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Singing praises of Schumacher's 'Phantom'

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 15, 2004 | Publication: Hollywood Reporter | Author: Martin A. Grove

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Powerful "Phantom": We tend to think of holiday season films as having Christmas themes, but that's not always the case.

"The Phantom of the Opera," for instance, has nothing to do with Christmas but when it opens Dec. 22 via Warner Bros. at about 600 theaters it will be a perfect holiday moviegoing event. Directed by Joel Schumacher and based on Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical, "Phantom" will expand its run Jan. 21. In singing its praises here, I'm happy to note that Monday "Phantom" received well-deserved Golden Globes nominations for best picture-musical or comedy, actress-musical or comedy (Emmy Rossum) and original song ("Learn to be Lonely").

A Warner Bros. presentation in association with Odyssey Entertainment, "Phantom" is a Really Useful Films/Scion Films production. Its screenplay by Lloyd Webber & Schumacher has its roots in Lloyd Webber's musical, which was based on Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel of the same name. Produced by Lloyd Webber, the film's executive producers are Austin Shaw, Paul Hitchcock, Louise Goodsill, Ralph Kamp, Jeff Abberley, Julia Blackman and Keith Cousins. Starring are Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson and Minnie Driver.

Since its London opening Oct. 9, 1986 at Her Majesty's Theatre, "Phantom's" been seen by some 80 million people worldwide. More than 65,000 performances of the musical have been staged in 18 countries. "Phantom" came to New York's Majestic Theater in January 1988, becoming the second longest running musical in Broadway history (after Lloyd Webber's "Cats") and playing to over 10 million people there.

After an early look at "Phantom" last week, I was glad to be able to catch up with Schumacher Sunday afternoon when he called from New York after arriving from Rome where he'd been promoting the picture. "Even though so many millions of people have seen the show, I think there's an elitist tendency to worry about what people who have seen the show will think of the movie," he told me. "I hope we've managed to keep enough of the essence of the original show so that people who are fans of it will be pleased and, also, to surprise them with a wonderful new cast and many interesting cinematic touches that you could never do in a theater."

Schumacher's absolutely right about that. I still recall how when I first saw "Phantom" in late October '86 in London there was a mezzanine overhanging most of the stalls in Her Majesty's Theatre that made it very difficult for most of the audience to actually see that key moment when the Phantom sends the crystal chandelier crashing down on the Paris Opera House stage. "It also, for safety reasons, had to be quite tiny," Schumacher reminded. Of course, there's no such restriction in the movie. When Schumacher's chandelier crashes, it's the mother of all chandelier crashes!

Reflecting on that chandelier and its impact in the movie, Schumacher said, "Well, first of all, we had these wonderful partners in Swarovski, the famous crystal maker, because they offered to make the chandelier for us as a promotional gift, which they would take back at the end of the film. The chandelier cost $2 million and we could never have afforded it on our budget (of only $70 million to make the entire movie, which looks much more expensive than that). It is the height of an entire soundstage. It weighs three tons and every single crystal in it was hung by hand by a team of brilliant artists that Swarovski sent over from Paris and (they) did it right in front of us on a soundstage. It took weeks. So in order to do the chandelier because it's the size of a soundstage it had its own stage.

"The soundstages at Pinewood are too low to have done our ceiling piece on the chandelier. So that had to be shot separately and then married to the (scenes in) the theater. Then there's a four foot version, an identical version to the large one, which is also all hand done with crystals by Swarovski. And then there's the plastic one that we crashed that catches on fire. So a lot of that is just the sheer agonizing, tedious logistics of making sure you have every shot that can be married together before you burn down the theater because there's no going back. It was done in so many pieces (between) second unit and first unit. But when we actually crashed the chandelier (seven cameras were rolling versus the two that were usually going). That would have been unusual, the only day we'd have that amount. When you're doing that you always remember the nightmare stories where they burnt down the house (for a scene) and the cameras weren't rolling. And you're always saying to everybody, 'Are you sure all the cameras are going?' 'Yes, yes, yes.' You have to wait until you hear that seven or eight times."

In the film, he pointed out, "we tell the Phantom's back story and Christine's. It's sort of fleshing out these wonderful characters. But I think there's a whole audience that doesn't go to theater, can't afford to go to theater, doesn't live in a region where these shows come that are very expensive to put on, maybe have wanted to see it all their lives, maybe have heard the music and maybe knew people who have seen it. If you think of any of the great famous musicals that have been made into films, the number of people who have seen it on film are astronomical compared to (those) who have seen it on the stage."

Although it took some 15 years for "Phantom" to reach the screen, Schumacher noted, "I wasn't working on it for 15 years. In 1988 Andrew Lloyd Webber was a legend already. The show was legendary already. I had only made my fourth film, which was 'Lost Boys,' a teenage vampire film. For some reason, Andrew saw this film in London and decided I was the person to direct the film version of 'Phantom of the Opera.' He flew me to London. I actually thought he'd made a mistake and had my name mixed up with someone else because it didn't feel like I would be on his radar. But he's often said that he loved the way I used visuals and music together. He's always felt that 'Phantom' was rock and roll pretending to be opera. And I guess he liked some of the elements that I used in 'Lost Boys.' But I got the job then.

"We almost made it in 1990. Because of a lot of personal and professional reasons of Andrew's, the movie got canceled in 1990. But we stayed friends and we've been friends now for, I think, 16 years. It came back to me around 2002 and I have to say his good wife, Madeleine, was very persuasive in getting me to think about it again. I did and I fell in love with the idea of doing it again and came back to Andrew at that time and said, 'I'll do it for you, Andrew, but I must have a very young cast because I think the role of Christine, if you analyze the story, has to be very young and innocent. And if she's that young and innocent, then the Phantom and Raoul (the theater's wealthy patron and Christine's suitor) must be on the young side, also. Then it's age appropriate. I said, 'If there are famous people that can do this, that's great, but if they're unknowns that's great, too. Let's not saddle ourselves with anyone we don't want.' And he said, 'You can have anyone you want in the film as long as they can do their own singing.'"

Asked how he found Rossum, who is simply fabulous in the role that Sarah Brightman (Lloyd Webber's second wife) had originated on the stage, Schumacher explained, "She came in at the last second. Patrick Wilson was the first person cast. Gerry (Butler) was second. We had been casting for about six months. There were five young ladies who were going to screen test, who were quite wonderful. They were all beautiful and very talented. Some of them were known. Some of them were unknown. Emmy came in in the last five seconds. She was doing 'Day After Tomorrow.' I don't know where they shot that, but she wasn't around. And she also thought she was too young (only 16 at the time) and wasn't going to get the role. I think as a teenager she just didn't want to put herself in a situation to be rejected. At the very last second, her agent called and said, 'You know, I represent this young actress and she's a wonderful singer and will you meet with her?' I said, 'Sure' because I meet with everybody. She's from New York, but she happened to be in L.A. on her way to Las Vegas to a big family reunion that had been planned for many years.

"She came to my house. This exquisite creature with that face and figure and highly intelligent, a wonderful actress, came in and after five minutes told me she'd been singing opera at the Metropolitan Opera since she was seven. So it was as if I ordered her. Maybe her agent and she were unaware that I wanted someone very young for the role. Maybe that's why she thought she wouldn't have been cast. I said, 'You have to turn around and go back to New York because I want to screen test you first thing Saturday morning.' This was Thursday, I think. She said, 'I can't. My uncle's been planning this family reunion for years. People are coming from all over. I can't do that (and miss it). I said, 'You have to.' She said, 'I can't' and left my house. But I guess she and her mother changed their mind. I mean, they came (to New York) and she did her screen test. The other young ladies were wonderful, but she was our Christine. I'm very proud of her. It was quite a task for a teenager."

This isn't the first time Schumacher's turned out to have a very good eye for finding young talent. Earlier in his career, for instance, there was Julia Roberts starring opposite Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon in Schumacher's 1990 thriller "Flatliners." Roberts also starred for Schumacher in his 1991 romantic drama "Dying Young." "And Demi," he added, referring to Demi Moore, who starred in his 1985 romantic drama "St. Elmo's Fire," opposite Emilio Estevez and Rob Lowe. "And with the guys, too. With Colin Farrell (in his 2000 war drama 'Tigerland') and Matthew McConaughey (in his 1996 thriller 'A Time to Kill') and Brad Renfro when he was 10 in (his 1994 thriller) 'The Client.' Yes, I've been very lucky to have so many young people on their way up work with me. And most of them have gone on to become quite accomplished. I can't believe that anyone (else) wouldn't have hired the people I hired. I think if they walked into your office you would hire them also because they're all such huge (talents)."

How was it working with Lloyd Webber in writing the screen adaptation of his landmark play? "Well, we had done that in '89 when he had first given me the job," Schumacher explained. "We talked about visualizing the piece. But then at Christmas of 2002 when I knew I was going to do it again, I just tore it apart again. I had talked about a lot of new concepts with Andrew and added them into the piece. I especially elaborated on the auction in the beginning. I thought if you're going to begin a movie with an auction and someone's buying the musical monkey (the ornate music box auctioned for 30 Francs to the aged Vicompte Raoul de Chagny at the start of both the play and the film) well why and where is he going? So that led to the book-ending of the film (with the Vicompte in the decaying Opera Populaire in 1919, nearly 50 years after the events of the story) and also the black-and-white portions, which were (done) for several reasons. First of all, to complete that story and give it the real ending. But beyond that, I wanted to give you a way into the musical part of the film and the fantasy of it. So the black-and-white Paris that you see in 1919 is a dirty, gritty, unromantic Paris after the first World War. Automobiles, industrial grit and not a time for music and romance. And then when the chandelier raises and the theater comes to life in 1870 in color, that is an old man close to death remembering his youth when all options were there. He was falling in love for the first time and the world was his. And, therefore, it could be a memory and the music could be part of the memory -- because I had to have a way to get you into the music."

Asked about what an enormous physical undertaking making the film must have been, Schumacher told me, "It was actually more fun than I thought it was going to be because, of course, a project like this attracts many, many, many great artists. So I had wonderful people, most of whom are from the British theater, working on the film in front of the camera and behind the camera. I can't say enough about our production designer, Anthony Pratt (an Oscar and BAFTA nominee for 'Hope and Glory') and our costume designer, Alexandra Byrne (an Oscar nominee for Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet' and an Oscar and BAFTA nominee for 'Elizabeth') and the hair and makeup design by Jenny Shircore (an Oscar and BAFTA winner for 'Elizabeth'). And then (we had a) great musical producer, Nigel Wright, and musical director Simon Lee and the choreographer Peter Darling. And John Mathieson (an Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner for 'Gladiator') was our genius cinematographer, who makes it all look (so good). And the ballet corps and the chorus (were other) great elements. But at the core of this is a very intimate tragic young love story and that's the story I'm really telling you. And all the glamour of the piece serves that."

The most difficult scene to shoot, he added, was with "the three young people at the end in the Phantom's lair (in the catacombs with a river running far beneath the Opera House) because that's the emotional core and ending of this whole story. Those three young people and the emotional sacrifices that they're doing. And because that set is water, it became so hot and humid with the lighting. It was stifling in that set. It was totally claustrophobic. Gerry has all that prosthetic makeup on (as the Phantom). Patrick is tied to the iron gate in water. Emmy is in a corset, which is a form of torture, for a time and then in a very heavy dress with a long train on it. And they also have to act and sing their guts out in that moment. When really fine actors, which they are, have to get in touch with serious emotions it has to be real for them. So they are quite emotional as you're doing it. And it's very hard to film in water. That was the most difficult sequence because it's the most important."

Filming took place outside of London at Pinewood Studios, marking the first time in his career that Schumacher had shot there. "I'd shot in Prague on the Jerry Bruckheimer film (the 2002 action-comedy thriller 'Bad Company') and I'd shot in Dublin on 'Veronica Guerin' (the 2003 thriller, also produced by Bruckheimer), but I'd never shot in England before. The British crews are fantastic. The history in Pinewood is amazing. When you walk through the halls, there's the poster of 'Lawrence of Arabia' and the 'Carry On' movies and 'The Man in the White Suit' and 'The Lavender Hill Mob' and all the Bond films. Just one after the other. And the photographs of all the great people that have worked at Pinewood. It's quite thrilling."

Rehearsals for "Phantom" began, Schumacher said, Aug. 1, 2003 and shooting started Sept. 15 for a period of 80 days. "We had $70 million (to work with) -- period," he explained. "Andrew and his company raised the money and it was made as an independent film. I had never made a movie with a (completion) bond company before. If you go over your $70 million, it (would be) a terrible penalty for Andrew's company. That was our budget. And the tragedy of our business today is that Alan Horn, the wonderful head of Warners who is distributing the film in the United States, when Andrew and I showed him the film in April when it was cut together, the first thing he said was, 'I can't believe you guys made this film for that little amount of money.' Because, you know, you can make a contemporary film that's (going to cost) $80 million today."

Nonetheless, Schumacher got "Phantom" made for $70 million and it certainly looks a lot more expensive than that. "You know, we did some cheating. There are little tricks you can do to save some time and money," he confided. "But all the money is on the screen, that I will say."

As for the greatest challenges he faced in production, he replied, "Emotionally the biggest challenge was that because Andrew had wanted me to do this for 16 years and we were friends and had been friends and he and his wife had been so generous to me, I was more fearful of what he would think when it was finished than I was about an audience or critics. I was hoping it wouldn't hurt the relationship. When I showed it to them put together April 1 in New York and they were so moved and he was so thrilled and tears were running down Madeleine's face, that was a huge win because if I had pleased others and disappointed him I would have felt that I had failed the job."


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