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Helmer feels actors’ pains

In what may be one of Hollywood’s longest-running screenplay in-jokes, movie directors have been portrayed ever since the silent era as various versions of an ego maniacal control freak bent on destroying every actor in their path. And, in fairness, that’s not an image invented from whole cloth. Over the years and even today, the biz has certainly seen its share of directors from the Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock schools of thespian evisceration.

But there is another type of director, however, who thrives not on sturm and drang but on making movies in less stressful circumstances. The preeminent example these days is Joel Schumacher, who since 1993 has had a string of A-list box office hits including “Falling Down,” “The Client,” “Batman Forever” and last summer’s “A Time to Kill.” You don’t have to ask around too much in Hollywood to find out that just about everybody wants to be involved with a Joel Schumacher project.

“The best thing about working with him is that it’s not so much an opportunity to make a movie as it’s a time to watch someone bring out the best in people,” says Sandra Bullock, who starred in Schumacher’s 1996 “A Time To Kill” with Matthew McConaughey. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a set dresser or a production designer or an actor, Joel notices when people are doing great work and he elevates it.”

In particular, from “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Flatliners” through to 1995’s mega-grossing “Batman Forever” ($700 million worldwide), Schumacher has displayed a knack for connecting with younger actors and drawing out some notable performances from them.

“He’s really sensitive to actors’ needs,” said Chris O’Donnell after completing his first go-round as the brooding Robin. “He wants to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind, and he makes you want to talk to him on an acting as well as a personal level.”

For Gary Busey, on the set of the shaggy-dog ensemble urban comedy “D.C. Cab” in 1984, things got more than personal and up close.

“I came to the set after lunch one day after drinking some tequila,” says Busey, who at that point in his life, was drinking and using drugs on a regular basis. “He saw it in my eyes immediately.”

What transpired after that was not a dressing down in front of cast and crew but a spontaneous intervention behind the set. “He laid me out. He looked me in the eyes and told me how strong I was and how much talent he thought I had.” And Schumacher told Busey point-blank: “Keep this up, and it’ll kill you. Keep this up and you’ll squander a great opportunity.”

Bullock chuckles warmly when she hears Busey’s story. It is, she says, vintage Schumacher.

“He’s not afraid to reveal his own faults and cracks. That’s the gift that makes him such a luminous figure. That’s how he deals with other people. He’s magnetic and empathetic because he’s able to say ‘I’m so imperfect, I’m falling apart here.’ So few people are willing to take that risk,” she says.

Risk-taking has a habit of engendering more risk-taking. And that, says Schumacher, is what he always has in mind. “Once people have been brave enough to sign on with me I feel that I have a responsibility to create an atmosphere where the actors feel they have the freedom to take those risks.”

But that doesn’t mean Schumacher is a soft touch. Far from it. Schumacher has self-deprecatingly described himself as “an American mongrel.” And though an inelegant description for an elegant man, it’s an apt image. Raised an only child in Queens, N.Y., by a southern Baptist father and a Swedish Jewish mother, Schumacher may have the intellectual bearing of a West Village

Bohemian esthete but lingering behind it, like a street tough leaning on a lamppost, is a guy you don’t want to mess with. In fact, “the wrath of Joel” is a well known possibility on the set and off.

“I overslept my alarm one morning,” recalls Ebbe Roe Smith, who penned the 1993 urban revenge hit “Falling Down.” He’d missed a script meeting with Schumacher and called up the director to offer his mea culpas. “I sort of tried to laugh it off,” says Smith ruefully. Schumacher was far from amused and lectured the screenwriter on the importance of punctuality for the next five minutes. “I felt like a whipped dog when he was finished,” Smith continues. But after the storm passed, there were no hard feelings. “He was right.” Smith hasn’t been late since.

Schumacher insists his rules are very basic and serve a definite purpose.

“People have to know there’s a leader. There has to be structure. But within that, people have to know that they can express themselves.” It’s a formula that has served him well, says the exec who tapped Schumacher to take over one of most profitable franchises in movie history.

“On a set like ‘Batman’ chaos can easily prevail,” observes Terry Semel, chairman and co-CEO of Warner Bros. and Warner Music Group. “There’s a lot of big actors, many egos and lots of potential for things to go wrong.” But not with Schumacher as set general. “It was brilliant,” Semel recalls when he visited a “Batman Forever” soundstage one morning. “It was like they were shooting a small-budget drama.”

“Nothing is too hard for him,” adds Busey. “Just about everything he did with me was done with a smile.” Including, Busey recalls, Schumacher’s habit of yelling “Hey Gary! S-T-F-M!” before each take of every scene Busey’s character appeared in. A rough translation: Gary, save the f—- movie.

“Let me tell you something,” Busey says just before he hangs up the phone. “It’s real easy to honor someone who did the same to you when you were at your lowest point. I’d work on anything he wants me to.”

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