James Schamus, Focus Features former CEO, is a worldwide famous filmmaker and screenwriter. He is known as the American filmmaker who has “best understanding of Chinese culture”, and he is also the long term partner and producer of famous Chinese director Ang Lee. In the afternoon of April 18, 2016, James Shams was invited to be a guest of Beijing Film Academy, organizing a master class entitled “Telling the Chinese Story to the World”, showing his unique master demeanor and wisdom.
How to present Chinese story to the global audience
Many screenwriters often get recommendations to write what they know and what they are familiar with. What I want to suggest is to write what you are completely unaware of. Global audiences like the stories in my Chinese films, just because the stories contain deep and classical Chinese culture. In addition, it is also because the film itself has been added some foreign elements and exoticism.
Chinese filmmakers have always asked me to help them adapting the story to meet the demands of Western audiences. My answer is “no”. Lots of people have misunderstand that if you want to make a film or turn it into much more commercial one, it is necessary to meet any demands of the audiences, and to give them what they want. But I think a better approach is to give the audience an idea, with which at first glance they seems to be very familiar, but afterword they will see more and more new things.
During the work with Ang Lee, I value the emotional resonance in those stories directed by Ang Lee. And these feelings are actually with no culture label. They only show their cultural features in the way of express feelings. When I rewrite the script of Eat Drink Man Woman, I did lots of homework, including doing research on the relationship between food and family in Taiwan society, and the living status of families that emigrated from Mainland China to Taiwan in 1949. I wrote lots of papers on these issues since I had many feelings in this respect. At that time, Lee used to go to my house to read my script. He was very satisfied with the first draft. But with the further reading, he would say, “Chinese people will not talk in this way “. It was very close to the opening of the filming, so I was very anxious. Before that, audiences’ response to The Wedding Banquet was very good. I understood all the elements of the stories in The Wedding Banquet. But I was wondering that why I couldn’t do well in Eat Drink Man Woman.
At that time, we started to use the computer for word processing. Then I did one thing, that I replaced all the Chinese names in the story with Jewish names. So when I wrote the dialogues, I made the story about a group of Jews who living in New York, which is what I was familiar with. Later, Lee came to my house to read it again. He told me that “wow, we really should talk in this way”.
This is a good case of combination of universality and particularity. In Eat Drink Man Woman, Chinese screenwriters have made it a very Chinese story, which was also very integrated. So I could add some global things in it, and it was finally well integrated. It’s like cooking a pot of soup, by adding various raw materials. If we can taste every material in the soup, then it is failed. If we can’t figure out the raw materials in the soup, it is highly integrated and successful.
How to handle the relationship between individual and universal
I used to spend six years for finding investors as a producer. The amount is not so much, but all investors laughed at me, saying that my project was about gay cowboys. And they didn’t want to invest it. Then I sold my company to Universal Studios and set up Focus Features. As I became the CEO of Focus Pictures, I suddenly changed my position to the opposite party. When I found that I was sitting at the other end of the table, I began to deny the story about “love of gay cowboys” either. Constantly change the idea from positive to negative, I told myself that I should make the film. Later, I produced the film with director Ang Lee, and we also made posters and trailers for it. Our posters and trailers might be those most spoofed in the history of filmmaking. The film is called Brokeback Mountain.
A lot of people like Brokeback Mountain and our strategy of campaign. Our slogan is “Love is a force of nature”. Many top film critics also give high evaluation on it. They said it was a gay story for small minority, but the feelings showed in the film were universal and common in nature. In fact, the common feelings after we watched Titanic and Brokeback Mountain were different.
The key question is how to find the relationship between the universal and the minority. That is the core, which is the relationship between the universal and the special individual. In the modern history of Western art, it is the beginning of art to explore this kind of relationship. Before the concept of aesthetics appears, the idea of art was relatively broad, including painting and drama. Philosophers like Kant began to ask the question of what is art and why people take their time and effort to compile a fictional story at the beginning of capitalist society. In those stories, everyone pretend to be other people, and the story had no substantive purpose. Why people did such things? Kant believed that there was a side of human nature, which gave people freedom. The freedom is a break relative to the rules of nature, and to the rational thoughts. The artworks really exist, but they don’t belong to any rules. In other words, it is a special unit, not limit to any universal rules.
If there are no rules in the artworks, why do we go to Film College? Good professors will help you to find some special rules from every good work. Though you cannot repeat these rules to create your own works, it can help you to understand arts.
A core issue in our industry is how to deal with the relationship between the individual and the universal. Everyone please think of it.
How producers should work
I have just directed my first feature film this year. The producer is my former assistant for so many years. He is one of most outstanding producers in American independent film industry. His name is Anthony Bergman. One day on the set, I enjoyed directing my own film. When I turn back, I found Anthony was busy to solve some problems, such as the late delivery truck and where to stop actors’ car etc. Usually the producer’s pressure will be relatively heavier. They do need special skills. They need to be able to bear the “abuse” and unfriendly actions from other people, and in the meantime to finish the filmmaking successfully.
Producer’s job is to discover talented creators, and then integrate all the resources they can have, so that each person can do their best. One part of their responsibility is to sit down with the director and to understand the idea of the director at the beginning of a project. If funds are not sufficient, they need to make a decision about whether or not to do this project at the very beginning.
Reasons that cause bad films could be various. The biggest one is that all the members are very smart and talented, no matter investors or the director, but their understanding and ideas of the film are different. Their imagination of the future completed film is also not the same. So the producer’s primary job is to communicate with everyone, and to make sure all of them want a same film. It sounds very simple, but in fact it is very hard, because most filmmakers are driven by their dreams. And everybody’s dreams vary widely. As a producer, one of his important duties is to test and understand that whether everyone’s understanding and imagination are the same, and whether these people can collaborate to make a good film.
Now the situation is changing in the United States. It is not a fully producer-oriented system, but rather “large studio-oriented system.” Large studios promote many projects. The studios are referring to large production companies. Afterwards, I also set up a production company. I found that many producers just handed it over to production companies when they almost fixed the project staffs. Many things that handled by producers before now are forwarded to the production companies. Now the best American producers almost all move to the independent film industry. It is interesting that within the director-oriented system, best producers are still gathering together, because best producers always want to cooperate with the best directors.
Perfect film mode does not exist
Screenwriters would like to have lectures or write some theory books. It is helpful to many people who want to work in the film industry. Many people would read these books when they began to write script. What I really want to say is, reading these books will waste your time. A relatively common point of these books is that they present a perfect film mode. As I said earlier, it is impossible to make good films if you just follow every thing they say. If a good work is to be made by following the rules, then I don’t need to do anything today. A great benefit of these books is rhey give you a kind of technical language, so that you can get yourself out from your love to the film and your passion to the core concept of the film.
I think everyone has his or her own favorite films. I believe most people truly love their favorite films. The issue is that it is always not enough for you self to feel this film is very good, you are also thinking to convince your friends that the film is very good too. Kant has a very deep understanding on it. He knows that we would be upset when we find a beautiful thing, but other people do not understand our ideas and even against our ideas. It is hard to accept and we will feel that the others are abnormal. A very insightful view of Kant and other philosophers is that the art is a very beautiful experience only if you treat it as a totally real and believable thing to experience. Everyone has their own favorite things in life, but people must also get along with other people, and other people probably cannot understand your love to these things forever.
Emotional touch is the core
As a producer, generally he or she associates with the cost of film and the audience. But it is not always the case. As an independent film producer, he or she is often difficult to find investors that want to pay for the entire film. They need to find agents to sell the production at first, and then to do pre-sale in some regions. When the pre-sale reaches certain amount, they know the cost is controllable and they can find investors to pay the rest. Sometimes you can get a pure financial investment, but for most of the time, you need multi-ways to realize the goal.
Producer’s job is not to flatter the audience. The audience generally doesn’t realize what they really want to see. So you can give them their favorites. Now we all like to watch a series of films. In fact, a series of films can be made by stylized a film into several parts. For example, when audiences watch Mission Impossible 4, they felt very excited. At the very exciting moment, will the audiences really worry about Tom Cruise would die? While the audience knew he would not die, they were still very nervous. So the key issue is the emotion. If a story can touch your emotion, it is already a very important step that the story makes. Sometimes details can truly reflect the original.