James Schamus Talks CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and more
March 11th, 2004
James Schamus James Schamus Interview
By: Paul Georgeades
James Schamus founded Good Machine with Ted Hope in 1991. He recently co-wrote and executive produced Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, starring Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat.
Schamus's other collaborations with Lee include producing The Ice Storm, which he also adapted from the novel by Rick Moody, co-producingSense And Sensibility, co-writing and associate producing Eat Drink Man Woman and producing and co-writing The Wedding Banquet.
Schamus has also served as executive producer on Happiness, The Brothers McMullen, The Myth of Fingerprints and numerous other films.
Paul: How did you get into screenwriting?James: I landed in New York about twelve years ago and got an internship at a small production company. And my first day there I said "Can I read all the screenplays you have in development--just so I know what you're doing?" I took about twelve screenplays, including a number of drafts for a couple of projects that they'd obviously spent a lot of time and money developing. And I stayed up all night and read them all. The next morning I wrote up a two page memo, which said I've only written poetry before, but I see that you have three drafts of this screenplay and they're all terrible. (laughs) If you just pay me--because it was a non-Guild situation at the time, of course--pay me a couple thousand bucks, I'll do a draft for you. And they did. (laughs) It was as weird as that!
P: What production company was it?J: It was called--a company that doesn't exist anymore--called Program Development Company. It made a lot of things for American Playhouse at the time. They didn't really do any feature film work. So yeah, that was my first gig.
P: So you actually started screenwriting before you made it as a producer?J: Exactly. In fact, I did another screenplay for the same company and that screenplay got a lot of good reads. It was on an option that was running out very quickly so I had to do it very very fast, which I did. And they put me on a plane--because they sent it out to LA and they got a lot of wonderful reads to it. And an agency was very interested in signing me, and it was all very exciting. And they put me on a plane to fly out to LA--this was 1988--to go meet all these, like, twenty people--they had this long list of people that were interested in talking to me. And I landed in LA on...Friday--it must have been in May, I guess--I don't remember the exact date--about 12:30 in the afternoon. And at twelve noon that day the Writer's Guild strike had started. (laughs) I got to LA and I called in and the girl says "Well, you know, this weird thing just happened because the strike has started, so I don't think you're gonna want to meet anybody." I said "You bet I don't want to meet anybody!" And literally my career--I started talking to people in LA, other writers, kind of talking to people about what was going on, because I had no idea. I literally was clueless, as to the business, but it was a weird moment to kind of get clued in. And I got back on the plane to New York and I said "You know what I'm gonna do?" I'm gonna spend a few years out of the system and learn about filmmaking, which is why I came out to New York anyhow, and then I'll go back to the screenwriting. So it was a very conscious decision to step away from screenwriting and it was really thanks to the Writer's Guild strike that I've created the career I've created. Because it was a warning to me to kind of "stay away." So I completely shifted gears at that point and I did not write another screenplay for almost three years.
P: What was the next script that you wrote?J: It was really co-writing the Wedding Banquet. I did additional dialogue on Ang's first film that we produced--Pushing Hands, but I really...you know. I did not sign with the agency. I just said I'm gonna go totally independent here and work my way back in.
P: So originally you wanted to be a screenwriter more and then switched more into producing.J: Well, it wasn't that. It was that I was broke. And I had stars in my eyes and there was a wonderful response to my first couple scripts and...you get sucked in. Which is wonderful. But I was lucky to not have been sucked in, in a weird way. For me having the balance between the screenwriting and the producing is, of course, what made so many other things possible. As a personality too, I don't think I could be one or the other. So it was great--I have very fond thoughts about Writers Guild strikes. (laughs) Which doesn't necessarily make we want to have another one, but if we do--what the heck. (laughs). They've been nothing but good to me. (laughs)
P: What's the development process like at an independent compared to a major studio?J: A., independent as an operative term means so many different things in this context. Let's break it down: There is the kind of independent that focuses primarily on lower budget genre pictures. And with that independent, the screenwriting process, I would think, is not that much different from the Hollywood studio, except it's probably shorter, more brutal and less remunerative. But other than that, these places are factories. They make what they make and some of them make them very well and you see all of their names and their offices at the American Film Market every year. When you talk independent in the other sense, that is to say, a cinema that tries it's best to, at least, make some efforts at resisting the codes and conventions of a dominant Hollywood cinema, that independent cinema tends to be primarily auteur driven, which means it's a very director focussed site of production and development. So there you're working very much more with, for, or usually are the director. You might be the writer/director, or you're a writer whose working for a particular vision that needs to be part of that process from the first step. At Good Machine we need people who will bring material that is risky, often frighteningly so at the script stage, but we have faith it will make it to the screen in some interesting way. So the screenplays that you tend to write in those situations are much more porous and therefore, quote, often not as good, end quote, as the scripts that you might be writing in the system. Ang Lee often says why he doesn't like well written Hollywood screenplays is they're like battleships. They're so tightly crafted and constructed that not even a bad director can sink them.
P: What about your first gig as a writer-for-hire, is that a way in?J: Yeah, but that was so wacky. There aren't that many stories like that where interns show up with their poems and find people who are actually open to not kicking them down the stairs and out the front door. (laughs) Who knows how you get started in this business. People often say, I'm a screenwriter, how do I get started, how do I find an agent. I literally have no idea.
P: How do scripts come to you?J: The majority of the films we make are with writer/directors at the independent level. At the bigger budget level for people like Ang and other people we're developing with it's a different process, but there it's a very standard one, which I would call the "Block that Kick" approach to development. Which is: Good Machine receives on average between seventy and eighty, so called solicited screenplays per week. That is to say screenplays that have agency representation and talent attachments already.
P: So they have a director already attached?J: Maybe a director, maybe not. Maybe an actor, or maybe just a writer of note that is represented by an agency that we have a relationship with. That's a lot of material for people to slice through. Obviously, I don't do it all myself. So the idea of even beginning to think of looking at unsolicited material for a company of even our small size, is impossible. It's just impossible. Aside from the fact that my own lawyer would sue me for ever looking at something that was unsolicited. Because the one story you hear from everybody in the independent world, you know...John Sayles--everybody whose made a movie who has accepted screenplays in the mail or "Hey here's this idea, can I send you the script. Sure."--four years later they're sued. "Oh, my script had a paraplegic in it and your movie has a paraplegic in it, therefore you stole my idea." These suits never amount to anything except an enormous amount of legal expense and time. People rarely win them, but they're a nightmare.
P: What really excites you about a script?J: I will always look at a screenplay thinking of directors, so when I see a match of any kind, that's fun. Because I think, "Oh, so and so would like this." Aside from that, other people ask us, "Do you prefer this kind of script or that kind of script?" I say, "Yeah, I prefer really good scripts." What is that? I don't know. (laughs)
P: Something that just hits you.J: Yeah, you know how that is. It's funny, I wish I had the formula. I would certainly patent it.
P: You're credited as a writer on Ang Lee's Chinese language films, what exactly was your role?J: It was co-writing the screenplays. Then they would be translated into Chinese. Then I, in fact, would have them translated back into English to make sure the translations reflected the script. (laughs) And then, often being re-written for culturally specific reasons and other reasons by my co-writers, so it was a long and often torturous process.
P: So they start off in English?J: Or they start off in Chinese. Like, Wedding Banquet started off as a script in Chinese, by Ang and the co-writer Neil Peng. And they translated it into English and I completely rewrote the script from there. Then the Chinese parts were translated back--dialogue level--into Chinese. We've been at this for a decade so we're almost used to it. (laughs)
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