An interesting interview with James Schamus about his work with Ang Lee on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Date: Fri, 04 May 2001 14:21:21 +0100
Subject: Fwd: Crouching Tiger Stuff
Crouching Writer, Hidden Story James Schamus thrives where East meets West.
Written by Marsha Scarbrough
In 1990 a fledgling filmmaker from Taiwan asked New Yorker James Schamus to produce a no-budget film about an old Tai Chi master. Part of Schamus’ contribution to Pushing Hands was to “nip and tuck” the screenplay and write some additional scenes. Ang Lee was impressed and asked Schamus to co-write his next film, The Wedding Banquet.
Since then Schamus has worked as writer, producer, or both on every Ang Lee film. He was co-writer and associate producer on Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and co-producer on Sense & Sensibility. He produced The Ice Storm and wrote the screenplay adaptation from the novel by Rick Moody, which was nominated for the 1998 Writers Guild Award. Next, he co-produced Ride With the Devil, writing the screenplay adapted from the Daniel Woodrell novel Woe to Live On.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon marks the culmination of the happy collaboration between Schamus and Lee. Schamus served as co-producer of the acclaimed martial arts epic and shares screenplay credit with Tsai Kuo Jung and Wang Hui Ling, two Mandarin-speaking writers who live in Taiwan.
In addition to his work with Lee, Schamus produces other independent films with his partner, Ted Hope, through their New York production company, Good Machine. Schamus’ executive producer credits include Happiness, Safe and Poison, The Myth of Fingerprints, Wonderland, and The Brothers McMullen. As if he’s not busy enough, Schamus is associate professor of film theory, history, and criticism at Columbia University, where he has taught for a decade. He was also the 1997 Nuveen Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. He serves on the board of directors of the Foundation for Independe nt Video and Film as well as on the board of Creative Capital.
Schamus somehow made time to talk to me by phone from the Good Machine offices in New York. (Please note: Our conversations reveal the ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so if you haven’t seen the film, do so before reading further.)
Marsha Scarbrough: Describe the development of the script for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
James Schamus: The script is based on a five-volume novel written in Chinese
[by Wang Du Lu, b. 1909, d. 1977], and I don’t read Chinese, so it could
well have been written on a napkin from my initial point of view. The novel
was brought to Ang’s attention by Tsai Kuo Jung, a really interesting writer
in Taiwan who is mainly a journalist and cultural commentator. He had a
first crack at–I wouldn’t necessarily call it a first draft–more of a
sketch of some ideas for the script. Then Ang, working with a story editor
here in New York, worked out an English-language précis of those parts of
the novel, particularly the fourth volume that he was most interested in.
> From that précis, I crafted a financing production first draft that, in terms of structure, is essentially the movie you see now. But in terms of the Chinese cultural context of the film, it was woefully idiotic. At that point, the script was translated into Mandarin and given to Wang Hui Ling, who is a Taiwanese television writer we’d worked with before on Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. She worked with Ang and wove into the film a great deal of what’s most meaningful about it. At that point, it was translated back into English and, for the next four or five months all the way through pre-production and into production, I was back and forth to China writing, rewriting, rewritin g, rewriting. All the way to the subtitles, which then I rewrote again.
MS: So the language difference was handled by a translator who translated
the script back and forth?
JS: There were a number of them who fell by the wayside. For a while, it
was like simultaneously translating a World Wrestling Federation match, we were moving so quickly. It’s very difficult because I was writing in a very American way. Although when I went to the dialogue, I told Ang, “I’m going to write this in the International Subtitle Style.” I wanted to make sure that when we went back to the subtitles that the feedback would give us language that was understandable and would flow in the subtitled environment . But that language rendered in Chinese is much more complex. Ang insisted on a very classical and poetic form of Mandarin Chinese for the dialogue, so the translation back from Chinese into English often came out looking like a garbled computer virus readout of what I had originally written because, in fact, it was going into language that was very, very subtle. We were constantly bridging east and west, the different imperatives of, on one hand, a very nuanced language and dialogue, and on the other hand a very straightforward, easily understandable and legible language and dialogue.
MS: That’s an interesting cultural conflict expressed just in the language
itself. English only has 26 characters, so the way we express ourselves is direct and clear while Chinese has some 2,000 characters in common use.
JS: Two-thousand characters is just the number that you need to become even
slightly familiar with the language. It has scores of thousands of characters, many of which have histories that go back almost 5,000 years. Within those characters, references and cross references can be made based on the look of the character as well as the sound of the character. So you have enormous resonances available to you in Chinese that simply aren’t available in phonetic languages like English, which is relatively simple.
MS: And you have levels of subtlety…
We were constantly bridging east and west, the different imperatives of, on one hand, a very nuanced language and dialogue, and on the other hand a very straightforward, easily understandable and legible language and dialogue .
JS: Absolutely. So it was really fun. As I said to Ang, “This is a wonderfully
educational experience for me, although it’s a very painful experience for you.” What Ang kept saying was, “If I can get James to understand this, then any idiot in the theater will be able to.” Even as a writer, I was a guinea pig audience member for this film.
MS: Your identification of the writing of the subtitles as being a critical
element was very astute. I was just a juror at a little film festival, and it made me very aware of how bad subtitles can totally ruin a movie.
JS: Exactly. It’s a long tradition.
MS: A long tradition of bad subtitles?
JS: Especially for Hong Kong martial arts films. As we see on the Internet,
they are constantly posting these just insane subtitles from Hong Kong “chop socky” movies. Occasionally, it’s fun to lapse into that level of bombast. Things like, “Your fingers in my brains are giving me a headache!” Stuff like that. I don’t think we quite got there with Crouching Tiger.
MS: Is the novel contemporary or ancient?
JS: It was published before World War II.
MS: Was it a popular thing or a spiritual text?
JS: It was the Chinese equivalent of pulp fiction. It’s in a genre known
as the wuxia pian, a kind of martial arts romance genre. It was very popular at the time. It’s part of a very long tradition of popular fiction and, of course, movie making in that genre.
MS: Several of the films you’ve written require extensive knowledge of Chinese
culture. Did you have a hidden dragon? Did you have an interest in Chinese culture?
JS: I have a long-standing interest that’s really developed through a decade
of working with Ang. On the other hand, I am neither academically qualified nor temperamentally adjustable to make that leap into another culture where the language is so different. I come at it very much as an amateur. Luckily, obviously I have a great partner in dialogue with Ang. We feed off of each other continuously. He’s not somebody who stands over your shoulder while you’re writing, but he is somebody who makes enormous demands on just about everybody…in a very nice way, of course, because he is so sweet, but he certainly is demanding.
Chop Block Party
MS: Have you studied martial arts or Chinese philosophy?
JS: If you could see me now, you’d know I haven’t studied martial arts,
but I have studied Chinese philosophy in translation. It was a great experience to be able to integrate my reading in Chinese philosophy, particularly Taoism, into my work as a screenwriter for the international marketplace. I think there really are, if not influences, inspirations…particularly a Chinese philosopher named Chuang-Tzu who wrote a couple thousand years ago. He’s a deliciously funny philosopher, let’s put it that way, whose brand of Taoism really stressed a kind of transcendental absurdism. He’s an early existentialis
He was really at my side during a lot of this process, maybe not in terms of the actual writing of the script, but in experiencing the process of making the movie. You needed to be existential to get through it.
MS: Because of the vast gap in cultural attitudes?
JS: Mainly because of the logistical, financial and physical hurdles of
making the film on top of the writing of the screenplay. It was not an easy shoot.
MS: The combination of writer/producer is unusual in film, and you seem
to have a unique collaborative relationship with Ang as director. How did you develop that working style?
JS: Organically, through the filmmaking process. Early on we established
a relationship where we could work in an environment of real trust on story and on script.
MS: The key thing here is trust between the writer and director?
JS: I think it’s trust knowing that the outcome you both are seeking is
a common one.
MS: I find that writers often feel they’re in an adversarial position with
the director, but you don’t.
JS: That’s an easy place to get to in the studio development world just
because of the way these relationships are structured. Obviously, writer/produc er in film is an odd hybrid. In television, it’s not. Although in television, you tend to identify the writer/producer John Wells, Steven Bochco, David Kelley.
MS: Do you work with other directors besides Ang in that way?
JS: Not in this way. I take assignments. I have fun doing more studio-oriented
writing. In terms of learning craft, it’s a wonderful thing.
MS: How do you feel about the possessory credit: “An Ang Lee Film”?
JS: In the case of a very few directors who have achieved a level of mastery
and stature and who have control over the process from beginning to end, as Ang does, even though I am part of that process from the first step to the last with him, I don’t think it’s inappropriate. On the other hand, I think the wholesale handing out of possessory credits to directors, which is what is happening in Hollywood, is a ludicrous mistake.
Those Who Can and Do Teach
MS: How do you research Chinese culture?
JS: In my other life I’m a professor at Columbia University. Among the courses
I teach is a course on Hong Kong cinema that incorporates a large number of readings from the Chinese classical canon: Confucious through Lao Tzu. I have the students really pay attention, not just to the cinema, but also to the imbedded and ancient cultures that are often engaged by that cinema.
MS: In writing the fight scenes, how much detail did you go into, and did
you structure drama into those scenes?
JS: I structured drama up to those scenes, and then I had the masterstroke
of being able to describe each fight scene very economically. I used two words: “They fight.” There’s a reason for that. As a producer, I knew how
we were planning them anyhow, and I knew that Ang and our martial arts choreogr apher, Yuen Wo-Ping, are people who don’t need my help. It was great. It was a real luxury, in fact, not to have to do a punch-up of the script in terms of “action beats”. However, I did want to make sure that the fight sequences were written into the script in places where they would not simply contribute to the action but to the emotional logic of the story and the development of the characters. We paid a lot of attention to that. I think people have noticed that these action scenes are very different from most that they’ve seen.
MS: When I saw it with an older audience, they broke into applause after
the first fight scene.
JS: It’s great. Part of that is the fight scene and part of that is the
result of the carefully planned build-up that the film provides before that fight scene.
MS: Is there a metaphorical meaning to the sword?
JS: I’m sure there are many, some more Freudian than others. I’ve let that
level of abstract meaning find its own way out there. When it’s something that you yourself have written, you try not to make too many symbolic claims as to the elements you’re using. It’s your job to make them “work.” It’s other people’s job to figure out what they mean.
MS: You’ve written several films with female protagonists and/or strong
female characters. Are you a feminist?
JS: That’s a question you can ask my wife. Most of those characters are
probably not even as strong as she is. Put it this way, I’m married to somebody who can lay claim to being the basis for many of those characters.
MS: As a man, how do you go about creating strong female characters? Do
you write your wife over and over?
JS: Now I have two daughters, so I have a lot to choose from in terms of
MS: Any other thoughts on men writing strong female characters?
JS: Two. Men have written strong female characters throughout history…not
necessarily being feminist, by the way. Ibsen, non-feminist Strindberg–two guys writing a century ago who could be poles apart in some ways but honestly very fascinated with the creation of strong female characters. There’s a real history in Western culture… and Eastern culture… to these figures. I think people are responding very much in Crouching Tiger to the inclusion of a new approach to that kind of female psychology in this genre that was never there before.
MS: Did having female protagonists make it harder to get financing?
JS: No. I think the initial hurdle was still Chinese language.
MS: There seems to be a common theme in Crouching Tiger, Ice Storm, Sense
and Sensibility of women struggling to break free of their prescribed role in society.
JS: They take a center stage as emblems of what is a shared struggle across
gender lines. It’s the question of the individual trying to find a place for his or her freedom within a social order that is obviously trying to bear down on those desires.
MS: That’s in Ride With the Devil, too.
JS: You bet. Ang still has that as the crux of his work. It’s always an
exploration of, on the one hand, the desire for freedom and, on the other hand, a sense of obligation and connection to other people. Somehow we must maintain a balance between freedom and obligation.
MS: That’s the tension between American culture and Asian culture?
JS: It is and it isn’t. We Americans are often surprised at how traditionalist
and constrained we really are. We love to believe that we are the freest people on earth. In many ways, the marketplace, the radical nature of capitalis m makes that, in a very large sense, true. However, it doesn’t mean that we have freed ourselves of the laws of historical or emotional gravity. I think that was what Ice Storm was about: the sense that here’s freedom. Here’s all the freedom you want, and by the way, little did you know, you still needed some kind of connection. You just didn’t know what it was.
MS: It seemed to me that Crouching Tiger ultimately champions compassion
and decency over martial strength.
JS: That’s right.
MS: I think that’s different than other martial arts genre movies. It redefines
power as personal empowerment.
JS: That’s exactly right. As chi, in fact. As energy. As an inner energy.
MS: When Zhang Ziyi makes the leap of faith at the end, where does she go?
JS: She’s obviously going into the sequel. [We laugh.] I’m happy to say
I don’t know. Again, this was an area that was quite scary because, for western audiences, open endings, or so-called ambiguous endings, can often be real turn-offs. At the same time, what I said to Ang was that I wanted an ending to this movie that was “narratively open but emotionally satisfying.”
MS: The teacher relationship was a very important relationship that was
JS: You just picked up on something that dominated the response to the film
in the East. In Asia they understood that to be almost a revolutionary gesture in terms of the genre. The interjection of the female student and the male master… that relationship and how she, in a way, was teaching him some things too… and his desire to teach her… all that stuff was quite revolutio nary.
MS: Were you surprised that it’s doing so well?
JS: I had hoped for it to have this kind of success. I don’t want to sound
jaded at not being surprised, but, of course, the magnitude of it is something that we should just be cognizant of and respectful of and grateful for. We’re just pleased, especially after having had Ride With the Devil get slaughtered in the studio politics of the time. It’s a great thing to have an absolute disaster under your belt.
MS: It wasn’t a creative disaster. It was a marketing disaster.
JS: It was a disaster way before they thought about marketing it. But it
shores you up for the vagaries of this business and puts the successes in perspective. The main thing for us is always, “Will they let us make another one?” That’s how we define success or failure.