”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.”
For the last 25 years, James Schamus’ name has been synonymous with smart, groundbreaking and successful films. As co-founder of Good Machine, CEO of Focus Features, and an independent producer and screenwriter, Schamus has been creatively involved in dozens of the most critically acclaimed films of recent time. In the process, he’s had his hand in virtually every aspect of the filmmaking process, even getting an Academy Award nomination for Original Song for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
With Indignation, Schamus adds feature film director to his resume.
Based on Philip Roth’s late novel, Indignation takes place in 1951, as Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, travels on scholarship to a small, conservative college in Ohio, thus exempting 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 and his family’s best laid plans to the ultimate test.
Schamus worked on the screenplay for Indignation during his last years at Focus Features, but hadn’t seriously considered directing it. “You write a screenplay, and you have a choice,” explains Schamus, “You could direct it, or Ang Lee could direct it. That’s not much of a choice.”
But when his tenure at Focus ended, Schamus began to seriously entertain the possibility of directing Indignation himself.
“Finally having the time and the freedom, untethered from my other jobs,” Schamus jokes, “I considered whether or not this is an experience I’d like to inflict on my friends and relatives.” And 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.”
To get started, Schamus approached Anthony Bregman, a producer with whom he’d worked both at Good Machine and Focus Features, about coming on board. Schamus’ screenplay struck a chord with Bregman as well. “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.”
While the extensive look books and research dossiers for the film provided a guide to how things should look, 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.”
“I would say at the core of this film is a love story,” exclaims Lerman. When Marcus encounters Olivia in the library one day, his single-minded determination to succeed scholastically is thrown off course. “She’s very troubled and very different from anybody that he grew up with in Newark, New Jersey,” explains Lerman.
“I think the kind of love story between Marcus and Olivia is really unique and powerful,” explains Gadon. “It’s not the classic “Boy meets girl, girl falls in love” tale. It’s a little messier than that. And in that sense, it’s a little more real.” Lerman also found the romance painfully true to life: “When you’re in love with somebody and you know it’s just going to end up badly but there’s this force that’s just draws you together––I think people can relate to that. I think people have been there. I know I have definitely been there.”
Tracy Letts, who plays the imposing Dean Caudwell, welcomed both the caliber of talent in the cast and the dramatic challenge presented by the screenplay. As a writer, whose play August: Osage County won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Letts immediately appreciated the skill Schamus demonstrated in crafting the screenplay. “I think the screenplay is great,”
Letts exclaims. “It’s very much the book and, at the same time, I think it very much carries James’ point of view about the book. I think that’s what a good adaptation should do.”
As an actor, who won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Letts was attracted to screenplay’s powerful language and remarkable structure. One scene in particular, a long exchange between Dean Caudwell and Marcus, especially caught Letts’ attention.
“It’s 14 pages on the page,” explains Letts. “For somebody who’s written screenplays and seen a lot of movies, I can tell you that just doesn’t happen very often. It was frankly one of the reasons I wanted to do this film––the challenge of doing that scene.”
For Letts, the scene provided Lerman and him an unparalleled opportunity to explore dramatically their characters. “As an actor, we so rarely get a chance to play an arc over the course of a scene where you start at one place and end at another place, and you’ve taken a journey over the course of that scene.”
For Lerman, this dramatic marathon with Letts’ was a real eye-opener. “Marcus really clashes with Dean Caudwell in a verbal battle of two opposing views of the world,” recalls Lerman. “Tracy had about two weeks to prepare and he just went in there and killed it. He’s just incredible.”
Philip Roth, Allen Ginsburg, Sylvia Plath
In 2008, Philip Roth published his 29th novel, Indignation, a story that returned him to 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 years old when he turned back to imagine this period of his youth.
“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 two other literary figures of the late 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, if not actual, 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.”