Published Spring 2007
The Work of Production in the Age of Theory
An Interview with James Schamus
CEO of Focus Features, James Schamus is a major film producer. A PhD in English and a film professor at Columbia, he is also an intellectual. Like many academics of his generation who might read minnesota review, he did graduate work during the heyday of literary and cultural theory in the 1980s, at Berkeley.
Schamus has built a prodigious list of production and screenwriting credits. He has produced all and written or co-written many of Ang Lee's movies, from Pushing Hands (1991) and The Wedding Banquet (1993) through Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Ice Storm (1997) up to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hulk (2003), and Brokeback Mountain (2004). Alongside those, he has had a hand in producing a score of notable independent films by Edward Burns, Todd Haynes, Hal Hartley, Paul Schrader, Cindy Sherman, and Todd Solondz, such as Haynes's Safe (1995), Burns's She's the One (1996), and Schrader's Autofocus (2002). He has also published the book editions of Two Films by Ang Lee: "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" and "The Wedding Banquet" (Overlook, 1994), The Ice Storm (Newmarket, 1997), Ride with the Devil (Faber, 1999), Crouching Tiger (Newmarket, 2000), and The Hulk (2003), as well as The Apparatus Guide to No-Budget Filmmaking (1989; 2nd 1994). And he has regularly published criticism and commentary, in Representations, Cinema Journal, In These Times, and the New York Times, among many other places. He is currently completing a monograph on the Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer, forthcoming from University of Washington Press.
Born in 1959, he attended Claremont McKenna College and St. John's College (in Maryland) before settling in at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his BA (1982), MA (1987), and PhD (2003). As he recounts in this interview, he moved to New York in the late 1980s while working on his dissertation and gradually became immersed in the film world, co-founding and -chairing Good Machine from 1990 to 2002, and co-founding and -presiding over Focus from 2002 to 2006. He has been CEO of Focus since 2006.
This interview took place on 15 March 2007 at James Schamus's office at Focus Features in Soho, Manhattan. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by Heather Steffen, managing editor of the review while a PhD student in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University.
Williams: You're known as, if not a film mogul, a major player in film. You built up Good Machine and Focus. But I want to go back to twenty years ago, when you were a grad student in English at Berkeley. What were your interests then? You could have ended up having a much different course.
Schamus: I was lucky enough to have done my graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley starting in the early 80s, when you could have an interest in a lot of different things. It was still a culture where people expected specialization and a level of professionalization, but at the same time those same people were beginning to cast a very skeptical glance at the protocols by which you produced the kind of scholars that preceded them. This was the beginning of things like New Historicism, with Stephen Greenblatt and Cathy Gallagher there, and the founding of Representations. It was a moment when high theory was at its highest, but it was also a moment when suddenly facts and anecdotes and history entered the scene. So the definition of specialization and of competence started to change a bit, they started to warp from inside, and it was a lot of fun to be around.
Being part of that early wave of graduate students who were just emerging into the change of theory culture, you had these wonderfully anomalous moments. I'll never forget when Eve Sedgwick came and gave a talk at Berkeley, the talk "A Poem Is Being Written." This was the talk where Eve read some poetry, talked about her biography, got into and through the beginnings of early high queer theory. It was funny because the faculty loved the paper, they were just absolutely entranced, but the graduate students were kind of outraged by the whole thing. I think it threw a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans that everybody had as they were going through their orals. They suddenly realized that the rules were starting to change and that the people who were adjudicating their futures were not as committed to the handbook that we all thought we'd been given at the beginning of grad school. It caused a lot of anxiety.
I thought it was really interesting; I was in a kind of middle zone, taking an anthropological stance and looking at my advisors and faculty on the one hand, and my peers as graduate students on the other.
Williams: What year was that?
Schamus: That would have been in 82-83.
Williams: You started grad school in 82, if I recall correctly, so you were still sort of an onlooker.
Schamus: Exactly. I hadn't locked myself in as many of my colleagues had, who were starting their dissertations. You really saw those kinds of professional anxieties start to take root at the same time as what we know now as the proletarianization of the profession—you were starting to see the impact of the rise of adjunct culture, so to speak, and those kinds of real anxieties about the status of the profession, about the place of the language we were using, in or out of the public sphere. Was this an esoteric priesthood that we were entering, and were we kind of lapsed priests of the order of the public intellectual and then we got into some other zone, or not? It's been a quarter of a century of watching, from where I sit a bit from the sidelines but also as an interlocutor and a fan of theory and of academic culture, to see how the moments that crystallized tensions have worked themselves out since then.
Williams: Looking back, it does seem a pivotal time, when jobs imploded and theory waned. But I'm curious about what you were doing then and what you were interested in. I saw on your CV that you did some poetry readings and wrote poetry.
Schamus: I was very involved in that, and I did the Berkeley Poetry Review, and I founded the chapbook publishing poetry series through the review. It must have been around 1981.
Williams: So you had a yen for producing even then?
Schamus: Yeah, and I also ran a reading series at Berkeley that was an early moment of impresariohood, if that's a word, where I decided to have readings that always had three readers. One would be a poet of note from outside the university—we had some just amazing poets come through all the time—and it was strange for them because they were not reading solo. They would only have twenty minutes, and I was very firm about that, so here I was this little undergraduate telling poet laureates they're going to get hauled off stage because we had a show to run. But they were incredibly appreciative. We would also have one faculty reader and one student, and we'd mix up the order, but every time you went to a reading you'd get usually a very famous poet, a faculty member, famous or not, who was actively writing, and a student.
They were tremendous fun and incredibly lively. At first the visiting poets didn't know what to make of it, but it was very communal. People would show up—we would be averaging between 70 and 120 people because all the friends of the students would show up, all the advisees of the faculty member would show up, and all the fans of the famous poet would show up. So you had these amazing numbers, and it was very appreciative. You'd see a student get up there, try their best, and occasionally read a great line, and people would show their appreciation. It was infectious, so I think our famous poets, who were used to getting the kind of adulation from the poetry workshop crowd and the super-weird fans who always showed up with all their books for autographs, really enjoyed them.
Williams: Did you want to go into film when you were doing that or did you want to be a writer? Or were you just not sure?
Schamus: I wasn't sure. I was on the academic track, but I always had an interest in film.
Williams: Just film in general or making it?
Schamus: Going to films. Really I did not have much experience in making them.
Williams: You didn't have any experience growing up? I mean, before you mentioned that you grew up in LA, and, as far as I can tell as a New Yorker visiting LA, it's all over the place there and everybody seems to have some connection to film.
Schamus: It does seem that way, but you can certainly live outside. I had no industry connections growing up, but I did go to Hollywood High School, which sounds like an industry place. Of course it isn't; it's just a high school. It's like going to high school a block up from Times Square: it doesn't mean you're in the theater business, it means you're in a very sleazy neighborhood. But it was lively. There was a great theater program there, and a legendary teacher ran the theater program at Hollywood High for many years, which really was a kind of foster home. I mean, if you run away from home anywhere in the states, Kansas or Mississippi or wherever, Hollywood is a place where a lot of kids run away to. So when I was going to Hollywood High, there was a huge proportion of students who were living with each other and pretending to be each others' parents, signing notes for each other, that kind of thing. It is runaway central.
Williams: But you were a literary lad. I noticed from your CV that you went to St. John's College, where they not only study the great books but study them in Greek and Latin.
Schamus: Yeah, at least I had those pretensions. I lasted a year at St. John's College. It was great, it was just…I can give you the reasons I left St. John's, but I really like being at Columbia now, knowing there's a core curriculum for the undergraduates, and in fact my teaching at the graduate level in my seminars is weirdly great books-y. I don't teach anything practical, I only teach theory and history, and I try to place my students in relationships to texts and to intellectual traditions that they don't necessarily think are the norm for film studies and film theory. I teach a graduate seminar, for example, on narration and image called Seeing Narrative. It's a film theory workshop without film theory, and what we do is read texts that have managed quite often to escape the citational network of film theory as a professionalized academic discourse. So we'll read Plato's Protagoras and Kant's Third Critique and Lessing's Laocoön and Alberti on painting and Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows and Charlotte Brontë and stuff like that. Then we'll watch movies, and we'll try to see how these other traditions, primarily Western but sometimes Eastern, are talking about how stories and images interact with each other and how they might get into our thinking about films if we paid attention to them.
Williams: So you basically teach them aesthetics and the philosophical discourse on art?
Schamus: Yeah. There's something wonderful about getting a bunch of film students and students from other places in the university and having them spend three and a half weeks reading Kant's Third Critique. It's like watching the phases of mourning—denial, then anger, and then a kind of sublime resignation. It's amazing to see them process the beginnings of aesthetic thinking and realize how much this stuff has formed what they think of as the natural environment in which they live. When we get to the chapters on genius, I point out that Kant invents rock 'n roll, and at that point they're conquered.
We spend a lot of time on vocabulary and I do a lot of explication de texte, which is my primary mode of teaching the theory.
Williams: My saying is that you don't get born knowing it, so students shouldn't worry about not understanding at the start. Are they undergrads?
Schamus: I have some undergrads, but mainly master's students who are there for the MFA in filmmaking. So many of the students we deal with, they don't feel that sense of entitlement that the vocabulary is just out there and available, and they have never sat down and walked through the basic functional level. At the same time, as you know, in undergraduate classes there will always be some pretentious, pompous bore who dominates the question and discussion sections, or at least attempts to. You get rolled eyes, but I always point out that you've got to practice and sometimes you have to pretend to know what you're talking about first in order to learn what it is you're talking about. So you have to give a little space for that kind of reach.
Williams: You're obviously invested in things academic. To go back to your time at Berkeley, what were you focusing on?
Schamus: Well, I started as a Miltonist and then moved swiftly into American studies. I was working with Walter Benn Michaels. It was just one of those amazing times when I was a TA for Stephen Greenblatt's Shakespeare class, and I was taking Victorian novel with Cathy Gallagher, and then doing American studies with Walter Benn Michaels. I started moving more and more into the American side of it.
Williams: That's a kind of who's who of criticism.
Schamus: It was all there for the taking. And Foucault was a visiting professor at that time.
Williams: Did you take classes with him?
Schamus: I sat in a couple times. He was teaching with Paul Rabinow and Hubert Dreyfus.
Williams: What were you working on with Michaels?
Schamus: I TAed for his American literature classes, and I sat in his graduate seminars on American studies and on naturalism and realism—he was in the middle of completing The Gold Standard at the time. Then I got interested in realism and photography and how the history of photography relates to the discourse of realism, and from there made the connection to my kind of fan interest in film and film theory.
At that time, the rhetoric department at Berkeley was really the center of graduate studies because Seymour Chatman was there and Bill Nestrick, who was one of the most famous, genius grad students ever at Harvard in Renaissance literature and went out and became a full professor at Berkeley almost instantaneously, but never wrote a book.
Williams: A different era.
Schamus: Exactly, but you imagine there's people like that out there who are amazing and who just got cut from the team, so to speak. Anyhow, there were people like Constance Penley, who was getting her PhD at Berkeley at the time, and of course Camera Obscura, which was founded at that time by folks at UCLA and at Berkeley. So, again, it was a wild time. You had this moment when high theory, embodied in folks like Chatman and what Constance Penley was doing, and on the other hand the emergence of New Historicist thinking that was going on with Representations, and I was able to straddle those worlds, with an emphasis on film.
Williams: So you were going to write a dissertation on film had you stayed there?
Schamus: Yes. I was All-But-Dissertation. I had gone over for a year of study at the American Center for the Study of Film in Paris. Constance Penley and some of the Camera Obscura folks had recommended it and were instrumental in creating it. I was really shocked getting there and realizing that at the University of Paris, you bring your own toilet paper. It was very different. It was a reminder of how good we still have it here.
I used to make the trek out to attend the weekly lectures by Deleuze in Paris VII when he was finishing his Cinéma books. You'd have to get out there an hour early to get a seat in the seminar room. The heat didn't work. Everybody was smoking, including Deleuze, who at this point had only one lung, and literally did that thing you only see in movies, which is that he would light the next cigarette with the one he was just finishing. You really had to get there early because with only one lung and the chain smoking, he spoke very softly, so if you were in the fourth row you didn't hear anything. But it was incredible. I've had weirdly good luck, however it happened, just hearing the voices of people who have become really important to me as figures.
Williams: I can see how you were in the thick of things theory-wise. How did it come to be that you worked in film? How did that start?
Schamus: The other thing on the bio side is politics, which I was very involved in at Berkeley.
Williams: What kind of politics?
Schamus: I was mainly involved in Israel-Palestine stuff, like the early initiative to halt funding for the settlements. It caused quite a stir back in the day, and it's still an interest of mine.
So I was All-But-Dissertation, and I was at that weird point when you've done all your coursework, and at Berkeley you defend your prospectus, and I'd defended it, I'd started writing…
Williams: What was the prospectus called?
Schamus: It was "The Moving Word."
Williams: That's what you finished a couple of years ago.
Schamus: Yeah. I had laid out what I wanted to do back in 87. I moved to New York, I guess this was 87-88, and I thought, as long as I've got a library nearby, I could do this—you know, change of scenery. I thought I would just go to New York for a few months. And I got stuck here, basically. I met a bunch of people. This was at the very beginning of the wave that we think of as American independent movies, when they started to enter into mainstream narrative film culture. Suddenly there was all this stuff going on, and I met a bunch of people. I'd say, "Well, I can help out," and I got stuck.
Williams: I saw a short interview you did with the Berkeley alumni magazine and you said how it was strange to be the oldest production assistant on a set, getting coffee for people and such. So that's how you got into film, and it just snowballed?
Schamus: Yeah, it was one of those things where you could feel the opportunity at the time. There was all this creative ferment, and there was a really strong film festival culture around the world that was interested in what people were doing here, and there were the beginnings of independent distribution and release, and there was the beginning of the video market, when companies like Vestron suddenly got a quarter billion dollars to go out and buy product. They couldn't buy studio films, so suddenly they were looking for other stuff. There was money starting to flow, and nobody was paying that much attention to the business. So it was very easy for me to do that Mickey Rooney "let's put on a show" kind of thing with people.
Williams: And that's what you did?
Schamus: Yeah, people like Todd Haynes and Christine Vachon were trying to raise money, but they were busy making their movies, and I said, "Okay, I'll do it." That kind of thing.
Williams: Another interview I saw said that you were good at helping people make a movie for the money they had rather than for the money they wish they had.
Schamus: I had learned some production skills, and then I had connected with my eventual partner at Good Machine, Ted Hope, who had a long history of on-set experience as an assistant director and a production manager. I had at least had some itinerant experience as a production assistant, and I kept my eyes open about how people put their budget together. When you have the ethos it's a lot easier to learn this stuff. It was easy because people were ready to do it.
Williams: I'm curious about how you go between each world, how you have one foot in and one foot out of each world, of film and academe. Do you have a different perspective coming from academe through which you observe film, and on the other hand a different perspective from film through which you see academe?
Schamus: It's funny because it doesn't feel that way. When you're doing film business, you've just got to get it done. It's basically about incoming fire, and then trying to get out of the trench and get the movie made.
Williams: Most academic people probably don't have that much practical idea of what a producer does. How would you explain it?
Schamus: It's hard now, because my business and my part of the business have become so complex. I can give you a bunch of issues that go into any movie. This year at Focus we've made ten movies, and I'm the CEO of this place. We have a lot of autonomy. We have our budget and a business plan from Universal, we have a lot of support from them, but there's never been a movie that we've decided to make that they've said, "No, don't go there." I've got 140 people working for me here, plus hundreds more who assist through Universal Home Video, which we do our video through, and through other direct distribution, a lot of territories, a lot of markets overseas. And for a film—and we've got up to ten—you've got anywhere between four hundred and a thousand hires.
Williams: You must feel like you're stretched a bit thin!
Schamus: You do what you have to. You're stretched, but you have an infrastructure. I've got an infrastructure here. I've got amazing colleagues. They're dedicated, they're people who really want to do what they're doing. But that said, on every single film before I take it to green light, aside from the budgeting process and the talent deals, which can be extremely complicated these days (the definitions of the various participations and credits and marketing controls and things like that), you've got to decide whether or not you're going to directly distribute in, let's say, the UK or Spain or Germany, where we have access to our own distribution and marketing, or whether I'm going to sell that to one of my partners overseas for a minimum guarantee, and how much money I'm going to get out of that and how much is going in. When you sell of course you cover your downside, you take less risk, but then you lose a bit of your upside. We've just pulled in a quarter billion dollars in co-financing from Dresdner Bank—a very complicated deal that stretches across all of our Focus films—but at the same time I've got other co-financing partnerships. I've got one with Random House Films now—we're just about to finish Reservation Road with them. How do these various financing structures compete with each other? How can I use them together? Do I want to? These are all factors on the business side.
Then you have the change in what we call "the windows." You have the theatrical release, but then it's followed by pay-per-view, home video, DVD, pay cable, free cable, free television, etc. These windows are starting to collapse or get very funky. Network television is no longer a major buyer of films and especially of our kinds of films. On the other hand, the home video window, which used to be six months from your theatrical release, many times is getting less than three months, and that's starting to have an impact on some of the value of the other windows.
At the same time my marketing costs are going up. On every single film we have to sit down and decide how many prints we're going to open a movie with, what theaters we're going to release them in, and what territories, what markets, what cities. If you release in a certain number of cities, then you're starting to require electronic media—you require television and cable support, you're cutting TV spots, which, believe me, is insanely expensive. And you've got to have a number of prints out there to support the kind of media saturation that you need, so the beast just continues to grow.
Every week, while you're in production on three or four movies, you're going into release on three or four, so these cycles are constant, they're never-ending. You have to stay on your feet. Then you multiply all of those decisions across the international landscape, as we do, as I've got an international sales and distribution team that handles movies by people like Roberto Begnigni, and Pedro Almodóvar that we don't handle here in the states, but we're their distributor in a lot of the rest of the world. You have to make a lot of these same decisions every single Monday morning as you're looking at the competitive landscape across multiple territories. Luckily we have an incredible team of people here. We work extraordinarily collegially. It's a really great bunch that's been developed and that's the management side of it, how to maintain people's commitment and excitement across all these different categories of work.
So, does my background in film theory and history help me out? I don't know. I wish I could say it did.
Williams: It seems like you were more of a producer before, but now it seems like you're more a CEO of a studio.
Schamus: I'm only producing for Ang. When you're the CEO of a studio, I think it's really unseemly to take producer credits on films that are coming through your system, and I've made that a rule for all of my executives, as well as myself, with only one exception, which is Ang. Lust, Caution, which is our next film, will be our tenth movie together. And I actually do produce these movies. The culture internal to the studio is very respectful to the filmmakers and the filmmaking process, and we don't want to step on who actually does things. We're very active partners in the production. It's not like we just write checks to people and say, "go make your movie."
I'll tell you where a lot of the cultural studies and film theory side may inform a bit of what I do: in a predilection and openness toward all kinds of categories of filmmaking and cultures. We are such an international company, it's almost absurd. We appear to people here as though we're an American company, but that's almost a footnote to what I actually do for a living. Believe me, with the number of time zones that I've not only been in, but that I deal with every day—we have a videoconferencing room, and we are in there all day long, from London to here to LA and Asia, it's a constant. We use it all the time. But that is the hard part of it—you are constantly using your stupid Crackberry [i.e. Blackberry]. While we've been talking, what, eighteen emails have come in. It's like a portable ball and chain. It takes an enormous amount of discipline to not take that thing out when you're trying to live through life.
Williams: Do you do that?
Schamus: You can ask my kids, who will complain a bit, but they will also grudgingly admit that I am extremely good about not taking it out at dinnertime. I'm really trying to keep myself, and also to encourage people here, to have lives. In this business, it's terrible. There's this fantasy that the film business is celebrity culture, a life of luxury, but people in the film business work so much harder than anybody else I know, and it's so competitive. People are so monomaniacal and work all the time, which on the one hand is admirable. On the other hand, you do want to say, "dude, get a life, do something with your life besides this."
Williams: Although most academics I know complain about working all the time.
Schamus: To me the pleasure of the academic mode is the library. I think we have less of it than we used to because of the internet, which has leveled us culturally, and the experience of our lives is a lot more similar to nonacademic work environments than it used to be. But maybe you recall from last week or from twenty years ago going to the library and then looking up at the clock and going, "oh shit, six hours have passed." Maybe it's just nostalgia and it's a completely retro idea that I have, but the experience of the library, which again you have less and less of, is still, I think, embedded in the DNA of what it means to be a humanities academic. No one else has that. In this business there's nothing like that.
Williams: I did hear someplace that in the film business sometimes you are called "the professor," in a slightly snarky way.
Schamus: I haven't heard that plug, although I guess no one would insult me to my face. Do I feel victimized if somebody makes fun of my because I'm "intellectual?" Let's see, I'm the CEO of a company, allowed to make any movie I want to make around the world, with all the most interesting filmmakers. And I have to say, we are an extraordinarily profitable company. We churn hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in sales every year through this company, and we make a very substantial profit. So however artsy-fartsy and professorial people think I am, we're doing okay on the business side.
Williams: That's the film side; how about the academic side? You teach at Columbia, which probably makes your life harder than not, but you seem committed to it.
Schamus: I've been at Columbia now for seventeen years, and I just count my blessings. I'm genuinely lucky. I have a situation where I get to teach what I like, although because of my deal, where I only teach in the fall full time and get to take an unpaid leave in the spring, I tend to be a service guy.
Williams: You're on a lot of committees, I noticed on your CV.
Schamus: I am. Part of it is, if you're going to have my situation, then you should not be cynical about it—even though when I'm on leave, I try my best to not get sucked in to too much up there, because otherwise I just can't survive. But you should be a citizen. In the humanities, I find a lot of my colleagues tend to be employed by the MLA but get their paychecks from the university they happen to have landed at until another deal comes along. I understand that, but I think people are starting to realize the benefits of community, and that where you are can be just as important to you as where you're flying to. There are deep pleasures and deep benefits to identifying at the institutional level a bit more locally. I think there is a sense that the weightlessness of the profession feels like we're losing that, and people are feeling a bit more grounded and connected to what they're doing. I've noticed that people—and again maybe I'm just projecting outward because it's my own schtick—people who have been at it for a long time when burn-out starts in the teaching, I've found people starting to talk more excitedly about the teaching. But it still is pretty relentless pressure on the academic side.
Williams: I worked in publishing and have interviewed a number of editors, and I'm taken with the idea that editors are not just service workers, as people sometimes see them, but producers. I was thinking of an essay by Benjamin called "The Author as Producer." Does that apply to your job? Do you see your role, besides being a business one, as an intellectual or political one?
Schamus: Yes, though it's never straightforward. I'm constantly looking around from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which I'm happy to say broke open foreign language film here in a big way, and then there's Motorcycle Diaries. I'll give you an example of politics and marketing these days that I always find interesting. I'm happy to claim authorship over the tagline that we used in the marketing campaign for Motorcycle Diaries, which is "Let the world change you, and you can change the world." And we crafted an entire campaign from this, because I said, "I want a second-person campaign, I want people that see this movie to know that we're talking to them and it's about them," so I wanted "you." We did a lot of partnerships with book clubs to eco-travel organizations, and I enjoyed every aspect of the campaign that we conducted for the movie, all the way to one of the first major Spanish-language campaigns with Wal-Mart, who sold the DVD. They drilled down into where they had large Latino and Hispanic customer bases. It was funny because my wife is a political activist. She runs the New York office of Code Pink.
Williams: She's quoted in the Nation and probably not a friend of Wal-Mart.
Schamus: Yeah, she's out there, which is great. There was an odd moment with Motorcycle Diaries when I saw on an email from someone in the political world the quotation, "Let the world change you, and you can change the world," dash, Che Guevara. I was like, "Hey, wait a second, I wrote that! That was me!"
So here's what I would say: you have to see my job in a spectrum. I'm still writing screenplays. Ang's next movie I co-wrote. To me, from beginning to end, a great deal of what I try to produce is the context for different kinds of conversations and the framing to allow people to talk about things in different ways. It's really fun when that happens—Brokeback, obviously, was a recent and really satisfying experience of that. In that process you're negotiating, you're using languages that are used by people already, and part of what I do is deal in narrative and feature-length fiction film narrative in the context that is public already. I'm not often using languages either in the marketing or in the work itself that transgress. They tend to be in a zone where people are already in dialogue with them. So you find yourself in funny places.
Brokeback is a good example. I had this exchange with Danny Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books. He wrote a glowing but completely misguided review of the film, and then threw in a swipe about how, unfortunately, the producers of the movie and the studio shoved the film back in the closet. He says it's a great gay film, but their marketing shoved it back in the closet. I wrote a nice response saying, "Hey, you know, thanks for the kind words about the film, but honestly I don't think you can claim that we did this," and he replied with this insanely vituperative and mendacious response claiming that our pressbook for the film never even used the word gay, which of course it did, but he knew that the pressbook wasn't published. I called Bob Silver up, who runs the New York Review of Books, and I said, "Bob, you need to fact check this stuff, because I know that Danny's kind of mean, but it's another thing to actually lie in print." Of course Bob would not publish my response pointing out this stuff, so I put it online. But inside that discussion, if it hadn't gone off the rails to ad hominem lying and mean-spiritedness, there was a really interesting discussion to be had, because in our marketing, our primary audience for the picture was the gay and lesbian audience, but our biggest audience, the one we knew we had to have in order to succeed, was women, and mostly older women—what we call "the fourth quadrant," females 35 and up. I had to create a campaign and a frame for this picture that would propel older women in this country to run to see this movie, and we succeeded.
And, to my mind, the dialogue was an exciting one. I don't claim that I made a totally politically correct movie, with a totally politically correct marketing campaign, whatever that could possibly be. When you're doing this stuff, the mere fact you're making a movie and trying to get into it means you'll never make a truly politically correct text—which, by the way, there is no such thing. You really have to be able to stare down ideology critique theory and engage it, you have to be in dialogue with it. In my mind, again, the interesting discussion you could have was not that we put the film back in the closet, it was that the person who opened the closet was figured as primarily a straight woman who said, "Oh my god, those beautiful gay guys, I love them!"
Williams: It probably wouldn't be the teenager quadrant or the 22-year-old men who want action movies.
Schamus: But the interesting thing was that 22-year-old men went because 22-year-old women said, "I'm going, and you'll be such a loser if you don't come with me." That meant that Monday morning, around the water cooler, suddenly—and this is what I mean about the creation and production of what I try to do and the politics of the marketing—Monday morning when you got to the office, you couldn't say the gay joke the way you could the week before, because you'd have to look over your shoulder a bit. It suddenly became a little less cool.
I think there'll be a lot of studies of the parodies of Brokeback Mountain. You go onto YouTube and there are literally 150 of them. It was probably the most parodied movie ever. The interesting thing is that they're not really parodies of the movie, they're parodies of our trailer. It seems like it's a small point, but the trailer was used as a paradigm to rewrite the reception of every male buddy movie ever made, from Top Gun to reconfigurations of Back to the Future to the Wallace and Grommit movies. If you go onto YouTube, you could literally spend two days watching Brokeback parodies. But it was about the trailer and the way in which we were able to frame this love story and make it the paradigm for what a love story is and then attach it to everything—the music, the title cards, everything.
Right now I have an initiative in Africa that will probably end up resulting in some films because nobody's paying attention there. In North Africa, I've got a number of films in development, and you'll probably see stuff coming out from Arab filmmakers. There is almost nothing here now, and we're going to try to change that. I think there's just great filmmaking that's coming out of there, and that's possible to come out of there, and we can configure it. Some of it is pretty political stuff—I've got a film in development right now with the guy who did Paradise Now last year, a Palestinian filmmaker; I've got a film in development now with Ziad Doueiri, a wonderful Lebanese filmmaker; I've got a film in development now with a Turkish filmmaker. I have these resources, nobody is doing this, and it's like, why not?
Will these be the most politically correct "Arab" movies? We took some crap for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and its politics. Did you read the exchange I had in Cinema Journal on that? Cinema Journal ran two very interesting essays, one by Tina Klein, on globalization and Crouching Tiger. I had a great time responding to it, and I thought her piece was really good, but it was mobilizing categories that I had some questions about. Klein's piece was smart, but we took a lot of crap from other occidental experts on Asian cinema, who just thought the film was fake. They thought, "Oh, this is not a real Asian movie." To me, that was what the cultural studies ethos at its worst gets you, this theoretically adept orientalist discourse that has this idea of a kind of authenticity. It's dressed up, but it's there, and whenever you step out of the predetermined categories of connoisseurship, you get attacked.
Williams: I don't think cultural studies people would like to be called connoisseurs, although I see what you mean.
Schamus: It is a kind of connoisseurship of the marginal, but I don't mean to make a general slam.