How To Film A Phantom

Category: Phantom of the Opera News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: November 22, 2004 | Publication: Time Europe | Author: JAMES INVERNE | LONDON
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The screen version of the international stage hit is finally here. Can it revive the Hollywood musical?

He shot 2002's Phone Booth in a mere 12 days. But Joel Schumacher knows that some dreams take longer than others. Back in 1988, after St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys had introduced him as a promising if lightweight young American director (and before Batman Forever sealed his place in the upper reaches of the Hollywood hierarchy), Schumacher decided to see Broadway's newest hit, The Phantom of the Opera. Even before he got the chance, Andrew Lloyd Webber, its composer, called him and mentioned that he wanted to bring the play to the big screen. "Every director in Hollywood wanted to do it," Schumacher recalls. "Because this was already the biggest show in the world."

Then he saw it and got hooked. Just the storyline a deformed composer who lives beneath the Paris Opera House and becomes obsessed with a young singer transfixed him. In the darkness of Broadway's Majestic Theater, at the climax when the Phantom threatens to kill the girl's lover unless she stays with him, Schumacher had an epiphany. "She kisses him. And then I don't know who came up with this but it was incredible she kisses him again. And he can't take it because he realizes what a sacrifice she's making. That second kiss is too much for him. And I sat up in my seat and thought, 'That's a great movie moment.' Suddenly I knew how to make this film."

Sixteen years later, that vision is finally reaching completion on the set at London's Pinewood Studios, where the ingenue, Christine, and her beloved Raoul are pledging their noisy passion on a make-believe rooftop of the Paris Opera. Fake snow swirls, and an orchestra assaults the eardrums. Amid the chaos, Schumacher appears relaxed, even louche, as he watches the action through his monitor. He's having a good time. And he's just one of many directors out to revive the movie musical a trend that began when Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge squeaked out a small profit in 2001, and gathered steam a year later when Rob Marshall's Chicago grossed over $170 million in the U.S. and bagged six Oscars. "Movie musicals went out of fashion for a long time," says Schumacher, "but finally it looks like they're coming back."

Harvey Weinstein certainly thinks so. In the past year, the Miramax boss (his studio was behind Chicago) has gobbled up the rights to such old-school classics as Damn Yankees, Guys and Dolls and Pippin. American Beauty director Sam Mendes has announced plans to shoot Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Mel Brooks is set to roll on his movie turned musical turned movie, The Producers. Chris Columbus has signed on for Rent, and there are plans for big-screen versions of Bombay Dreams, Urinetown and Hairspray.

Chicago cloaked its musical yearnings by having its song-and-dance numbers take place in a character's mind. Moulin used pop hits by Elton John and David Bowie. But Phantom will make no excuses for being a full-blown, 143-minute rock opera that's more opera than rock. If audiences respond, Lloyd Webber says he will begin filming his considerable back catalog, starting with 1993's Sunset Boulevard. And if Phantom fails? The trend could dry up and blow away.

So far, the omens haven't been good. Schumacher was set to direct Phantom in 1990, with the stage show's original stars Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, who was then married to Lloyd Webber. When they divorced, the film fell apart, and despite rumors casting various stars in the main roles Antonio Banderas, John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Keira Knightly Warner Bros., which held the screen rights, dithered. Meanwhile, the producers of the stage show, who were overseeing its 22-country rollout, worried about killing theater trade if the film was bad. When Lloyd Webber's Evita barely turned a profit in 1996, Phantom seemed doomed.

But in 2002, Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group bought back the rights from Warner Bros., raised the $80 million budget itself, and brought back Schumacher. By then, more than 70 million people had seen the show, which had grossed more than $2.4 billion and ranked as the world's highest-earning piece of live entertainment. "If half of the people who've seen the show see the film," says executive producer Austin Shaw, "it will gross $350 million. And what about the 2.9 billion people who haven't seen it?"

Such confidence might explain the decision not to cast big names in the lead roles. Moulin Rouge had Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman; Chicago had Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere; Phantom has 18-year-old Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow) and Scott Gerard Butler, 35, best known for 2003's Tomb Raider sequel. The only name is Minnie Driver, who is less than hot these days and has a cameo as the jealous opera diva Carlotta.

Although Phantom has kept salaries low by casting virtual unknowns, its $80 million budget puts it between Alien vs. Predator and The Incredibles. An ensemble of 100-plus sings and dances through Schumacher's enormous, immaculately designed soundstages. In addition to the roof set, where stone gargoyles gaze down malevolently, there's the Phantom's Lair a dark catacomb where the deformed genius composes on his grand piano to the steady accompaniment of water dripping into a stagnant, green pond. The space, illuminated by hundreds of candles, was so humid that Butler compares it to an enormous microwave. "I wear prosthetics on my face, which melt if it gets too hot," he says. "That takes five hours to put on, so if it gets too warm, the whole day stops and we start again." In the next studio under a musty cover resides the film's most expensive prop the 5.2-m-high chandelier, which the Phantom famously drops on the opera-house audience. Weighing in at 2.2 tons, with three tiers of 20,000 crystals, it's valued at $1.25 million. Schumacher says he enjoys the epic scale. "It's got to be big." he says. "The story is all about shadow and light; it's a dark, obsessional love story in the Paris of 1870. It has to be opulent and voluptuous and beautiful. That's what's cinematic about the musical."

The dazzling set (in Schumacher's opening, a dusty, monochrome opera house is restored to its glistening prime by a tidal wave of color) and the driving Lloyd Webber score threaten to steal the show away from its stars. Rossum is a virginal, thin-voiced Christine, and Butler, despite a silky falsetto, hasn't got the range or kick for the big sing. There's a climactic moment on the opera house's snowy roof after the Phantom has eavesdropped on Christine and Raoul. He rages, the orchestra whips up a storm, and Schumacher's camera seems to leap off the roof, plunging headlong toward the street below. But there's no bungee jump in Butler's singing as the camera dives, his voice musters nothing more than a gentle swoop.

Despite Butler's muted performance, Schumacher's kinetic camera work and some fine supporting turns could help make the film a minor Christmas hit. But Schumacher must have been banking on his unknowns to deliver revelatory, headline-making performances, just as Colin Farrell did in Phone Booth. Alas, they don't, and without big names or great word-of-mouth, this movie musical could be a hard sell. Better hope those theater fans like popcorn.