Joel Schumacher is best known for directing a pair of Batman sequels (1995's Batman Forever and 1997's Batman & Robin) and a pair of hit John Grisham adaptations (1994's The Client and 1996's A Time To Kill), but his career is more eclectic than his most famous credits suggest. Schumacher, who broke into film as a costume designer for Woody Allen, directed and scripted 1974's The Virginia Hill Story, then followed it with screenplays for Car Wash, Sparkle, and 1978's ill-fated adaptation of The Wiz. The success of his second television film, Amateur Night At The Dixie Bar And Grill, led to gigs directing features as disparate as The Incredible Shrinking Woman, D.C. Cab, The Lost Boys, the Brat Pack vehicle St. Elmo's Fire, the tearjerker Dying Young, and the controversial Falling Down. Since the disastrous release of Batman & Robin, Schumacher has focused on grittier, smaller projects: Flawless marked his return to screenwriting after a 14-year hiatus, while 2000's Vietnam War drama Tigerland earned Schumacher some of the best reviews of his career and helped make Colin Farrell a star. Schumacher and Farrell recently reunited to make Phone Booth, a thriller set largely in a New York City phone booth. Schumacher recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his eventful career.
The Onion: Have you always been interested in film?
Joel Schumacher: Well, I grew up before television. This is going to be very difficult for you and your audience to understand, but I grew up before TV. I was born in 1939, so there was no TV for a long time, and even when there was, we were too poor to get one. But in our poor neighborhood, there was a huge movie palace. So, like the little kid in Cinema Paradiso, I spent all my time in the movie theater, and had to be constantly dragged out. By the time I was 7, I decided that I had to be part of it on some level—never as an actor, but to make this fabulous thing that had become my best friend. I think it really happened with Great Expectations. My father died when I was 4, and David Lean's Great Expectations begins with Pip skipping through a graveyard, and I think it was probably the first image I saw on the screen that I could relate to as a child, because my father was dead and I had been to graveyards. My mother was still alive, but she was at work all the time, so I felt like that kid with no family. And also, he had great expectations. It happened around then. Movies were all there was for me.
O: How did you become a costume designer?
JS: I had this crash-and-burn life in the fashion business after I got out of art school in the '60s. Like a lot of people my age, I survived the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll madness. I shot drugs from 1965 to 1970, and when I got off the needle in 1970, I had no family—my mother died in 1965, and I realized that I had fucked up everything in my life, and I had to start from scratch. I went back to my childhood dream and started telling all my friends I was going to go to Hollywood and become a movie director. They were all sure I was back on the needle again. A friend of mine who was a TV commercial producer knew Dominick Dunne, who has now become a very successful novelist, but at the time was a producer. His sister-in-law was Joan Didion. He was producing a film called Play As It Lays from her book that Frank Perry was directing, and I stalked him. Because of my fashion background, they let me be the costume designer for 200 bucks a week on an independent movie. So that's how I started, doing costumes and sets, and then art direction and production design. I couldn't become a director that way, but writers sometimes got an opportunity to direct, so I started writing, hoping that someone would let me direct one of my scripts. I was naïve, but the scripts sold. But they wouldn't let me direct them. Sparkle got made, Car Wash got made, a lot of them got made, but I couldn't get arrested. Car Wash was one of those little movies that cost nothing and really hit the zeitgeist. There was a wonderful woman at NBC, and she fought for me to write and direct two TV movies, and the second one was so well received by the critics that I started getting offers to direct features. I've just finished my 18th feature as a director. So I'm one of the luckiest people I know—lucky to be alive, lucky to have this great career. That's sort of me in a nutshell.
O: Car Wash is a really interesting film, in part because it was so influential.
JS: Well, I think it was the first disco film, if you look back at it, because the score by Norman Whitfield was one of the first to incorporate that kind of disco dance music that became so popular. He had done all the Supremes and Four Tops stuff at Motown. I was very influenced by [Robert] Altman in those days, and a lot of my movies are still ensemble. That was just a day in the life of a car wash. What happened was, Art Linson and Gary Stromberg, the producers, went to go see Ned Tannen, who ran Universal, and they wanted to do a stage play called Car Wash. They wanted to build a car wash onstage and do a musical comedy called Car Wash. Then, if that became a success, they would make that into a movie. Ned Tannen said that was the worst idea he'd ever heard in his life, but he had read the script for Sparkle, and if they could get the writer, he might make a movie called Car Wash. That's how the whole thing started.
O: How did you end up writing movies with predominantly black casts?
JS: Well, because I didn't think of them that way. When I first started Sparkle… They always tell you to write things you know and love, and as a kid, I was always obsessed with rhythm and blues. We used to stay out all night in front of the Brooklyn Paramount to see these Alan Freed rock 'n' roll shows, so I just wrote about that era, and about those great teenage kids who would come along from the street and become record stars. Then, when I was asked if I wanted to do something called Car Wash… I had seen an African-American hooker on a Sunday morning, strung out on drugs, with a beer in a paper bag and a blonde wig, trying to make a phone call outside a car wash. Actually, Michael Schultz, who directed Car Wash, his wife played that part. I realized that a car wash was kind of a place where you could have a lot happen. But there's a lot of celebration of the downtrodden minority in Car Wash, and how often people who've suffered use humor to get along. It was probably something I felt from the '60s, and my own childhood, and growing up in New York on the streets. I think I've always been comfortable on the street. There's a lot of street in Phone Booth.
O: I remember reading somewhere that when Ice Cube and DJ Pooh were writing Friday, they modeled it after Car Wash.
JS: Someone else has mentioned that to me, and I know that Dr. Dre and Snoop made a movie called The Wash. I know that in the African-American community, Sparkle and Car Wash and The Wiz are movies that a lot of people grew up with. I know that a lot of exploitation movies were made at the time for the African-American audience, and I'm very proud that people see Sparkle and Car Wash and The Wiz not in that category. That means a lot to me.
O: The Wiz must have been an enormous project to work on.
JS: Yes, it was insane. After Sparkle and Car Wash, I was kind of the "black writer," and Sidney Lumet, who had distinguished himself not by doing musicals, asked me to do The Wiz and offered me a lot of money. I said yes and flew to New York, and we were going to fly in some 8-year-old girl who was an unknown to play Dorothy, and we got off the plane and Sidney said, "I've got the greatest news in the world. Diana Ross is going to play Dorothy." Not to be disrespectful to Diana Ross, but suddenly Dorothy was a middle-aged spinster schoolteacher in Manhattan, and Oz was Manhattan. There we were. It was a very interesting experience, and a great cast to observe. I was just starting off, and it was quite exciting.
O: The Wizard Of Oz obviously has a special place in a lot of people's lives. Were you worried that people might think you were tampering with a classic?
JS: Oh, sure. I said "no" a hundred times. Then everybody said, "Are you crazy? You have to do this movie! It's Sidney Lumet, it's Diana Ross, it's all these people!" And I thought there must have been something wrong with me. I have great respect for Sidney, and I think that The Hill, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico—he's made some extraordinary films. I'm not so sure musical fantasy is his bag. But it was a great experience for me, and I learned a lot. I think whenever you take on Wizard Of Oz, you're dealing with the Holy Grail. But none of those were my choices.
O: Michael Jackson appeared in The Wiz before a lot of stuff had happened in his life.
JS: The sad, tragic part about Michael Jackson is, he was 17. He was the handsome young man we knew then. He was Michael Jackson the phenomenal talent. He was brilliant and sweet and kind and very well-mannered and shy, not a shred of a hint of what was to come. If you knew him then—which everyone does, in a sense, because you were part of his audience on some level—you can only look at what he's become and what he's done to himself, and just think, "What is going on in that mind?" Also, I know this is a terrible thing to say, but I worry about those kids growing up in that atmosphere. I'm not talking about child molestation, but I just don't know what it's like up there.
O: Did you have any idea that he would become the biggest star in the world?
JS: No, but I knew that there was no one like him. I knew that he was one of the most talented people of his generation, but I think that had been established ever since he was a little kid. I have no way of knowing whether anybody is going to be anything, but I certainly knew that he was a talent to be reckoned with.
O: On a similar note, what was it like working with Diana Ross?
JS: She had already become one of the most famous pop divas in the world, because of the Supremes. Diana was really at the top of her game then. She had been nominated for an Academy Award for Lady Sings The Blues. She was still Berry Gordy's baby, and Berry Gordy produced the film. So, you know, she was like royalty. Diana was an empress—not a cruel one, not a ruthless one, but certainly somebody who had been a star for the majority of her life.
O: When you were working as a hired gun like that, did you feel emotionally invested in the film?
JS: No, because I always knew that it was way beyond me. I always knew that I was the tiniest cog in the wheel. It also went from… It was going to cost $8 million, and then it suddenly went up to $30 million. It seems very overproduced.
O: Did it make you gun-shy about attempting a super-production like that as a director?
JS: I think the only movie I've ever been involved with like that was Batman & Robin. Batman Forever had a very modest budget, considering the phenomenal profits it made, and how little we all made. We had very modest salaries. The whole thing at Warner was that Batman Returns had ended the franchise, and none of the theaters wanted it. We would have meetings with theater distributors who didn't want another Batman movie, because they had gotten burned on Batman Returns. None of the merchandising people wanted the merchandise, because they had had it all sent back. Nobody paid much attention to us, and then the movie kicked ass, and anybody who had been stupid enough to come onboard with their merchandise made a fortune. Everything was sort of contained in my life. Even though St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys and Flatliners and Falling Down and The Client had all been successful—and I know I'm saying that in a very la-di-da, cavalier sort of way—they didn't cost money. So then, with Batman & Robin, everybody got really greedy. They wanted more toys, more machines in the movie, to make it more for kids. Adults think kids are too scared of Batman, so we had to make it more kid-friendly, make it funnier, make it lighter. I take full responsibility. It's all me. I know I disappointed some people, but it's a Batman movie. We're at war. Let's get over it.
O: Batman Returns is very dark and personal for a big blockbuster.
JS: Well, [Batman Returns director] Tim [Burton] was going through a very dark period then. Tim is a wonderful person, and he's an artist. I said to Warner that I wouldn't do a Batman movie unless Tim said that it was okay, because we're friends. So I went to see him, and he said, "Please, please, I had a nervous breakdown during Batman Returns." He was going through a lot. It's very difficult when you make a huge movie and it's very successful. The pressure on doing the sequel is a whole different story. I know what Tim went through now, and I know why he said to me, "Please, please, I don't want to do another one."
O: Did you have the option to cast Michael Keaton in the third one?
JS: Yes. We were actually making it with Michael Keaton, but his demands were so ridiculous that Warner had to fire him. I inherited him. I was given Michael. By the time he was fired, I was saying, "Val Kilmer, Val Kilmer, Val Kilmer." I was saying, "Let's go younger." I'm always saying "Let's go younger" on my movies.
O: What do you think Val Kilmer brought to the role of Batman?
JS: Well, he was a very handsome Batman. I think that Batman Forever was an excellent Batman comic book. I think Nicole [Kidman] was delicious. I think Tommy Lee Jones was great and Jim Carrey was a phenomenal Riddler and Drew Barrymore was delicious, and it was sexy and fun, and it was the most profitable movie of the year. Everybody won. Can we move off Batman, ya think? That was years ago. I've made seven films since then.
O: Sure. What attracted you to the script for Phone Booth?
JS: I had never read this movie before. We get sent a lot of scripts, and they're hybrids, or they feel like other movies. But this felt totally fresh, and it was a challenge. It was a real challenge to see if you could make a movie that would hold the audience in the edge of their seat with the story of a guy in a phone booth. I also think it appeals to that primal fear people have that you're going to pick up a ringing phone someday, and there'll be a disembodied voice at the other end that knows more about you than you know about them.
O: Was [Phone Booth screenwriter] Larry Cohen involved in the making of the movie?
JS: No, he came and visited one day on the set, but when you make a movie in 10 days, there isn't a lot of time for anybody to get involved. You kind of have to stand back. But he was very supportive, and still is. We made it a lot younger than we had originally thought of. It used to be very middle-aged, but it's still the same story and the same conflict.
O: It seems like you've worked in every genre. Do you have a favorite?
JS: Well, I do have a tendency and a taste for stuff with a dark edge, I've noticed. You know, I think Falling Down and 8MM are pretty dark films.
O: You talked earlier about capturing the zeitgeist. Falling Down did that. It became kind of a pop-culture phenomenon, with the whole angry-white-male thing.
JS: I think it struck a nerve. I was lucky enough to be handed the script, and I said, "Please let me do this! I'll kill myself if I don't do it!" And then the head of Warner Bros. said, "You can't do Falling Down. You're too nice to do this movie." They actually said that to me. I said, "I'm not nice at all!" And I went in and had to sell myself for the project. It was great that Michael Douglas did it, because he did a fabulous job. That was the point of doing it, to cause trouble, and also to make fun of the disenfranchised white guy stumbling around L.A. trying to find himself in a multicultural, multinational, multiracial world that he didn't understand. It's like, "Where have you been? Wake up! Wake up and smell the jalapeños!"
O: Was it difficult making the transition from being a writer to being a director?
JS: No, because I think I'm a better director than I was a writer. I only wrote so that I could become a director. It was kind of a means to an end.
O: Do you still write regularly?
JS: I wrote Flawless a couple of years ago, and was lucky to get that great cast. I'm writing something now, but I'm too busy making movies to write.
O: Do you think being a writer affects the way you direct?
JS: You have to fire yourself as the writer when you direct something you've written. You have to fire yourself, or else you get precious about what you've written. You've got to open up and let the actors in, and re-conceive a lot of things.
O: Is it true that you're adapting Jack Kerouac's On The Road?
JS: Well, Francis Ford Coppola offered it to me, but we've never been able to get it off the ground. I don't know if it's the rights or something, but we've never been able to go forward. Yeah, Colin Farrell and I wanted to do it. He was going to play the Dean Moriarty character.
O: That would probably have been a big project.
JS: Well, no, we would have made it for a dollar. We would have gotten in a van with a handheld camera and just traveled. It was going to be the most low-budget thing in the world.
O: So you were going to shoot it a little like Tigerland?
JS: Yeah, but with a lot more fantasy involved than in Tigerland.
O: After the Batman movies, did you make a conscious decision to start making more difficult films?
JS: Oh, yeah. I was supposed to do another Grisham and another Batman at Warner, and I walked away from it and did 8MM, which is as far from a summer blockbuster as you can get.
O: 8MM was Andrew Kevin Walker's follow-up to Seven. That must have been a hot property.
JS: It was fun to get it. No, nobody wanted to touch it. I don't think they could get anyone stupid enough to direct it, other than me. A lot of people were afraid of it. A lot of people don't want to go to a place like that as a director. They want everyone to love them.
O: Is that something you've gotten over?
JS: You know, I've made 18 features. I go all over the world. People have seen them. I've heard every comment in the world, from excessive love to excessive hate, so I'm just lucky to have this career and have people see my movies. You can't expect people to walk out of 8MM saying, "I loved 8MM." It's not that kind of a movie. You know you're making a very disturbing film. It's supposed to disturb people. Falling Down, also, although there's a lot of people with a wicked sense of humor who love those movies. It's mass entertainment, so you're going to get mass opinions.