Joel Schumacher stopped by the Hamptons Film Festival on Saturday morning to accept a lifetime achievement award in directing. He later spoke with Variety about the ups and downs of his career, including 1995’s “Batman Forever,” which grossed $336 million worldwide, and 1997’s “Batman & Robin,” starring George Clooney, which was panned so badly that it temporarily killed the Dark Knight franchise for Warner Bros. Schumacher also recalled discovering Julia Roberts, Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell.
Your “Batman” movies aren’t as dark as Christopher Nolan’s.
I was never able to go into the darkness. Because of “Batman Returns,” families had objected that it was too adult, which is no criticism of Tim Burton’s. When they offered it to me, I went to Tim and said, “This is your franchise and they want me to do it. I won’t do it if you don’t want me to.” He said, “Take it, please! I can’t do another one.” Even though “Batman Forever” is really sexy, it was a movie the whole family could see.
You introduced nipples to the Batsuit. Were you surprised they became so controversial?
Yes, I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I think that will be on my gravestone. It’s how I’ll be remembered.
But “Batman Forever” was a box office hit.
It was the biggest movie of the year and the cheapest “Batman” ever made. It cost under $100 million, with Val [Kilmer], Nicole [Kidman], even Jim [Carrey] was still coming up. “Batman Forever” was total passion. My bosses let me change Batman. Jim was inspired as the Riddler. Tom Lee Jones played Harvey Two Face. Drew Barrymore is in it. Debi Mazar plays a bad girl. It has a great cast and everyone did a great job. It was fun to create a “Batman” movie.
Then came “Batman & Robin.” Was it your idea to cast George Clooney as Batman?
No, Val left at eleventh hour to do “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” It changed everything. George made a noble effort. I was the problem with “Batman & Robin.” I never did a sequel to any of my movies, and sequels are only made for one reason: to make more money and sell more toys. I did my job. But I never got my ass in the seat right.
They immediately wanted a sequel, but I said yes. There’s nobody else to blame but me. I could have said, “No, I’m not going to do it.” I just hope whenever I see a list of the worst movies ever made, we’re not on it. I didn’t do a good job. George did. Chris [O’Donnell] did. Uma [Thurman] is brilliant in it. Arnold is Arnold.
How do you think Ben Affleck will do as “Batman”?
I think a lot of people discounted Ben. I think they’ve been shown that they were foolish and that he’s doing great.
How has the business in Hollywood changed since you started making movies?
It’s very hard to explain. I got to Hollywood in the Christmas of 1971. I was making $200 a week as a costume designer. You knew everyone by the first name, including the heads of the studios. It was very intimate and much smaller than I dreamed it would be. There weren’t that many studios. I could just go to the bosses at a studio and say there’s an unknown I want to put in the lead of this movie. They would allow me to talk them into it.
You worked with Julia Roberts early on in “Flatliners.”
The question I always get is, “How do you know these young people are going to be stars?” You don’t. You just know there is no one like them. If Julia Roberts walked into your office at 20 and you didn’t hire her, you shouldn’t be in the movie business. I’d seen so many actresses for “Flatliners.” I just fell in love with her. “Pretty Woman” and “Steel Magnolias” hadn’t come out yet. There’s no one like her in the whole world.
You were also the first director to cast Matthew McConaughey as a lead in “A Time to Kill.”
I saw him in “Dazed and Confused.” Everyone knew when they saw “Dazed and Confused” that he leapt off the screen. The Grisham books were so hot at that moment, but John didn’t want to make a movie of his first book. I just stalked him and John loved “The Client,” which helped. He said I could do “A Time to Kill,” but he had approval over the lead character. A lot of actors wanted to do it, and John didn’t want them. When I brought in Matthew, I thought of him to play the redneck bad guy at first [later played by Kiefer Sutherland]. I was talking to him and realized this guy would be great in the lead. He asked me if Brad Pitt was doing the film and I said he’s not. Anyway, I didn’t want to ruin his career. With some friends, we went way downtown in L.A. and did this little audition, because if John didn’t like it, no one would know. I sent it down to John. And the next day he called me and said, “Who is this guy? I love him.” We got to call Matthew and tell him he got the lead.
What about Colin Farrell, who you introduced to Hollywood in “Tigerland?”
It was all because of “Queer as Folk.” Channel Four in England and Russell T. Davies wanted me to do the American version, which HBO was going to do. They flew me over to London to talk to them, and I was casting “Tigerland.” And so my assistants and I met with 44 young actors in three days before I went back. [CAA manager] Josh Lieberman, who wanted to sign Colin — he’d been in a soap opera in Ireland — drove me insane to meet him. Colin was in Dublin. I said, “He’s going to spend his own money to come to London? Please tell him not to do that.” Well, he was coming. You couldn’t stop him. And he was an hour late.
Why was he late?
I bet he stopped at the bar for some courage. He’s Irish.
When did you know you wanted to direct?
When I was seven.
How did you know from such an early age?
I grew up behind a movie theater in Long Island City before television. When I wasn’t getting into trouble, I lived in the movie theater. I was in love with the movies, and then I saw “Great Expectations.” My father had died when I was four. The first image of it is Pip in the graveyard. I didn’t know there was a Charles Dickens novel, but it was one of the great movie images I saw. I couldn’t sleep for three weeks. It haunted me. I wanted to tell stories like that.