I was three weeks into my first film job when I got a ride home from a very gracious man named James Schamus. We shared a cab after a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of his groundbreaking production company, Good Machine. I was a bright-eyed intern there, he, the president. Since then James has gone on to become the co-president of "indie" movie powerhouse Focus Features while continuing his work as a wildly successful screenwriter, producer, and professor at Columbia University. His partnership with director Ang Lee has produced such gems as The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He has been the creative force behind some of the most critically acclaimed and widely seen movies of the last decade. And I...well I'm still bright-eyed.
CCB: You’re very academic and knowledgeable in a lot of different areas. Why did you choose movies?
JS: Movies are of course very central to the culture. You start to know as the years go by if you have an affinity for something and if you’re the kind of movie-goer who when you leave a movie, think about what it means and how they made it and why it’s different from other movies. If you notice the details then you’re somebody who’s probably going to have some kind of affinity for the business.
CCB: When did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do? Was it writing that came first, producing, or just a general love of movies?
JS: All of that came together. I had already completed all of my course work in my doctoral program at (University of California) at Berkley and then came to New York. At that point it was a wonderful time because it was the beginnings of the independent movement but it wasn’t that organized so people needed help. Without any skills basically, I could say, “Well, I’ll help you raise money” because no one else was doing it. Now things are a little different. The business is much more mature and there are many more traditional pathways into the industry. On the other hand it’s still fairly chaotic and entrepreneurial. So people who want to make movies—they can make movies now. If you want to be a filmmaker, then go make a film on your digital video camera.
CCB: How would you advise others aspiring to your achievements?
JS: The fact is the best way to get into the movie business is just to see a lot of movies. So I always watched a lot of movies.
CCB: Did you find that your education at the University of California, Berkley directly helped you on your path in the film business?
JS: Well clearly having a deep appreciation for the history and theory of film helped. Working at that time with filmmakers who really were not afraid to think about what they were doing, like Todd Haynes (writer/director of Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) I could talk to them on a level of appreciation for what they were doing that was not simply commercial, not simply based on some kind of fandom. But everybody has their own background; everyone has their own set of experiences to draw on. Someone who has gone to culinary school—that’s an experience of someone who knows how to organize, knows how to keep things fresh, knows how to create things that are healthy and taste good and look good. Those things could also be used.
CCB: Is there a typical workday for you? I imagine it’s varied.
JS: There is no real typical workday for a number of reasons, one is that I have so many different jobs: helping run the studio, screenwriting, producing films, and teaching at Columbia. I’m pretty scattered. Throw a family onto that…you never know when the school play is coming up. So no there is no typical day but the most important thing is to meet the work head-on and get it done. Procrastination is never really an option.
CCB: When you did first come to New York what was your first job? Did you know anyone that helped you?
JS: No I didn’t know anybody in the business. The film business is pretty porous at the entry level if you’re willing to be completely humiliated and exploited. [Laughs] I came to New York in my late twenties and I was literally the oldest production assistant on a lot of sets where you’re fetching coffee and looking at the back of the truck to make sure nobody steals stuff, etcetera.
CCB: Is there anything that people would be surprised by about your work?
JS: I think that people are often surprised at how unglamorous it is. I don’t really do a lot of time poolside with movie stars. I mean, most people in the movie business just work really hard.
CCB: What is your typical workday in terms of hours?JS: Mine varies because I get home to see the kids. So I have a gap and then of course once they’re in bed a whole new workday opens up from nine p.m. until whenever. But again it’s different. In Los Angeles the workday starts much earlier and people do breakfast meetings but then it tends to end earlier. In New York we tend to start later in the morning but we don’t do a lot of lunch meetings. In L.A. they take off and do these really long lunches and I eat lunch at my desk everyday.
CCB: I’ve often heard people unfamiliar with the film business wonder what a producer’s job definition is. Can it be summed up?
JS: Right now there’s been an enormous proliferation of producer credits handed out on movies. Someone’s manager gets a producer credit, the financier gets a producer credit, an executive at the company that finances the movie gets a producer credit, so it’s really degraded the producer credit and the idea of the producer’s role. Great producers are people who spawn ideas, work with writers and develop material; they put talent together, bring in the director, bring in the appropriate cast and then they also hire and organize the film shoot. They are the people who are primarily responsible for the creative package as well as going out and raising the money or dealing with the studio and overseeing the film ‘from soup to nuts’ meaning from the original idea, all the way through at least consulting with the studio on marketing and distribution plans. Many producers do only one or two of those things. Very few producers have either the ability or the power to do all of those things. Sometimes as in my life, on some movies I do one or two and on some movies I do all. It depends also on the other producers and on the director, the studio, and the budget. Each movie is quite different.
CCB: How did you think you would make a living when you were ten years old; when you were eighteen?
JS: I wanted to be an architect when I was ten. By the time I was eighteen I knew that I was pretty much committed to an academic life. I was thinking about graduate school and English Literature and a life in that community.
CCB: You place a lot of importance on keeping up with your academic life. It seems like many in your position wouldn’t. Is there any theory behind this?
JS: That’s just my neurosis. [Laughs] The thing is that I enjoy teaching and as long as I enjoy it and have the opportunity to do it, I’ll do it. They’ve been very nice at Columbia in accommodating both of my lives.
CCB: You worked as a script analyst in your early New York days. Is this a good way to go for young people looking to get into the film business?
JS: I think that any way that your own talents match is a good way. If you have a talent to read and you’re writing well, script reading is a great thing. It can get old. In a year you can burn out, so you have to be careful of that, but mixing that up with production assistant jobs is good. Really the difficult thing is the entry-level job at a film company. If you want to be a director or screenwriter, you might as well work at McDonalds and then direct your movies on video or write your script at night or whatever. Getting a job in the film business becomes more than a full time job, because there are eighty other people who want the job and the people you work with are so driven you’ll find that you don’t have much time in your life for anything else. Getting a job in the film business doesn’t help you become a filmmaker, getting a job in the film business helps you have a career in the film business, but those are two different things.
CCB: So if someone wants a career focusing on creative endeavors like writing or directing they shouldn’t get a job in the film business ever?
JS: There’s no real reason. There’s a reason you might want to be a production assistant on some shows or movies as far as learning the craft and being around it for a while, but there’s no reason to start at an entry level job at a film company and work your way up because you’ll never direct a movie for the rest of your life.
(In the early nineteen-nineties, Schamus started a small production company called Good Machine with producer Ted Hope. It went on to be one of the quintessential production houses in the independent film movement of that time. Good Machine produced such films as The Brothers McMullen, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon among many others.)
CCB: When you got together with Ted Hope and started Good Machine, where were you both in terms of your careers?
JS: We were doing a little bit of everything. I was working as a script reader; I was helping people write grant proposals for documentaries. I was actually working as a producer and helping to raise money for independent filmmakers…just any way to pay the rent and have the freedom to do what we wanted to do and be in the film business. Ted had a lot of production experience. He’d gone to NYU and he had worked as an assistant director or production manager on a lot of low budget independent films, so he had a lot more physical production experience.
CCB: The idea of starting a company has always seemed very scary to me. When starting Good Machine did you feel confident in its success or scared out of your mind?
JS: It was neither terrifying nor did I feel any particular amount of confidence. I felt like it was a big job, and you just get up in the morning and you go to work. The key to these things, to companies, are two things, one being the people you work with. If you really admire and trust them and you have a good working relationship then it’s a good environment for people to do their best work. The other thing is working capital, that the amount of money you have is appropriate to keep the door open long enough for you to get out and running. So with those two things you give it your best shot.
(Schamus’s partnership with director Ang Lee has generated such films as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Hulk, Ride with the Devil, The Ice Storm, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet and the upcoming Brokeback Mountain, all of which Schamus wrote and produced with Lee directing.)
CCB: It’s always seemed that if one were able to meet those rare one or two people with whom they could connect with creatively and hang onto them, it would be a lot easier to have a creative life that might go somewhere. How much a part of your success do you think is attributed to coming across people with whom you connected and recognizing their importance? Do you think your career would be very different if you had never met say, Ang Lee, Ted Hope, Todd Haynes?
JS: Absolutely. Who knows, maybe I’d be working in a tollbooth right now. I have no idea. Part of that is seizing those opportunities and identifying talent in people who have it; attitudes that at least when combined with yours are productive. It’s an important part of the process. It really is. You have to try to think of yourself not as some creative genius that needs everyone to help you. You have to recognize that part of your job in the film business, which is so collaborative, is making sure that you are there to help other people unlock their talents.
CCB: During the Good Machine years you produced films as wildly different as Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. What is it that draws you to projects?
JS: Generally speaking, no matter what the film, no matter what the genre, I’m still drawn to films that you might say have a signature; when the director or the creative team have a very particular outlook on the material so that it’s not just processed cheese. There are a lot of films out there that are just kind of like processed cheese and that’s fine, but we’re pretty artisanal here and we always have been so we’re really looking for the filmmakers who have individual voices and have the need to speak in those voices.
CCB: Was there a particular moment when you felt like you’d “made it” in some way or another, like you were a success?
JS: This is an industry that makes that very difficult. Many of the people who feel that way haven’t been that successful and are fairly insufferable. On the other hand you could also be completely neurotic and not notice that you’ve done all right, which is also kind of insufferable. The fact is that here at Focus we release one film per month. You walk into two or three in a row that stink or don’t do well and you’re not looked at as a success. It’s a very tough industry.
CCB: So here you are as co-president of a film company that is putting out some of today’s most interesting, most seen, and most widely praised films. Career aspirations?
JS: The great thing about Focus is that unlike a lot of other specialized film companies we really don’t want to become a movie studio in the big sense of the word. We really like the movies we make. I think we still have some growth to do and of course there are just an unbelievable number of challenges associated with the changing landscape. Nothing is static in this business. The DVD market changes the international market changes, tastes change, costs go up, go down, left, right, whatever. There’s plenty to keep you busy.
CCB: Have you ever looked yourself up on the Internet?
JS: (Laughs) The funny thing is I did it a couple of years ago and I thought “Wow there are a couple of things there.” but they kind of get repetitive and…whatever. But my daughters did it on “google image” recently and they were like “Oh look, there you are in Europe with some movie!” That was funny. They thought that was pretty hilarious.
*Learn more about Focus Features: focusfeatures.com