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James Schamus makes Philip Roth connection in directorial debut

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From left, James Schamus, Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon take a break on the set of “Indignation.” (Courtesy Alison Cohen Rosa/Roadside Attractions)

James Schamus has been the head of Focus Features as well as a screenwriter, earning Oscar nominations for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Now 56, with nothing to prove, Schamus has nonetheless taken on a third job: director. His debut feature, “Indignation,” opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

“You go through a process of writing the script, and thinking ‘maybe I’ll direct this,’” he mused, during a visit to The City for the S.F. International Film Festival. “And then we’ve got the money and it’s gonna happen. And at that moment, it’s: What was I thinking?”

Based on the 2008 novel by Philip Roth, “Indignation” is set in 1951. Marcus (Logan Lerman) barely avoids the Korean War by attending college in Ohio. His single-minded existence is threatened when he meets the sexually open Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) as well as the conservative Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts).

Movie adaptations of Roth novels often are difficult, but Schamus credits the source material for the success of his film.

“The secret of Roth is that the brutal honesty is a form of empathy and understanding,” he says. “With ‘Indignation,’ he’s reaching back to a time before Philip Roth became Philip Roth, so these characters are a little easier to forgive.”

The filmmaker says that with only a 24-day shooting schedule, he did much preparation beforehand. This included hiring a color specialist to digitally recreate the look of Kodachrome film, to a very intricate production design.

“Let’s put it this way,” he says, “if the camera moved four inches to the left or to the right, you’d be in 2016.”

Additional preparation took the form of homework assigned to the actors. Gadon was asked to study author Sylvia Plath, while Lerman was given, among other things, Bertrand Russell essays.

Letts was only on set a couple of days, but needed to memorize a crucial, centerpiece 13-page scene between Marcus and the Dean.

Schamus planned the scene down to the minutest detail, shooting several 18-minute takes, and putting it all together in the editing room.

“It was one of those things that, had I actually thought about, I wouldn’t have done it,” he says jovially. “I probably wouldn’t have thought it was possible.”

Schamus’ research also revealed something more personal, a connection to other artists of his day.

Plath was one contemporary of Roth’s; another was poet Allen Ginsberg, whom Schamus once encountered in San Francisco, and whose aunt was Roth’s English teacher.

“It turns out that ‘Indignation’ really is about the best minds of my generation,” he says. “Roth was planting a flag for that generation!”

Starring Sarah Gadon, Logan Lerman, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond
Written and directed by James Schamus
Directed by James Schamus
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 50 minutes

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