Behind the Making of Indignation’s Thrilling, 18-Minute Argument Scene

Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa/Roadside Attractions

When the Oscar-nominated producer and screenwriter James Schamus decided to make his directorial debut, he set the bar high by choosing to adapt Indignation (which opens in New York and Los Angeles today), one of the fruits of Philip Roth’s late-life burst of productivity. But as he set about writing the screenplay, he kept writing a behemoth of a scene in the heart of each draft, a confrontation between the protagonist, Marcus, and the dean of his college, Caldwell, in which they had it out over the existence of God (among other, more practical things). This scene took place all in one room, with just those two characters, featuring nothing more than conversation — and put to film, it would take up 20 minutes of screen time.

The problem, of course, is that movies in 2016 don’t have scenes that hinge on 20-minute theological conversations. Some directors can get away with it; their names are Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. For everyone else, this is the kind of artistic decision that freaks out the folks writing the checks, and if you freak out the folks writing the checks, you don’t have a movie.

“When I first read the book and decided to embark on adapting it, and even as I was writing this first draft, I didn’t fully clock what the hell I was getting into,"  Schamus told me. "I thought, later on I’ll figure out how to condense it, because obviously that will never survive the first read of anybody who might ever be interested in investing. It wasn't until I said this is the draft that it registered with me."

Watching the resulting, 18-minute-long scene — just barely under the written length — is an incredible experience. Over the course of the encounter, 24-year-old Logan Lerman, playing one of Roth's quintessential Jewish intellectuals, and 51-year-old Tracy Letts, playing a taciturn All-American administrator, steadily escalate the pressure, until an explosion seems, and then becomes, inevitable. Demonstrating a deft knack for both visual and narrative storytelling, Schamus proves himself an agile, ambitious director. For reference, here's an exclusive clip provided to Vulture that takes place within the scene:

Vulture called up Schamus and Lerman to discuss the scene’s cinematic complexity, the care that went into making it work, and how sometimes, directing is about shutting the fuck up.   

These conversations, which have been condensed and edited, were conducted separately.

"I didn’t know that I could do it."

Logan Lerman: When I first read the script, oh man, I was going nuts. I’d been taking a lot of time to try to find the right next step for me and really try to figure out who I am. I wasn’t excited about anything else I was reading at the time, and even still, there’s not a lot going on in the commercial studio machine that was or is exciting to me. This was one of those gems in the indie realm that popped up out of nowhere and just grabbed me. 

James Schamus: Logan is almost the platonic ideal for this role, and the minute he read the script and said he'd like to meet me, I was on a plane to L.A. We ended up talking for hours and hours, and I walked away thinking, “I’m so lucky.” We didn’t have the funding at that point — he signed up before we had a movie.

LL: I was flooded with certainty that this was the next one, and then 15 minutes later I was flooded with anxiety. I didn’t know that I could do it, I didn’t know if I was good enough to do it justice or if I could understand the material well enough to perform this. I guess those fears were fuel.

JS: I got resistance to the whole thing — that’s why I was only able to shoot for 24 days. The vast majority of people on whose desk this script landed made the rational choice of steering far clear, but we had just enough financing to get us into production.

"I made a very conscious decision to take Logan and Tracy completely for granted."

LL: Usually bold choices are defined by camera movements and specialty shots and visual decisions. In this scene James made a bold choice to not do that, to instead keep the camera very still and just let us play within the frame. That gave us as actors more of a responsibility to captivate the audience, and it also allowed the dialogue and what we were saying to be the center of focus.

JS: The camera barely moves, but you’ll notice, there’s a fairly extensive shot list that we employed. I realized that if we tried to shoot the standard Hollywood coverage and then piece it together in post, it would be flabby. The scene had to have an inner logic and internal narrative, in both video and audio, that could sustain what we were trying to do. So for everything from camera angles to who’s in front of the frame, there is specific choreography. It’s actually a very physical scene — there’s probably more touching in that scene than any other scene in the movie. So even though it’s fun to describe the scene as two guys talking about God, I spent many sleepless nights getting the choreography down.

LL: I like to rehearse in a way where we just talk about the material to best understand it, and James and I had spent countless hours discussing each word, each intention, having debates about the film as a whole, but never really running through the dialogue. I might’ve run through the scene once in James's office with [co-star] Sarah [Gadon] playing Tracy’s part, and it was extremely awkward and I half-assed it for some reason, and James wasn’t terrified. Instead, he trusted me and respected my process, and by the time we ended up on set, it was a very comfortable environment. James gave me and Tracy a lot of respect and trust.

JS: I made a very conscious decision to take Logan and Tracy completely for granted. Like, “Ah, it’s a job, do your thing,” and not to let on that I knew how scary it was to them and how scared objectively I should’ve been. So I never made a big deal of it. But of all the scenes in the movie, this was the one where I had the most specific idea of the blocking. Which was also a little scary, because this was also my first time voicing this to somebody by the name of Tracy Letts — you don’t necessarily want to say, okay, stand on this line, look left, swallow twice, walk here. You want these actors to feel as if they’re free to be who they are, their characters.

LL: I had an incredible advantage over Tracy — I had months with this script, I was a part of all the decision-making and casting and figuring it out, putting it together with James and [producer] Anthony [Bregman]. Tracy signed on a couple weeks before shooting it, and accepted the part without reading the script. Most of the actors we were interested in and explored were terrified of that scene. I don’t think they wanted the challenge. So Tracy and I didn’t get to spend any time together — we had one day before shooting that scene where we had a quote-unquote rehearsal where we really just ate noodles and talked about life. Then we walked into that office the next day like two prizefighters, focused on our technique and got into the moment, and went to battle.

"It’s much worse than theater."

JS: I love to talk, and, as a director, I made a pact with myself for that day and pretty much every day of shooting: I would shut the fuck up. And when you're a director watching an 18-minute scene unfold, you can come up with a lot of notes, let me tell you. There’s a lot you can talk about. But I made the decision to never give them more than one direction at a time between takes, and often to give them the smallest direction that I could, because I knew that great actors, they’re going to try different things based on that suggestion.

LL: We only had a day to shoot it. You can compare it to theater because we didn’t take the easy route, which would be to chop it up and choose cutting points and say "let’s take it in chunks." We would shoot each take from beginning to end. We’d start by entering the office and go all the way through to the end each time.

JS: It’s much worse than theater, because in theater, you only say the line once that night. Nobody’s saying, after act one, scene three, “Hey, can we just do that scene again?” With this, you’re doing a short play and then redoing it and redoing it and redoing it and redoing it. We’d do take after take after take, 18-minute takes, cut, let’s go again. The crew could not believe it. We recorded over a terabyte of data.

LL: Most of our decisions as humans are guided by fear — doing what we think we have to do for longevity or for security. The story of this movie all starts with James leaving Focus and deciding to adapt this story. He had no fear, and he wasn’t pursuing directing like a career. It wasn’t like most filmmakers where they’re like, "I need my first film to be successful; therefore I can’t have a 20-minute scene in the middle of the movie. I need to play it safe and try to have a film or make a film that I think will be successful rather than interesting or creatively pure." James had nothing to lose.