Interview: Director James Schamus on Bringing Roth to the Big Screen
By Marilyn Cooper
Although he has authored more than 30 books, Philip Roth’s novels have seldom been adapted into films. But with this month’s release of James Schamus’s Indignation and Ewan McGregor’s adaptation of American Pastoral due out this October, 56 years into his career, Roth is suddenly a hot new trend in film. Indignation (2008), one of Roth’s lesser-known works, tells the story of a young Jewish man, Marcus Messing—a stand-in, as is Roth’s wont, for a version of the author himself—as he starts his freshman year in 1951, largely to avoid the twin evils of living in Newark, New Jersey and the Korean War draft. Messner, an atheist, has a series of conflicts with the campus’s small Jewish community and meets and becomes infatuated with the beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed Olivia Hutton. The pair’s first date begins with Olivia enticing Marcus to partake of treif escargot and ends with her surprising him with a sexual favor in a borrowed car parked in a graveyard—harbingers of turbulent events to come.
James Schamus, who makes his directorial debut with Indignation, is a writer and producer who has frequently collaborated with Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman) and produced two Academy Award-winning films, Brokeback Mountain and Milk. He sat down with Moment senior editor Marilyn Cooper to discuss the 24 days he spent filming Indignation and the complications and pleasures of bringing Roth to the big screen.
What interests you about Philip Roth?
I’m a middle-aged Jewish guy who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; it would be odd if I were not interested in Philip Roth! My first readings of Roth’s Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint are indelibly etched in my memory as key parts of growing up. As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to Philip Roth and it’s always been a goal of mine to make a Philip Roth movie. The voice of Philip Roth has been part of my literary consciousness as far back as I can remember.
Previous films have adapted Roth’s work with mixed results; do Roth’s novels present special or unusual challenges to moviemakers?
The qualities that make a novel great are often the exact reasons why a book would not make a great film. Roth is a particularly good example of a great novelist who doesn’t translate easily into great movie treatments. Most of his work is peculiarly resistant to cinematic adaption for the exact same reasons that readers love them. Roth’s work often operates in the gaps between biographical, the general sense of a Roth persona, the central male Roth character and the narrator. This is the toolkit that Roth mobilizes and it is uniquely literary. This gap between Roth the narrator and Roth, the narrated really grips and trips you up.
We don’t have those tools in the cinema. So a great deal of what makes Roth’s writing great is lost the precise second you decide to adapt one of his works to cinema.
Why did you decide to adapt Indignation rather than one of Roth’s more famous novels?
Indignation is a later work; it is more fable-like and elegiac than his other novels. Even though it mobilizes all the great Rothian techniques and themes, I found that there was more of an intimacy and simplicity with these characters than with some of Roth’s other ones. That made me feel, if not confident, at least comfortable that I could try and put this story on the screen.
Much of Indignation is based heavily on Roth’s college years. What interested you in this period in Roth’s life?
Much of Roth’s work wants the reader to work at figuring out how much of it is Roth and how much isn’t. That’s also part of the experience of Indignation. This is Philip Roth before he became Philip Roth. The central character, Marcus, is a more innocent young man than most Roth characters. Roth is revisiting an earlier version of himself that had disappeared at some point. Or at least the outward manifestation had disappeared. That lovely young boy is still somewhere in Philip Roth and always has been. I was deeply interested in the intersections between Roth and Marcus Messner. That was the fun part of preparing for and researching the film. I based Logan Lerman’s haircut on Philip Roth’s haircut in his high school yearbook picture. We researched every single aspect of Jewish life at Bucknell University, where Roth was a freshman in 1951. We used this research as our main visual and cultural references for the film.
Based on his previous work, Logan Lerman is a surprising choice to cast as the male lead in a Philip Roth movie. Why did you select him?
Yes, indeed, he is a nice Jewish boy! Logan is an intelligent actor, he questions and thinks in interesting ways. I was looking for some qualities that are very hard to find these days. For the male lead, I wanted someone whose acting combined intelligence and innocence. That’s hard to find because intelligent people, particularly considering what they can find on the Internet by age nine, are usually not that innocent. Marcus is a great Roth character in that he is super smart but he also just doesn’t get it, especially with the young woman he meets at college, Olivia. He is clueless; he can’t read the signals. Logan’s performance captured those exact qualities.
How did you expect viewers to react to this movie’s portrayal of female characters and gender relations?
I knew many people would have an uncomfortable reaction. There is a hothouse environment where many people already have a fully developed, passionate set of opinions about Philip Roth, particularly on gender. This movie is not going to change that and this was not my goal. If you strip away whatever structure of judgment you come to the film with, particularly about Philip Roth and pre-existing strong views about his gender politics, you can watch this film and see that, late in his life, he is revisiting the precise ideologies that were not consciously available to young people in the 1950s. You can come to understand the ruthlessness of Roth’s dissection of a certain kind of Jewish male heterosexual. Roth has a sheer insane honesty and a lack of making sentimental excuses that shapes his portraits of these characters. I hope I was able to give an extraordinarily empathetic portrait of Marcus’s blind spots.
What is the value in presenting potentially troubling and disturbing portrayals of gender relations and sexuality?
You can see the value right away. This arrival of desire as a detour throws our hero completely off course. He has no language to speak about it with, no context for understanding this culture or to absorb his experiences. The results are painful and tragic. This is not a triumphant celebration of these circumstances—far from it. But it’s a very empathetic portrayal of them.
As the director and screenwriter, how did you negotiate the possibility of certain characters, particularly the always perfectly clad Olivia, seeming like flat stereotypes?
I considered this in every character interaction, every sentence of dialogue, and every decision I made, particularly with Olivia. If you watch carefully enough, you’ll discover that she is not a manicured pixie doll or every Jewish boy’s dream girl. From Marcus and Olivia’s first meeting and obviously from their first date, with Olivia you have some one who is very self-consciously presenting herself as just that. But by the end of the movie, there is an unveiling of a kind of terror inside this young woman. She has deep-rooted fears she needs to defend against. The drama here is that Marcus is clueless about this. Every scene drops a further hint about the actual narrative she is experiencing and it’s a terribly tragic one.
There is an image of Olivia as a kind of perfect girl who wouldn’t do certain kinds of things, who wouldn’t give unsolicited oral sex on a first date. Marcus can’t cognate that these two categories could coexist in the same person. That’s a failure of his moral imagination. Olivia’s delivery of a sexual favor is a kind of language. It’s her shorthand to let people know about her trauma. It’s not like she is Miss Free Love. Even the little smile she gives him in the car after performing oral sex disappears immediately and you know that this is a pyrrhic victory for her.
What were you trying to portray about the Jewish world of the 1950s?
It is easy for people to forget the systemic and structural anti-Semitism that existed even in my lifetime here in the United States. It is no longer the pattern of experience for most American Jews even though it happened quite recently—the 1950s are not that long ago. It conditioned a lot of the anxiety and fear that you see in Marcus’s family as well as that push for assimilation.
How would you describe Marcus’s relationship with Judaism?
The more he fights it, the more he is it. He is a person of the book. Even when he is railing about his atheism, he is doing it in a very Jewish way. I think that’s really Roth. Roth, at the beginning of his career, was really disowned by the official Jewish establishment. Roth has spoken clearly of having seen himself as assimilated when he was a college undergraduate; his creative work at that time had very little to do with Judaism. Later he found himself again as a Jew, but in a highly contested relationship with his Judaism. Which is par for course with Roth.
Does being Jewish influence which movies you choose to become involved with?
A huge number of American Jews work in the film industry but you may have noticed that there seems to be some unwritten law against portraying Jewish characters as leads in films. Think about it: What was the last major Hollywood film that contained Jewish main characters specifically dealing with Jewish issues? And why aren’t these films being made? It’s an important question that there is no good answer to. I’m very proud that I got to help make and distribute the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man, a Coen brother movie about a Jewish man in pre-WWII America experiencing a crisis of faith. And I brought the movie The Pianist to the United States as a distributer. But it is bizarre to me that there are so few mainstream movies about Jews and Jewish issues. There are great Jewish stories and great Jewish characters. And there are great Jewish executives and filmmakers. There should be many more great Jewish films.
This interview has been edited and condensed.