Film

How the Stars and Director of ‘Indignation’ Honored the Novel’s Splenetic Centerpiece

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The damnedest thing happened halfway through a Sundance screening of James Schamus’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation: The audience burst into applause. That’s not unheard of at festivals, but it’s usually reserved for climactic emotional crescendos. You rarely find it happening in the middle of a movie, let alone after a dialogue scene of two people sitting in a room. But this was a dense, fast, whip-smart fifteen-minute back-and-forth between the film’s petulant young protagonist, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), and fictional Winesburg College’s straight-arrow Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). The exchange is confrontational, even agonizing. But I started giggling halfway through; it’s a joy to watch the actors and their director sustain such cerebral tension.

It’s a bold decision to put so much talk in the middle of any mainstream movie, especially an otherwise well-proportioned period drama like Indignation. But for Schamus, it wasn’t really a choice at all. The scene is faithful to Roth’s book, in which it unfolds over forty-one excruciating, thrilling pages. “Sometimes, when you’re writing and you’re in a flow, you just go with it,” the writer-director says. “And at one point, I looked and said, ‘Holy shit! Did I just write that?’ ” As Schamus continued to work on new drafts, the scene — all eighteen script-pages — remained intact. No producer or financier ever complained, despite the fact that most movies rarely have scenes longer than three or four minutes. “I’ve heard all those warnings about how you have to cut out after three pages,” says co-star Letts, himself an accomplished screenwriter and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (Killer Joe; August, Osage County). “That goes back to the earliest screenwriting guides, and it’s nonsense.”

In Indignation, the tightly wound, precocious Marcus, an atheist from a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey, doesn’t quite fit in to bucolic, patrician Winesburg. His neuroses worsen when he falls into a complicated relationship with the elegant Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). In the key scene, Dean Caudwell calls Marcus to his office to inquire about the student’s decision to change dorms. The conversation quickly grows contentious — going from an argument over the loaded nature of the term “kosher butcher” to the importance of using precise words to Marcus’s thoughts on Bertrand Russell to whether he’s ever been on any dates (a sore point, given his complicated romance with Olivia) and finally to baseball. Oh, and it all ends with Marcus vomiting and collapsing to the floor, the victim of a burst appendix that’s caused him increasing pain as each minute has passed.

The rat-a-tat delivery isn’t naturalistic in the least. Letts calls it “stylistically elevated — everything seems to have a little bit of a curlicue on the end of it.” For Schamus, this is true to the way people would have behaved at the time: “In the late Forties or early Fifties, these two men would have reached for that kind of performative gesture to make a connection with each other. These things were very normal — the same way we perform today with social media, or even the way we physically move around each other.

There’s something structurally fascinating happening, too, and here we must get into some spoiler territory. In Roth’s novel, Marcus’s first-person narration reveals to us early on that he is relating the tale from the grave — that he died in the Korean War. This transforms the story, giving each action a grave, fatalistic quality. The film, however, withholds this revelation until immediately following the confrontation: After Marcus’s appendix is removed, we see him recuperating in a hospital; that’s when he tells us in voiceover that he has been dead for some time. “It’s downplayed because you don’t have the page in front of you,” the director insists, “but if you look onscreen, it’s pretty explicit. He says, ‘I’m dead.’ ” (Not for nothing does Schamus also include at this point a sly visual nod to Ordet, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1955 masterpiece on faith and mortality.) At the same time, however, seeing Marcus in a hospital bed, we might accept the idea of his being “dead” as a largely metaphorical one. Purists of the novel may find the coy uncertainty of this moment troubling, as if the filmmaker found it too hard to reveal early on that his story is being told by a dead man.

No matter. If the film doesn’t have Roth’s sense of cosmic determinism, it makes up for it by the scene’s sheer structural audacity, which transforms the movie from precise and immaculate to something terrifying, unpredictable, and alive. “There are all these unspoken things happening in this scene,” Schamus says. “Marcus Messner is dying. He’s being killed, literally and figuratively.” Not just because of the appendicitis, but also because the ongoing dispute with the dean will ultimately lead to the young man’s expulsion from school and eventual deployment to Korea.

“I knew two things,” he says. “If the scene didn’t work, the film was dead. And if I was going to survive as a first-time director, I had to pretend that it was not that big a deal, especially with the actors.” Shooting it would take a lot out of both performers, so Schamus made a point of not rehearsing too much, instead opting just to film the whole thing beginning to end, as many times as possible, to get it right. He did, however, encourage his actors to think and talk about it beforehand. Lerman says he was both excited and “terrified” by its length, and he recalls that he “spent countless hours trying to understand just what I was arguing. I wanted to know the material well enough so that I could play with Tracy, trying to find the most interesting version of this conversation. We discussed and debated every line, every inflection, but we didn’t really say the words aloud or run through it.” He also adds that Schamus showed none of his own anxieties about the scene. “We all hid our anxiety really well, but it starts at the top. If James was nervous, I’d have been nervous.”

Schamus gave his young actor a rather odd bit of advice, telling him which utterance he should speak with the greatest passion: “Bertrand Russell.” The Nobel Prize–winning mathematician and philosopher, whose 1927 essay “Why I Am Not a Christian” was enormously influential for decades, serves as an idol for Marcus — a symbol of his pride and righteous anger at the dean, who represents to him an authoritarian establishment. When Marcus first mentions Russell to Caudwell, he does so with the satisfaction of an intellectual heavyweight dropping truth on a clueless opponent; later, when his adversary makes it clear that he knows exactly who Bertrand Russell is, it’s as if the ground has opened up beneath our young hero.

Meanwhile, Dean Caudwell’s smug piety makes for a great nemesis, but “he doesn’t say anything that isn’t true,” Letts notes. “At the time this is set, the role of educators in college was different than it is now. He sees his job as giving guidance to young lives.” Schamus adds: “I loved watching Tracy do this, because you realize at the end of the scene that there is a paternal abjection to his performance. He comes around from behind the desk, puts his hand on Marcus, and leans in. He can’t help it; he’s talking about baseball, trying to get down to the kid’s level.”

Stylistically, the scene isn’t flashy, but it does transform in subtle ways. Caudwell starts off sitting confidently at his desk, always centered in the frame. As the balance of power shifts, and the conversation gets more heated, the two become visual equals, with Schamus cutting to over-the-shoulder shots, then getting closer and closer. “I had a deeply thought out architectural pattern to the scene,” says the director. “You can’t just go into something like this and say, ‘We’ll cover it, we’ll do a master and then we’ll figure it out in post…’ I tried to have everything worked out in advance: from high angle to low angle, to which character is centered, and who’s off, and when we move in.” Still, the filmmaker says he resisted the urge to provide too much direction during the actual shooting. “It was going to be so brutal for the actors, so I tried not to give more than one note after each eighteen-minute take.” Instead, he tried to find small elements — “fulcrum points,” he calls them — that might alter a tone or a performance: for example, when Marcus should begin to show physical discomfort, or where he should place a pitcher of water after drinking from it. 

Ironically, the result wound up being one of the shortest days on the shoot — just nine straight hours of Letts and Lerman running through it, more than a terabyte’s worth of footage shot in one day. The actors say they’ve rarely felt more wiped out. “This work involves a kind of concentration you’re just not used to giving in ordinary life,” says Letts (who knows a thing or two about intense dialogue scenes, having won a Tony for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). “The power it takes to work your brain in that way is really taxing. I was pretty relieved when I looked over at Logan at the end of the day. He said, ‘I’m exhausted.’ And I thought, ‘Good!’ ”

Viewing it, I was exhausted, too. We enter the scene watching a “respectable” period piece. We emerge from it into a cinematic experience that’s been radically altered. My palms were covered in sweat even before I started applauding wildly.

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