Now here’s a man that’s truly redeemed himself. Joel Schumacher. Ok, sure he ruined the “Batman” series [and takes full responsibility] but then he did a total 360 and returned to making consequential, slighter, edgier pics like “Tigerland” and the recent “Phone Booth”. In this one-on- one, Schumacher tells of the ‘deal he made with the devil’ to get those ominous “Batman” movies made, and remarks on “Year One”, in addition to confirming who he’s cast in “The Phantom of the Opera”.
The legend goes that a cry went up during an early preview screening of Batman and Robin – ‘Death to Joel Schumacher!’ screamed an irate fanboy. A bit harsh, maybe, but Schumacher is the first to admit that his candy-coloured Caped Crusader caper wasn’t his finest hour. In fact, it led the director turn his back on the A-list blockbusters that had made him rich and famous – the comic-book adaptations, the John Grisham courthouse sagas and a diverse collection of supernatural thrillers (Flatliners), three-tissue weepies (Dying Young) and earnest urban dramas (Falling Down) – and reinvent himself as an indie filmmaker.
Despite the occasional relapse (last year’s dreadful action comedy Bad Company), Schumacher is staying true. Films like 8mm, Tigerland and Flawless were imaginative and ambitious, and his latest feature, the psychological thriller Phone Booth, is in the same vein. Starring Colin Farrell as a slightly seedy publicist held hostage in a Manhattan phone booth by an unseen sniper (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland), it’s got a cool B-movie energy that makes it a captivating watch.
Schumacher was recently in Melbourne to promote the film, and he revealed himself to be a charming, candid guy who needed very little prompting to discuss the background of the movie, his keen eye for casting and his return to big-budget blockbusters with his screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.
I understand a lot of directors were attached to Phone Booth before it made its way to you.
No, I actually had it first. It’s a long and winding road. What happened was, I was in post-production on 8mm and there was a bidding war for this script called Phone Booth. My agents called and told me that every studio and every producer were bidding on this hot script by Larry Cohen, and if Fox gets it they want me to do it with Mel Gibson. I read the script and loved it, but I had also written a script called Flawless and I’d found out that morning that De Niro was probably going to do it. So when Fox called me in, I said, ‘Look, I love you guys, I love this idea and I love Mel but I think my script is going to go ahead, so goodbye’. Then I went off and made Flawless and Tigerland. I’m not sure what happened during the two years that followed – Mel dropped out, I don’t know why. The Hughes Brothers had it for a while, Steve Gaghan was involved for a while, I heard Brad Pitt’s name for a while, Jim Carrey was in and out, Michael Bay and Will Smith had it for a long while…but I don’t know why any of that didn’t work out. When I finished filming Tigerland, I went back to Fox to edit and the head of Fox 2000 came to see me and told me they’d never gotten Phone Booth off the ground and wondered if I’d still be interested. I said sure, and that I had this great kid I found for Tigerland, Colin Farrell. They said ‘Colin who?’ and we went through all of that, and then Jim Carrey called, said he’d always been interested in Phone Booth and if I did it, he would do it. I didn’t really think it was Jim’s part; I actually thought Jim would be better as the caller. Having seen The Majestic, I think Jim was looking for a part where he could play an ordinary guy, not just play ‘Jim Carrey’. So we talked about doing the movie together but after a while he called me to say he had cold feet, which I understood because it never felt right to me, it didn’t feel like the right fit. By that time, I had Tigerland put together and we showed it at the Toronto Film Festival. It was so well-received, and the head people at Fox said, ‘Okay, we get it, Colin’s great. You can make Phone Booth with him but he’s still an unknown, Joel, so here’s a dollar to go make the movie.’ Which is why we ended up having a 12-day shooting schedule – it’s all we could afford.
Did you feel the ‘run and gun’ approach you’d used on Flawless and Tigerland would be the best way to tackle Phone Booth?
Yes, I thought that. But what I didn’t realise was that the run and gun approach would add to the tension of the film. We always had to stop shooting around four in the afternoon because we lost the light. From seven in the morning to four in the afternoon, we just hauled ass. I can’t say enough about this cast and crew because they were pumping adrenalin, and I think that came out in the film. If we’d had a luxurious schedule with privileges and perks, I don’t think it would have been the same movie. I think it would have hurt the film. This way, it’s so visceral. But it’s really the cast that is creating that tension. Part of it is in the editing, part of it is in the way we shot it but it’s the cast’s – and especially Colin’s – palpable emotions that make you feel what you feel.
Farrell really runs the gamut, doesn’t he?
It’s an amazing performance. I think he was 25 when we did it, and there are very few actors twice his age that could strip themselves that naked emotionally. He literally walks into the phone booth one person and walks out another person. And he’s doing a Bronx accent. I can’t say enough about him – I’m so proud of him. And I’m so glad the movie came out at a time when everyone in the media is starting to talk about his bad boy image because it reminds everyone what a great actor he is.
The release of Phone Booth was delayed for a while, wasn’t it?
Twice. Firstly because of September 11, and then because of the sniper attacks. But all these things that could have been minuses became pluses for us, because by the time the movie came out everyone knew who Colin was…and about his personal life and his ideas on dating! But Tigerland had got all these great reviews and Colin was named best actor of the year by the Boston film critics. At the time we made it, though, it was fair for the studio to say, ‘Here’s a very little amount of money’. They certainly didn’t know if a guy in a phone booth could work. If it was Tom Cruise in the phone booth, they would have slept better at night. Another way they sleep better at night is by giving you very little money to use, so it minimises their risk. But I think that’s fair.
This story may be bullshit but I heard that when Michael Bay was working on it, he said something like, “Okay, how the hell do we get this guy out of the phone booth?”
[Laughs loudly] That’s great! Actually, I can see his problem – he’s an action director, so he was looking for a way to…oh, that’s great!
A lot of your recent movies have had a really distinctive look. Is that due to working with cinematographer Matthew Libatique?
Yes. He’s a genius. I don’t like to use that word because it’s overused in Hollywood, but I always say it with a small g. We did Tigerland together – he shot it himself with a handheld 16mm camera – and he also did pi and Requiem for a Dream. I can’t wait to work with him again. And he’s so young! I can’t wait to see how he’s going to develop. It’s going to be very exciting.
You seem to have the knack of surrounding yourself with talented people and stars-in-the-making, especially when it comes to casting.
Yeah, talk about lucky.
You’ve got the ensemble cast of St Elmo’s Fire, Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric in The Lost Boys…
Little Julia in Flatliners…
Yeah, and I think that was the first time I’d seen Oliver Platt on screen.
Campbell Scott in Dying Young…
Matthew McConaughey. Brad Renfro – how about Brad Renfro at 10 years of age starring alongside Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones in The Client? But I think you would hire them too. I don’t think I deserve any special praise. You know, all I did was give them a job that they deserved. You can’t make talent. I was just so glad they all walked into my office. I mean, if you were casting a movie and you saw a hundred actresses and then Julia Roberts walks in, 20 years old, you would cast her.
When you cast someone, is it a case of ‘You’re perfect for this role’? Or ‘You’re so good I just have to work with you’?
It’s often both, but they have to be the right person for the part. There are people who are talented and who I would love to work with but I haven’t had the right role for them. Or people I’ve worked with who I’d love to work with again. Susan Sarandon I’d love to work with again, but I don’t have a part for her. You have to have the right part. And if you have the right part for them, they won’t say no. I’d love to work with De Niro again. And Philip Seymour Hoffman – does it get any better? Nicole Kidman and I are trying to find a way to work together again. Colin and I would like to work together again, and so would Nic Cage and I. But you don’t always have the right project. I’m doing The Phantom of the Opera now and I have no roles for any of them – none of them sing!
I dunno…Nic Cage does a pretty mean Elvis.
Yes, he sings…I don’t know if he sings Andrew Lloyd Webber. And I don’t know if Andrew Lloyd Webber would like him singing Phantom of the Opera!
In terms of casting the sniper in Phone Booth, didn’t Ron Eldard [from ER and Ghost Ship] actually have the role before Kiefer Sutherland took over?
Ron is a brilliant character actor. Unfortunately you have to see Ron to get that brilliance, because his voice is pitched higher than Kiefer’s. It was a brilliant performance but it wasn’t menacing. And I tried to do some technical tricks…in the Batman movies, you have to take everybody’s voice and electronically treat it. No matter how great someone’s voice is, the minute you put people in these costumes on these bigger than life sets in these bigger than life situations, it sounds less than great. It sounds small.
That was something I liked about Val Kilmer’s performance in Batman Forever – his Batman voice was very different to his Bruce Wayne voice.
We did that. And I tried to do that with Ron’s. I thought that was how I could get away with it but it didn’t work. I had actually wanted Kiefer to do the role. Here’s a great Hollywood story: I’d wanted Kiefer to do this role and the studio said, ‘No, he’s ice-cold’. Then 24 happened, and they said, ‘Well…could you get Kiefer?’ That’s Hollywood. ‘You really think Kiefer would do it?’
If you’re gonna cast a voice, you might as well go with one that so distinctive.
And to do that many things with it – to be funny, menacing, charming, philosophical, evil and very perceptive. He’s the smartest person in the movie, the sniper. Or the caller, we should say. He would not like to be called the sniper. The caller. The moral adjuster.
You’ve worked with huge budgets and you’ve worked with peanuts. Does working with no money force you to become more imaginative? And does a big budget bring its own set of problems?
Uh-huh. You’ve brought up a very good point. It wasn’t so much a problem on Batman Forever, because the studio’s approach to offering me the Batman movies was Batman Returns had finished the franchise. Someone’s always ruining the franchise for them. They felt the franchise was dead because a lot of audiences were very unhappy with Batman Returns and the merchandise didn’t sell and theatres didn’t want Batman any more. I literally had to go around and talk to theatre owners and distributors and merchandising people to whip up excitement about a new Batman movie. In the end we got very lucky because it was the number one film of the year.
Val and Nicole and Chris O’Donnell and Jim Carrey…the salaries we all got for Batman Forever were so small because it was a whole new group and some of them hadn’t become superstars yet. We all worked for so little money and had such a great time. It was maybe the most modest Batman they’d ever made, financially, and maybe the most profitable. Then everyone got very greedy. I’ve only been involved in something like this once, and it was on Batman and Robin. On Batman and Robin, they threw money at us – as one of my best friends says, ‘The devil always comes with the biggest cheque’. And I take full responsibility for what happened.
I haven’t seen it yet, but I notice that a lot of people are being very unkind about The Matrix Reloaded. You don’t realise the pressure you’re under because now you’re expected to be a hit. The first Matrix, we all discovered it. And you get points for getting discovered. But the minute you’re a hit and you’re rich and famous, you’re looked at differently. That’s the difference with a big budget: you’re expected to get a lot of asses in a lot of seats. And if you think differently, you’re out of your mind.
Darren Aronofsky, a wonderful director, called me about a year or so ago. He said he’d like to make a Batman movie and asked me what I thought about it. I said, ‘Darren, I’d love to see your take on that but let me tell you something: if you think they’re going to let you make Darren Aronofsky’s small, dark, personal Batman movie, forget it’. Because the movies may make hundreds of millions of dollars but the merchandise makes billions. That’s where the money is.
And is it easy to get hooked on working with big budgets on high-profile projects?
Yes! I was supposed to do a third Grisham, The Runaway Jury, and a third Batman, with the Scarecrow as the villain. Edward Norton and Gwyneth Paltrow were cast in The Runaway Jury and I was trying to get Sean Connery for the third lead. I think they’ve actually made it now, with John Cusack. But I just couldn’t do it anymore. My heart wasn’t in it. I loved making The Client and A Time to Kill and Batman Forever. Batman and Robin…well, the cast was wonderful, they were wonderful people, but it wasn’t my best work. I didn’t want to be Mr Blockbuster any more, and so I walked away from those two movies. I know that disappointed a lot of people, but doing 8mm and Flawless and Tigerland and Phone Booth and now Veronica Guerin with Cate Blanchett, I feel really excited. I feel like I’m just beginning. I think it’s made me a better director, I hope it’s made me a better person. But I’m not ashamed or apologetic about the past because I made a lot of money for a lot of people and made a lot of people happy, gave them a lot of great entertainment. I know I disappointed some people with Batman and Robin but it’s not the end of the universe. Actually, Batman and Robin was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
That said, I’m guessing that you won’t be making Phantom of the Opera in 12 days with a $1.2 million budget.
No, but because I’m using unknowns in the leads and because of the budget given to me by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company, it’s a more modest production.
Are you going with Gerard Butler for the title role? I remember seeing him in Dracula 2000 and thinking he had real presence.
Yes. I saw him in Dracula 2000 too, and he’s in Timeline and the new Tomb Raider this summer. He’s the greatest, he’s like the Scottish version of Colin Farrell. He’s just a regular guy, he says it like it is. And he’s a fabulous singer. I knew him before we started casting Phantom and he told me he’d been in a band. I asked him if he could sing – not just stand up on stage with a guitar, but really sing – and he said ‘I think I could’. Then when he came in to audition he blew me and Andrew Lloyd Webber away. He’s going to be a great Phantom – a young, sexy Phantom. And I know the Michael Crawford fans are going to be hysterical, but maybe they should stay home then…
As for the female lead, I read it was between Anne Hathaway from The Princess Diaries and an actress named Emmy Rossum.
It’s Emmy Rossum. She’s coming up in Clint Eastwood’s film Mystic River, playing Sean Penn’s daughter. She’s 16 years old, a fabulous girl. She’s this very energetic New York girl but when she played an Appalachian girl in this movie Songcatcher, I honestly thought they’d found some local girl for the role. She was singing with the Metropolitan Opera when she was seven, singing in the kids’ chorus. And then there’s Patrick Wilson – do you know who he is?
He’s in The Alamo, isn’t he?
He’s in that, and Mike Nichols has done the play Angels in America for HBO – he’s the star in that. You know how Hugh Jackman was in Oklahoma in London? Patrick did the same role on Broadway. Those are my three.
– GUY DAVIS
[Big Thanks to Guy Davis from The Geelong Advertiser for sharing the goods]