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…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.