Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Joel Schumacher

Dial 'S' for Schumacher

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

March 26, 2003—At 63, Joel Schumacher is going through a filmmaking phase that should have happened when he was in his 20s.

The prolific director began his career as a costume designer, working on Woody Allen pictures like Sleeper and Interiors. He eventually turned screenwriter in the late 70s and penned hit movies like Car Wash and The Wiz.

At the dawn of the 80s, he was given his first feature directing job, on the Lily Tomlin comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman. That led to hits like St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys as well as famous flops like Dying Young. But he attracted hot young casts, and he was soon at the top of the "A" list, making giant-sized summer blockbusters like The Client, Batman Forever and A Time to Kill.

Everything came to a head in 1997 when Schumacher made one of the biggest flops and most hated films of all time, Batman & Robin.

"If your movie gets a pummeling you deserve it," Schumacher says in response to his film. "But isn't it wonderful that America was once so young that all we had to worry about was the next Batman movie?"

Schumacher recently visited San Francisco to discuss his newest film, Phone Booth, about a self-centered New York publicist who answers a ringing public phone and finds himself the target of a sniper.

"What's really interesting about a phone booth is that, at an earlier period in history, people valued privacy," he says. "And really thought that they should go into a booth, close the door and not let anyone hear what they were talking about. But we now play out our lives on cell phones very publicly. Don't you hear people saying things and you can't believe they're saying it?"

For Schumacher, Phone Booth is one of a series of low-budget, almost experimental films usually reserved for up-and-coming film students.

To prove it, the director shot the fast-paced film in just ten days. "We were all scared shitless," he says with his trademark lack of shyness. "I don't think any of us thought we could do it. Here's the other thing: we had to stop shooting at 4 p.m., as if things weren't bad enough, because we lost the light on the street. So we'd start at 6 a.m. and we wouldn't break for lunch -- we'd just pass food around. There's four cameras going and the cast is on all the time. No rest for anybody."

Phone Booth has a long and complicated history, stretching all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock, to whom writer Larry Cohen pitched the story in the late 60s.

Schumacher says the story was very different at that point. "The characters were Damon Runyan-esque. They were all middle-aged. Stu was like a Broadway Danny Rose character but not sweet and charming. The Katie Holmes character was this gum-popping, brassy manicurist. I felt that the younger Stu was, the more forgivable his sins. If you haven't learned by middle age that the way you treat others is important, then I don't want to tell your story."

It took until 1999 for Cohen to come up with the sniper angle as a reason why Stu would be trapped in a phone booth. He wrote the script and sold it almost immediately. Plenty of stars and directors jumped at the chance to film it, notably Jim Carrey, who was attached for quite a while before dropping out.

But the finished film was delayed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and further delayed when the Washington D.C. sniper reared his ugly head in October of 2002. But in the meantime, thanks to The Recruit and Daredevil, Colin Farrell has become a name actor -- whereas when the project first went before the cameras, he was still considered an "unknown."

But Schumacher had faith in Farrell all along; he's always had a nose for new talent. He gave Kiefer Sutherland a big break in The Lost Boys (1987) and has worked with him three more times since then, including casting him as the sniper in Phone Booth. Now Sutherland is a big star with his hit TV series "24."

Even so, Schumacher continually battles with the studios for the right to cast who he wants. "If you were making 'The Martin Luther King Story,' the studio would say, 'How about Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts?'"

"The truth is this: the only thing that ever makes success is when you take risks. Success has a tendency to breed conservatism, and you have to fight against that. You don't want to repeat something just because it worked before. It doesn't work. And the audience knows it."

Schumacher faced a little of that himself in the mid-90s when Batman & Robin came out. "I was tired of being summer movie king," he says. "I pulled out of my third Grisham film, Runaway Jury and my third Batman because I couldn't do it any longer. And I made a lot of studio people mad at me."

But his act of defiance led to a kind of personal new wave, films purposely designed for more freedom and less studio involvement, films like 8MM, Flawless and Tigerland.

"I'm having a fucking blast," he says. "I purposely did 8MM because it was as far from a summer movie as you could get. Now it's the biggest selling DVD in Sony's history. They want me to do a sequel!"

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