Long before Heath met Jake on the set of “Brokeback Mountain,” James Schamus was making movies about gay characters.
“The Wedding Banquet,” one of his first collaborations with “Brokeback” helmer Ang Lee, revolved around a gay New Yorker who decides to marry a female tenant so his Taiwanese parents will stop pressuring him to get wed.
Schamus co-wrote and produced that pic a dozen years before he produced “Brokeback.” In between, Focus Features — the specialty arm he runs for Universal — released Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” (2002) a Douglas Sirk-style weeper about a 1950s housewife who discovers her husband is gay. And on the lesbian side of cinema, “8 Women,” a Francois Ozon pic also released by Focus in 2002, featured a Sapphic kiss between Catherine Deneuve and Fanny Ardant.
In January, the specialty arm greenlit “Milk,” a bio about Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco councilman murdered, along with Mayor George Moscone, in 1978. Warners had been developing a rival Milk project for years, but Focus got there first; Gus Van Sant has finished lensing the pic with Sean Penn in the title role.
Schamus doesn’t consider movies with gay themes particularly risky enterprises. After all, he says, any film — even a horror pic — faces its own challenges in the theatrical marketplace.
“A lot of movies bomb every weekend,” he points out.
He says if he wanted to play it safe, he would only make movies with gay Chinese cowboys since he has had the most success with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback.” But he’s found that deviating from the norm often works best.
“When we’ve parted ways with formula, we’ve done pretty well,” he says.
Schamus admits homophobia is an issue, but says it shouldn’t be a deterrent. The problem, he asserts, is not the homophobia itself but “the assumption that homophobia has an effect.”
Shamus receives the Golden Gate Award at GLAAD’s San Francisco fete.