James Schamus

James Schamus: Screenwriters' Lecture

Take a journey into the weird and wonderful mind of James Schamus, the screenwriter behind films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm and Hulk

If you’ve landed on this page hoping that by listening to James Schamus’ lecture you’re going to glean some insights into the process of screenwriting then you might be disappointed. If however you’re in the mood for a journey into the very heart of screenwriting, taking you from German Enlightenment to the present day then prepare to be educated.

For his lecture, as part of the BAFTA and BFI’s annual series, Schamus delved into some of the most fundamental questions about screenwriting and screenwriters. Are screenwriters artists? Is screenwriting art? And actually, while we’re at it – what is art anyway? Part lecture, part philosophical musing into the history of film, cinema and its relationship with money and time this podcast will take you into the brilliant and sometimes overwhelming mind of James Schamus, the screenwriter and producer who brought us film such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), The Ice Storm (1997) and Lust, Caution (2007).

Extract from lecture: 

"So for example, here’s how [Immanuel Kant] might have described art if he were not as smart as he was but just like me and talking to you. So for example, here’s a pen, and if I do this [drops pen], it falls on the ground, because why? It is an object in the world that is subject to natural laws. It is subsumed by universal laws. It’s merely an example of a certain kind of matter, and anything like it, anything that shares the same properties is going to have the same response when it’s thrown up, it’s going to fall down. It is subject to that universal law. What Kant says about art is, art’s kind of weird because it’s a thing that exists in the world that’s bizarrely in some ways not subject to universal laws. Great art actually is a thing that there are no rules or regulations that you can a priori, that is to say beforehand, say, oh, if you just check off this list of rules and regulations that you find on page 103 of Sid Field’s screenplay writing manual, you will have written a great screenplay or created a great film.

And what he says is, it’s bizarre but we create things that we adjudicate, we judge as great, and profoundly great, but we don’t have the adequate language to subsume them under concepts of universal laws. That action right there is subsumable under universal laws. It will always hold. It’s always subject to those laws and therefore it’s not free, it’s beholden to those laws, it’s just an example. But art is the product of some kind of freedom that actually creates its own rules, and I’m not kidding you when I say Immanuel Kant creates rock and roll. He creates the idea of the genius. What’s a genius? A genius is somebody who does something that is not explainable by rules and regulations. You go to art school, you go to film school, you learn how to do it. ‘I did exactly what they told me. Why is my movie so bad?’ But rather the genius is that person who creates an object that by its example sets the rules. It is exemplary. It is not subsumed under the universal."

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