Indignation: James Schamus (Former Focus Exce) Mediocre Directing Debut

World premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Fest, Indignation opens theatrically in limited run July 29.

indignation_posterBased on Philip Roth’s novel, Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a bright working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small conservative college in Ohio, which exempts him from being drafted into the Korean War. But once there, Marcus’s growing infatuation with his beautiful classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and his clashes with the college’s imposing Dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), put his plans and dreams to the ultimate test.

For the last 25 years, James Schamus’ name has been associated with some groundbreaking indie films. As co-founder of Good Machine, CEO of Focus Features, and an independent producer and screenwriter, Schamus has been creatively involved in the making of dozens of films.

With Indignation, Schamus adds feature director to his resume.  Schamus worked on the screenplay during his last years at Focus Features, but hadn’t seriously considered directing it.  But when he was replaced at Focus, Schamus began to think of directing it himself.  Indignation was the perfect project for him for a variety of reasons. Not only had he envisioned every scene and sounded out every line in writing the screenplay, but he connected to the story personally. “To a certain extent, I know Marcus Messner, the character in Indignation very well,” acknowledges Schamus. “There’s a little of him in me. There’s a little of him in any good Jewish boy who went on to try to do well in school.”
Schamus approached Anthony Bregman, a producer with whom he’d worked both at Good Machine and Focus Features.  Schamus’ screenplay struck a chord with Bregman. “I felt like here was something that could have been taken from my own life,” remembers Bregman. “And that’s the kind of connection I always look for in a script.” Schamus’ adaptation “touched on so many aspects of what I felt as a young person and how I approach the world today,” explains Bregman. “It’s a tragic love story. It’s a story of youthful rebellion. It’s a grand philosophical story of existence about the things we do that determine our fate. It’s a moving story, a funny story and a very profound one.”

In 2008, Philip Roth published his 29th novel, Indignation, a story about his own youth, growing up in Newark before attending a small liberal arts college.  One of America’s most honored and accomplished writers––having twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award, as well as having received a Pulitzer Prize––Roth was 75 when he turned back to imagine this period of his youth.

Specific moment in young man’s life

“Indignation may not be the best known of Philip Roth’s novels, but in some ways that’s a real blessing,” notes writer-director Schamus. “It’s more of a chamber piece that captures a specific moment in a young man’s life.” While details of the story roughly mirror Roth’s life, with Winesburg College serving as a stand in for Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, Roth’s alma mater, the story isn’t exactly autobiographical. But the world of ideas that Roth weaves together to create Indignation nevertheless feels very personal and profound. Connecting to the novel’s reservoir of “empathy and elegy,” Schamus found that in Indignation, Roth “was reaching down into something that really resonated with me.”
In adapting the book for the screen, Schamus turned to other literary figures of the 20th century, Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg, for inspiration. While both were contemporaries of Roth, neither one was directly connected to his intellectual circle. Ginsberg, 8 years Roth’s senior, was born in Roth’s hometown of Newark, before his family moved to nearby Paterson. “You don’t think of Philip Roth and Allen Ginsberg as being from the same sphere,” explains Schamus, “but both were very ambitious young Jewish kids from New Jersey from essentially working class or middle class backgrounds who found their path into American letters in different ways.” Their paths did cross, however, in one unexpected way. Ginsberg’s aunt, Hannah Litzky, who taught English at Weequahic High School, had Roth as a student in her class. While Ginsberg’s beat poetry and queer sensibility might seem out of place on Winesburg’s staid campus, Schamus found several ways to weave him into the story.

For Schamus, the Kaddish sung at the film’s beginning for the Jonah Greenberg is a nod to Ginsberg’s 1961 elegy, “Kaddish,” dedicated to his mother, Naomi Ginsberg. And in the character of Bertram Flusser, one of Marcus’s two roommates, one finds the embryonic spirit of the sexual revolution that Ginsberg would be instrumental in igniting in the next decade.  “Flusser’s own heartbreak mirrors Marcus’s,” says Schamus, “and Marcus’s blindness to it makes it all the more moving to me. I’d like to believe Flusser would, in the following years, discover Ginsberg and the Beat Poets, and find something of himself there.”

Although Sylvia Plath and Philip Roth traveled in different circles, Schamus imagines an aesthetic bond between the two. “I don’t know if Philip Roth was reading her journals, but for me the character Olivia Hutton has a lot to do with Sylvia Plath,” suggests Schamus. Since The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath were first published in 2000, eight years before Roth published his novel Indignation, such a connection is not at all impossible. As Schamus and Sarah Gadon developed the character of Olivia Hutton, the figure of Sylvia Plath helped illuminate the character’s consciousness and the times in which she lived. “The thing that I always loved about Sylvia Plath’s writing as a young woman is that you’re able to get into the head of the feminine psyche––how much strength there is but simultaneously, there is all this vulnerability,” explains Gadon. “They kind of coexist in this weird world of being objectified versus having your own strength of opinions, and I think you see all of that at play in Olivia.”

As Schamus points out, the character of Olivia spent her freshman year at Mt. Holyoke College, just down the road from where Plath was spending her freshman year at Smith College. “Reading Plath’s journal entries about that year really helped me understand what Olivia might have been going through,” says Schamus, “even if she’s a completely different character.”

Philip Roth 1950s

To create Philip Roth’s vision of 1951, the filmmakers needed to understand that world inside out. “James is first and foremost a scholar, so research is very important to him and is almost second nature,” noted production designer Inbal Weinberg. “He was very methodical and meticulous with period details, which in turn made us all look deeper at how people lived in the 1950s.” In preproduction, the team created a massive historical archive detailing nearly every aspect of life in the film, from how people dressed to what a French cafe might have on its menu. “For Winesburg College, we looked through many college archives and found period photographs of classrooms, quads and dorms (including Roth’s actual university, Bucknell),” recalls Weinberg. “We purchased 1950s yearbooks and personal scrapbooks on eBay and used them as our bible. They provided us with not only an understanding of the social system, looks, and fashion, but also a reference for fonts and graphics to use in any college posters, pamphlets, and booklets we created.” For Newark, the filmmakers turned both to Roth’s own literary work and historical archives, recording and examining every detail, from the art of Kosher butchering to the price of meat at the time. “The most lively debate was over the Shiva food spread,” recalls Weinberg. “I had to personally delve into the history of Jello and the difficult question of whether it was considered Kosher or not.” (The final answer is, “it depends.” But the discovery of a Hebrew Jello ad from the time and discussion of Jello in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint provided enough evidence to vote for its inclusion on the table.)

Costume designer Amy Roth’s extensive research into the wardrobes of both college kids and Newark’s Jewish community gave her new insight into the history of fashion. Besides poring over old fashion magazines, from Seventeen to Bazaar, and archival images detailing the use of plaid and floral patterns, Roth scoured vintage houses for costumes for both the boy and girl students. “The girls wore skirts and blouses that button down the back. The boys were in button front shirts and ties and beautifully tailored jackets,” recalls Roth. “The fashion of the time was very inspirational. Seeing things like detail and craftsmanship, I’m just amazed by how well everybody dressed.” Roth also sought to provide character and story with her costumes. Taking her cue from another Philip Roth story, Roth dressed Logan in a way that showed off both his naiveté and will to succeed. “When we see Logan for the first time as Marcus, standing on his college campus with his suitcase, he’s a little overdressed,” explains Roth. “His bucks aren’t fashionably kicked in. They are brand new and white and sticking out of his brand-new suit.”
In addition to capturing the collegiate look at Winesburg, the production design and costumes had to bring 1950s Newark to life. “It’s not just the costumes that have an effect,” explained Linda Emond, who plays Marcus’ mother Esther. “It’s hair, makeup, and the sets we’re working on, that definitely take you to another time.”  While Danny Burstein, who plays Marcus’ dad, Max, did extensive research on his character through reading and visiting butcher shops, he also credits costume designer Amy Roth with transporting him to 1951. Burstein remembers thinking while on set, “I feel like myself, then I look in the mirror, and I think, ‘Holy cow! Who the hell is that?’ It was that transformative.”

While much of the production team’s extensive research can be seen overtly on screen, some of it shows up in more complex and subtle ways. When Olivia pens a letter to Marcus, for example, the shape of her script mimes that of Sylvia Plath’s. On the other hand, Marcus’s cursive line when writing Olivia imitates the scrawl of soldiers writing home from the Korean War. Even something so innocuous as a phonograph LP can underscore the complicated geo-political situation of the time. When Marcus’ roommate Flusser puts on a record of Paul Robeson singing “Chee Lai,” he opens up a revolutionary can of worms. The song, also entitled “The March of the Volunteers,” was recorded in both English and Chinese by Robeson in 1941. Eight years later, it was adopted as the National Anthem of the People’s Republic of China and would no doubt have been a rallying hymn sung by the Chinese forces on the other side of the Korean War. In fact the title of Roth’s novel, Indignation, comes from a contemporaneous translation of the song.
The Inner Lives of Fifties College Students

The filmmakers pushed deeper to comprehend the era’s psyche as well. “There is a sense of uncertainty from a younger generation that has no real references to define itself vis-à-vis the prior generation and what’s coming next,” explains Schamus. “It was a real limbo time after World War II. The sexual revolution was yet to come, anti-communism and the Blacklist were in the news, and teenage culture as we know it was just around the corner. Meanwhile there’s another massive war going overseas. Our characters are really struggling with how to find themselves in that landscape.”

For the actors, comprehending their characters’ inner psyches meant exploring their intellectual lives as students. To help them get into the heads of 1951 college students, the filmmakers compiled course descriptions and syllabi used at Bucknell University (Roth’s alma mater) and Mount Holyoke (Hutton’s previous school). “Marcus is so much smarter than I am,” jokes Lerman. “In order to understand what is he saying, I really ended up having to do a lot of research.” Lerman joined Schamus in New York City a month before filming started to immerse himself in Marcus’ physical and mental world. In addition to studying Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Lerman read a wide range of material, including political science, philosophy and poetry. He even got the chance to skim the actual textbooks used by students of the time. “It was a really great experience collaborating with James,” relates Lerman. “He gave me lot of great pieces of material that would help me get into the mind of my character and we just would have lots of conversations.”

To understand the mindset of Olivia Hutton, Gadon was given selections from French literature, as well as course catalogs detailing the requirements for Mount Holyoke’s Department of French Language and Literature from the time. Even Ben Rosenfield, whose character, Bertram Flusser, is preparing to appear in a Winesburg College production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, was assigned the work of actually learning the part of Malvolio. “One of the suggestions that James made early on that was very helpful is to look at the dynamic of the character that I am playing in the movie, and the character my character is playing,” recounts Rosenfield. “I chose Twelfth Night as a text that uncannily allowed Flusser to declare his love while also keeping it a secret. Like Malvolio, Flusser is made an outcast in a world that wants to regulate and “normalize” the desires of its characters – and it was an additional uncanny circumstance that the object of Malvolio’s desire was also named Olivia in Shakespeare’s play!”

Rather than being burdened by their extra studies, the cast and crew welcomed the deep research as a form of collaboration. “It’s been a joy working with James Shamus. He’s done so many different things in his career,” remarks Gadon. “But I think the quality in him that I’ve enjoyed the most is the collaborator that is his professor side, because at the beginning of the film, he gave us a lot of homework. He would say, “Read this. Watch that.” It made the film feel more like a piece of ours as well, and I think good directors have the confidence to do that. They have the willingness to be open.”

Bringing Indignation to Life

One of the ways in which Schamus brought the cast and crew into the creative process was by creating his own version of a shot list. “When he approached any scene––if it’s a scene of people talking around the table or someone walking down the hallway––he basically went through the entirety of film history to see how other people handled that particular setup or that particular type of scene,” recalls Bregman. Schamus and his team came up with a wide array of images, from paintings, drawings, location floorplans and photos from the scout, to stills from films as diverse as Double Indemnity, The Ice Storm, Manhattan, Blue is the Warmest Color, and Gun Crazy to illustrate possible approaches and looks. For cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, the shot list he and Schamus crafted was not merely a helpful guide for setting up the camera, but a shared resource for the entire cast and crew that mapped out the creative processes at work in the making of the film.

Visual Look
To establish visual world of Indignation, Schamus worked with cinematographer Blauvelt, production designer Weinberg, and costume designer Roth to come up with a look that merged the feel of the historical era with the tone of Philip Roth’s prose. “We went back to references for the way in which memory and imagination and desire work in the kind of color that you would have seen and referenced in 1951,” explains Schamus. “We coordinated that color scheme throughout the entire film.”

The filmmakers turned to the way photographers of the period framed their world to guide their look. “Visually, we were inspired by the color period photography of Ernst Haas, Gordon Parks and Saul Leiter, and by the documentary photography of Esther Bubley, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee and John Vachon,” recalls Weinberg. The color photos of Gordon Parks, such as his 1956 “Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-shopping, Mobile, Alabama,” were special touchstones for the film’s look. “We were of course always trying to emulate and be inspired by the Kodachrome look of period photographs,” remembers Weinberg. “So blue and red was an important color combination for us, and we deliberated a lot in preproduction over the intensity of the red used in costumes and set-dressing, then testing different reds in our camera test. We ended up settling on a deep rust red that was vibrant but not too primal, and worked well with other colors such as blues and greens.”