SFIFF: James Schamus

I only went to two events at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Saturday, but their combined runtime was about 8 hours. And that didn’t include getting from the Kabuki to the Castro via Muni.

Each event was a tribute, complete with praise, questions (well, one of the events had questions), and a film. The films had something interesting in common—aside from being very good. They were both released with so little fanfare that few people heard of them, guaranteeing their commercial failure. Such is Hollywood.

This post concentrates on the first event, honoring James Schamus, winner of this year’s Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting. I’ll write about the Roger Ebert celebration in a subsequent post.

As I’ve said before, if you’re a fan of Ang Lee, you’re a fan of James Schamus, even if schamus you don’t know his name. He’s written all but two of Lee’s films, and he produced those two. He’s also a professor at Columbia (the university, not the studio) and the head of Focus Features.

He’s also quite witty, describing a screenplay at one point as “120 pages of begging for money.” His advise to young screenwriters: “Write about anything but what you know.” And dialog? “All [of my movies are] versions of faculty meetings.”

B. Ruby Rich interviewed him onstage. When she asked how come he’d never written a screenplay for anyone but Lee, he told us that he’d done rewrites on several big Hollywood blockbusters, but wouldn’t name which ones. “I love [that sort of work] because you learn how Hollywood works.”

A couple of other interesting points:

  • At first he was just going to produce Lee’s The Wedding Banquet. Then he read the script, which was “turged melodrama. I turned it into a screwball comedy.”
  • Rich asked him about writing dialog for films to be shot in Manchurian, a language he doesn’t speak. “I was actually writing the subtitles,” which someone else translates to get the spoken dialog. And yes, he occasionally hires someone else to translate it back to make sure it’s accurate.

After the interview, they screened the new director’s cut of Ride with the Devil, a 1999ridewithdevil Schamus/Lee Civil War story that disappeared on its original release. I saw the original cut on DVD long ago, but honestly don’t remember it well enough to tell you what changed (this version is about 15 minutes longer). I thought it was an excellent movie, enjoyable as action adventure without simplifying the characters or the complex moral issues involved. Set in the border state of Missouri, where the fighting really was neighbor-against-neighbor, it details atrocities committed on both sides, including some by the hero.

One major disappointment: It was a video, not film, presentation. And no, I don’t mean the kind of good-quality, professional digital projection you can see in multiplexes these days. At times, the lack of detail subtracted from the experience. I guess no one is willing to put up the money to make a 35mm print of the director’s cut. That’s a damn shame.

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2 Responses

  1. […] screened at the Kabuki as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival’s tribute to James Schamus. (I’m not sure if Ride qualifies as a classic, as it’s only 11 years old and hasn’t been seen […]

  2. […] Murch gave the State of the Cinema Address. Screenwriter/producer/studio head/Columbia professor James Schamus answered questions from B. Ruby Rich and the audience as the winner of this year’s Kanbar […]

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