Wise guy: Joel Schumacher--blockbuster maker and Hollywood sage--gets real with Veronica Guerin

Category: Phantom of the Opera News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: October 1, 2003 | Publication: W | Author: Kevin West
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Blockbuster director Joel Schumacher, who gave Hollywood such hits as St. Elmo's Fire, Batman Forever and The Client, wouldn't seem to be a Woody Allen acolyte. But he's learned quite a bit from the American auteur.

"Woody Allen taught me a lot of great things I use every day," says Schumacher, stretching his long, tanned body down the length of a sofa in a luxury rented apartment in London. "But one of the greatest is: Read nothing."

Allen's advice obviously doesn't apply to literary habits (which, in Schumacher's case, run to Russian novels and true crime). Allen was talking about Hollywood's prickly fourth estate, the critics. "He said, 'You will remember every hateful word they write until the day you die,'" Schumacher continues. "'But when they love you, they could never love you enough.'"

Now 64, Schumacher may not have found all the love he needs in his life--from the critics, anyway But he's doing pretty well on other counts. By the end of the year, he will have released two new movies: last spring's Phone Booth and this month's Veronica Guerin. He's currently based in London while preparing to make his first musical, a $50 million adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

Schumacher has made enough films (18), earned enough money (the Batman franchise made the director "a great deal," he says), enjoyed enough perks (limos, private jets, sex, drugs) and discovered enough young stars (Demi, Kiefer, Julia, Colin) to be philosophical about his successes and failures. He grew up poor in Queens and ran with the Beautiful People in New York in the Seventies; now Schumacher lives rich as a top Hollywood player, complete with a stunning property outside Santa Barbara, constructed of three 200-year-old barns. ("There is no style; it's everything I love all piled together--Navajo blankets, Japanese leather saddles, statues from Africa," he explains, adding, "I always wanted to live in a barn.")

He's seen a lot of Next Big Things zoom down the fast lane into oblivion; and age, sobriety (he's been clean for 12 years) and sheer survival instinct have matured him into a wise and funny Left Coast aphorist. "Fame is like a tan," he muses. "It fades. And it may give you cancer."

He's something of an eminence grise--or a doting uncle--for a whole generation of actors, even if he still wears his hair long, ties surfer beads around his wrist and leaves three buttons open on his untucked white shirt. Physically striking--with no apparent surgery to smooth his crinkly eyes or tuck in his slight wattle--Schumacher is maturing into a lanky, lusty Walt Whitman manque."

He's garrulous, with an opinion on everything. On young actors' ambition: lot of people who come to the fame academy of Hollywood just want the blow jobs and the sunglasses. But they don't want to put in the hard work."

On his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he directed in Batman & Robin, entering the California gubernatorial race: "Nothing surprises me about Arnold. He's a poor kid from Graz, Austria, who married a Kennedy and became one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Oh," he adds, laughing, "and he has a name that's impossible for a movie star. It's too big for the marquee."

On the status of gays in the entertainment business: "There's not a high degree of moral judgment about people's sex lives, or their alcohol or drugs or politics," he says. "Hollywood is the kind of place where no one cares if you f--dogs in the street. They'll get you the dogs. They'll give you their own dogs."

While Schumacher's butler, James, who once worked in Buckingham Palace, bustles around, the director talks easily and with apparent pleasure. He would seem to embody another Woody Allen maxim, learned years ago when Schumacher was just starting out, working as a set-and-costume designer on Sleeper (he actually began his career, from far left field, as a window dresser at Henri Bendel).

"He said, 'Success gives people permission to be exactly what they were supposed to be anyway,'" recalls Schumacher. 'And I found that to be true. The good get gooder and the worse get worser."

By Hollywood standards, Schumacher is "gooder" than ever this year. Phone Booth was essentially a gimmick movie: Man answers ringing pay phone and becomes hostage of psycho sniper. Yet it captured the zeitgeist as surely as Schumacher's The Lost Boys--a hair mousse panegyric to masculine coiffure--did in 1987. Filmed on a shoestring in December 2000 with a then-unknown Irish actor called Colin Farrell, Phone Booth had to be shelved twice--first because of the September llth attacks, then because of the Maryland sniper crisis--but it has made more than $45 million domestically since its release.

"Phone Booth was a total fluke," Schumacher admits. "On paper it should not have worked. Twelve days to shoot a movie. No money. No time. We got really lucky."

Schumacher's newest movie, Veronica Guerin, seems an even more unlikely project. A biopic about the murder of an Irish journalist in 1996, it opens this month in the United States after an earlier release in England and Ireland, where the Dublin newspaper writer's death at the hands of the drug barons she was investigating was a national trauma.

Like Phone Booth, the high-minded Veronica Guerin, with Cate Blanchett in the title role, is really a low-budget indie flick--filmed in 93 locations over 50 days in Ireland last year--despite the studio-size names involved (mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer brought the script to Schumacher after seeing his gritty Vietnam film, Tigerland).

Schumacher admits he'd never heard of Guerin before Bruckheimer, a friend for years, called. The producer sent a tape of a "60 Minutes" segment on her murder, as well as a binder full of Guerin's stories for the Irish broadsheet The Sunday Independent and the news coverage of her murder. Schumacher was immediately struck by the journalist's fearlessness--and her reckless obsession with the story.

"I wish I'd known her," he says. "I thought she had real balls. I hate bullies, and she wouldn't stand for bullies. She also was not a perfect person, and I like that."

Critics in Ireland and England breathed a palpable sigh of relief that Schumacher created a lean movie that, for the most part, didn't grab for the heartstrings (with the exception of the "old Oirish" soundtrack and a slo-mo montage of Guerin's death).

Still, Blanchett, who is present in nearly every scene, owns the movie, and her mastery of the Irish accent earns her credit as this generation's Meryl Streep. "Joel wanted the film to have the grit of Dublin--the feel of the place--and yet connect with international audiences," Blanchett says. "He was always talking about Veronica's humanity: her flaws, not simply her sympathetic strengths."

Veronica Guerin isn't likely to be a box office smash in the States--a fact that Schumacher acknowledges. For him, it's enough that Bruckheimer, Blanchett and, above all, Guerin's family--who cooperated with the project--are proud of the film. (Easier said given the heft of Schumacher's bank account.)

To top off his busy year, Schumacher is now rehearsing his young cast for Phantom. Lloyd Webber had first singled out the director way back in 1988, but the project got tabled. Last Christmas, the two dusted off the script; casting began early this year. As is Schumacher's habit, he's signed two relative unknowns in the leading roles: Emmy Rossum, who's just 16 years old, plays Christine to 29-year-old Gerard Butler's Phantom. The more established Alan Cumming, Miranda Richardson and Minnie Driver round out the cast.

"There were a lot of movie stars who wanted these roles," says Schumacher. "But there's an innocence and a romance to The Phantom of the Opera. I think it was a fresher approach. It's a huge responsibility to work with people at the beginning of their careers. You don't want to ruin them."

There's small chance of that. Schumacher's nose for talent is legendary. He describes his first meeting with Julia Roberts: Schumacher had just returned from London, where he'd asked Kiefer Sutherland to take a role in Flatliners, and he was in a lousy state. "I was hung over," he remembers. "There's nothing worse than a glaring, sunny L.A. day when you're hung over, right?" And then in walked the young Roberts, fresh off the Pretty Womman set--no makeup, hair piled on her head, wearing a T-shirt and Daisy Duke cutoff jeans.

"There was absolutely no one like her on the planet," recalls Schumacher, still enthusiastic. "It's that feeling you have when you fall in love. I thought, How did I live without knowing this person? You want that energy for your film."

Schumacher had a similar experience when he met Farrell in London while casting Tigerland. "I had no idea it was going to be Colin in the lead," he recalls. "But he lit up the room."

"He took a leap of faith and gave me an opportunity to do that gig," says Farrell over the phone from Marrakesh, where he is currently preparing for Oliver Stone's Alexander, a biopic of Alexander the Great. "I've worked with Joel three times now [Farrell has a cameo in Guerin]--he has been a huge influence on me, and I have a lot to thank him for."

Young talent is only part of the story. At first glance, Schumacher's films seem wildly varied, but in fact they divide up into three more or less coherent phases. The first was the Eighties period, when he released St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys. The success of those two films--Schumacher's third and fourth--opened the door to his blockbuster period. Flatliners, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, The Client and A Time to Kill followed in the Nineties, making the director a brand-name commodity. Even his tough Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas as a disgruntled, middle-aged white guy venting his rage in multicultural Los Angeles, became a national event when it was released in 1993, garnering the cover of Newsweek.

Critically, Schumacher did not escape those heady days unscathed: Batman & Robin received terrible reviews. And for once, he heeded a critic's comment. When Internet film geek Harry Knowles wrote, "Someone should smack Joel Schumacher because he's like a heroin addict," it hit home.

"He was right," acknowledges Schumacher today, adding that he and Knowles have since become friends. "I was making the most profitable films at Warner Bros. for five or six years in a row. Everyone starts blowing smoke up your ass. Pauline Kael once wrote, 'Hollywood is a place where you can get encouraged to death.'"

From there, Schumacher shifted into his "indie" period, making 8mm, a dark little movie about illegal pornographic "snuff" films, followed by Flawless and Tigerland, films that Schumacher regards as his best work, even though they made little impact at the box office. "Joel's directing style is effortless," says Blanchett. "It's in his blood. Like a great golfer, he trains, prepares and then simply plays."

Farrell adds: "He creates a very safe environment and trusts that each actor knows what's best for him. Joel's full of ideas--the man is smarter than a f--ing whip."

"I may be making less money and having smaller audiences, but I want to grow," Schumacher says. "I want to get better at what I do." Schumacher is one of the few directors who possess the luxury of perspective. "Hollywood is very simple," he adds. "To quote the great movie Prizzi's Honor, when Anjelica Huston says to Jack Nicholson about Kathleen Turner: 'She's an American trying to make a buck.' Hollywood is Americans trying to make a buck."

COPYRIGHT 2003 Fairchild Publications, Inc.