Professor James Schamus Makes Directorial Debut with Indignation

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Award-winning producer James Schamus directs Phillip Roth's Indignation for the silver screen. Photo Courtesy of Roadside Attractions             
Longtime film professor James Schamus, made his feature directorial debut July 29th with Indignation, an adaptation of the 2008 book by novelist Philip Roth.

Set in 1951 against the backdrop of the Korean War, Indignation follows Jewish student Marcus Messner through a year at a small Christian college in Ohio. A coming of age story layered with questions of faith, politics, and sexuality, Roth’s novel has been widely recognized as an ambitious choice for an experienced filmmaker but first-time director Schamus. In a recent review, The New York Times noted: “"Indignation" has won warm reviews, an audience award at Sundance and — most incredibly — the endorsement of Roth, whose books until now have proven difficult to adapt.”

In an interview with Columbia News, Schamus echoed the challenges -- and privileges -- of working with such a complex text. “I loved the challenge of adapting Roth,” he said, “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.”

The New York Times also spoke with Tracy Letts, who plays Messner’s foil Dean Cauldwell in the film, about Schamus’ leap from the studios to directorial work. Said Letts, "He's not like most other first-time directors. I can't think of anybody else who has that resume. The guy who teaches film theory and collaborates with Ang Lee is not supposed to be a studio head. But he not only was one, he was a good one." In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Schamus himself said simply about his directorial debut, “It was a great moment to clear the decks and try something new.”

Schamus has taught in the School of the Arts Film Program for 27 years. He has produced 50 movies, written 13 screenplays and directed two short films. Until 2013, he 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. He is currently finishing a script based loosely on Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.