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First-time director receiving critical acclaim

In this image released by Roadside Attractions, Logan Lerman appears in a scene from, "Indignation." The film is an adaptation of the 2008 Philip Roth novel. It's a 1950s-set tale about a stringently principled Jewish kid from Newark, who having fled his overbearing father finds both unexpected sexual freedom and institutional rigidity at college in Ohio. (Alison Cohen Rosa/Roadside Attractions via AP)

A first-time movie director’s film is earning wide critical acclaim. “Indignation” is based on a novel by the same name written by the late Philip Ross. James Schamus told KTAR News that he picked up the book in 2008 and it struck a chord with him.

“One thing that really moved me in reading the novel was that Philip Roth was (about) 75 when he wrote it,” he said. “And yet he’s going back to a time when he was 19 and giving us a version of his young self that I thought was quite moving.”

Set in the 1950s, the story follows the coming of age moments of Marcus Messner, played by Logan Lerman in the film. Messner comes from a middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey. Intelligent, sharp-tongued and introspective, Messner decides to attend a conservative Christian college in Ohio, partly to avoid the Korean War draft.

However, despite Messner’s academic prowess, he finds himself running into trouble with people. His social skills leave much to be desired, so much so that he is called into the dean’s office. In the thick of it all is Messner’s first romance with a woman who is anything but normal.

“We empathize with this kid,” Schamus said. “We love him, he’s super smart. You’re rooting for this kid to succeed, and at the same time, he’s absolutely blind to this young woman who’s in front of him. What she’s gone through, her trauma, her abuse—everything. He can’t read it.”

Much of the beauty of the film is in the details. Schamus said he worked closely with his director of photography, Christopher Blauvelt.

“We spent months trying to find a series of references for what the film would look like because we didn’t want to imitate what movies looked like in the 1950s,” he said. “But we wanted to take you back there and we wanted you to remember, almost as if you were remembering a memory you had back then.”

Schamus said they were heavily inspired by the great African American photographer Gordon Parks, who is known for his black and white photos of the Civil Rights movement.

“He was an African American photographer who really made an impact. But he was also a great color photographer. People don’t know that work at all. They’re beautiful photos.”

As for sitting in the director’s chair for the first time, Schamus jokingly said it was great.

“You get to boss everybody around! But to be honest I had a great crew, a great cast, I knew what I didn’t know as Donald Rumsfeld might say—and that helped. But it still didn’t mean that I knew it. You can only really learn it by doing it,” he said.

However, Schamus is no stranger to film. He co-founded Focus Features and was the CEO for 13 years. He is an award-winning screenwriter, producer and film executive and has been in the film industry for over 20 years.

He often works with director Ang Lee and produced with him “Crouching Tire, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Schamus’ other film credits include “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” Schamus’ attention to minute details in “Indignation” are almost Wes Anderson in flavor.

As for what’s next, Schamus said he’s working on producing a number of films. He’ll be collaborating again with Ang Lee on a movie about the rivalry between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, and he expects to be back in the director’s chair before too long.

“Indignation” stars Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts and Linda Emond. The movie is now playing in theaters.