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.
In 2013, Joel Schumacher joined the directing pool of House Of Cards, working with his long-time friend David Fincher and Netflix.
The series was considered a gamble by pretty much everyone, as this was the first original series produced by the streaming service. Schumacher directed the fifth and sixth episode of the series, working with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and in line with the visual aesthetic set up by Fincher in the first two episodes.
In the second part of our feature interview with Schumacher, we discussed his working relationship with Fincher, how the two originally met during the production of Alien 3 and Schumacher's own tastes in television and film.
A lot of your work was in that mid-range budget, like Tigerland, and most of that is gone now. Do you think we're losing something, do you think it's better that it goes to TV?
Well, my experience on House Of Cards for instance... when my friend, the genius, David Fincher asked me to come down to Baltimore and they were just starting the show the first year. You never know if it's going to be successful. But the one thing I did know was that this was intelligent material for adults and I was handed a great cast, but it was like a breath of fresh air. It wasn't lowest common denominator. It was, like, yeah, there used to be that. It was so amazing and then, of course, who knew it was going to hit the way it did. Netflix hadn't done a TV series before. I would have to say, yeah, I think that the stuff that we watch now are really on iTunes and Netflix and a lot of British crime drama, Taboo with Tom Hardy, for example.
Yeah, Tom Hardy's father wrote that. He's a novelist.
I didn't know that! That's funny, I've known Tom since he was a teenager and he never told me that. Interesting. But he's also in Peaky Blinders and, strangely enough, he plays the head of the Jewish Mafia in that show.
Would you consider moving more into TV?
Yeah, I'd love to. I'd really love to. I'm actually writing a pilot that I came up with. Who knows. I know what I like to watch, I don't watch network television. A lot of my movies are very dark. Even if they're funny, there's darkness to them. I do love crime and I do love, y'know... Luther was a great show and, unfortunately it's over! It's a real shame. But I'm sure Idris has other things to do. You can't do a series forever. Helen Mirren did Prime Suspect for many years. I can't wait for them to come back with another season for Peaky Blinders. Cillian Murphy, he's brilliant. His talent is so profound. No matter what he's in, he can't do a bad performance. They all are. They're all brilliant. It's a very interesting thing, that Irish gang in London, it's so fascinating.
Joel Schumacher, centre, on the set of House Of Cards with Kevin Spacey (left) and Nathan Darrow (right)
I am obsessed with Game Of Thrones. I'm one of those people. I heard people talking about and it's not the kind of thing I'd usually be attracted to. I was buying a TV or something one day, and I was passing the movies and television DVDs were, there was this big box-set of the first season of Game Of Thrones and I thought, Ah, what the fuck, and I think because I had total control over it and watch an episode whenever I wanted and didn't have to wait for an episode. That's how I got hooked. If I had to wait for it, when it was first on HBO, I don't think I'd have stayed watching it. Then it's like drug addiction. You're chasing the dragon, so to speak.
What else are you watching?
Well, like I said, my significant other and I are obsessed with Peaky Blinders. We loved the first two seasons of The Fall, I heard the third season wasn't great. But I thought the way the second season ended was great and it dealt with everything. But, I don't know, that's why I'm not watching the third season because I don't want it to be less than.
The last two episodes of Game Of Thrones, the sixth season? They're two of the greatest episodes - in my humble estimation - ever done in television history. They are beyond the beyond. Ask any Game of Thrones fan and now there's only two more seasons, which is sad. There's a show called Ripper Street, it's good. The actors are good. Broadchurch was brilliant, I like the show set in Galway, Jack Taylor. I like that a lot.
Lauren Shuler Donner's producing Legion, incidentally.
I've watched the first episode! I'm waiting until my significant other gets back from LA, 'cos I don't want to get too deep into it.
I love it, it's really like The Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan.
I worked with Patrick McGoohan on A Time To Kill, he was the judge! He told me that he was actually a carpenter in Pinewood and, because he was so good-looking, someone told him he should be an actor. He's so good in that part.
OK, give me your Top 5 Movies of all time.
Well, I have to go back to Potemkin. Potemkin is the reason there are movies. Sergei Eisenstein, with the movie, based on a true incident in Russian history, showed the audience that a silent film could evoke human emotion by just using visual images, which are still copied to this day. I'd have to start with that because there wouldn't be movies without it. Of all-time... whoa... I'm trying to think of things wouldn't be that obvious.
Lawrence Of Arabia, obviously. I'm gonna put this all under the third one. Godfather I and II, with The Conversation slipped in there between them. One of the most prescient movies ever made. Talk about a world without privacy, take a look at that movie, and then Apocalypse Now. I think those four movies are such an astounding achievement.
I didn't realise you were such a Coppola fan.
Well, who isn't? I'm leaving out a lot of people. OK, I need something from Billy Wilder... Some Like It Hot, and Double Indemnity. Really the first movie where the wicked wife talks the weak husband, and it's been copied many times, but never better. And, uh... OK, modern ones... I think The Cook, The Thief, The Wife And Her Lover is a film about the greed of the '80s. I think Se7en is brilliant also.
I read that David Fincher showed you an early cut of Alien 3 and you tried to help him along.
Well... yeah, we had a mutual friend who thought we'd get along well and he was right. I went to have lunch with David and he was the well-deserved wunderkind of music videos and commercials. Did some of the greatest music videos of all time and the way he worked was sort of... the bad boy and very mischievous. He had sort of autonomy, and if you wanted him, you got him, and if you didn't want him, you don't get him. He definitely didn't appreciate authority and, because of his work being so brilliant, people gave him free reign. Well deserved.
So when he made Alien 3, that was his first film. The good news is you get your first feature. The bad news is it's a franchise and what they're expecting is what's crudely referred to in the industry as asses in seats. It wasn't a David Fincher film, it was really a studio trying to make more money out of the franchise and you can see there are some elements where David tried to make it a much more... y'know, it was more cerebral in parts and David is so brilliant that you understand it, if you know him. He had never worked in the studio system before and he wasn't used to some of the... diplomacy that's needed.
He wasn't used to having to answer to people, I guess.
Exactly. And here he is with a franchise on his hand. Had this been a tiny movie, he could have expressed himself more. But this is supposed to bring people in theatres that make a lot of money. That's why sequels are really made. He wasn't used to it, he didn't know how to handle... and everyone he was working for at the time, I wouldn't say they were the right people to deal with David either.
And David was so young. And I just tried to help him, and explain. I knew the people he was working for and tried to explain to him some things that might help him. I went to visit someone you could say was his boss, but I wouldn't call them that exactly. Y'know, I tried. It was just the wrong the movie at the wrong time, but there is no such thing because he probably learned a great deal from it. And then he made Seven. So fuck them all!
I've heard that he's still very sore about it, he's pretty much disowned it.
I don't know about all that, but I do know that David.. OK, a lot of people are terrified of him and they're wrong. That isn't who he is at all. He's a very sensitive human being and I think the reason that he is demanding and a perfectionist is because he is! I watched him shoot, I visited his sets, I visited Fight Club a couple of times, I visited when was shooting Zodiac, and then I watched him do the first two episodes of House Of Cards and he's a perfectionist. He doesn't raise his voice ever, he likes to do a lot of takes, some actors don't like that, but too bad! Too fucking bad!
Would you consider yourself a mentor to him?
No, no, no. I don't think he needs any mentoring whatsoever. I think it's a mutual relationship. I think at that particular moment, he didn't need a mentor, he needed a very sympathetic, understanding, maybe older person that had been through it all and someone who was on his side 100% and not trying to play any studio politics or anything like that, just try to help get him through it.
With someone like David, if you're not going to make a David Fincher film with his vision and you try to - in that particular case - make suggestions or demands that makes it in a studio's mind more commercial... then you're going to have... a camel is a horse put together by committee, y'know? It's either David Fincher's way or the studio's way but perhaps the twain don't meet all the time. But yeah, he's sensitive. He's an artist. But he's no weak sister either. That's a bit sexist! (laughs)
What are you like on set?
Pretty much like I am all the time. I got very angry twice on House Of Cards doing a couple of scenes and I yelled at two extras and I yelled at the second assistant, which I apologised profusely for. There's no excuse for it, but a lot of the episodes were all in offices and all in apartments and houses and I had a strike, a massive fight in the street, I had a party with 200 people outdoors over a period of three nights and not David, David was gone, the nuts and bolts line producer, who was great, told me all the money was used and I was on a shoestring to do this and I lost it a couple of times and I regret it. But most of the time, just like this, but sometimes you gotta kick ass.
Do you like to do a lot of takes, or do you like to move on to the next setup?
I think it's a director's job to know when you've got it. But I don't do that without asking the actor or actress if they're happy. I tell them they can have as many takes as they want, but that can lead to them forcing it. And sometimes, the first take is great and some actors need a few takes to warm up.
Do you try to impart some of your own personal story into the films you've directed, or at least the films you've written?
I think everything you do has a part of you in it. For instance, with St. Elmo's Fire, journalists would ask which character is you and I say all of 'em. You just, I don't know, impart self. Like, my liberal views are gonna creep in, no matter what. I don't think there's too many directors, or writers too, that would say some part of you isn't in there because you're creating it out of thin air. I would think so and I didn't wanna do Lost Boys, for instance, 'cos it was a G-rated film and it was kind of like Goonies go vampires. And Dick Donner, Lauren's husband, who's a friend of mine, they started dating during St. Elmo's Fire...
They met on Ladyhawke, I think.
That's right! When they came back from Ladyhawke, Lauren was getting a divorce from her husband and Dick was, uh, chasing her. Fortunately, he won! He was going to do Lost Boys when it was all kids and then he read the script of Lethal Weapon and, very wisely, jumped on that. So he and the President of Warners asked me to do Lost Boys and I wasn't gonna do it because it was a kids film.
I was gonna say, well, maybe people just take a gig and there's nothing wrong with that. Michaelangelo didn't think painting was an art, he was thought only sculpting was. He took the Sistine Chapel ceiling because he needed the job.
That's good advice.
I always tell people, always remember the Sistine Chapel was a gig! He just made it so he was happy with it. So, when I decided to do Lost Boys, it was only because if they would let me do teenagers and let me make it sexy and yada yada. But I needed the job, but then I thought and I think what a lot of directors do some times, is OK, I need this job but can I make it something I'm proud of? So there's always a part of you in your work - or else why do it?
I do think I've missed the mark though, and it's very easy to analyse when you miss the mark. When you've actually succeeded, you just... don't know what you've done. In the original Mel Brooks movie of The Producers, when they figure out that it's going to be a hit, Gene Wilder says what did we do right?! It's the same thing! (laughs) Sometimes when you have a hit, you think what did I do right?! But when you get it wrong, it's very easy to analyse it.
You try not to do it again, but, I think that for every body, you can't make... write a lot of the books, make a lot of movies, well you know, you're a creative person, you can't really get it right every time. I have a friend, it takes him five, six years to make a movie. Some of the Asian and European directors are like that. Still, you just can't get it right every time and I don't know if there is a right. You either appeal to an audience or you don't. The thing with film is now with Netflix and iTunes and Hulu and thank God, there are films that you can discover are wonderful, they just didn't get marketing and didn't find an audience. It's not that they didn't hit the mark, it's just bad luck.
Do you like to watch movies during production, to give you a creative zest?
I'll watch movies for people in them, or artistic people like... there's a wonderful horror film that's a real director's vision called It Follows and the cinematographer is brilliant, and I wrote his name down. The whole film is brilliant and the director has such great vision, I'm very interested to see what he's gonna do, so things like that. The only thing I could think of that has graduates in it was The Graduate, and I didn't watch it again because it had nothing to do with St. Elmo's Fire. I remember one of the fathers in the neighbourhood tells Dustin Hoffman, I have one word for you - plastics! I don't think anyone would say that to anyone in St. Elmo's Fire.
But, what it turned out with St. Elmo's Fire was I don't think it turned out what I set out to make. I think the reason that it struck a nerve was because it's about whether you never went to school, whether you hung out on corners with your posse, whether you graduated from high school or college, or you're on a team, is when you're young, you think you're going to be friends forever, but then life comes in. And that's what St. Elmo's Fire really turned out to be about that. I'll tell you one great story about St. Elmo's Fire and the Jesuits. (laughs)
Georgetown is a Jesuit university. When you shoot at a university, a church, whatever, it has to go through a board. Standard procedure. The Jesuits at Georgetown were such gentlemen that they invited me in after reading the script. I was with the Head Father and some of the younger Jesuits on either side of him and he spoke. He said, "Mr. Schumacher, the board and I read your script thoroughly and I am sorry, but we cannot let you shoot in or around Georgetown because your screenplay advocates pre-marital sex and we do not sanction that." And I said I understand - and this is (laughs) so much my personality - The Exorcist was shot at Georgetown, and I said.... "With all due respect, Father, wasn't a famous film shot here where a pre-pubescent girl masturbated with a crucifix who said 'Your mother sucks cock in hell!'?" And there was a little smile on his face! And he replied, "That's true, Mr. Schumacher, but in that particular film, God wins out over the Devil and that doesn't seem to be the case in your screenplay!" (laughs)
For more from our In Conversation interview series...