“You’re a New York filmmaker, and you make your first film as a director, and then you get your New York premiere at the MoMa, it makes up for not having a bar mitzvah,” James Schamus said in pre-screening remarks to Indignation, his film adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel. Schamus’s beautiful film is the rare screen adaptation that actually lives up to the book.
“Indignation” stars Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner, the Newark-raised son of a butcher, whose doting but overbearing parents (Danny Burstein and Linda Emond) obsess over his every move, especially that he will be drafted into the Korean War. A scholarship from his synagogue sends Marcus to (fictional) Winesburg College in Ohio, class of 1955, where he faces anti-Semitism and small-mindedness. Brainy but stubborn, Marcus questions and challenges almost everything. He also clashes with the pedantic but well-meaning and obstinate Dean (brilliantly realized by Tracy Letts) and falls for a beautiful but unbalanced beauty (Sarah Gadon), who gives him his first sexual experience.
Monday night at the Museum of Modern Art, director and cast of “Indignation” (except for Letts) attended the glittery New York premiere. Oscar-winning director Ang Lee also stopped by to support his longtime friend and collaborator.
On the red carpet, I asked Schamus, long acclaimed as a producer, writer and ex-Focus boss, if he spoke to Philip Roth. Schamus told me he sent Roth the script before pre-production. “If he had hated it I would have stopped the project. And he did me a tremendous favor. He refused to read the screenplay. He was basically saying, ‘Go do your thing,’ and it freed me,” Schamus said. Later in post-production, Roth attended a screening. “We had a lovely talk. He wrote these beautiful words about the movie that my producer read at the world premiere at Sundance, so we appear to be Philip Roth approved,” Schamus laughed.
Roth retired from writing a few years back, but Schamus told me he seemed well. “He was great when I saw him, absolutely just full of beans. What can I tell you?”
With its discussion of anti-Semitism and the horrors of a war no one understands, I noted the film, set in 1951, was timely. “Unfortunately,” said Schamus.
As to why he chose the film as his directing debut, Schamus told me, “It’s late Philip Roth. This is his 29th book, and I was very moved by him returning to a time very early in his life and creating this character who bears some resemblance to him but isn’t him, of course. And I love this character because I know him very well, that bright Jewish boy who tries to do good and yet at the same time, this character has no understanding whatsoever of what’s going on around him in some fundamental way,” he said. “He falls in love with a young woman whose story he can’t even begin to imagine what she’s gone through, so we have a wonderful lead character I think who’s not totally in control of his own destiny, right? His own knowledge is so limited and yet he’s trying.”
On the red carpet, Sarah Gadon told me that reading Sylvia Plath, especially her journals, helped her get into the character of Olivia. “They offered up a lot of information about the minutia of everyday college life for a girl of that time period, especially one who was frustrated and bumping up against the dominant power structures and dominant ideologies of the time. James had me tracing Sylvia Plath’s handwriting so that I would write like her — and a girdle always helps.”
I asked Logan Lerman, 24, who is Jewish and has been acting since he was 9, if he experienced anti-Semitism. “I guess so, growing up I had a few experiences but it was never ill intentioned,” he told me. “They were more perceptions or prejudices that were misconstrued by I guess the world that they grew up in. And a big part of this movie for me is that my character is observing, he questions everything, has strong convictions and challenges the world that he was born into. I think more people should question their existence like Marcus does.”
Lerman told me he spent six months in pre-production preparing for the role. “I went to museums. I learned how to butcher meat,” he said. “I read a lot of material, Whitman and Bertrand Russell and Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg — all the stuff that Marcus might have been reading,” he said. “I really explored the script and tried to understand the world the best that I could and get in my character’s shoes.”
The swanky after party was at the appropriately atmospheric Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue, where James Schamus and the stars of his film were among the last to leave the celebration.