May 5, 2010

Ride With the Schamus

by Craig Phillips

James Schamus Film producer and screenwriter James Schamus was in San Francisco to accept the Kanbar Award, a fairly recent prize SFIFF gives to writers who have had distinguished careers. (Other recent honorees include Paul Haggis, Robert Towne and Peter Morgan.) I attended the Q&A with Schamus that was then followed by a screening of the new director's cut of Ride With the Devil (now available on DVD from Criterion), which Schamus scripted for director Ang Lee. Like any good screenwriter, he answered with wit and steered himself back on point whenever he got off on a tangent, except when he knew said tangents were the real prize.

The talk was moderated by critic, scholar and teacher B. Ruby Rich, who knew Schamus in New York during the '80s when the guest of honor was starting out (he joked that when they met, his hair looked more like her full, curly hair). So there were references to those early days, the timeline stretching further back than his first forays into filmmaking; Schamus earned a PhD from Berkeley, writing a thesis on Carl Theodor Dreyer, and specifically the Danish auteur's seminal work Gertrud. Schamus joked about his "esoteric devotion to the single-most obscure Scandinavian formalist failure," and both he and Rich worried if they had alienated the audience by spending too much time chatting about Dreyer. (I suspect more of the crowd were aware of him than they realized, and I actually loved hearing about this connection.)

Pushing HandsThe namedropping people wanted to hear most about was Ang Lee, with whom Schamus has collaborated on nine features and counting. Rich pointed out that it's hard to fathom someone going from writing about Dreyer and producing Raoul Ruiz—neither famous for their verbosity—to screenwriting. Schamus was a writer who only dabbled in screenplays when he first met Lee in the early '90s. Lee had won an award back in his native Taiwan for a short, and with the prize money was to direct a feature. He pitched it to Schamus and a few other production colleagues (by that point, Schamus had produced Todd Haynes' Poison and Swoon, and In the Soup, among others). Schamus recounted their session as "one of the worst pitches ever," as Lee took 45 minutes to sell it, belaboring the seemingly unimportant details. But after it was over, Schamus defended the pitch to his colleagues because "he had the entire film in his head, in great detail. This is a director you should have confidence in." This lead to Pushing Hands, their first collaboration together.

As Schamus is also the head of Focus Features, he knows all sides of the film process as well as anyone else I can name. At Focus, he has overseen titles like Sin Nombre, Coraline and Milk, and personally produced such indies as Happiness, Walking and Talking, and Auto Focus. In one candid moment, he worried aloud about an aspect of the production process that makes it hard for a script to make it intact to screen—something he's often been fortunate enough to not worry about: When actors (read: "stars") are allowed to have input and suggest story changes, "it's lost."

James Schamus and Ang LeeSchamus was fairly humble, but talked at length about how he'd helped Lee improve the original story for The Wedding Banquet, which would become the most renowned and acclaimed of their early team-ups. Lee's first draft was melodramatic and straight (as it were), but Schamus guided the concept towards screwball comedy. But, as would seem to foreshadow their future working relationship, Lee would then push Schamus to rework certain scenes (including the climax) to be funnier.

When asked about the process of writing scripts in English that would be performed in another language (like Lust, Caution (Se, Jie) or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Schamus said he loves the back-and-forth translation process, which includes personally overseeing the subtitles, though he likened it to putting something into Babelfish—jumping from English to Mandarin back to English again can produce peculiar results. (Thus, why he oversees the subtitles.) He admitted there are plenty of times when Schamus the Producer argues with Schamus the Screenwriter, though it wasn't clear who typically wins those battles.

For screenwriting advice, he referenced the old chestnut "write what you know" and said, no: "Write anything BUT what you know." There is no autobiography in his oeuvre, and his experiences have allowed him to explore his "inner film buff," as he called it, to "mess with genre." Schamus also called a screenplay basically "120 pages of begging for money." That may have been Schamus the Producer talking.

Ride With the Devil

Rehashing a quote from the beginning of Ride With the Devil in which the Civil War is called "a war fought not by armies but by neighbors," Schamus quipped that all his films, along those lines, are "basically versions of faculty meetings." It was one of the few films he already had casting in mind—in this case, Tobey Maguire (who'd worked in Schamus and Lee's Ice Storm two years earlier). When asked why Ride with the Devil was released so unceremoniously in 1999, he ruefully recalled how it was made just as Universal was going bankrupt, and the film's ownership itself has taken an ironic, circular path: it was owned by Grammercy, then USA Films, that company later bought by Focus Features. Two years later, Schamus the Screenwriter now owned the rights to his own film.

Ride With the DevilI had never seen Ride With the Devil on the big screen—let alone the director's cut—so it was rewarding to give the film a fair second shot. My initial disappointment had come from the high standards I held its writing-directing team to, and more superficially, that a couple of casting choices bugged me then. Schamus had adapted it from novelist Daniel Woodrell's Civil War-set epic "Woe to Live On," with a lot of the book's period-realist dialogue intact. The film follows two life-long friends (Maguire and Skeet Ulrich) in wartime Missouri, who join a group of "Bushwhackers" loyal to the Southern cause. The story focuses on Maguire's Jake Roedel, not yet 20, as he comes to comprehend the intricacies of the cause he's fighting for and the brutality depicted on both sides (the film paints all sides, even the Blue, in gray).

Roedel's deepest camaraderie, however, is the one that forms with Daniel Holt, a former slave who only has Southern loyalties because of his close connection to the white Missourian George Clyde (Simon Baker). Holt is played by one of my favorite actors, Jeffrey Wright, and it is he and Maguire who center the film. It helps that they have a similar impish charm, and expressive faces that can convey a lot with few words. Wright regularly gives off a vibe of quiet wisdom and, at times, a slow burning anger. We're left to wonder why the hell this ex-slave would put his life on the line for men fighting in favor of slavery, especially alongside unabated racists who only accept him by association. Wright's performance sells the complexity.

Ride With the DevilUlrich always seemed to me [ed. note: and many others!] the poor man's Johnny Depp, without the range or charm, but he's actually more than adequate here. Surprisingly, I also found the folksinger Jewel more benign this go-around; an inexperienced actress, she neither shows great range nor tries to do too much, and I sense the naturalism in her performance that must have attracted Lee and Schamus. In short, she's appealing enough. Now and again, I was irritated by Jonathan Rhys Meyers' pretty-boy villain Mackeson, whose fairly homoerotic rivalry with Roedel would feel tenser if Meyers wasn't acting like a glam rocker. Ride is dotted with an excellent cast of character actors fitting the bill and period: Tom Wilkinson (then beginning his run in American cinema) as a kindly farmer; Celia Weston, now ubiquitous in just about every Southern-tinged American film; a young Mark Ruffalo as the neighbor who betrays Roedel; a heavily bearded Jim Caviezel as a cruel Bushwhacking officer; the doughy-eyed Zach Grenier and many others.

Schamus didn't go into detail about the differences in this extended cut, except that it was the only Lee-Schamus production where such a cut made sense. It is purportedly ten minutes longer than the theatrical version, and as much as I can piece together from hazy memories, extends the scenes between Maguire and Jewel plus a few key battle sequences. One brutal bit near the end, set in Lawrence and based on real events, seems more tragic and harder to watch, and all the more unforgettable because of it.

Budd Boetticher's THE TALL TAs you'd expect from Lee, who made Crouching Tiger and went on to do Brokeback Mountain, the film has momentum but still plenty of breathing room to allow the wooded Missouri atmosphere to come alive: the rustling tree leaves, the clumped dirt in the hills, even the way the air must feel. As a pseudo-Western, the film takes on a Budd Boetticher feel; a large portion takes place in a darkened, makeshift shelter built into a hillside with characters in close quarters, which made me think of The Tall T's claustrophobic, ramshackle shack where the hostages are put up. Schamus mentioned Boetticher in the Q&A so presumably I'm not pulling this out of my... holster.

What resonates most for me are the scenes in which Roedel reads letters that the Bushwhackers have intercepted, each from Union (enemy) families. What might've been eye-rollingly cheesy in another's hands is moving with the help of Lee and Schamus, Maguire and Wright. "One mother is very much like another" is an obvious platitude, but these letters—articulate and heartfelt remembrances that the Civil War provided unlike any other—attracted Schamus to the story, and stayed with me long after the film was over.

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Posted by cphillips at May 5, 2010 11:56 AM