James Schamus has been making movies for as long as Ang Lee has been directing them. The two have penned and produced multiple films together, including Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Lust, Caution, and even Hulk. So moving into the role of director for the first time with Indignation, Schamus is no average debut filmmaker. And the stars of that film — Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon — are thankful for his vast experience, as they discuss the new movie with New Times.
“I think sometimes when you work with a first-time director, they’re so scared to collaborate because they’re so protective of their material and their vision," Gadon, who has worked with auteurs such as David Cronenberg, says. "But the more experienced and great filmmakers I’ve worked with have this kind of incredible openness because they have a real confidence in their ability. James really exhibited the latter, a total willingness to collaborate, and it’s the best way to make a film.”
“He knows what he’s doing,” Lerman emphasizes. “I’ve worked with a few first-time directors, and they really don’t know what they’re doing. You learn from your mistakes, and James has been through so many productions in different roles, and I think he’s learned a lot from other people’s mistakes.”
Working together was a big part of the process, and a long one. But, as Lerman says, “The best thing about working with James is that I never felt uncomfortable asking him or presenting an idea to him, whether it was research or physically for the character.”
Lerman’s character, the film’s protagonist, is a working-class Jewish student who attends an Ohio college where he struggles with sexual repression and with being an atheist in a religious community, among other issues. “He made me comfortable to explore in so many directions and was enthusiastic to explore Marcus with me,” Lerman says.
As for Gadon, who plays Olivia, a conflicted young woman Marcus falls for and has a history of self-harm, the process even included tying in Sylvia Plath’s writing. “James is a professor, so he had all these materials for us and assignments and little things he wanted us to do,” she explains. “And each exercise added another layer to the character. It was fantastic.”
Some critics have compared Gadon’s character to the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope, which exists to teach brooding men to embrace life. But she dismisses that idea.
"It’s interesting to read it that way considering the film kind of punishes that stereotype," Gadon says. "She disappears and vanishes from his life, and the film leaves him unable to be with her, and he doesn’t really change because of her. I’d say it’s more of a criticism about the manic pixie dream girl.”
Indignation goes as far as using Olivia to bookend the film even though she’s partially removed from both the film and the Philip Roth novel on which the movie is based. “The book is so specifically told posthumously from Marcus’ perspective, and what I love about James is he breathes so much life into Olivia, a lot more so than what exists in the novel,” Gadon explains. “I thought it was curious that he chose to begin the film from her perspective, where she stares at this wallpaper that is just like her dress, and is so on-the-nose that it seems surreal. But it’s never clear whether Marcus is telling the story or Olivia is remembering the story once you fade into the past. It’s the most brilliant thing he does as a filmmaker in the movie.”
“A lot of the dialogue is taken straight from the book,” Lerman elaborates on adapting the work. “Actually, a lot of the book is copy-and-pasted into the film, but James structured it differently, and there’s a weird portion of it that was cut out. It doesn’t exactly tie into Marcus or Olivia’s story, but it’s part of the aftermath of what happens to these characters.”
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Even though the movie is a novel adaptation and a period drama, taking place in the 1950s, Gadon and Lerman are confident that audiences will like Indignation, and an early Miami screening at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, accompanied by a Q&A, confirmed that for the actors. “I think it challenges what your stereotypical notions of that time period were,” Gadon says.
“They kind of act against type, with a young woman who doesn’t respect any social graces when it comes to dating, and a young man who isn’t as religious as those around him. You’re looking back at this time period from a very different perspective that’s not actually very conservative even though it appears to be.”
Indignation opens in Miami Friday, August 5, at AMC Aventura 24 and Regal Cinemas South Beach Stadium 18.