From Poet to PA

James Schamus was once the most overqualified PA. Now he's producing the greatest films in the world.

Screenwriter James Schamus has always been polymorphous in
his tastes. Raised in Los Angeles, he grew up watching scads of movies
— everything from tent-pole blockbusters to the silent films that
aired on public television — but also had literary pretensions.
He went to Hollywood High School (a place he compares to “Times Square
when Martin Scorsese was filming Taxi“), majored in English at
UC Berkeley, and honed his managerial and production skills by putting
on events for the Berkeley Poetry Review. Schamus earned his MA
from Berkeley in 1987 and had no clear career aspirations. He loved
film, he loved classical literature, and he was immersed in the
literary theory scene of the ’80s. He could have easily stayed in the
Ivory Tower. Instead, Schamus moved to New York and took a job as a
production assistant. Overnight, he transformed himself from a
scholarly Berkeley Ph.D candidate to the guy who yells “cut” on a film
set and picks up everyone’s lunch.

It seemed like a weird career choice for someone on the academic
track, and would have meant personal failure for anyone but Schamus,
who is good at everything he does. Over the next two decades he would
write and produce some of the best films of all time, including The
Ice Storm
, Brokeback Mountain, and Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon
. He is now the CEO of Focus Features, the art-house
arm of Universal Pictures. He divides his time between that and
teaching at Columbia University.

What distinguishes Schamus from his peers, both in film and
academia, is how well he’s managed to straddle that line. Schamus was
already well-immersed in the film world by the time he got his
doctorate in 2003 (“I had to give a commencement address at Berkeley
and it was too embarrassing to do that without a degree,” he said), but
he’d always been somewhat of a public intellectual. Right now he
teaches two film classes with a rather theory-heavy approach. His fall
2008 graduate seminar, on the relationship of image to narrative,
included works by Plato, Kant, and Alberti on its syllabus. But even in
his ethereal academic realm, Schamus maintains a healthy sense of irony
about applying theory to the real world. His forthcoming essay, “My
Wife Is a Terrorist,” talks about how he analyzed his wife’s FBI file
using homodiegetic narrative techniques (Schamus’ wife runs the
anti-war organization CODEPINK). “It was pages of blacked-out stuff,”
Schamus said. He had fun with the narrative portion.

On Monday, Mar. 16, Schamus will appear at UC Berkeley’s
Zellerbach Hall with his frequent collaborator, film director
Ang Lee. The two will discuss their forthcoming film Taking
, which stars comedian Demetri Martin. 8 p.m., $16-$30.

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