Ang Lee & James Schamus at Zelerbach Hall

I just got home from watching Ang Lee and James Schamus talk about their films, show clips, and answer audience questions. It was all at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

I assume you know that Ang Lee is the director of Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and a whole lot of other great films (and a few not-so-great ones). As the writer and/or producer of most of Lee’s films, Schamus is Lee’s primary collaborator. He’s also the CEO of Focus Features and teaches film history at Columbia. Busy man.

If you’ve ever listened to Crouching Tiger’s DVD commentary, you know something else about Schamus. He’s one of those people who can’t let a joke go unspoken. Just the character trait you’d expect from a studio head who’s also penned some extremely depressing dramas.

I didn’ take notes, but here are some highlights, from memory. None of the quotes are entirely reliable.

  • They started off the evening, after introductions, with a very short clip reel of scenes from Lee’s films. The scenes chosen were all sex scenes, or scenes that came off as comically suggestive when shown in that context. That set the tone of the evening–they were playing at least partially for laughs.
  • Lee seriously explained that the sexual repression of his upbringing has colored the depiction of sex in his films. And to prove the point, the next clip was an extremely embarrassing and unerotic teenage sex scene from The Ice Storm. (Actually, the comment made me think of Lee’s cameo in The Wedding Banquet, where he jokes about Chinese sexual oppression.)
  • They showed several clips from The Ice Storm. In fact, if there was anyone in the audience who hadn’t seen it, the evening could count as a spoiler. They see that film as a turning point from comedy of manners to serious drama.
  • Lee said his first cut of The Ice Storm was very funny, but he had to recut it to tone down the comedy to make the ending work.
  • Speaking of recutting, Sense and Sensibility originally had a G rating, which the studio found unacceptable. They added another “damn” to get a PG.
  • The moderator, whose name I didn’t get, asked Schamus how he balances creative work (screenwriting) with business (running a studio). He said that a screenplay is just a tool to budget a film and sell it to investors.
  • He also said that he underwrites his screenplays to give Lee more freedom. “That’s why I like his screenplays,” Lee added.
  • The last clip they showed was from their forthcoming film, Taking Woodstock. It’s a return to comedy of manners after what Schamus described as “six suicidally depressing films.”
  • The last question from the audience: What would you be if you hadn’t become a filmmaker.” Lee shot back “A total loser.” To which Schamus said simply “I can’t top that” and the evening was over.