Getting Direct With Directors...
Joel Schumacher
No.26: Joel Schumacher

After doing time as a costume designer on Woody Allen's Sleeper and helping out on the script of Car Wash, Joel Schumacher made his first feature-length directorial debut with the Lily Tomlin comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1981. He then delivered Brat Pack classic St Elmo's Fire, the fang-tastic vampire pic The Lost Boys and, later on in his career, box-office behemoths, The Client and A Time To Kill. But then came Batman Forever and - the horror - Batman & Robin, and our Joel had to start at the bottom again directing brutal dud 8MM, impressive Vietnam drama Tigerland and Cate Blanchett in Veronica Guerin before getting the chance to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom Of The Opera to the big screen.

Why did you become a director?

I grew up before television in a poor neighbourhood behind a movie theatre and I've always been a visual person so I lived in that movie theatre. I was one of those kids that had to be dragged out, so I fell in love with movies as a child. By the time I was seven I really felt like I wanted to make stories. I wasn't quite old enough to understand that there were directors and how it worked, but I got so much from movies that I knew I wanted to be a part of it on some level.

What do you think you'd be if you weren't a filmmaker?

I guess a bum on the street. I don't know, but I've had to deal with people so much as part of this job that I think if they ever throw me out of directing, I think I would go back to school and maybe become a therapist. They say the craziest people make the best therapists so I would be brilliant!

Which other director would you most like to see at work.

I guess Billy Wilder or Stanley Kubrick who are my absolute favourite directors. I never met Kubrick, but I met Billy Wilder and had the chance to become friendly with him in the later years of his life. Of course he wasn't directing then, but I would have loved to have seen him in his heyday. And Kubrick of course - the master.

Daniel Craig and Samantha Morton in Enduring Love

What was the last movie you paid to see?

Well I pay to see all of my movies because I want to see them with an audience but the last movie I paid to see was... I guess Alexander. I wanted to see Colin [Farrell]. No, it was Enduring Love! I loved it so much - great actors and a very interesting story, very unusual. I like risky movies, as you can tell by some of the choices I've made, [laughs] but I love when people will take a chance on doing something that might upset an audience.

What's the last movie you walked out of?

I don't walk out of films usually. Sometimes, even with films my friends don't like, I'll see a performance or a cameraman or something in the film that's worthwhile. I don't like to walk out on films and I hope people don't walk out on mine.

Do you believe in God?

I'm sort of in that school of that quote from Hamlet. "There's more in heaven and earth, Horatio." If you live long enough you will definitely get to understand that the universe is a profound mystery and I didn't create it. We're on this mud ball rolling around and I don't know where we are, and nobody knows where we are. I definitely believe that I'm not the highest form of intelligence in the universe. But I don't like to use the word God because it's so overused in the United States - not so much in Europe - but it's become politicised and has this ugly meaning now. Like asking someone if they believe in God has become an attack - like if you don't believe in Jesus you're not one of us! I loathe the use of God or any kind of spirituality as a form of discrimination or separation because that's a total misuse of it.

Who's the most famous person you have in your contacts book?

Well when you work in the movies, I mean gosh. You know I don't like to rate movie stars like that. Actually my closest friends aren't famous people. My five-year-old godson Spencer is the most important person in my contacts book, but you know, I've made so many movies that people probably can figure out who else is in my contacts book. How many points do you get on this question?

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity

What's your favourite movie quote?

Oh gosh. That's tough because there are so many - thousands and thousands. I won't mention any I've written myself [laughs], but there's a very sexy interchange between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity - one of Billy Wilder's great films - and at the end of this competition of double entendres she says to him: "I wonder what you meant by that?" And he says, as he's leaving, "I wonder if you wonder." It's at the end of this sexually combative moment and it's really a great one.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

Kathryn Bigelow [Point Break, K-19: The Widowmaker]. I think she's a fantastic filmmaker. I think she's got more balls then some of the guys and I don't think she gets enough attention. You know, sometimes journalists ask me if they think I'm underrated, which I guess is a compliment but actually you're not underrated if all of these people think you're underrated, right? It's always better to be underrated than overrated. Always.

OK, which do you consider the most overrated?

Oh, I don't know. I will never answer that question!

Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?

I think I've said that in print and I haven't seen the person in years. It was something I said off the record and then it was printed, but it was a long time ago. Certainly there's been nobody in the last ten years.

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

It was just after I'd done St Elmo's Fire, which is centred around a bar, and a journalist asked me why there was so much smoking and drinking in the film. I said: "Have you ever been in a bar?" I mean... These days you though you can't smoke or drink in some bars, right?

Joel Schumacher's latest movie, The Phantom Of The Opera

Do you believe that test screenings are a good idea?

No, because I think if you have very high scores, all it means is that one audience on that one night in that theatre liked it. If you have very low scores I've seen it affect the marketing on some people's movies where actually the public loved the film but they had a bad test screening. One of the best examples of that in Hollywood is the movie Se7en which got one of the lowest scores in the history of test screenings and went on to become a huge success. As you know it's a very disturbing film, and having made some very disturbing films myself, I know it's very difficult for an audience to say they loved it, or give it a high score, because it's not a feel-good movie. Whereas, if they go to a romantic comedy they might feel good and score it with a 100, but that doesn't mean other people will go out and see it.

Studios buy into them a lot and there are examples of movies that have changed their endings, where the director has learned something that saved the film because of test screenings, but I've never been in that situation. Fatal Attraction and My Best Friend's Wedding are examples of those. The man who was head of the studio when Fatal Attraction was tested supposedly stood up in the audience and said, "The wife has to kill the bitch!" Now I don't know if that's an apocryphal story or not, but I haven't had one of those. You know, I'm afraid if they tested Gone With The Wind today they'd have Rhett come back to Scareltt - or people would write about her, "She's too bitchy!"

How seriously do you take reviews?

I don't read them. Never! If you believe the good then you believe the bad. When I did movies with Woody Allen a long time ago, he told me never to read them. If they love you, you can't use that information constructively, and if they hate you, it doesn't help you become a better director. I mean it's great when you get great reviews but I've had bad reviews where it doesn't matter. St Elmo's Fire did not get one good review in the United States of America but it went on to be a success with the audience. I mean we are making films for the audience, not for reviews.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?

When I was a costume designer and wanted to be a director, Woody Allen said, "Take a good look at the industry: there's a handful of geniuses touched by the gods, the rest of them, if they can do it, you can do it - and you can do it better." And I always say that to young people.

And the worst?

Whatever it was I certainly didn't follow it because I can't remember it. It's a great question... Well I'm sure tonnes of people told me not to go to California to try and become a director - that it would never happen. But you know, whatever you want to do in life, there are always people who will you not to do it, not to hurt you but to protect you. Parents do it all the time.

What's your biggest regret?

Anyone I'd been cruel to, I regret that. I mean I've had an insane life and most of the terrible things I've done have been to myself. But on the way, when I was younger and crazy and a drug addict, I'm sure I was rude and cruel. I made a lot of mistakes but you can't always go back and repair all of them because you don't remember half of the things you've done.

There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?

Get laid - most definitely!

Which performer would you love to work with?

Oh, so many! Daniel Day Lewis, Monica Bellucci... I'd like to work with Colin [Farrell] again and Cate Blanchett again - I just loved working with her. Daniel Craig is one of my favourite actors and Samantha Morton.

What film makes you want to spit?

Hmm. I think all filmmakers have been guilty of this and I'm an audience member just like everyone else. Sometimes I'll go into a film with great expectations and get pissed off because you've built it up... It happens in romance where you inflate someone with qualities they don't have and then you accuse them of disappointing you when it's been your ego that's done it. Well that happens with movies too where you leave disappointed, or feel there was a missed opportunity. I'm sure I've done that to others too.

What are your three favourite films and why?

Oh, God! That's a really tough one. I guess I'll have to pick three out of thousands. David Lean's Great Expectations which I saw when I was seven and that was truly when I decided I had to tell stories. I've been trying to analyse it because I didn't know who David Lean was and I certainly didn't know who Charles Dickens was at seven years old, but my father died when I was four and the first image you see in Great Expectations is little Pip in the cemetery alone and that was probably the first image I saw in life, let alone on the screen. I saw myself and then of course the film is about a poor boy with great expectations, so it just had a lot of resonance. That's one film.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover by Peter Greenaway is one of my absolute favourites. I really think it's one of the great statements about greed in the 80s. It's an extraordinary achievement and he is a great artist. For the third, I'll lump all of the Polish films Red, White and Blue [dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski] - actually Blue, White, and Red is how they were released - but he died too soon and he was a great filmmaker. Recently I loved Kill Bill [dir. Quentin Tarantino] - both films, although I consider it as one - and Hero [dir. Zhang Yimou] and Amores Perros [dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu] and Y Tu Mamá También [dir. Alfonso Cuarón]. There are so many!

What do you think of Norman Wisdom?

Of what?

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