James Schamus talks Taking Woodstock - RT Interview

by | November 13, 2009 | Comments

RT Interview: James Schamus on Taking Woodstock

James Schamus might be a workaholic. If it’s not enough that he’s the head of Focus Features — the independent imprint of Universal — he’s also an established producer and screenwriter best known for his collaborations with Ang Lee. This week sees the release of the pair’s latest, Taking Woodstock, a comedy about a family integral to the birth of the infamous Woodstock concert of 1969. And if that isn’t enough, he’s an associate professor of film at Columbia University and just delivered a politically-charged lecture to a rapt London Film Festival audience. While in town, he sat down with RT to talk about the release of Taking Woodstock, his work at Focus and his thoughts on the Tomatometer…

Taking Woodstock


We last spoke in Cannes where the movie got its world premiere. How has the journey been since then?

James Schamus: As you know, being from Rotten Tomatoes, the US release was probably disappointing. I have a suspicion about this. I don’t think the film is anti-American, but I do think it’s un-American in a way. I love America, I’m an unabashed American, but the hero is just kind-of hapless and lets things happen, and he has that 60s attitude of like, “Hey, let it be.” That’s the whole ethos of the movie, but it’s not the American way of doing things these days.

It ended up being more of an art house proposition in the States, and not as commercial as it has been in France and Asia and Germany. It’s more of a mainstream film out of America. I think there was some puzzlement with the American response because it just didn’t deliver the concert, which of course is the whole point of the movie. You can disagree or agree, which is fine, I don’t take umbrage ever at these kinds of discussions, but there was a refrain of, “If you’re going to make a movie about Woodstock you have to make a movie which shows the concert.” Actually, you don’t. You can really make a movie about this family three miles down the road, and what happens when a million people show up.

We were philosophical about the performance in the States and very happy with the performance elsewhere, but that’s my world at Focus. Because these things don’t cost so much to make we can take our knocks here and there and get our gravy somewhere else.

And every now and then you can have these big breakout hits…

JS: Yeah, I mean, look, I’m not in the hit business. It’s always great to have a runaway hit, but I’m in the singles and doubles business at Focus. I always say it’s not a Focus movie unless the vast majority of human beings don’t like it! We really make specialised films; I’m not a studio player. I don’t want to be a Hollywood studio, that’s the whole point. It is a trap, that the business instils in everybody — especially the specialised sector — this grow or die attitude. “You’ve got to have a big hit or it’s got to break a hundred or else you’re not…” I don’t know, I look at Focus and we seem to be making good money every year and that’s not our attitude. And I think Universal appreciates that, because that’s their job. We don’t want to mess with what they do.

After doing it for a while do you at least have an idea of how a film might play commercially?

JS: Oh, of course — when we made Brokeback, the gay cowboy movie, we knew it was going to be one of the biggest indie hits ever! No, you never have any idea how a movie will do, and that’s one of the great things about my job. You make the best movie you can, you work with the coolest people and you don’t worry too much about the box office except for making sure you have a game plan that gets you your money back. Maybe a little extra so you can send the cheque back to the corporate mothership so that they say, “Hey, good job guys, keep going.” And you keep your expectations modest but always keep the door open to success.

We’re not trying to make little movies that don’t make money. I’m always really excited when we have a big hit! I’m very happy, and I do everything I can to make that happen, but you can’t spend your whole life looking over your shoulder thinking, God, so and so just broke $100m, my next art movie better break that too. Some of the great surprises and joys of my business — films like Lost in Translation or Brokeback Mountain or Coraline — are movies where people who think they know this stuff would look at those movies and say, “I don’t think so.”

We wouldn’t see American films like those if not for companies like Focus.

JS: I think so and we’re really proud of the fact that we’re still doing it, but we just have to do it responsibly. There are lots of pressures in the business, a lot of our peer institutions have gone by the wayside, and I think the reason we’re still around — and God willing the reason we’ll still be doing it next year — is because we stretch ourselves aesthetically and try and make sure that our filmmakers know they have a wide berth, and we do all that responsibly.

Do you think it helps that you’re in charge of the business and also have an incredibly strong creative side? Not many other studio heads would be writing screenplays too…

JS: I think it hurts. I think I have to hold back. I’m really good, I think, at working on my stuff, but that’s my stuff. The Coen Brothers, that’s their stuff. What I have learned from day one is the value of me being there to support production, and actually I enjoy the marketing and distribution side of it to really bring my creativity and expertise to those jobs. When you’re working with great filmmakers, when they want advice or they have issues I’m not shy about sharing an opinion but my creativity is mine and theirs is theirs and I want to respect that.

I guess the joy of the job is in having that duality.

JS: Absolutely, and most importantly we’re still having fun. It’s tough times everywhere, but in the film business especially with erosion of DVD sales which cuts across from the biggest Hollywood productions down to ours, there are serious challenges we have to face. But if you’re not facing those challenges with a little bit of joy, what’s the point of showing up at work? I think that was part of the process of Woodstock for Ang was making a movie about something which isn’t treated that often in American movies — being happy. Happiness is not necessarily a very active state. It’s a place where you’re letting things happen to you and to the world. So it was great to go back into that sixties zone and really have that experience with the film.

What’s always been fascinating about Focus is that it’s a company working on independent projects within the Hollywood system.

JS: Yeah, we use the resources when we can and we operate in a system that gives us the birth and space to do that stuff, and certainly we navigate and leverage within that system to great advantage and effect. The system is still malleable enough to allow for those kinds of things to happen. It’s interesting on the outside of the studio system, when you go into the sites and places where the public at large is figuring out what they’re going to see.

Like Rotten Tomatoes, it poses very interesting challenges for us in particular since our best movies are probably the movies that aren’t for everybody. When you use this quantitative approach on the Tomatometer, it tells a very specific story that isn’t the story very often for movies like us. You guys are great because on the one hand it’s an incredible aggregation of thoughts and opinion, but on the other hand for specialised film — especially these days where critics are increasingly coming to a popular consensus approach to their work. They’re not articulating as boldly as an aggregate as they once did. We’re confronted with a very funny thing where our best movies get some of our worst ratings. How do you break through and say, “Hey guys, for you this is the one.”

I’ve always thought there’s a sweet spot in the middle of the Tomatometer — between about 45-55% – where it’s not a question of those movies being bad movies, but that’s where the ones that really divide people passionately wind up sitting. And some of them are my favourite movies. Films like The Fall or Antichrist are recent examples. I’ll always seek out a movie when I find it’s been scored between 45 and 55% precisely because I know I’m going to react to it very strongly.

JS: It’d be really fun to see how you can make that an exciting zone without it being the dead zone in the middle. Because I think you’re absolutely right, it really comes up again and again and you want the discussion, you want people to be getting the discussion going. Because the pop culture is at its most exciting when you bring in everybody and democratise it, everybody can have that voice. When it just becomes this number, suddenly it evacuates that possibility. It’ll be fun to see how that evolves.

I do think people misuse the site sometimes in the sense that they just go based on the score and not on the quotes. When you go to the quotes and then the full reviews, you absolutely get that sense that you don’t get from the score, particularly in the case of the 45-55s.

JS: That’s where I find myself constantly these days, as you know, so you’re articulating exactly what I’m doing with my business! It’s funny.

Taking Woodstock is out in the UK today.

Tag Cloud

Lifetime DC Comics reboot Bravo Amazon Studios Western Toys Set visit BBC Awards french zero dark thirty Amazon award winner Interview breaking bad name the review telelvision Chilling Adventures of Sabrina christmas movies Paramount Network casting Hallmark Christmas movies anime child's play nbcuniversal critics SundanceTV IFC Horror Election Mystery 4/20 Masterpiece New York Comic Con Summer Britbox Opinion cops Syfy Marathons Binge Guide razzies blockbusters Esquire 2018 movie Fantasy festival Extras independent spain teaser The Walt Disney Company war Lionsgate cars Musical Reality Competition The Arrangement Mindy Kaling Winners universal monsters comics Emmys finale El Rey revenge archives DC Universe Music crime thriller History emmy awards Film science fiction doctor who scary movies ESPN joker supernatural worst documentaries all-time kids biography crime Spring TV 99% CNN RT History sports diversity halloween tv psychological thriller Star Trek WarnerMedia robots Mudbound romance golden globe awards renewed TV shows book The Witch Arrowverse Trailer Martial Arts Tumblr ABC Family PBS natural history Pride Month Pet Sematary Heroines Dark Horse Comics foreign reviews based on movie miniseries unscripted BBC One The CW HBO Go TCA Women's History Month indie Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt TV One Infographic AMC quibi mission: impossible what to watch spanish trailers police drama PaleyFest witnail cancelled Captain marvel children's TV Turner criterion stoner 45 satire VH1 spinoff CW Seed hispanic screenings Watching Series screen actors guild football IFC Films DGA slashers thriller CMT canceled versus LGBT TLC TV HBO Max ITV MSNBC travel Mary poppins news Tomatazos MCU comic books strong female leads Polls and Games deadpool richard e. Grant rotten movies we love stand-up comedy BET Awards Holiday Photos Crackle ViacomCBS canceled TV shows dc Sony Pictures ABC cults FX zombie 2015 halloween Avengers cancelled TV series RT21 Trivia nature hidden camera ABC Signature twilight cancelled TV shows Grammys Box Office Brie Larson First Reviews Nominations directors Disney streaming service 21st Century Fox spider-man Biopics transformers theme song APB godzilla james bond italian laika superhero Shondaland Acorn TV chucky Character Guide sequel fresh BBC America australia superman singing competition TCA Awards binge Amazon Prime Video Cannes PlayStation Starz Schedule YouTube Red Comedy crossover SDCC Rom-Com Red Carpet Apple hist documentary dark rom-coms Baby Yoda NBC Exclusive Video Chernobyl Film Festival 2016 Showtime rotten ratings Comedy Central video Star Wars Disney Channel die hard Paramount Plus Disney jamie lee curtis streaming FOX Writers Guild of America Tarantino comiccon Super Bowl spanish language Paramount Apple TV Plus VOD Superheroes Kids & Family sequels GoT Food Network festivals President cartoon HBO indiana jones A24 Thanksgiving kong Quiz asian-american Black History Month San Diego Comic-Con popular animated talk show E3 71st Emmy Awards Discovery Channel Podcast tv talk Sneak Peek green book comedies Amazon Prime politics X-Men romantic comedy Cosplay cancelled television aliens Apple TV+ 2020 japanese Mary Poppins Returns hollywood discovery Epix period drama Marvel SXSW serial killer technology First Look Action LGBTQ Reality Ovation GIFs zombies adaptation facebook franchise The Academy vampires Sundance Now werewolf Fox Searchlight American Society of Cinematographers blaxploitation Ghostbusters Pirates dogs free movies ghosts Lucasfilm Anna Paquin Family Legendary Country harry potter south america See It Skip It Ellie Kemper VICE prank boxoffice Comic Book social media Countdown 007 women Emmy Nominations Mary Tyler Moore jurassic park YouTube Premium Spectrum Originals TIFF psycho Columbia Pictures stop motion worst movies mockumentary Premiere Dates TCM true crime Calendar Sundance TV Spike Hear Us Out Trophy Talk Year in Review Netflix 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards disaster video on demand remakes Warner Bros. space Holidays king kong Fox News Hulu Pixar WGN Universal A&E Sundance toronto parents Disney+ Disney Plus docudrama crime drama USA cooking Travel Channel 20th Century Fox Turner Classic Movies Song of Ice and Fire Teen composers Broadway Comics on TV Crunchyroll game of thrones Logo DirecTV venice Rocky Sci-Fi 24 frames Creative Arts Emmys 72 Emmy Awards Hallmark CBS films National Geographic Endgame Funimation CBS All Access comic TNT Awards Tour Pop series Christmas sag awards adventure medical drama Tubi Marvel Studios OWN sitcom E! batman Marvel Television Oscars TCA Winter 2020 Vudu rt archives TruTV monster movies Superheroe YA dceu Disney Plus toy story Valentine's Day Pop TV pirates of the caribbean a nightmare on elm street scorecard obituary Television Critics Association 2019 latino NYCC The Purge ID DC streaming service MTV kaiju Alien fast and furious Cartoon Network GLAAD mutant Netflix Christmas movies black Musicals Stephen King movies spy thriller FXX best dragons cinemax 2017 Classic Film Fall TV YouTube Adult Swim Drama blockbuster Academy Awards concert nfl golden globes dramedy television TCA 2017 BET boxing BAFTA docuseries political drama Elton John anthology TBS 2021 game show Peacock Shudder classics Rocketman Nat Geo Lifetime Christmas movies Animation cats Walt Disney Pictures Best and Worst TV renewals Black Mirror Freeform Nickelodeon Certified Fresh USA Network Video Games The Walking Dead historical drama OneApp Television Academy Rock Winter TV justice league FX on Hulu TV Land elevated horror