He’s run a film studio, backed in a young unknown director called Ang Lee, been nominated for Academy Awards in both screenwriting and original song, and following his (involuntary) departure from Focus Films, decided his next skill to conquer would be directing.
His chosen project is Philip Roth’s “Indignation”, following Marcus (Logan Lerman), a working-class Jewish student from New Jersey, attending a small Ohio college in 1951. There he struggles with sexual repression and cultural disaffection, amid the ongoing Korean War.
Congratulations on the film. You have a very long history in filmmaking as a head of a studio and a frequent collaborator of Ang Lee. Now that you’ve been in the director’s chair as well, are you kind of going to him ‘Ang this directing thing is easy, I don’t know why everyone makes such a fuss about it?’
James: [laughs]. Yes, well, I would say that except Ang always makes it so difficult. That’s why he makes such good films. We’re working together trying to make his next film right now, and he’s pushing the boundaries of cinema – 3D, 120 frames per second [for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”], so anytime I say it’s easy, he makes it much more difficult [laughs].
He’s always got to one up you!
James: Oh yeah. That’s for sure.
As a studio head you would have been involved in many films at any one time, which is a bit of a change from adapting and directing one film which I imagine would just be all-consuming. What was it about Philip Roth’s “Indignation” that really drew you to it?
James: Yeah the, what I would call, necessary conditions, of having been fired from my studio job, did make that multiple film aspect kind of void. It was really the characters. I really did fall in love with them. Ang was otherwise occupied – I originally acquired the novel with the thought that he would direct. And it was just a great opportunity to try something new rather than be in the advanced stage of middle age [laughs].
I understand directing can be quite physically challenging and people are often given the advance to hit the gym beforehand because you’re often the first one there and the last to leave. Did you find that?
James: Yes and no, I mean everyone on set works really hard. And believe me, the people who show up on set – the director’s assistants, the people making the coffee and folding the chairs stay there longer than I do. I’ve had those experiences before as well. But no I managed to make the film and I kind of marvel at the experience. Filmmakers I really like – such as Gus Van Sant and the Coen Brothers – don’t actually tend to go into overtime much. If you’re prepared or flexible, you can often get through a film shoot – even when it’s gruelling like this one – without killing your crew.
It doesn’t have to be ‘The Revenant’ hard?
James: You know it’s tough enough, let’s put it that way. But it doesn’t have to be perversely tough.
And you shot this in only 24 days. How is that possible?
James: Yeah. Yeah that was crazy. But again, we just had a great crew and we did that thing you’re supposed to do where we prepared, prepared, prepared, prepared and prepared some more. And that really does it. And then of course nothing goes to plan. It’s not as if you prepare and then everything goes off without a hitch. But there’s that sense of forward momentum. And I cast the crew as much as I cast the cast. I tried my best to keep it a ‘no asshole’ zone.
You’re well known for the amount of preparation and research that you do. Is that something you enjoy or just something you see as your due diligence?
James: I actually really do enjoy it. For me though, still the most fun is being on set. When you’ve got a crew and a team working together like that – that’s just a great experience. In the world I live in, the world you live in, you don’t get that many opportunities to go long stretches where neither you nor anybody around you is allowed to pull their phone out. So that’s a great experience after a while. Time flows very differently without those distractions.
I thought Logan Lerman gave an incredible performance in the lead role. I understand that after “Fury” he decided to take a break and was saying no to a lot of roles until he saw your script. Was he someone you had on a shortlist or how did he get involved?
James: Yes, he was my ideal. The story of the casting of this movie is very boring, because it was very much ‘oh, wouldn’t it be great if we could get Logan Lerman’, and then we sent him the script, then I flew to LA and I spent a day talking to him, and we talked for hours – and that was it! It was like ‘let’s go make this movie’. Really not interesting. Sorry. [laughs].
Logan really took on the role and did a lot of preparation and research on his own – is he someone you would work with again?
James: Yeah, I’ve got to figure out a) how to get another gig directing, and b) figure out a role for him. He’s a real partner. For example, we didn’t have money for trailers so there was nowhere for him to go and he was on set every day. In between scenes he would just hang out. The crew just loved him.
He definitely fits in that ‘no asshole’ policy?
James: Yes he really does. A good Jewish boy.
There’s a scene with Logan and Tracy Letts which has been iconically associated with the film – a very long scene that’s just a long conversation between the two characters. As a viewer, it’s rare that you see something like that where you’re taken on a real journey in one scene, I got very excited when I realised you were really going for it. Was that what you had in mind when you were writing it or did it just evolve naturally?
James: No, really not planned. When I started writing the script and writing the first draft I kind of transcribed the scene from the novel. And I thought, you know, I’m a good screenwriter, I’ll be able to whittle this down in the next draft, and shape it and all that. And then as the drafts proceeded over the years, the scene never got shorter. And finally I was stuck with this monster, and I thought ‘what the heck’. And it was really only retroactively that I realised how central the whole gambit of the movie was going to be, centred around that scene.
I thought they were both incredible in the scene, and you shot it all in one day?
James: Yeah. In order to enable the actors to keep their sanity in preparation for that I “forgot” to tell them that we were going to shoot it all in single takes. We ran these 18 minute takes again, again again.
I bet they slept well that night.
James: Yes they better have. They had to go back to work the next day!
I read that that particular scene was what really attracted Tracy Letts to do the film – so they were up for the challenge.
James: Yes. Tracy is like superhuman, and came on board just a few weeks before we shot the scene. Logan is superhuman but he did get to spend six months preparing for it.
And Sarah Gadon was fantastic as well.
James: Yeah. I love her. She’s so technically adept but very vulnerable on screen, so those two things combined really were her strength for me. And also she’s super smart. She could really scare Logan.
Indignation is in cinemas 18 August.