Veteran director Joel Schumacher has had an eclectic, sometimes distinguished, and never less than colorful career across four decades in Hollywood. Though for some his name is synonymous with the camp excesses of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, the self-described “street kid from New York” boasts a much deeper and more varied filmography that includes cult gems, blockbuster thrillers, and tense, micro genre pieces.
As a young production designer, he worked on vintage Woody Allen movies like Sleeper and Interiors before penning a series of urban pictures — Car Wash, Sparkle, and The Wiz — that bottled something of a minor cult zeitgeist. Schumacher made his debut behind the lens directing Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and as the ’80s wore on, he was responsible for the seminal “brat pack” films St. Elmo’s Fire and Flatliners, while in between he would helm 1987’s stone-cold classic The Lost Boys — back when teen vampires were original, funny, and menacing. After unleashing an unforgettably mad-as-hell Michael Douglas on Los Angeles in Falling Down, Schumacher spent the ’90s alternating between high-profile adaptations like A Time To Kill and the candy-colored second-phase of Warner Bros.’ Batman franchise, where he was called upon, as he recounts, to render the dark knight more accessible (and, by his own admission, to became a salesman for a toy line).
Schumacher’s last decade has mostly seen him scaling back his projects, with the likes of Phone Booth, Tigerland, and Veronica Guerin realigning the filmmaker with his preferred mode of lower budget, darker movies on the fringes. With his latest, the heightened home invasion thriller Trespass, starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman, in theatrical release this week, we spoke candidly with Schumacher about his career. Read on to hear his thoughts on Batman — including how he wanted to direct The Dark Knight and almost cast Nicolas Cage as the Scarecrow — his admiration for Christopher Nolan’s films, and his preference for smaller, darker movies. But first, after much agonizing, he laid down his all-time Five Favorite Films.
I’d have to say number one is the Russian War and Peace, which is eight hours long [laughs] and is, I think, the greatest film ever made. Just in scope, and size, and the genius of Sergei Bondarchuk, and the majesty of it. It took 10 years to make, and everyone in it ages the 10 years [they do] in the book. So there are no other actors playing the other people; the children all grow 10 years, and so do the older people. That’s pretty amazing in itself. And there was no CGI, so when you see the Battle of 1812 of Borodino, it seems like there are just 50,000 soldiers on horseback. It was made by the Russian government, which is why they had access to everything and so much money. I would have to say that was my number one.
Number two… I would usually say Lawrence of Arabia but I’m sure everyone says Lawrence of Arabia — and it is one of the greatest movies ever made — but I was trying to think of others, and I would have to say a Billy Wilder one. I would say Double Indemnity, only because it’s never been matched. That plot has been copied, you know, a million times, but that was the first. And his dialogue is great. Billy Wilder’s one of my favorite directors. I would like to pick five of his movies, but I’ll say Double Indemnity because no one’s ever matched it. Well, no one’s ever matched Sunset Boulevard, either.
You worked as a production designer on a late film with Gloria Swanson. Did you ever meet her?
Yes. She was… she was odd. I’d read about how in the ’20s she had started a macrobiotic diet and was a great believer in Zen and seemed to be very ahead of her time, so I assumed I would be working with a highly enlightened human being. [Laughs] And I’m not saying she was unpleasant, but she was far from enlightened, and very critical of everything and everybody. But that’s okay — she was Gloria Swanson. [Laughs] Legends can act like legends.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is truly one of my favorite movies of all time. I think that it is, you know, Peter Greenaway’s genius, and it has my favorite actress in the world, Helen Mirren. It also has Michael Gambon and Tim Roth — I mean, we could go on. The visuals are magnificent. I think it is the consummate piece about the greed of the ’80s. It’s pure theater and it’s just a visual masterpiece.
Speaking of that, we must go to Blade Runner — true visual genius, and also in a class never matched. I saw it the first show, the first day, with a bunch of my friends. I can remember that because it was at the Cinerama dome in Hollywood, and it was on that huge screen with that incredible sound system. I still remember that great Vangelis music. But that opening — it’s embedded in my mind, that opening, with that scape of the city and its almost Mayan-like temple formation and those fires out of nowhere shooting up. Plus, Sean Young — that interview [with Harrison Ford’s Deckard] is unbelievable. I got a lovely letter from her last year. I worked with her on Cousins. Amazingly, amazingly beautiful. And of course it has the great Harrison Ford, and Edward James Olmos, and we could just go on and on with that movie. Daryl Hannah is great in it. And the doll guy, William Sanderson, who I got to work with on The Client — he played one of Tommy Lee Jones’ posse. One of the great things about my job is that I’ve been able to cast, sometimes, my favorite people.
Apocalypse Now. I would ordinarily say The Conversation, because it was so ahead of its time, but Apocalypse Now — another masterpiece. Also, a lot of these movies would never be made today. But — I’m leaving out Scorsese, I’m leaving out David Fincher; you know, I’m leaving out some of the great Europeans. I’m leaving out 100, or a thousand movies that we could talk about. I’ve been a fan of Chris Nolan’s since I saw his black-and-white film Following. I saw that movie in Paris years and years ago and I thought, “We’re gonna hear from this guy; this is an amazing talent.” I’m glad people really recognized it early enough to support him. There are so many other movies we could talk about. There are at least five David Leans. There are at least five Fellinis. Five Viscontis. John Ford. John Huston. Minelli. And Kubrick! I didn’t say Kubrick! I should be thrown out of film for that. It’s really hard. I don’t know how you do it.
Luke Goodsell for Rotten Tomatoes: You mentioned Christopher Nolan. What did you think of his Batman films — were you impressed?
Joel Schumacher: Yes. You know, I was the person who was hired to revamp the franchise because of Batman Returns — [Warner Bros.] had a lot of problems with it being too dark, and kids being too scared; they saw it as a disappointment. So we did a younger, sexier, maybe more user-friendly Batman [Forever] which obviously connected, because it was such a hit — and then, I know I disappointed a lot of people with Batman and Robin. But I did my job — I sold a lot of toys. I’d always begged to do The Dark Knight [at the time]. If you look at most of my movies you can understand why I’d wanna do The Dark Knight — my other movies always have the tendency to go toward the dark. But there were a lot of issues going on. We had to get a lot of people into theaters, which we accomplished, and we did it the best we could. And George Clooney always takes blame, which I hate — it’s all me, all the time; it’s my fault. [Laughs] It sold a lot of toys. That was my job. No excuses. Anyway, I love what Christopher Nolan’s done, especially — unfortunately — with Heath’s [Ledger’s] last performance [in The Dark Knight]; although I guess he was doing Terry’s [Gilliam’s] movie when he died. That performance alone in that movie is amazing. I can’t wait to see the next one. I think that Tim’s [Burton’s] movies and my movies and Christopher’s movies are so different that I can appreciate them all, as a Batman fan — which I have been since I was a kid.
RT: Is it true that you wanted Nicolas Cage to play the Scarecrow if you had another shot at Batman?
Schumacher: Yeah. We were preparing. In between the Batmans I did the two [John] Grishams, The Client and A Time To Kill, and I promised Warners that I would do [Grisham’s] Runaway Jury and a fifth Batman. And I was gonna do the Scarecrow. I had lunch with Nic Cage on the set of Face/Off and asked him to play that part, but — on the press tour for Batman and Robin — I was opening toy stores. And that was fun — it was nice to be the one who was hitting balls out of the park and making blockbusters, because I never was that guy — and then it wasn’t fun, because I’d started with very small movies and had done very small movies, and still do. So I actually left Warner Bros., which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because they’d been wonderful to me; but I just didn’t feel Runaway Jury. I just couldn’t do it, because there was no passion for it. And then I did 8MM, which is exactly my kind of material, and also, it’s as far from a summer feel-good movie as anything. That was a big turning point. Deciding not to worry about whether “We’re No. 1” and whether or not I’m making more money every year and all that stuff. I’m a street kid from New York — it was time to get back on the subway.
RT: Do you ever have a desire to return to big films?
Schumacher: Well Phantom [of the Opera] was huge. I think after Phone Booth and Tigerland and Veronica Guerin, you know — they were getting smaller and smaller. [Laughs]. I’m proud of all those movies, but when we got down to Phone Booth, I thought, “What’s next? Are you going to make a movie called Sink, and have everyone standing around the sink?” [Laughs]
RT: I think Mike Leigh made that one.
Schumacher: Right. [Laughs] And Andrew Lloyd Webber had been trying to get me to do Phantom since he saw The Lost Boys in Europe, which was in ’88. So that was a spectacle. I’d always felt that Tigerland and Phone Booth and 8MM were like “dirt under the fingernail” movies, you know what I mean, and that Phantom was gonna be as far from that as you could possibly get. But it also had a very dark hero. Once again, we plunge into the darkness. It was fun to do. I’d never done a musical before. And then it was back to basics again. In the world today, as everyone knows, in the movie business you’re either making expensive franchises or you’re doing tiny movies that may not even see the light of day. For instance, [Schumacher’s last film] Twelve sold right away at Sundance but the people who bought it had no money to market it. DVD got it a following. And that was true of Tigerland, because Rupert Murdoch didn’t want it released because he felt that it was anti-war and anti-American, which it was certainly not.
RT: Trespass is such a small film relative to the fame of its stars. How was it reconnecting with Nicolas and Nicole? Had they changed as performers — and what was it like working in such a confined space?
Schumacher: Well, we all had grown, and certainly the world has seen Nicole and Nic start as very, very young actors. Nic was the crazy young guy, and Nicole was the beautiful girl who was married to Tom Cruise, and I think they’ve both proven to the world what their talents really are — and worked very hard at it, too. We’ve stayed friends for years. There are things that they always were that they still are. They are never late. [Laughs] And when I say they are never late, I don’t mean ever. And they are the most professional actors. Nicole takes 25 minutes in hair and make-up. The guys don’t take 25 minutes — they take an hour. They help the other actors, and when you’re dealing with filming in such a small space, everybody is dependent on each other. Sometimes there are seven people talking at once in a room, and four cameras moving around them constantly. It’s a dance. And it gets a little rough.
RT: Did Nicolas originally want to play the villain in the film?
Schumacher: I wanted him to be the hero. He decided he wanted to play the bad guy, so we investigated that. I said to him, “Everybody knows you can play this bad guy, that you can tear up the screen and you’ll do something unique and original — but I want you to play the hero.” In 8MM, what we worked on together is that he’s a relatively average man who then changes and tragically becomes someone he never thought he would be, and I wanted Nic to play a husband and a father and then also become someone he never thought he would be. Nic got so torn he quit. But he came back after two days and decided he had always wanted to play the father. [Laughs]
RT: Nicolas recently described his acting style as “nouveau shamanic.” What do you think he meant?
Schumacher: Well, Nic is totally captivated by magic — by voodoo, by all of the magical arts, if you will, and superstitions. He loves all of that. I’m sure you can imagine — Nic doesn’t think like anyone else; he thinks like Nic Cage. There’s not necessarily a connected, plotting logic to it — there’s magic to it. He’s an artist. They’re very different styles. Nicole is perfection beyond belief and has worked so hard of every single nuance and second of her performance, while Nic lets it fly — he lets it really fly and sees where it goes. I think they worked off each other really well. Not that Nicole isn’t spontaneous — in a movie like Trespass, everyone’s spontaneous all the time.
Trespass is in limited release this week.
Thumbnail image: George Pimentel/Getty Images, ©Janus Films courtesy Everett Collection, Paramount Pictures, Trimark, (c)Warner Bros. courtesy Everett Collection, United Artists