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Lust, Caution - James Schamus interview

James Schamus co-wrote and produced Lust, Caution

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JAMES Schamus, the co-writer and executive producer of Lust, Caution, talks about working with Ang Lee and adapting the sexually explicit short story by Eileen Chang into an epic film.

Tell us about Eileen Chang, upon whose short story the film is based?
James Schamus: I’m a not a Chinese speaker, so I worked through the short story very carefully in translation. She came from royalty – her grandfather was of one of the greatest Chinese admirals – and she had a grasp of the classical Chinese language that was unheard of for a woman of that time. I worked with Ang [Lee] for hours on the translation and it was an incredible experience. I really think she’s at the Jane Austen level, except with S&M, sex and violence.

Why did the story suggest screen treatment, and how did you go about turning a short story into an epic film?
James Schamus: Ang was obsessed by her and the story, as most Chinese readers are. She was banned in China for many years. She worked on the story for 30 years, kept revising it. There’s a lot of autobiography there – she was married to a collaborator in Shanghai. She herself is also obsessed with the cinema. She wrote screenplays and ended up marrying an American screenwriter, living her last decades in California. She passed away a recluse, living in a cold-water, walk-up flat in Hollywood. It’s a crazy story. A lot of her own emotional registers and self-presentation would have come out the intersection between Hollywood culture and Shanghai at that time when there was an incredible flowering of mainstream cinema in the city.

My co-writer Wang Hui Ling, who I’ve worked with on all Ang’s Chinese movies, is an expert on Eileen Chang. Ang and Ling worked very hard on getting the script very close to the narrative ellipses of the story. Ang was at first extremely nervous, because it’s like messing with Jane Austen. So, we really had to convince ourselves that Chinese audiences wouldn’t recoil in horror at the changes. But obviously they’ve embraced the film. Some of the changes are big, but they’re not radical. It’s not a radical re-imagining but it’s [still] a tough movie for Chinese culture. The film opens up a lot of raw wounds.

It’s very present stuff in terms of politics and sexual politics, the emotional, psychic, cultural stew. And yet it has broken every box office record. It’s like Titanic numbers. It’s doing bigger business than Pirates of the Caribbean. And it’s two and a half hours of sexual self-immolation. I think it’s the most important film in the history of Chinese cinema. But Ang was convinced people were going to kill him. When we were doing the director’s cut, Ang showed it to some very important Chinese critics and scholars, and they were like, no problem.

Can you give us an example of an alteration made?
James Schamus: The end of the first act, which is the killing of Tsao, is a complete fabrication. It doesn’t happen in the short story; in the story, the chapter just kind of fizzles out. It’s not particularly cinematic. So that’s pretty big. But I really felt we needed to close the Hong Kong chapter. The original idea was to stage the Japanese bombing of Hong Kong, but that’s a lot of money for something that’s not part of our personal narrative.

Has censorship been an issue regarding this film?
James Schamus: It’s a continuing story, really. One is that we got slapped with the NC-17 in the States, and there’s a stigma attached to that rating. We didn’t fight it, because it’s an adult movie. In the past, a small number of movies have embraced the NC-17, but they’ve been very masculine movies: “It’s a triple X, ha, ha, ha!” It’s a Showgirls kind of thing. But someone said to me the other week: “You’ve made the first NC-17 for women.” I could say that the stigma surrounding that certificate is starting to wane, but probably the jury’s out. The irony is the newspapers will run adds for Saw 2, a film where you literally rip the breast off a woman. But sorry, we’re not touching your shit. Still, we have very good grosses in the States, but we’re staying very much in the art-house zone now. But this has been a disastrous fall for movies, especially grown up movies.

So, why the graphic sex scenes?
James Schamus: Eileen Chang is just now starting to come back into good English translation. Her work obsessively circles around the power and complete abjection of female sexuality in a culture that is dominated by mail systems of control. Her books are about how females trade in that and use their sexuality to free themselves from it. They’re very disturbing stories, and Ang thought you had to translate that into images and see where that takes you. So, you’re creating the space for quite graphic representations of sexuality, but you’re also not using the protocols of porn or standard representations of sex from mainstream movies.

Most sex scenes in Hollywood movies are so boring. It’s basically a $20 million guy kissing a $7 million woman, and rolling around and semi-humping. It’s embarrassing. So Ang did a lot of studying in pre-production, trying to work out exactly where he was going to go with this stuff, and part of that process was working with the actors.

Does it help being both writer and producer when dealing with this issue?
James Schamus: Yes and no. I wrote the stuff the way I wrote the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger: “They fight.” This was a little bit different, because I was a bit more specific in terms of narrative. But it was that old chestnut: “I won’t do full frontal nudity unless it’s in the service of the narrative.” And I think the scenes really do tell a story. What I think is really shocking is the faces – the acting is insanely good. The first scene is an assault. The second is an interrogation. And the third she takes over, gets on top and controls the action. And in the final scene they don’t have sex. So you have to follow the psychology.

How long did you have to search to find your lead actress?
James Schamus: They actually went through 10,000 headshot applications. Ang came close to casting the film twice, but the actresses were too contemporary. I had a fantasy that we were going to find somebody who looked like they’d just walked out of one of those Shanghai soap adds from the ‘30s. So, they kept going and it got kind of hairy, because the shooting schedule was locked in and Tony [Leung] had dates set to make another movie. And Tang Wei had never done a movie. She’s done some TV. She went to film school to study directing. We never told anyone in China what the film was and who the director was. So a friend of hers told her about the audition, and she rode up on a bicycle and we did her hair and make-up and Ang went through five sessions with her and then decided she was the one. She just had it.

In a way it mirrors the movie. It’s weird taking someone who’s never been in a movie before and saying: “Here, work with one of the greatest living actors in the world.” But they got on really well. And I can tell you in almost every rom-com made, the male and female leads will hate each other by the end of the film [laughs]. So, the producer’s advice is always: “Shoot the sex scenes early, while the male star still thinks everyone’s going to fall in love with him.” If you try to shoot the love scenes at the end of the film, while they’re chewing gum and looking at each other and saying, “no tongues”… This was completely different. On a very closed set we shot those scenes in the middle. It was horrific actually – there was 157 hours of shooting those sex scenes. They were all ready to collapse at the end. But Tony was very nice, and so I think Tang felt comfortable. And she’s a ferocious actor.

How pleasing was the Venice win? And I read somewhere the film can’t be put forward for an Oscar?
James Schamus: The Taiwanese did put it forward for an Oscar. There was such outrage this week, because Ang’s a Taiwanese director, and it’s his right to choose the crew he needs to make this movie. The Venice things was insane, because we believed it was impossible for a film like this to win, given that he’d won with Brokeback Mountain and given that Zhang Yimou on the jury did not want to be perceived as being favourable. But the jury, all directors this year because of the anniversary, voted unanimously for the movie in the first five minutes of what turned out to be a 12-hour deliberation.

b>Read our interview with Tony Leung