November 18, 2018

Writer-director talks about adapting Roth’s ‘Indignation’

“Indignation,” the new movie based on a novel by the immortal Philip Roth, opens with a skirmish in Korea in 1951 and ends with a scene so shocking that I cannot reveal it here, although readers of the book will know what’s coming. In between, however, the movie focuses on the sexual and emotional coming-of-age of a troubled Jewish adolescent from Newark, N.J., whose childhood home is a battleground, and a college deferment means the difference between life and death. He is a highly indignant young man, as the title suggests, and his indignation plays out in both comic and tragic ways.

“Indignation” is one of Roth’s “late” novels, but it is a gem. As re-imagined by James Schamus, who wrote, directed and produced the movie, life in America in the early 1950s comes fully alive, as does the experience of a generation of Jewish Americans for whom the second world war was a fresh wound and the prospect of making a life among the goyim is burdened with anxiety and gloom. When it is announced that young Marcus Messner will leave Newark upon graduation from high school to attend a small, private college in the town of Winesburg, a friend of the family frets out loud: “How will he keep kosher in Ohio?”

Although “Indignation” is Schamus’ directorial debut, he is a formidable figure in the entertainment industry. He worked closely with director Ang Lee over many years, serving as a writer and producer on films ranging from “Eat Drink Man Woman” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and producing “Brokeback Mountain.” He also oversaw production of many other movies of distinction as the founder and head of Focus Features. With “Indignation,” Schamus reveals himself to be a gifted director whose work is elegant and yet poignant, superbly well observed and even painterly, informed by Schamus’ own Jewish upbringing and identity, driven by powerful performances, and capable of moving us and surprising us.

Working from New York afforded Schamus resources that would not have been available on the West Coast for a movie with a modest budget. While the star of the show is Logan Lerman, a winning young actor who already enjoys a fan following among the 20-somethings, the cast also features several Broadway veterans and luminaries, including Danny Burstein (who re-created the role of Tevye in the recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Linda Emond (who was nominated for a Tony for her recent role on Broadway in “Cabaret”) as the afflicted parents of the story’s young hero.

An outstanding performance is delivered by Tracy Letts, a playwright and stage actor who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Broadway hit “August: Osage County.” Most filmgoers, however, will recognize him as the CIA director in “Homeland,” and his role as the dean of the Midwestern college Marcus attends is unforgettable. Indeed, the on-screen encounters between Marcus and his college dean are the dramatic center of gravity in a movie that offers one intense scene after another, many of them explicitly erotic.

I had the opportunity to talk to James Schamus on two occasions, first in his production office in a gentrified building in the old Garment District in Manhattan and again at a sold-out preview screening of “Indignation” presented by the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival.  

Jonathan Kirsch: Has Philip Roth seen the movie yet, and if so, how did he respond?

James Schamus: Yes, he has, and, thank the Lord, he responded very well!

JK: What was the career path that led you from your work with Ang Lee to writing, directing and producing “Indignation”?

JS: Your question assumes that there is a path, when it was more like stumbling through the brush. We tend to think opportunistically in terms of what’s stirring the imagination. I was at an airport a number of years ago, and I picked up a copy of “Indignation,” which had just been published in a mass-market paperback edition. This was a time when Wi-Fi was not available, and a long flight was one of the few places left on the Earth where I could really unplug. I just fell in love with the characters, and I acquired the rights to the book.

JK: Roth discloses a shocking fact about Marcus Messner early in the novel. Based on my first viewing of the movie, it is not revealed until the end. Am I right? And, if so, what was your reason for delaying the disclosure?

JS: It is disclosed, but in a way that is not necessary for you to register it consciously. I played around a lot with when to disclose. And I am playing with the audience a little bit in one scene, where it is suggested in the lighting and the set. Roth novels are notoriously difficult to adapt, and I was trying to figure out a way to reproduce the sense of what’s left at the end of the book, when you know you have a consciousness who’s reaching out from young adulthood. That’s where I created the framing devices for the film, which are not in the book. 

JK: Your cast is deeply rooted in theater, and especially the Broadway theater. Was that a principle of selection in casting the film?

JS: It wasn’t a principle of selection. It was a requirement of budget. But I knew I could get actors who would precision-target that world and just live it. Danny Burstein and Linda Emond are theater royalty, and I think of Tracy Letts as the king of American theater.

JK: One of the glories of your movie is the way in which it conjures Jewish life in midcentury America in such authentic detail. But the counterintuitive moment for me, both in the book and the movie, is the scene in which Esther Messner objects to her son’s romance with the Gentile character called Olivia Hutton, a beautiful young blonde played by the stunning Sarah Gadon. Esther notices the scars on Olivia’s wrist and tells her son that he can date or marry anyone he wants, even a non-Jew, as long as it isn’t one who has tried to commit suicide. 

JS: Clearly, Roth gave me the gift of this character, and it would have been a mistake to depict her as a caricature of the Jewish mother. This is a mother who knows what she’s doing. Esther Messner is probably the first person in Olivia’s entire life who gets her the minute she sees her. Esther knows who Olivia is and what she’s gone through. Nobody else gets it. But maybe Esther is just thinking: Let’s solve the problem of Olivia and move on. If there’s another battle to fight later on, I’ll figure out the next move in my campaign.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal