You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Designing man at the helm

Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” (1987), the midnight grotesqueries of “Flatliners” (1990), the urban stress of “Falling Down” (1993), and the multi-colored, Gothic style of “Batman Forever” (1995) and the upcoming “Batman and Robin” is what Schumacher calls one of his central missions as a director: “I always want to make design a character in my movies.”

Hardly surprising, given that New York-born Schumacher trained in costume design, and climbed the Hollywood talent ladder as a costumer and production designer on such films as Frank Perry’s “Play It As It Lays,” Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” and “Interiors,” “The Last of Sheila” and “Blume in Love.”

Schumacher convinced Dominick Dunne, then a producer in the early ’70s, to hire him to work on the “Play It As It Lays” visual design team (which included the late cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth) “just on my New York rep as a designer. I landed one design job after another, then saw that people were selling scripts, so I wrote and sold some,” including “Car Wash,” “Sparkle” and “The Wiz.”

The scripts led to early directing jobs, first on telepics like “The Virginia Hill Story,” and then “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” starring Lily Tomlin in a funky, post-modern, feminist sendup of the original sci-fi thriller, “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”

The movie’s production designer, Raymond A. Brandt, recalls his first meeting with Schumacher: “He stressed how he wanted the colors in the movie to look like the pastel shades of Necco wafers. I have no idea where he came up with that, but it stuck in my head, and I went down to the Universal commissary and bought a packet of Neccos, took it up to my office, and spilled them on my desk and studied them. These are the kinds of things you do on one of Joel’s movies.”

“Working with Joel isn’t unlike getting an in vitro shot of adrenaline,” says producer and ex-costumer Susan Becker, who designed clothes for “St.

Elmo’s Fire,” “The Lost Boys,” “Flatliners” and “Dying Young.” “Of all the directors I worked for, Joel had the keenest sense of design and, by far, had the most fun with it. Part of that is shopping with him, which he loves to do at swap meets and stores. He has great taste and style.

“His sensibility was so important, because it pushed me to go further in

my own work than I might have with a less design-oriented director. On ‘The

Lost Boys,’ for instance, because we could literally make up anything for

these homeless kids, he set me free to come up with anything, the wilder the

better. We even designed earrings out of paper clips, made rat skull necklaces, the kind of stuff kids would pick up on the street.”

It was a design idea, in fact, that convinced Schumacher to take on “The Lost Boys,” which had been originally written as, he says, “a ‘Goonies’-goes-vampire movie that I wasn’t too into. As I was running one day, I imagined that these kids would live in a cave that was actually the ruins of an old California coastal hotel that had been collapsed in the 1905 quake. From this, I came up with a whole new direction and style for the story.”

Schumacher managed a similar overhaul of “Flatliners,” which, he says, “read on the page like scenes in little white medical rooms, and we’re not going to want to see that. Jan De Bont, my cinematographer, and I decided to turn the characters’ near-death experiments into small action movies, and I wanted huge interior spaces so we could play it out.”

Indeed, vast interiors are a Schumacher hallmark. Notice, for instance, the overly large garages in his low-budget comedy “D.C. Cab,” the giant lofts filling the ‘Scope screen in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” Kiefer Sutherland’s enormous neo-classical digs in “Flatliners.” All, of course, were mere warmups for the operatic giganticism of “Batman Forever.”

“And in ‘Batman and Robin,’ ” says production designer Barbara Ling, who goes back with Schumacher to “Falling Down,” “we’re going much bigger, more complex than ‘Batman Forever.’ I told Joel that we hadn’t even scratched the surface in the first movie, and he was relieved to hear that, because with him, it’s never a case of going too far. You think that you do, but then he looks at your plans and models, and goes, ‘You can push this further.’ ”

Perhaps the most startling element in the “Batman” series, once Schumacher replaced Tim Burton as director, was how he wanted Ling, cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt and costumer Bob Ringwood to go back to the rich, primary colors of the original comics. In this way, Schumacher’s “Batman” design takes him full circle to the comic book designs of

“The Incredible Shrinking Woman.”

“I really don’t like to place characters against white walls, and instead, you’ll see that I place them in the middle of large spaces, so they can move, and we can move with them,” Schumacher explains. “Theater and choreography are very important for me in this way, and in ‘Batman and Robin,’ I urged my stunt coordinator to use every inch of our big, beautiful space. Too often in movies with action in big spaces, most of the shots are in tight close-ups and two-shots. I just don’t understand that.”

Schumacher revealingly cites Peter Greenaway’s masterpiece of design and Thatcher-era excess “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” as his favorite film, a model of what he strives for. “That film did things brilliantly, which is what I love — to have the characters define the space, and so, when we see the space even before we hear them, we know them. Silent filmmakers understood this, and we’ve been losing it.”

More Scene

  • UnReal Athena Film Festival

    How Trump Beating Clinton Impacted the Gender Politics of 'UnReal' Season 3

    Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” […]

  • 'Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and

    'Unsolved' Stars Point Out Racial Injustice in Biggie and Tupac Murder Cases

    Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” […]

  • Taura Stinson, Common, and Diane WarrenVariety

    Common, Pasek and Paul, Diane Warren Reveal Inspiration Behind Oscar-Nominated Songs

    Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” […]

  • 'Game Night' film premiere

    'Game Night': Director, Writer Talk 'Straddling Genres' and the Influence of 'Get Out'

    Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” […]

  • Esquire 'Mavericks of Hollywood' party

    Terry Crews on His Sexual Assault Lawsuit: 'If I Don’t Get Justice, Nobody Can'

    Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” […]

  • 20th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards

    'I, Tonya,' 'The Shape of Water' Win at 2018 Costume Designers Guild Awards

    Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” […]

  • Vera Wang

    Vera Wang, Olivia Munn Celebrate American Designers at Variety, WWD and CFDA's Runway to Red Carpet Event

    Neo-classical architecture, homeless garb, superhero comics and Necco wafers — the visual cues and inspirations in Joel Schumacher’s movies seem as disparate as the movies themselves, the bric-a-brac stuff of a self-confessed shopaholic and design fan. But what links the outsized world of “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), the punk-styled grizzle of “The Lost Boys” […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content