Screenwriter-producer-film historian James Schamus expounds on Taking Woodstock, his latest film about the man that made music’s most famous festival happen, and why the term "independent film" is a misnomer.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
If you love the film world and are wondering why you’re not living a life in it, it might be because James Schamus is living it for you. He’s only one bow-tied and bespectacled man of modest stature, but this screenwriter and co-founder of Focus Features has managed to excel at nearly a half-dozen, at times contradictory careers in film simultaneously. He is a quintessential art house geek, able to spin the berets off the most studied avant-garde film aficionados, and he’s a U.C. Berkley-schooled PhD. and Columbia Professor (the bow tie and spectacles make him look this part the most). But he is a screenwriter too, and, somewhat astonishingly, the very shrewd, fast-talking, politically deft head of a studio-owned film company.
And, in the event that you wish you were composing music for film, well, he does that too.
The big truth with the unassuming, affably funny Schamus is, in all his incarnations, he’s striving to do the same thing: bring rare perspectives and fine cinematic art to more people. It’s a mission accomplished with Focus offerings like Lost in Translation, The Ice Storm, Milk and Brokeback Mountain – “little” movies that have left a huge mark on cinema culture and the movie-going public.
His new project, for which he wrote the screenplay, is Taking Woodstock – a comedy directed by long-time collaborator and auteur, Ang Lee. Based on a large chunk of Elliot Tiber’s same-titled memoir, it tells the tale of a young man who, in the cause of saving his parents’ foundering Catskills motel, made the 1969 Woodstock music festival possible.
Comedian Demetri Martin plays Tiber in his debut acting turn. During a sprawling, in depth and at times beret-spinning conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, Schamus discussed writing Taking Woodstock, Aristotle, and whether indie film is being corrupted by its own success.
In this Q&A we’ll be talking about the craft of writing – so we’ll get pretty wonkish, but we also wanna have a little fun.
Photo: © 2009 Focus Features
Eugene Levy and Demitri Martin in Taking Woodstock.
Yeah, let’s get wonkish!
Yeah, let’s get our wonk on.
What for you as screenwriter were the big themes or narrative engines of this story?
The great challenge of Taking Woodstock is the kind of un-American protagonist. The character of Elliot Tiber fulfills what Aristotle would have called a sufficient cause, not a necessary cause. That distinction between sufficient and necessary cause has provided a great deal of energy to American movies – we love our heroes to be the necessary cause of things, not the sufficient one. And yet the pleasures of centering a film around a [sufficient hero] are many.
This idea is fairly en vogue these days – what turns you on creatively about the sufficient hero?
What’s exciting about that for this particular material – not always – is that you’re talking about a moment in time when people took seriously the idea that you could be happy by letting things happen. Letting it happen, rather than making it happen, was just as positive an idea. There is a kind of happiness – and the word “happiness” is etymologically linked to the word “happen” – in accepting things. So it’s a movie about accepting things. Acceptance is sometimes a little different from doing, right?
Is it important, then, for the whole paradigm of “letting things happen,” that the protagonist be sufficient rather than necessary?
Exactly. It’s part of the overall joy of the thing. It also allows you a certain kind of comedic tone.
Do you think letting things happen is making a comeback?
Wow. I’ll leave that to you and the audiences.
With current hardships and the sense of reevaluation, do you think this idea is a little more relevant to audiences right now?
Sure. But you know, the great news about making movies with Ang is, we don’t need to please a lot of people make our profit and move on to the next one. I do think that, in terms of the critical establishment, this is going to be a little bit of a head spin, seeing Ang not taking things too seriously and having some fun, kind of letting the movie happen. I think that will take some people by surprise.
How conscious are you as a writer and an exec of tuning the material to where you can get a bigger audience? There seems to be some kind of algebra to it.
Here’s how it works. There’s no algebra to it or formula, but there is an attitude. I would say the following: We’re always taking stuff from outside of the mainstream, and without pandering to the mainstream; we’re just facing toward them for the conversation.
A lot of my favorite movies are very avant-garde works of film art. The conversation that they propose is a conversation to be had only with the people inside that world, which is fine. I’m partially in that world, and I appreciate it. What we try to do is, instead of pushing avant-garde or outsider voices into the mainstream, we simply try to get those voices in a situation where, if anybody is interested, they can understand and engage, but they don’t have to.
By “they don’t have to,” I mean we keep our budgets low and our egos in check so we can make movies that only need to succeed modestly for us to be profitable enough so we can show up the next year. We have to run this like a business, but we don’t ever have to ask people to change what they’re doing to force it into the mainstream.
And with Woodstock, tell me a bit about how you decided to handle Tiber’s homosexuality and the Stonewall aspect of his book.
I really felt like approaching Elliot’s gay identity from two directions. One was the specific, that is, his own story, and releasing that to the audience, but in addition, during the course of that Woodstock weekend he was also coming out to himself. It’s not that he didn’t have a gay identity, but it was very much closeted. So we respected the closet, but then we opened it up as he did himself. We’re getting it at the same time as he his.
On the meta movie side. Having done Brokeback, where the key problem of the movie is kind of “Oh my God, I’m gay!” – to Milk, where the key issue was, “Oh my God, you’re homophobic!” where being gay wasn’t the problem anymore, homophobia was – to Woodstock where, our main character’s gay, and so what? It’s part of his issues that he has to deal with, but he’s the hero. So, he’s gay. It’s not like when they advertise Paul Blart: Mall Cop they advertise it as “this summer’s new straight comic hero.” It’s like, okay, he’s gay.
It’s an issue in that it was an issue for Elliot, and we wanted that to be part of the movie. I think it’s important, but it’s not an issue in the sense that we’re not waving a flag and that’s what the movie’s all about. No, it’s just a movie where the hero’s gay, and that’s cool.
Independent film has reached an unprecedented level of ubiquity. This is a great thing because we get a much richer selection of films, but it’s a dangerous thing because of the potential corruption of the voice of this type of film...
Here’s the thing, the overriding thesis of the question is challengeable on multiple touch points. One is the genealogy of it, that is to say, have you ever met someone who describes themselves as a dependent producer? So already you have an issue with what is “indie” and what isn’t, and you get into that whole discussion.
If you really wanna bore everyone around you and never have sex again in your life, just go to a party and say, ‘What is indie film?’ At that point you’re going in circles – if it’s not the financing is it the spirit? Does it have stars in it? Is it this? Is it that?
I don’t use the word independent film. I’m in the specialized film business. I run a company that’s part of a studio.
So-called independent film is different than the avant-garde… If you like narrative, which is the game we’re in – especially talking to the Writers Guild – then it gets very interesting trying to trace what you mean by independent cinema. As opposed to what? Then you get yourself into trouble thinking that the success of independent film has resulted in an inevitable decline of its inner integrity as an outside voice that was challenging the mainstream.
To the extent to which independent film always took narrative seriously, it just had a different way of treating narrative formulae – different images, voices and politics and those things. But 99.999 percent of the genetic code that makes a successful independent movie, I hate to tell ya is the same as what makes a successful studio movie – it’s called narrative.
Without daring to even attempt to define independent film, has its success created things where you see independent film aping itself, at least in its marketing and its aesthetic? At what point does that insinuate itself into the creative, artistic product itself?
Clearly it has to in some way. You’re in a context. You’re walking into a situation that has a kind of protocol, you might say. But then again there’s this assumption that there’s this spectrum where on one end there’s absolute freedom and the other absolute sell-out. The fact is, I don’t believe – well, maybe there is absolute sell-out – but I think people would be so stupid to think they even could absolutely sell out and be successful. The whole point is that your movie has to be different, so even that doesn’t work. The absolute freedom end seems to me basically a private language spoken without any capital investment. It’s a fantasy that drives itself as a kind of vanishing point for a lot of ego to lay claim to a certain kind of freedom or integrity.
The minute you’re printing a call sheet that has a crew listed on it and you’re using money...
...you inherently no longer have absolute freedom.
But you know what? Absolute freedom is not a value. The value is [asking] “How can I make something that allows a certain kind of articulation in the world that really is different and that really has something to say. I’m gonna need resources to do that, so I’m going to need to speak a language” – let’s call it a narrative language – “that gets peoples’ attention and emotional investment. I’m not afraid of [using] emotion as a tool in my tool kit, therefore I’m no longer in the world of right and wrong because I can’t be right always if I’m appealing to people’s emotions. Therefore I’m going to take the craft of what I’m doing” – let’s say as a writer – “seriously and as something of value even though it’s suddenly evacuated of any of the political pretentions I had three seconds ago...”
People talk to me all the time and say, “Wow, you guys must have a pretty profound political agenda [with films like] Motorcycle Diaries and Brokeback Mountain and Taking Woodstock.” I always say, “Whether I have an agenda or not, the key thing is that the movie better be good because otherwise it doesn’t matter what your politics are.”
Do you have an agenda?
My agenda is, again, going back to sufficient and necessary, I certainly don’t want the films we do at Focus to add to the pile of cultural crap out there in the world. I would rather that every film we do have some articulating voice driving it – somebody has something to say – even if they’re working in a totally mainstream genre, it’s gotta be the addition of a voice that wouldn’t have otherwise been heard.
That doesn’t mean that we’re snobs. We’ve made some pretty readily identifiable genre-ready movies. That’s part of my job too – part of my work on myself – when someone comes in with something that feels more mainstream than what we do usually, I have to step back to see if there’s a reason for that or there’s something cool about that.
You don’t want to just make films from a different perspective for the sake of a different perspective.
Exactly. There are a lot of new perspectives, but some of them are probably boring.
You’ve kept your life and your body of work highly diversified with things that, in some cases, a lot of people would consider at odds. Certainly executive and screenwriter, for example...
What’s really interesting about that is you look at film and people say, “Wow, executive and screenwriter. That’s bizarre!” But when you look at television, the TV writer-showrunner-executive makes total sense. It doesn’t make total sense in my pocket of the film world in particular because I’m living in a world that prizes a kind of auteurist ethos that really comes down to the director. That makes it a little more interesting for me. I get to drive the train, but I’m really just the engineer. I’m just shoving the coal in there.