Recognizing the technicolor visions of a maverick
A “latchkey kid” who made good, Joel Schumacher learned the importance of personal relationships early in life. Only four years old when his father passed away, he had “to depend upon the kindness of strangers” because his hard-working mother didn’t get home until late. “Luckily, I grew up in a neighborhood of big families, where there was always room at the table for one more,” he recalls.
The metaphor of inclusion illuminates his entire adult working life, which has perked along quite steadily for more than 30 years, even during a decade of drug excess. Many different “strangers” have made a place for Schumacher, starting with Geraldine Stutz, the legendary head of Henri Bendel, who hired the precocious 18-year-old to create window displays for her super-chic Manhattan boutique.
As Schumacher — this year’s Showest honoree for best director — ticks off the signposts of his several different, all notable, careers, he insists upon assigning credit to fate (“I was either in the right place at the right time, or the wrong…”) or to a series of mentors and friends who “helped” him to his present eminence as director of two phenomenally successful movie franchises, the “Batman” and John Grisham series. Never mind that he won a scholarship to Parsons School of Design and graduated with honors. Forget about all those years when his creativity and hard work made him the darling of such fashion mavens as John Fairchild and Eugenia Shepard. “I like people,” he says, “and therefore people tend to like me.”
Joel Schumacher is indeed phenomenally popular with his actors and crews and generally throughout the film community. And if snooty film critics have exempted themselves from his fan club, they’re starting to acknowledge his sensibility as defining upon his films and give him his due. “Schumacher definitely has some talent,” averred New York magazine’s David Denby in his review of “The Client.” Of the same film, Vogue’s John Powers wrote that “he’s made the most enjoyable Hollywood picture since ‘The Fugitive.'”
Movie-crazy since childhood, Schumacher dates his directorial ambitions to age 11 when he staged marionette shows for kids in his Queens, New York, neighborhood. It wasn’t, however, until 1970, when he had just about destroyed himself with drugs and high living, that he faced the ultimate existentialist question: what am I going to do with my life? His retort: Make movies! And so he turned a new leaf and began.
“I convinced Dominick Dunne, who was a producer then, and Frank Perry to give me a two-week trial as a costume designer on ‘Play It As It Lays.’ I left Bendel’s and flew to L.A. — and I lasted. Then, because I’d rebuilt Stephen Sondheim’s house in New York, I got to do ‘The Last of Sheila,’ followed by ‘Blume in Love.’ After that I met Woody.”
Woody Allen is the first of three important mentors Schumacher cites as crucial to his achieving a filmmaking career. “Though Frank Perry and the others were wonderful to me, they were autocrats, benevolent despots. There was always a little bit of fear that ran through the ranks; no one was ever permitted to step outside the boundaries of whatever department he was in.
“But working with Woody was like doing the high school play … tremendous camaraderie and an open atmosphere. Everyone was encouraged to contribute. I found I did my best work because of this nurturing, supportive atmosphere, and I swore if I ever got to be a director, I’d do the same.
“Woody was also the first person who encouraged me to be a director. He said, ‘Take a good look at the industry; there are a handful of geniuses touched by gods. Look at the rest of them. If they can do it, you can, too.’ And that’s the truth. I’m not a genius, but I am a hard worker.”
Even today, Schumacher calls Woody Allen his biggest supporter. “He sees every movie I make and then calls or faxes in a comment. And he always closes with, “That’s good enough for now, but next time take a bigger risk.'”
Impatient to get closer to his dream of directing, Schumacher decided to put costume design on the back burner for a while and write. “Ignorance is bliss. I noticed writers were getting opportunities to direct, so I wrote a screenplay for television — and it sold. Barry Diller and Deanne Barclay bought it for $9,000.” Next, he turned his sights to a story of three black girl singers, working with friend and producer Howard Rosenman. Loosely based on the early life of the Supremes, “Sparkle” was snapped up by Robert Stigwood and became a film directed by Sam O’Steen in 1975.
At that juncture, another important mentor appeared: Ned Tanen, production head of Universal Pictures at the time. “I met Ned through his wife, Kitty, who was a friend of mine from New York and my agent for a while. He hired me to write ‘Car Wash.'” This multiracial comedy, too, became a feature — but helmed by Michael Schultz and not Joel Schumacher. Frustration set in. He accelerated his effort to get an assignment. Deanne Barclay came through, hiring him to direct the television movie “The Virginia Hill Story.” This was followed by “Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill,” also for television, which he wrote, and then his debut feature. In 1980, Ned Tanen hired him to direct “The Incredible Shrinking Woman,” starring Lily Tomlin.
Ever candid, if not brutally honest, Schumacher describes these pictures as “very difficult projects whose outcome did not please me. I felt so ungifted that I considered giving up my dream. I thought I had a calling just because I’d wanted to direct all my life.”
For someone whose many talents had given him considerable early success, his self-acknowledged directorial limitations were hard to swallow. He went back to the typewriter and wrote another original screenplay, “D.C. Cab,” which he subsequently directed. “It was a very low-budget movie. I got a lot of standup comics on the verge of a breakthrough. It was modest and of good cheer. People liked it and it actually turned a profit.”
Now Schumacher had the title “director,” but felt he still did not know what he was doing. Enter major mentor No. 3: Daniel Mann. A well-regarded film and TV director, Mann was now teaching a course for aspiring directors at UCLA. “At the end of the course, I told Danny I wanted to take it again, but he strongly advised me to take an acting class.”
Methodical as always, Schumacher sought advice and decided to study with Milton Katselas. “I audited his class for a year, and I still go back from time to time. The single greatest thing anybody who wants to direct can do is take an acting class, because it totally breaks down the ‘me’ and ‘them’ thing that hangs up so many directors. You learn there is no one ‘method,’ that every actor works differently. You also learn that ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly good answer. ‘I don’t know; let’s explore that problem together.'”
Emboldened by his newly acquired expertise, Schumacher turned down offers to direct a plethora of “wacko comedies.” Instead, with Carl Kurlunder, he wrote another original script entitled “St. Elmo’s Fire.” The 1985 film became a touchstone for the so-called “X generation,” furthering the careers of Julia Roberts, Demi Moore and Judd Nelson among others. Moreover, it was a moderate hit and can be said to mark the real beginning of Joel Schumacher’s directing career. “You understand, we had no idea ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ would become what it did,” Schumacher is careful to say — once again downplaying his own savvy.
During the remainder of the ’80s and into the ’90s, Schumacher directed “The Lost Boys” (1987), an innovative vampire comedy; “Cousins” (1989); “Flatliners” (1990); “Dying Young” (1991); and “Falling Down” (1993). A mixed bag of genres and subjects, most of them did very decent business, and as a whole created a high, if somewhat controversial, profile for Joel Schumacher. Clearly, he worked well with actors because the performances were outstanding; just as obviously he wasn’t afraid to tackle risky subject matter. “Falling Down” in particular was perceived as a right-wing rant by a man who was previously perceived as liberal, aided by his star, Michael Douglas, who had the same image. For honest Angelenos, however, it hit the nail on the head, expressing some of their frustrations with city life in the here and now.
Schumacher’s career took a quantum leap in 1994 with “The Client,” from John Grisham’s bestselling potboiler. Susan Sarandon, Tommy Lee Jones and newcomer Brad Renfro starred in the immensely entertaining yarn about the struggles between a woman lawyer and a prosecutor to control a boy who witnessed a murder. The reviews were almost as good as the box office gross of nearly $100 million. The now-famous breakfast meeting between Warner CEOs Terry Semel and Bob Daly and Schumacher soon followed. Offered the next “Batman” movie, the latchkey kid leapt to the challenge. “I grew up before TV, on Batman comics … yes, yes.”
“Batman Forever,” third in the franchise, was the biggest moneymaker of 1995. Without much of a breather, Schumacher shifted gears into his second franchise: his second movie based on a Grisham novel, “A Time To Kill.” Here again, he got away with putting neophyte Matthew McConaughey into a starring role alongside Sandra Bullock. “I have no fear about using newcomers because of my experience with them,” he comments. “It has been written that I ‘took a chance’ on unknowns, but I wasn’t offered mainstream projects with big stars. That’s what I used to long for, but now I enjoy making choices that aren’t secured by stardom.”
Unsurprisingly, Schumacher lists performers as a film’s most important element after the material, which is always the most important consideration. “From the beginning I’ve been blessed with great casts,” he says. “‘The Virginia Hill Story’ starred Dyan Cannon, Harvey Keitel, John Vernon and Allan Garfield. It doesn’t get better than that. Luckily, I’ve usually gotten my first choices and I always, always listen to my actors.”
The director chooses his crew with just as much care. “My favorite kind of movie is the one which creates its own world. You need all the right people to do that. I like a filmmaking team to take me on a visually exciting journey somewhere.”
For Schumacher, the “Batman” movies were “a big, fantastic playground,” offering an unparalleled opportunity to experiment. Production designer Barbara Ling and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt are once again aboard the “Batman & Robin” train, which, the director promises, will top its predecessor. “We were finding our way with ‘Batman Forever.’ Success sometimes helps.” On the near horizon is a third Grisham project and, hopefully, the story of a three-girl singing trio, “Dreamgirls.” Life comes full circle.
Joel Schumacher makes no apologies for being an old-fashioned Hollywood-style director. “I love to travel all over the world meeting people who’ve seen and enjoyed my movies. I need and want that feedback — after all, that’s why you make the movie! What a lot of critics don’t seem to understand is that people don’t go to movies expecting a bad time. No, they want to enjoy themselves, and it’s my job not to disappoint them.”
Hollywood has changed over the years, and Schumacher worries that it’s become too business-oriented, run by agents, managers and publicists who fear losing a client. “No demand by their client is too aberrant to be refused.” Ever an optimist, however, he sees young people coming into the business who won’t play that game, and cites advances for women and minorities as positives.
“I’d like to make movies the rest of my life, as long as I don’t become an anachronism,” he says. “I still think of myself as someone with his nose pressed against the glass, looking in.”