One of the nicest surprises of the London Screenwriters’ Festival was Joel Schumacher. He’s no film critic’s idea of an august auteur, and yet he has often written as well as directed his movies. He is forever remembered as the guy who nearly killed off the Batman franchise with his luridly camp and brightly coloured take on the otherwise Dark Knight, yet he has had a number of commercial successes: St Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down, The Client, A Time To Kill. He even made a hit out of Phone Booth, a film which took place entirely inside a phone booth, and starred a then unknown actor. That was Colin Farrell, of course. Good call.
Joel Schumacher is also, it was evident from watching him in action over the weekend, one of the nicest, sweetest, humblest, funniest men in Hollywood. He cheerfully admitted “I’m not a genius as you all know, I’m not the greatest director in the world,” and at the end of his talk on The Lost Boys (click here for that), he sounded extraordinarily sincere when he said, “You’re so kind to have come, I really appreciate it; I know you have many other things to do with your life.”
In the Q&A afterwards, he told us more about how he got started:
“I lived behind a movie theatre, and I was always skipping school. When I was seven I saw Great Expectations, and I didn’t know who Dickens was, or David Lean, but when I saw the image of the child in a graveyard, I saw an image that related to me, because of my own father’s death. That image haunted me for three weeks. And I just wanted to be part of that.”
He didn’t get his chance until his thirties. “I was just turning 30, I had just got off intravenous drugs, and I had screwed my life up badly. I realised I had done everything wrong, that what I had always wanted to do with my life was to be a director. So through my only sober friend, I stalked a director, who gave me my first job at $200 a week to do the costumes on a low-budget film.
“It was Woody Allen who changed my life. In Christmas of 1971 he hired me to do the costumes on Sleeper. We happened to be in the Rocky Mountains, which was very unusual for Woody to leave New York, and he encouraged me to be a director, but said that first I had to write. He said ‘you’re clever and funny, I think you can do it’.
“And he gave some very good advice. He said the most important thing about writing is that you must finish it, and people must read it! My first two spec scripts sold, and one was Car Wash, which was one of those little movies that just hit the zeitgeist.”
The second movie he both wrote and directed, Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill (1979), gave him a respect for actors that he has maintained ever since. “Candy Clark was having trouble with some dialogue where someone calls her crazy, and she says something like, ‘People who the world calls crazy, we don’t think we’re crazy’. Something like that, but longer. She kept getting it wrong, and getting upset because she was failing me. It was the last take before lunch, or there would be meal penalties that would be expensive, so I said ‘Just so it any way you’d like.’ We shot it, and she just replied [when the guy called her crazy], ‘Dingaling’. That was brilliant.”
One of the films of which Joel Schumacher is, justifiably, most proud is Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas goes gradually bat-shit crazy during a nightmare walk across LA. “I had to fight for it,” says Joel. He also had to fight to get Michael Douglas on board. “Michael had promised his family he’d take a year off, but I showed him the script, and it was so good that even his wife said he just had to do it.
“It’s the most politically incorrect film I’ve ever done. It wouldn’t get made today. Half the critics thought it was genius, the other half thought we should all be murdered in the street. Michael plays, basically, the first Tea Partyer. He’s basically like, ‘Where is my job? Who are all these strange people living in my neighbourhood? And where’s my gun?’
“When the bosses at Warner Bros saw the movie, the blood drained from their faces. It’s one thing to read and approve a script, and another to see it on film. Michael and I would have this question: is he the bad guy, or the good guy? And our answer was, ‘yes’. [laughs] God forbid that there should be a grey area in a movie!
“People thought I was being some kind of fascist, but I wasn’t suggesting people should be like him. I was showing him as a tragedy.”
Schumacher is 75 now, and still working. In 2011 he made Trespass, with Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage. Last year he directed two episodes of House of Cards. My takeaway from this: sometimes it pays to be the nice guy, the one people actually enjoy working with and would gladly work with again.
“If I can do this,” he summed up to the audience of aspirant screenwriters with typical modesty, “you can do this. And you can do it better.”