Animated, energetic, edgy and prolific, it’s hard to believe that Joel Schumacher was eighty-years-old, and even harder to believe that the director has passed away after a year-long battle with cancer. He made so many films that glistened with the promise of youth and discovered and promoted so many exciting young actors that Schumacher always seemed much, much younger than he was, and his films were adrenalised and often weird in ways that those of older filmmakers so rarely are. His was a bright, poppy but occasionally dark-hued filmography, and the film world will be a less interesting place without him.
Always a fascinating interview subject (check out any of talk show appearances on YouTube), FilmInk memorably chatted to Schumacher back in 2004 on the line from LA, where the director was lounging in The Century City Mall, a cheesy, sun-filled precinct on Santa Monica Boulevard. Schumacher was there waiting to check out the film, The Jacket, starring Adrien Brody, along with the other filmgoers. It was an appropriately iconoclastic moment for such an iconoclastic filmmaker, populist but curiously avant garde at the same time.
A one-time fashion designer and costume boy (he created the wardrobes for 1970s cult classics like Play It As It Lays, Blume In Love and Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Interiors), Schumacher developed into one of the most eclectic and electric of Hollywood directors. He cut his teeth by penning films like Sparkle, Car Wash and The Wiz in the 1970s, and helming the likes of The Incredible Shrinking Woman (with Lily Tomlin) and DC Cab (with Mr. T!) in the early 1980s, but only became Hollywood royalty by scripting and directing the brat-pack classic St. Elmo’s Fire in 1985. The deal was sealed with 1987’s vampire cult favourite The Lost Boys. The sheer variety of his subsequent output earmarked Schumacher more as a journeyman than an auteur, but a fascinating journeyman nonetheless: he helmed the all-star supernatural thriller Flatliners; the tear-jerker Dying Young; the bruising social commentary of Falling Down; the plush operatic comic cheese of Batman Forever; the sobering John Grisham adaptation A Time To Kill; and the polarising Nicolas Cage-starring snuff thriller 8mm (“I don’t think they could get anyone stupid enough to direct it, other than me,” Schumacher said of the film. “A lot of people were afraid of it)”.
For a long time, people blamed the psychedelic imagery in Schumacher’s movies on years of heroin use, but the vicious firefight surrounding the much maligned Batman & Robin (his garish follow up to the considerably more warmly received Batman Forever) was attributed to one thing only: his inalienable idiocy. Batman & Robin was a personal disaster of the highest order that yielded the devastating sally, “the dumbest thing Joel Schumacher has done since heroin.” The film is a true blight on the director’s resume, and Schumacher admirably never hid or backed away from it. “If there’s anyone that, let’s say, loved Batman Forever and went into Batman & Robin with great anticipation, if I disappointed them in anyway, then I really want to apologise, because it wasn’t my intention,” he once said. “My intention was just to entertain them.”
Schumacher made big amends with his output since the disaster of Batman & Robin, almost appearing to pay cinematic penance for the much hated film, making a series of smaller, tougher, and more meditative films. He made a subtle return to writing and directing with the very impressive Flawless, which spotlighted an acting clinic by Robert De Niro and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. After that came 2000’s top-shelf Vietnam drama Tigerland, and 2003’s taut Phone Booth (Schumacher was an early backer of Colin Farrell, who starred in both films), which was followed swiftly by the invigorating real-life thriller Veronica Guerin, starring Cate Blanchett. Continuing his diverse, unpredictable filmmaker’s journey, Schumacher next took on the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera; the dark Jim Carrey thriller, The Number 23; the Henry Cavill-Michael Fassbender-starring horror, Blood Creek; and the little seen dramatic thriller, Twelve. Appropriately enough, Schumacher’s final feature film will now stand as 2011’s deliriously weird Trespass, an oddball home invasion thriller starring Nicolas Cage (at his wackiest), Nicole Kidman and Ben Mendelsohn.
Openly gay in an industry widely seen as dishonest about its sexuality, Schumacher’s attitude to that was characteristically straight-up and amusing. “Sometimes I’m asked if there’s homophobia in Hollywood,” the director once said. “There’s homophobia everywhere on Planet Earth, just like there’s racism and sexism and anti-Semitism, and such stupidity isn’t checked at the gate at the movie studio. But the difference in show business is, if you can make money for people, they don’t care what you do. They don’t care if you screw yaks in the middle of the street. They’ll even buy you a yak. They’ll give you their yaks.”
Audacious, mischievous, flamboyant, sensitive, thoughtful, strikingly honest, undeniably gifted and highly entertaining, Joel Schumacher truly was one of a kind. When FilmInk mentioned to the director in 2004 that he was something of a Hollywood institution, Schumacher responded with a high, fluttering giggle. “You just mean I’m old! To be very, very honest with you, I see myself as somebody who started off doing costumes for 200 bucks a week…I’m just about to start Phantom Of The Opera at Paramount and it’s a whole new adventure and I hope that I always feel this way… I think what you mean is not that I’m an institution, but that I belong in an institution…”
Joel Schumacher, we will really, really miss you…
Click here to read about one of Joel Schumacher’s dream projects that never made it to the screen.