Art of respecting the word

It’s ironic that Joel Schumacher originally became a writer as an entree to directing, but as a writer was banned from the sets of his first two movies.

“In all fairness, I had a lot of aggressive ideas about casting and how certain things should be done. I wrote ‘Sparkle’ and ‘Car Wash’ hoping I could direct,” recalls Schumacher. “And I was quite aggressive and confrontational about my feelings. I was probably the writer from hell right then. I don’t want to make it seem that I was victimized by terrible people. I was a pain in the ass.”

But since then, as a director he makes it a practice to invite the writers of his films on the set and maintains a running collaboration through the shooting. He has become mentor to a generation of young screenwriters, co-writing with Carl Kurlander on his first screenplay, “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and directing the first screenplays of Peter Filardi ( “Flatliners”) and Ebbe Roy Smith (“Falling Down.”) Akiva Goldman had only sold the spec “Silent Fall” when he began a four-pic collaboration with Schumacher.

“The reason I have a reputation for working with new people is that I was very low on the totem pole for a long time, so I had to find projects. I wasn’t sitting at home saying, ‘Now should I do “Out of Africa” with Meryl and Bob or do “D.C. Cab” with Mr. T?’ It was a job.

“But I get a lot of energy from young people. New talent doesn’t know how far it can go and how far it’s going to go. I learn a lot from people. I seem to need to have a multi-generational life. And I am kind of in love with young talent.

“I have had mentors in my life who really made me feel they believed I can do anything. And all the mentors and the people who have given one a boost in life, they never need anything from you except for you to do well. You can’t ever repay them except by doing the same thing for other people.”

At the other end of the writing spectrum, Schumacher has established a strong working relationship with the formidably selling novelist John Grisham, now having made films of “The Client” and “A Time to Kill.”

When Schumacher first prepped “The Client,” “Everybody said, ‘Don’t go near Grisham. He hates Hollywood, he hates directors, he hates everybody. He’ll be against the film. He’ll come out in the press against it,’ ” Schumacher recalls.

“I said, ‘If he hates me I might as well find out right away. I have no intention of doing his book without discussing it with him.’ What better font of knowledge and research can a director have, especially when it’s a legal thriller and the writer is a lawyer?

“Like most things in life it was exactly the opposite. We met for lunch in Memphis at the Peabody Hotel. The first he said was something very complimentary about ‘Flatliners.’ I’m easy. You love one of my movies, I’m yours.

“We had this three-hour lunch, and I can just remember laughing a lot. He was not involved on ‘The Client’ as a producer, because he had sold the rights outright. But when I moved down to Memphis, he and his wonderful wife Renee invited me to dinner. They really embraced me. The whole Grisham family has gone out of their way to support me.

“I asked him to let me do ‘A Time to Kill.’ He didn’t want it made into a movie. After he saw ‘The Client,’ he decided he wanted me to do that. He was more actively involved, because he was actually one of the producers. John was very, very proud of ‘A Time to Kill.’ ”

“There seems to be a tradition of disposal of writers,” notes Schumacher, “but that doesn’t mean there’s not another way. Also, why should writers be treated so badly in the movie business? I don’t know when that started. It certainly isn’t that way in the theater. People revere the playwright. People revere the libretto of the opera. People revere the composer of the music. In fact, some of these things are written in steel.

“I’m not saying we should be slaves to writers. There certainly are some badly behaved, irresponsible, untalented writers around that need to have their buns kicked. But if a writer has talent, why shouldn’t they continue through the piece. Why can’t you assist them to do their best job? It all has to do with selfish self-enlightenment. I think you get better work.”

Each of the writers Variety interviewed about working with Schumacher summed up their experience with the same line — “It was great fun.” (See related story.)

“I’ve done almost every job you can do on a movie and (I was) lucky to get them,” notes Schumacher, who was originally a costumer and production designer, before he wrote “Sparkle.” “The best experience I had was working for Woody Allen on ‘Sleeper.’ It was like the high school play. It was very collaborative. We were all encouraged to use our imagination and really contribute to the film. I had worked for three directors before Woody, and they were definitely one-man shows. Definitely autocrats.

“When I worked with Woody, I did my best work because I was part of the filmmaking team, as opposed to being in a department. And that’s definitely true of writers. I think there’s a deep dark secret here. Most creative people would do what they do for nothing.”

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