In Conversation With... is our interview series where we talk to someone of the most well-known and respected actors and directors about their career, filmography, influences, what they make of the industry nowadays and everything in between.
Beginning his career in costume design, Joel Schumacher's career has been anything but ordinary. His first credited screenplays were for disco musicals Car Wash and The Wiz, and Sparkle, a drama about a trio of singers that was loosely based on The Supremes. His first credited film as director was The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin, a B-movie comedy based on a novella by Richard Matheson.
His first major hit was 1985's St. Elmo's Fire, which starred Brat Pack starlets Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy. The film was a huge commercial success, earning over three times its production budget and confirming Schumacher's status as a director on the rise. 1987's The Lost Boys, with Kiefer Sutherland, further cemented this.
Throughout the '90s, Schumacher's work was varied both in tone and budget. He directed A Time To Kill, The Client and Falling Down, all mid-budget thrillers that received high praise for their sharp directing and eye for casting. 1995's Batman Forever was commercially successful, but has since become somewhat maligned in comparison to later iterations.
With the critical pummeling received by Batman & Robin in 1997, Schumacher began to move away from blockbusters and into smaller, genre-driven films like 8MM with Nicholas Cage and Phone Booth with Colin Farrell. In 2003, Schumacher directed Veronica Guerin with Cate Blanchett in the title role.
In Part 1 of our interview with Joel Schumacher, we talked about his time in Dublin and meeting Guerin's mother, Bernadette, working with Colin Farrell on Tigerland, how he views casting and his work on St. Elmo's Fire.
Have you been back to Dublin since Veronica Guerin?
No... and I felt terrible when Veronica's mother, Bernadette, died. We became close during the making of the film and I called her once a month, and I'd have loved to see her again before she died. I felt badly, but, y'know, these things happen. I always hoping to get another movie in Ireland!
You've worked with a lot of Irish actors, Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell, I'm surprised you haven't got back to us since.
Jerry Bruckheimer, after his development guys saw Tigerland, they were planning to do a movie on Veronica (Guerin) and they had a loose-leaf notebook which was very thick, it had article after article about the murder and then there was a DVD with Steve Kroft, one of our reporters on 60 Minutes, he did two pieces on Veronica Guerin and they were there. So the second I read the first article, I said yes right away. I don't think anyone in Hollywood could have got that film made except for Jerry Bruckheimer. I think he just bulldozed his way through Disney (laughs) and made it. I was very lucky. I met Cate Blanchett in New York, she was doing press and she agreed to do Veronica and she was a gift.
It really was a watershed moment, Veronica Guerin's murder, in Irish history. It still has resonance.
Yeah, the boldness of it... the last line of the film from Don Wycherly. I think Cate and I were the only foreigners on set! I think everyone else in the cast were Irish, great Irish crew. Y'know, loved Ireland so much, I loved Dublin, but I'm so glad I got sober before I came to Ireland because I'd have never gone home! (laughs) I lived at the Clarence Hotel, y'know, on the Liffey - and you know that four-square block behind the Clarence, what's it called?
Yeah, Temple Bar.
Temple Bar, that's it! I think we counted how many places there were to drink. I didn't get sober until I was 52, thank Jesus, Mohammed, whoever! But, y'know, you fall right back into it again without drinking, the energy of it is amazing and that energy and, you know, it's a young place.
It's a bit of tourist trap, though.
I remember the first time I met Bernie Guerin and she said, "Ireland is a small town and Dublin is a very small town and you either better be a good storyteller or a good listener!" (laughs) Unlike Manhattan, there's still a neighbourhood and cosiness and reality to it. It's in a small radius, but it still's Dublin. It's not London, y'know.
When I was preparing for this, I didn't realise you wrote the screenplay for Car Wash.
The first one I wrote was Sparkle, which was about three African-American girls who sing. It was done for no money, both Car Wash and Sparkle. In those days, y'know, they were considered black films. Unfortunately, there were a lot of theatres that didn't screen films that starred African-Americans. Sparkle became a big cult film, they remade it recently, and then Car Wash is what they call a crossover movie. That means white people went to it! (laughs) But who knew? The great Norman Whitfield did the music and you had Antonio Fargas from Starsky & Hutch there, as well.
Car Wash was the little engine that could, it just caught. The music had a lot to do with it too. Having been in the film business for almost 50 years, you know... you're either at the right place at the right time with the right movie or you're not. Many times, we see wonderful movies that nobody else sees it and many times - and this is true of everybody and maybe it's true of some of my hits - where people at look at each other and they're like, how did this become popular? I'm pretty loathe to say that, because I think everyone who finishes a movie should get an Academy Award! (laughs) But, y'know, I'm not complaining. I got paid to do something I would have done for nothing. But I never told my agent that!
When you're putting together a film, will you have music in pre-production? Where did music feature in for St. Elmo's Fire, say?
The head of music at Columbia, Gary Lemel... David Foster had many hit songs, he produced a lot of hit records with very famous singing talent and Gary said that David Foster had never done a score for a film. I asked if he'd do it and I went out to Malibu and he's one of the most open, lovable charming people I've ever met. Not only did he want to do it, but we sat at the piano and he just played that theme. People get married to it.
The song with John Parr (Man In Motion), I think John was available. We had to finish the movie in three weeks because it was supposed to come out in the fall, but the head of Columba, Guy McElwaine, he decided it should come out in the summer. So it was just luck, and David was writing that song because I think it was about an athlete in a wheelchair and it's really rousing, and he added St. Elmo's Fire to it and killed two birds, he was able to do the heroic thing and it didn't hurt our movie at all. So that was, yeah, that was Gary Lemel's situation.
It was the same with Car Wash, Norman Whitfield who had written music for The Four Tops, The Supremes, the big hitmakers of Motown, his contract was just up and the producers who had worked in the music industry got him to write the songs for Car Wash and if you ever see the movie again, it's kind of like a little opera because each song is a comment on what's happening. They're very thought out. With Rose Royce, they were back-up singers and Norman just put some back-up singers together and called them Rose Royce and because of the success of the album, they toured as Rose Royce.
I interviewed Lauren Shuler Donner and we talked about St. Elmo's Fire, but she made a point that people have said they'd love to remake St. Elmo's Fire. Did it come from your own experiences?
I wrote and directed D.C. Cab, it got a great review in the New York Times which was unusual for that kind of movie and for them, but God bless them! (laughs) While I was shooting that, I was staying in Georgetown, and it plays heavily in The Exorcist as well. On a Saturday morning, I was out having coffee on the street and I was watching all these young kids, and I don't mean to call them kids, but to me, they were so young. It was during the period of Reaganomics and, what was happening with a lot of young people, was they were getting recruited out of college and they needed to have a twenty-five year plan, and I thought, they're still kids!
It's like college spits you out and you've gotta do something and this is true everywhere in the world. Nothing had really been done since The Graduate, I'm not comparing myself to Mike Nichols! (laughs) But I thought, it must be tough for these kids that they've got to be big shots. I had an intern from Duke University, the studio had an intern program - I was working at Universal then - and Carl Curlander was my intern.
I made him an assistant for a while, he was part-time I think, and he had just finished his college experience and while I was making D.C. Cab, I told him I wanted to do something about a group of kids who had just graduated. Most, I would say almost all teenage films, young people films, were treated like... let's not spend a lot of money, all the guys will be after one thing and the girls must be blonde and have breasts and a lot of dirty jokes and young people movies were treated, like, it doesn't matter what they look like, let's not spend a lot of money and get it out there. Not that there weren't great ones, of course.
I thought a lot of the young people I knew and a lot of the young people's writing I read, there were a lot of serious problems in their life. I wanted to approach in a way so that when we wrote it, it wasn't just these cutesy wholesome teenagers or the bitchy girl, one from Column A or B, so that was the intent and Carl brought a lot to it. He actually was obsessed with a young woman when he was in college and that became the germ of the idea, the Emilio Estevez / Andie MacDowell part. And then I think, the other characters are probably... Demi Moore's character was two or three young women I knew. A sad, lost girl in it. All that bravado to cover such loneliness, such sadness, along with the drugs. But people had drug problems.
Rob Lowe plays a young man, a beautiful popular guy and they graduate and he's just a drunk and he had unfortunately fathered a baby and that's very real and that's a problem and we dealt with it. And Judd Nelson (laughs) played a character who switched courses, he was a young Democrat who switches sides to the Republicans for better salaries! That was my little comment on politics!
I thought that might have been a commentary on your future, going from these smaller budget films to something huge like Batman Forever!
It was actually the cheapest Batman ever made! (laughs) I didn't make much money, Val Kilmer didn't make a lot, Chris O'Donnell didn't make a lot or Nicole Kidman. No one ever notices when you have a successful film like St. Elmo's Fire or Lost Boys, people think that because it's successful, it must have cost a lot of money. .
But Lauren and I decided, let's make a young people's movie like an A-Movie with a great cinematographer, in anamorphic, the way someone once said was the way God meant for movies to be seen! We'd make it with great clothes and great sets and great music, make it like an A-Movie. That was a lot of the thinking behind putting it together. Now you never know if it's going to work.
Definitely, when I did Batman Forever, yes, it was the biggest budget I'd ever seen. But it wasn't huge because, and this is no fault of Tim Burton, but Batman Returns - and it'll show you what's happened in the US - was considered too dark by families for their kids. A lot of the merchandise and toys didn't sell, a lot kids were screaming and shrieking, they were furious with Warners for having made the film, which is very unfair.
So, y'know, Batman Forever was younger and sexier and lighter. Jim Carrey was just dazzling as the Riddler and we got Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Drew Barrymore. Sometimes, you get lucky. The reason we had a small budget was because nobody wanted another Batman movie. In fact, the studio asked me to fly to a lot of countries to talk to the distributors who didn't want another Batman movie and try to talk them into it, which was interesting because we didn't have a movie yet and the merchandise people had lost money, but the few people that signed on with Batman Forever, the figures, the vehicles and I think that was Hasbro? Wal-Mart, a lot of people, they made a fortune because a lot of people stayed away. But it wasn't a big budget compared to other films at the time.
One of the things I've always noted about your films is you've got a great eye for casting. What's the one criteria you look for when casting? What do you look for?
It's different. In Kiefer's case, I saw one shot of him in an excellent movie called At Close Range, and it was evident he had a bigger part that was cut out through no fault of his own. There's a close-up of him in a crowd and it was that simple. Julia Roberts, I saw a photograph of her in Vogue with her brother and sister (Eric Roberts and Lisa Roberts Gillian), and I met her, I was casting Flatliners and... a lot of it is like falling in love.
You know someone's out there, maybe, hopefully. I'd seen a lot of actresses before Julia walked into my house one Sunday morning in cut-off jeans and a baggy white t-shirt and that great hair, and I just gotten back from London having asked Kiefer to be in Flatliners. Julia walked in and I was lying out by the first pool I ever had! (laughs) It was so hot, the sun was blazing, and I was so hungover, and suddenly Julia walked in with the sun behind her, and I thought, how have I lived without having this person in my life? I feel if you met Julia when she was 20 or whatever age she was then, and you didn't hire her, you shouldn't be in the movie business.
How about Colin Farrell? He was doing a lot of TV work here in Ireland.
He was doing that before I met him, or had at least finished it. There was an agent at CAA and he was gung-ho about Colin. I was in England doing press for Flawless and another one... there were couple of years where I did two movies in the same year. I did 8MM and Flawless. I was over in England with Philip Seymour Hoffman doing press. We were casting Tigerland and my agreement with Arnon Milchan, who financed it with Fox, I wanted to do it with unknowns. I'd done several movies with Arnon and he agreed with me. So I said to Mali Finn, our casting director, I'm in England and they're doing Hamlet by the time they're five. I want to see what young actors are around.
I think my assistant and I read 44 actors in three days and I'd just had it. It was pissing rain, the studio booked a big suite for me at Claridge's so I could do press, and we did all the readings there. And suddenly, the sun came out and I wanted to get out of the hotel! So, the agent who wanted to sign him, the CAA guy, called me and said there was this kid in Ireland and he's really great and he wanted me to meet with him. And I said, look, from what you're telling me, he doesn't have money to fly to London, so just have him do a tape because I've hired many people from tapes. He doesn't have to come meet with me. No, he wants to meet with you, he wants to be with you.
I said, OK but I feel very awkward about this because the chances of an Irish kid getting the part of an American GI, going to Vietnam, is... a stretch. It's a stretch. And he was late! (laughs) I thought he wasn't coming! And I was ready to leave, let's get out in the sun and right at the moment, the concierge rang up and said Mr. Farrell is here. And I hung up and said, Oh fuck! I want to be good to this actor 'cos he's come from Dublin and I felt so awful.
Colin walked in and a black leather jacket and a t-shirt and sat down. He just filled the room. They fill the room. We talked a long time and that was pretty much it. His mother (Rita Farrell) told me later that he flew back to Dublin said, "Oh, he was great to meet, but I didn't get the part." I was flying back to LA the next day, and I was reading the script. I'd no-one to play the lead part, and I thought, there's something about that kid that is really staying with me. I'm sure I have a part for him somewhere. I'm gonna read him for the lead and we'll see what he can do.
He sent out a tape for me and Roger Ebert told me to put it on the DVD, the Director's Cut or something and Colin agreed. I think Colin had a few, (laughs) he bent his elbow a few times and his sister is filming and he's kind of.. he's a little wonky, and I told him to watch Hud with Paul Newman and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and Cool Hand Luke, they're characters like the character he played. He was trying to do some kind of American accent, and you could hear his sister with her brogue doing the lines, "So are you going to Vietnam?" (laughs)
But there was something about him and I showed it to Mali Finn, who had an impeccable eye for talent, and she said he's really got something. So, I asked Arnon if he would fly him to LA and I had him go in and meet him, who was putting up the money. It's an extra expense, you've got to put them up, bring them from Europe, a lot of things. Arnon called me up and said, "...Y'know, he's a nice kid, I don't know, you know."
But I also had made a great deal of money on Arnon's movies. I did The Client, A Time To Kill and Falling Down for Arnon, and we had great success and Arnon let me put an unknown boy in the lead role for The Client and many other things, and he backed me putting Matthew (McConaughey) in A Time To Kill. So he was very game. He was the one who financed Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman too. So, anyway, Arnon said, "I don't know about these things. All I know is when Colin left, every woman who works at Regency Films and came into my office and asked me who that is." (laughs) Colin got himself down to Texas and worked on a ranch, and started imitating the way they talked, doing that Texan accent. And the rest is history.
Part 2 of our interview with Joel Schumacher is live on site this Saturday. This interview has been condensed and edited.
For more from our In Conversation interview series...