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Category: Interviews
Article Date: December 23, 2004 | Publication: The Globe and Mail | Author: LIAM LACEY

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'I was absolutely scared," says Joel Schumacher, talking about his decision to do the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera: "This was my first musical and my first real period piece. And it wasn't like I was going to get away with doing this movie and no one was going to notice."

The theatrical production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, with its ingénue, Christine, vengeful phantom and crashing chandelier, is the biggest-grossing stage or screen production in history, seen by more than 80 million and grossing in excess of $3.2-billion (U.S.) worldwide in the past 18 years.

Webber had originally approached Schumacher about collaborating on a film version of The Phantom in the late eighties (he had been impressed by the director's teen vampire drama, The Lost Boys). By 1990, Schumacher was all set to make the film but Lloyd Webber had to cancel it because of other commitments. Schumacher says he felt "like a bride who is relieved to have been left at the altar."

The lanky, long-haired Schumacher, now 65, and Lloyd Webber remained good friends. Finally, in 2002, during a Christmas dinner in Los Angeles, the composer once again asked him to make the movie. Following a sleepless night, Schumacher agreed.

He reasoned that, after three "dirt-under-the-nails" low-budget films in a row (Tigerland, Phone Booth and Veronica Guerin), it was time to go back to a blockbuster.

Schumacher is probably most famous as the director of the last two Batman movies, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997).

He's also renowned for giving young, often notably attractive, stars breakthrough roles. The long list includes Rob Lowe, Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell.

The tradition continues in The Phantom of the Opera, in which he cast relatively unknown actors -- the American teenaged singer Emmy Rossum as Christine and Scottish actor Gerard Butler as the sexy, young Phantom.

"I'm a fool for beauty," he admits. He traces it back to his adolescence, growing up behind a movie theatre and spending his hours intoxicated by images of the "gods and goddesses of the fifties, from Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe to, later, the stars of Japanese, French and Italian cinema.

"I don't like pretty," he says. "It doesn't age well. But I find certain people really interesting to watch and apparently others share my taste. Julia Roberts isn't pretty but she's fascinating to look at."

Usually he goes by a personal response, rather than screen tests. He found his Christine at the end of the six-month casting period. Rossum was, says Schumacher, "16 years old at the time. I had always insisted that Christine must be quite young. She was gorgeous, she could act and she happened to mention she'd been training at the Met since she was 7."

Schumacher's other major casting choice, Butler, had an emerging career as an action star. What Schumacher saw wasn't just the brooding good looks, but the emotionally vulnerable man.

"I could tell he understood the terrible loneliness of the Phantom. The only question was whether he could sing, and fortunately he could."

I had a chance to talk to Butler during a benefit screening of The Phantom for Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, and Schumacher's assessment of him -- sensitive, unpretentious, eager to please -- all rings true.

The hope of his working-class family, Butler studied law and articled at a major Scottish firm. He was fired one week before qualifying.

"I was kind of a mess," he says of his abortive legal career. "My personal life and my career were going in different directions, but both downhill."

The day after being sacked, he moved to London to become an actor and found work quickly. He has specialized in dark figures: Dracula in Wes Craven's Dracula 2000, Attila the Hun in a TV miniseries, Angelina Jolie's treacherous former boyfriend in the Lara Croft movies. Recently, he's emerged as a candidate for the James Bond role.

"I know a lot of people don't like those movies but if they get it, they really get it," he says. "They're all such powerful, iconic characters."

Loneliness should be a problem no longer. Those who "get it" include a well-organized association of international female fans (centred around the website who organize cheering sections at his premieres. Butler went to a dinner with a group of them in New York for the Phantom launch. He also paid for the webmistress of the site to join him and his family at the Dorchester Hotel for the London premiere of The Phantom.

The Internet cult, he says, "makes me think about the responsibility I have for the roles I take." Also: "It's a good way for me to keep up on what's happening with my career."

© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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