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

[tomatometer]MuzeID=1205488[/tomatometer]

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

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