my students get ahead in the film business.

Q. What are you working on next?

A. I’m currently finishing a script based loosely on Reza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It was more or less an excuse to do a year of research into first-century Palestine and Judaism.