The Director's Chair Interviews
The Reluctant Blockbuster Guy
By Jerry Roberts
A summer blockbuster season just wouldn't seem complete without a big-style Joel Schumacher movie. Since 1994, the director has alternated work in the John Grisham and Batman franchises, delivering The Client in 1994, Batman Forever in '95, A Time to Kill in '96 and this season, Batman & Robin.
But the road to the top in what was the profession of his choice as a young child has been anything but a regular progression. In fact, until his directing career took off with the youth-pack movies of the mid-1980s and then a pair of Julia Roberts pictures -- Flatliners (1990) and Dying Young (1991) -- Schumacher's professional life would have made a nice resume to argue for his pre-eminent status in the Irregulars' Irregular Club.
He is one of the few major directors ever to arrive at the profession by starting out as a costume designer (Mitchell Leisen, who directed from the 1930s through the '60s, is perhaps the only other). His first picture in that capacity was director Frank Perry's film of Joan Didion's best seller, Play It as It Lays (1972). Prior to that, Schumacher had worked as a display artist for New York's Henri Bendel department store before opening his own boutique, then joining Revlon as a clothing designer.
He grew up as a latch-key only-child in Long Island
in the 1940s -- his father died when he was four and his mother worked
into the evening. His passion for movies eventually willed out through
the years and through a couple of severe crash-and-burn episodes that nearly
killed the man as well as the career.
"I had to get some signatories on my application," Schumacher recalled. "They had to vouch for me and I was pleased that Woody Allen and Mike Nichols agreed to sign it -- how can you go wrong with those guys? Then, when Mike Nichols signed it, he said, 'It better be good.'"
The DGA Magazine spoke with Schumacher while he was in post production on Batman & Robin. The director discussed the Batman and Grisham films, his unconventional career path, his collaboration with writers and his influences as a filmmaker.
How did you come to inherit Tim Burton's Batman franchise?
It happened a week before I started shooting The Client in the summer of '93. I was in Memphis when [Warner Bros. chairmen and co-CEOs] Bob Daly and Terry Semel asked me to come back to breakfast in LA. What they said to me was, "We're going to offer you our biggest asset." Now I had collected and read Batman comics as a kid. I thought the offer over and I knew that if this didn't work, it would be a very public failure. I had no idea that Batman Forever would become the success it became. I also changed Batman from Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer, which took a bit of tact. So, when Bob and Terry called again to do another Batman, I said yes, because it was exciting doing Forever, and when you do a Batman movie, you get an awful lot of attention and support.
Did you have any trepidation over taking on a franchise that was begun and nurtured by someone else?
I said to Bob and Terry that I would not do Batman Forever if Tim didn't agree on me for the job. Tim's a friend, and he told me that he was anxious to go off and do something else other than another Batman movie. And he said that he'd rather have a friend take it over than anyone else. He then went off to make Ed Wood and Mars Attacks!
Batman Forever was an enormous undertaking because I'd never made a movie that size before. Following in Tim Burton's footsteps was like climbing Mt. Everest. We had to convince people that we could bring them an exciting Batman. One of the things our team brought to the movie was the humor and action of the original comic book. I wanted to emphasize those areas.
How did you approach another sequel -- Batman & Robin?
We felt that we could start out where we left off in Forever. I called up the production designer, Barbara Ling, who had been exhausted after her Herculean efforts on Forever. I said, "Barb, are you up for another?" She said, "We haven't even scratched the surface. Let's give one back to the people." And with that spirit, we got started.
Another thing that astounds me is that this is the fourth entry in the franchise and we were able to get this stellar of a cast -- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alicia Silverstone and Uma Thurman, in addition to everyone else. It's a tribute to Batman and the legend.
Do you have any particular thoughts on the eve of the release of Batman & Robin?
With Batman Forever, the hardest part was the pressure of not knowing if the audience was going to accept our version of Batman. But they accepted it just fine. Now, with Batman & Robin, after we've found out that we can be accepted, the feeling is: will we disappoint? That's where the emotional pressure is. I think people expect us to make a good movie, which is a more desirable -- but bigger -- pressure, because I don't want to disappoint the audience. That's my greatest fear. It's wonderful to get critical acclaim and awards, but none of them are as important as the audience's approval.
As far as the physical pressure, this film was a big, logistical, year-in-preparation, thorough emersion for everyone who worked on it. For me, the making of this movie came down to one question: how do you eat an 8,000-pound elephant? Well, the only answer is one bite at a time. If I could give people or young filmmakers one piece of solid advice, it would be this: you don't have to make the whole movie today. You still have to make it one shot at a time. So, you have to concentrate on that one shot. The next shot can wait until you get this one done. Sometimes, the enormity of a film, or any project, becomes daunting, and anxiety and paranoia and feelings of failure can creep in. But to complete the job and do it right, you have to shoot one scene at a time.
Michael Keaton was Batman in the Tim Burton movies, then you cast Val Kilmer as the caped crusader in Batman Forever. Now you've gone to George Clooney for Batman & Robin. Can you talk about the reasons for the changes?
I'm the man that made the changes in the sense of having the best Batman for the movie each time we were in the casting process. Everything you do is for the betterment of the piece. We've finally gotten the Batman we want with George Clooney. The changes are all over. George Clooney is Batman now.
John Grisham's vein of lawyer adventures in the South also already had been established by Sydney Pollack's The Firm and Alan J. Pakula's The Pelican Brief. How did you approach your link with that successful tradition?
After [producer] Arnon Milchan sent me the script, I had considered that the idea of following those two movies was a risk if what we did wasn't considered as good. Then I complicated that risk by putting a 10-year-old non-actor in the lead. I didn't think a professional child would have brought the reality to the role that it required. So off we went to Memphis, and I know well that your sins and your success live on in film. But Brad Renfro turned out to be terrific as the kid and it worked.
I wasn't planning to do a John Grisham book, let alone two. I met John and his family in Memphis and they became wonderful friends. He was adamant that A Time to Kill not be made into a movie. It was his first book and he was deeply connected to it; he dedicated it to his wife. I read it and thought it would make a terrific movie. And told him so.
I abused our relationship with my insistence. I aggressed my way further than I should have. Then The Client came out and he was pleased with that, so he finally relented and said yes. But I never planned on doing two.
Directing is a profession that many DGA members would agree that you have to grow into. And aspiring to do it often occurs way after the teen years. But you have mentioned that directing was an aspiration of yours from young childhood.
I grew up before television in a poor neighborhood of New York in the shadow of a big movie palace with the Arabian Knights on the ceiling. It was a blue-collar neighborhood at a time when it wasn't a crime to be poor in America. Two buildings were very glamourous for me -- the Catholic Church and the movie palace. Since we weren't Catholic, I worshiped at the movies.
I saw Snow White when I was five, and I wanted to do that -- whatever that thing was going on there. I began to think about directing when I was seven. At age nine at P.S. 11, I got books on marionettes. I eventually acquired some marionettes. I built sets and designed costumes and I had a phonograph. I think that I was trying to make movies. It was the acting out of fantasy, but it made me really popular.
These days, they're very expensive marionettes that I work with, and sometimes they don't want to do what I want them to do when I pull their strings.
But you became a clothing designer instead. And you didn't direct until after you had written some screenplays.
Being a designer and a screenwriter were never goals for me. I had no way in to being a director; ignorance is bliss. Like thousands before me, I came to Hollywood to make movies. My experience as a designer got me costume designing jobs on movies directed by Frank Perry, Paul Mazursky and Herbert Ross. The fourth movie, in 1973, was Woody Allen's Sleeper.
At that time, after the debacle of the 1960s, I was lucky to be alive. I had crashed and burned from drugs and sex. And my mother died suddenly. I got my start through Dominick Dunne, who at that time was making movies. It was a two-week trial on Play It as It Lays, which Frank Perry directed. I will always be indebted to Dominick for that.
My reason for working in the fashion business -- which I didn't like -- was to be able to make enough money to get out of that business. I stood up, looked in the mirror and said, "I am going to Hollywood to become a movie director." It was a cleansing time. And I learned from Frank, Paul and Herb how movies are compartmentalized.
While I was working on Sleeper, several people on the set made mention that they had also worked with Woody on Take the Money and Run and Bananas. And we were all encouraged to feel a part of a filmmaking family. It was a shared process. It didn't mean that Woody adhered to everyone's suggestions, but he listened and it was a healthy collaboration for everyone. We became close friends. I saw how well-run Woody's operation was and how much fun it was. I like to encourage a familial and supportive atmosphere on the set and I want everyone to have fun. Why shouldn't it be fun?
Woody said to me, "You will do it. It's very obvious that you will" -- meaning I would become a director. I said, "You're saying that because you like me." "No," he said, "Take a look at the industry. There are a few geniuses touched by the gods, and then there are the rest, and you can do as good or better than most of the rest." He always says the same thing after each movie: "That was great. Now take a bigger risk." No one would be anywhere without the people who support them, especially when you're dirt-poor and don't believe in yourself.
How did you come to write your first script?
I didn't want to become a writer, but I saw that certain writers were given the opportunities to direct their own scripts, especially television movies. The script was Actress/Model Found Dead. Barry Diller and Deanne Barkley bought it for $9,000. At the time, I was living in a $60 apartment near Tower Records in Hollywood. The movie didn't get made because it was deemed too rough for TV. But the fact that they bought it fueled me to write Sparkle, which Warner Bros. made. Then I wrote Car Wash, and that was such a huge hit that I could use it as an event to start directing.
As a director, you're known for your collaboration with writers throughout the production.
There's this tradition of disposal of writers. But why should writers be treated so badly in the movie business? I don't know when that started. Now I'm not saying that we should be slaves to writers. There certainly are some badly behaved, irresponsible, untalented writers around. But if writers have talent, why shouldn't they be allowed to continue through the film? Why can't we assist them to do their best job?
To go back to Sleeper, I did my best work with Woody because I was part of a filmmaking team, as opposed to being in a department. It was very collaborative. We were all encouraged to use our imagination and really contribute to the film. And that's definitely true of writers. I think there's a deep, dark secret here.
Your ongoing relationship with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, for instance, has now covered four consecutive films [Goldsman shared screenplay credit on The Client and Batman Forever and was the sole screenwriter on A Time to Kill and Batman and Robin]. Since the styles of the Batman and Grisham films are so different, did your working relationship with him differ from film to film?
What you have to do is exercise a different muscle. Akiva Goldsman is adept at any kind of screenwriting. What you do is just come from a different place. Writing in a different vein means knowing the ground rules. Here, we're adapting a comic book about a superhero, and you have to operate along those lines. With the Grisham books, everything is character-driven and about how real people would think and act. You operate accordingly. It's not much different from what actors do -- they animate characters from the understanding of the character's place in the story.
The first movie you directed was The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin. It was a critical and box-office failure. How did you deal with that?
I lost my sense of myself as a director. I was crushed. I began thinking that I had taken the wrong road in life and that I shouldn't be a director. I thought to myself, "You're not going to be a genius and you're too old to be a wunderkind." I enrolled in a UCLA Extension course in directing. Daniel Mann was teaching it and he was a wonderful, curmudgeonly old rabbi type. He's gone now, but the last thing he made was Playing for Time with Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Alexander. He made many outstanding films -- Come Back, Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo, Butterfield 8 and many others. I said, "Danny, can I do this again?" He said, "Go to acting class and you'll be a better director." That's one of the single best pieces of advice I've ever been given. I like to listen to actors about how they feel. I will thank Danny Mann until my dying day for getting me to go to acting class.
So, I survived to direct again. A lot is made in this business about the rejection factor. But think of it this way -- for all the hundreds who said no, one said yes. It doesn't matter how many people said no; one eventually said yes.
Many directors say that casting is the most crucial decision they have to make. You held your ground with producers when you cast virtual unknowns in the Grisham pictures -- Brad Renfro in The Client and Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill. What other circumstance of unusual casting do you recall?
On St. Elmo's Fire I had to fight to get the cast I wanted -- and the whole so-called "Brat Pack" came out of it. The studio, Columbia, only approved Rob Lowe and Ally Sheedy, who had been in WarGames, which was a hit. I screen-tested everyone else. I practically had to lay down my life to get the people I wanted for that picture -- Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, Andie MacDowell.
With casting, you have to go with your instincts. The truth is, I have been very lucky at it. Matthew McConaughey was a big risk at the time and a lot of big-name stars wanted that part in A Time to Kill. Now everybody in town is talking about him.
Do you work closely with the cinematographers on your films?
On my first movie, Jordan Cronenweth was the director of photography, and Bobby Thomas was the operator. Jordan, who passed away, was one of the truly great American cinematographers -- he made Blade Runner and other terrific visual movies. I had never been on a set before to watch how a movie is made. It was school for me.
The first people who taught me were the camera department. My first meeting was with the DP, the operator and the assistant. I learned a lot from them. I like collaboration. A great DP knows the story and the tone you're looking for; I don't tell the surgeon which scalpel to use to cut me open. Whether you're in Gotham City or a sleepy Mississippi town, the locale -- the architecture, how it is lit -- is one of the stars of the movie.
When I watch a movie, I like to have the feeling that the person who brought the look to the photography had a real vision, whether it's Blade Runner or The Wages of Fear. You feel you're there, inside that world. I appreciate that talent the way I appreciate a great piece of music.
Casting people behind the camera is as important as casting people in front of it. I like to hire people who know more than me. If you suppress people, they won't take risks, they freeze up. I treat everybody the same, whether it's the biggest star or an assistant to the assistant of the assistant's assistant. Every detail counts.
After the "Brat Pack" movies, you directed Flatliners and Dying Young. But Falling Down was your first really big-budget Hollywood film.
It was my first movie with a real superstar, and I didn't know if anybody was going to go to see a movie about a guy who loses his beeper. Michael Douglas had given me final cut on Flatliners, which he helped produce. He took on a different kind of role for himself and trusted me to direct Falling Down. I owe a lot to everybody who throws in with me.
What films or filmmakers have influenced you?
I grew up in Long Island City in the era of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean, and all of their films had an impact on me. The Center Theatre in Long Island City had foreign films that no one attended except people in black stockings. They showed films by Fellini, Renoir, De Sica and Kurosawa when I was a kid. I wasn't educated in cinema, but I had the notion that something was going on in these movies that I had never seen before. They left you with feelings that Hollywood pictures didn't conjure within you.
Cinemascope and Technicolor event films competed with television. Everybody wanted to see The Robe, and I couldn't get any of my friends to go to a small, black-and-white film in a foreign language that you had to read with subtitles. But I remember The Bicycle Thief and Anna Magnani's grief in Open City -- those things certainly had an impact on me.
The directors who influenced me were Elia Kazan, certainly John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Henry Hathaway and Fritz Lang. Of course, I was young and didn't know their names when I first saw their films, but that doesn't take away anything from the fact that their work influenced me in the way I saw things, and in my work many years later. But Billy Wilder was the biggest influence; he was my idol. He was great in so many different genres and his movies were always distinctive from other filmmakers.
What are your thoughts on the DGA? What does it mean to you?
I have wanted to be a director all my life, and the Guild means that I get to work as a director, as simplified as that may sound. It's great to have the backing of a very supportive organization in case you need it to complete the task that you're determined to do. I have not had problems, but if I did, I know that the DGA would back me. There's great security in that.
How does it feel to be the perennial summer blockbuster guy?
I didn't grow up wanting to be the summer blockbuster guy. But it's a thrill to know that I've been able to successfully make it through the summer madhouse. With a Batman movie, you have some inkling that there's a big market out there. But the one we were scared about was a A Time to Kill. It was an R-rated, two-and-a-half-hour-long movie with serious issues with an unknown [Matthew McConaughey] in one of the leads. We opened against every blockbuster -- and the Olympics -- and became the only serious film to crack the top 10.
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