For the early part of my life, I was almost exclusively interested in sports (basketball in particular). I wanted to play professional basketball, and I really couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. My love of the game never quite recovered after viewing Hoop Dreams near the end of eighth grade. It exposed something fundamentally flawed about organized athletics. I still tried out halfheartedly for the high school basketball team, but when I didn’t make the cut, I never looked back. My obsession switched almost overnight from sports to films. I wound up, coincidentally, studying film at Southern Illinois University, where Steve James had studied almost two decades before. The school hadn’t changed much, and I had many of the same classes and professors that he did. I have gotten to know Steve over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever told him that he might be responsible for leading me from sports to films.
By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One
I was exposed to Brakhage’s films during college, and like most cocky film students who want to make narrative work, I thought it was bullshit. I wanted to make real movies, and I had no idea what this stuff was—it seemed like anyone could just fuck around with a strip of film and some paint and point the camera at different shiny things and make a movie. What was the point? And what could anyone possibly see in the work? Those questions are still worth asking, but I’m asking them with an open mind now, and it’s thanks to filmmakers like Brakhage, who were brave enough to experiment. I don’t love all the work, but I love exploring it.
The Red Shoes
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
I was also introduced to Michael Powell’s work during film school, and this one particularly blew my mind. I love when all the kids rush into the theater at the beginning to get good seats in the balcony. A title comes on-screen that reads, “45 minutes later,” but the shot never cuts or changes. From that point on, I knew I was in good hands. This film taught me that silent-film techniques could, and probably should, be employed in modern sound films. It has taken me several projects of my own to incorporate this lesson, but I’m getting there. I also love films about artists and the creative process.
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
For a period of time, I thought I might only make documentaries. Films like Gimme Shelter had a lot to do with this attitude. Why make narrative work when real life was so interesting? I loved the Maysles approach to filming; I loved the Rolling Stones during that period; I loved the controversy surrounding the film. It still kind of seems like the perfect movie. Anytime this is playing in the theater, I try to see it.
I spent the summer of 2002 in Los Angeles, interning for my uncle’s company. I rented a one-bedroom apartment with no furniture. Other than my inflatable mattress in the corner (which sprang a leak right away), it was just a big empty space. I had a suitcase, a guitar, and a laptop with me. I had no television and a superslow Internet connection, so watching DVDs on my laptop was my only source of entertainment. I happened to rent both of these films that summer, and they are still two of my favorites. The sloppiness and raw energy of The Harder They Come was so inspiring. Two-Lane Blacktop also had a great energy about it, but in a more deliberate, quiet way. Both films were convincing arguments for casting musicians as leads, regardless of their acting experience, which I have done several times and plan to continue doing. Most importantly, the films couldn’t be shaken. They crept into me and wouldn’t go away. My initial reaction to something is far less important to me than my feeling about it a month or a year later. These two are still with me.
I watched this film at a small theater in Paris, with an audience of mostly French people in their sixties. In that environment, it actually managed to resensitize me to cinema violence, something I assumed was impossible. Hearing the gasps from the audience allowed me to see the film as intended. These poor old French people were being assaulted by the film. It was rocking their world! When the lights came up, I was both upset by the film and delighted by the expressions on the faces around me. We were all just looking at each other in silence. After that, I better understood the power of a collective cinema experience.
À nos amours
After film school, I moved to Chicago. The first thing I did when I arrived in town was get a membership at Facets, the legendary video store and cinematheque. My membership allowed me to see everything that showed at the cinema. About two years later, when they put on a Pialat retrospective, I took full advantage of the membership. I had already made a few small relationship movies, and the descriptions of the films seemed right up my alley. As with most of my favorite films, I had a negative initial reaction to a lot of what I saw. The characters were abrasive, and all seemed to be stuck in never-ending destructive cycles. There were unexplained jumps in time, and I often felt disoriented. I came away from the series with a mixed reaction. Now, years later, it’s easy for me to recognize the impact the films had on me because I can see it in my work. No other filmmaker has had such a direct and visible influence on me, and I didn’t even realize it as it was happening.
The Double Life of Véronique
In January 2007, after a particularly difficult shoot (both physically and emotionally), I found myself back in Chicago with some time on my hands. I didn’t want to edit, because I didn’t have the energy to confront the footage. The Gene Siskel Film Center was showing several of Kieślowski’s films, including all of his later work. Every day, I would make my way to the theater in the evening and sit there eating dark chocolate, letting the work pour over me. It was like a religious experience. I came away from that series feeling revitalized. The Double Life of Véronique and Blue were especially breathtaking. Sławomir Idziak’s photography left an indelible impression on me and changed the way I look at light. One year later, I went back to New York to finish that difficult film, and I finally had an outlet for all the good energy Kieślowski had given me.
Fishing with John
This is mostly on my list because I think it’s hilarious and I have watched all of the episodes several times. I love exposing friends to it, as many people haven’t even heard of it. It did teach me that the same idea can be interesting and entertaining over and over again, as long as you switch up the people in front of the camera (and as long as those people are fascinating to watch).
James Schamus’s Top 10
James Schamus is the former CEO of Focus Features; the producer of, among other films, Ride with the Devil (1999) and Brokeback Mountain (2005); the screenwriter and producer of The Ice Storm (1997); and a professor of professional practice at Columb…