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Director casts his spell on 'Phantom'

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 24, 2004 | Publication: THE WASHINGTON TIMES | Author: Gary Arnold

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"It had to be a film for people who haven't seen the show, as well as those who have," reflects Joel Schumacher, recently in Washington to talk about his direction of the long-awaited movie version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's prodigiously successful musical of "The Phantom of the Opera."
The statistical record estimates that "Phantom" has been a $3 billion engine of commerce since its London West End debut in October of 1986. Seen by more than 10 million theatergoers in one place or another, it has been heard by countless millions as a best-selling cast album and familiar song score.
Mr. Schumacher, first approached by Mr. Lloyd Webber as a possible movie collaborator back in 1988, believes that the film version will still come as a melodic and dramatic surprise to moviegoers, especially those who could never afford a night at the legitimate theater. He takes pride in the thought that it will be a more affordable spectacle.
"When I was growing up," the director recalls, "they always made films of the famous musicals. It didn't take quite this long, of course. And there were sometimes controversies about the actor who originated the role on Broadway not being cast in the movie. That was fair enough, but the idea that a movie version shouldn't be made, or can never measure up to the original, is absurdly shortsighted."
Mr. Schumacher, tall and weathered and gray-maned and humorously knowing, was a latecomer to the movie profession. Born in New York City in 1939, he was an enfant terrible as an aspiring fashion designer and boutique owner in the 1960s. He gravitated to the film medium in the 1970s, designing costumes for such features as Woody Allen's "Sleeper" and Paul Mazursky's "Blume in Love" before turning his hand to screenwriting as a stepping stone to direction. He inherited "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" when John Landis was unavailable in 1981.
Mr. Schumacher never became proficient at slapstick farce, but he did achieve credibility when showcasing young performers, notably in "St. Elmo's Fire" and "The Lost Boys," the early credit that piqued Mr. Lloyd Webber's interest. At one time Joel Schumacher was typed as the Brat Pack's favorite director, since he helped put Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore and Ally Sheedy on the up-and-coming map.
This facility is reawakened in "Phantom," his first musical. It boasts three young and extraordinary leads: Gerard Butler as the Phantom; Patrick Wilson as his rival, the nobleman Raoul; and the teenage heart-stopper Emmy Rossum as the ingenuous object of their desire, Christine.
At the outset Mr. Schumacher and Mr. Lloyd Webber intended to film the latter's show in 1990, with the original co-stars, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, in the leads. That plan failed to survive the collapse of the Lloyd Webber-Brightman marriage. There was also stubborn financial resistance to a movie version before numerous lucrative regions of the world had welcomed a theatrical company of "Phantom."
In the ensuing years, Mr. Lloyd Webber never hit it off with other potential directors. The original partners had remained friends since the 1988 introduction. Two years ago, they decided it was time to get the job done. Mr. Schumacher preferred to maximize the romantic potential with young and beautiful leads. "It was fine if they were known, fine if they were not," he says. That was agreeable with Mr. Lloyd Webber, as long as they could also sing. The final selections would have to pass auditions with Mr. Lloyd Webber at the piano.
Mr. Schumacher immediately thought of Patrick Wilson for a beefed-up version of Raoul, the respectable suitor. A native Virginian, he had established a Broadway reputation in "The Full Monty" and a revival of "Oklahoma!"
"Andrew calls him the annoyingly perfect Patrick Wilson," Mr. Schumacher fondly observes. "Because he is. He's just a great guy. A jock. Does his own stunts. A wonderful actor with a gorgeous singing voice. There's gotta be something wrong there. Well, he's chosen show business. That's the weak spot."
Mr. Schumacher had noticed Gerard Butler, a Scot, in the horror thriller "Dracula 2000." He had auditioned him a couple of times and assured him that something appropriate would come along sooner or later. "He was always a lot of fun when he read for parts," the director says. "He was very connected to the loneliness of the character when he read the Phantom. I was afraid he might be in over his head when it came time to sing for Andrew, because he had only performed in a rock band, and you know what that means. But he was just great."
Emmy Rossum proved an eleventh-hour godsend. She first found precocious employment at age 7 as a member of the children's chorus at the Metropolitan Opera. She had been in the independent feature "Songcatcher" at age 12 or so. When she met Mr. Schumacher at his home in Los Angeles, the director had not seen her as Sean Penn's ill-fated daughter in "Mystic River," then still unreleased.
Mr. Schumacher sets the scene: "I was down to five young women I intended to screen test. All talented and beautiful. Some already well-known, some not. All could sing. Two days before the tests Emmy came in. Within five minutes, I asked, 'Where were you hiding?' I told her she had to test. She said it was impossible. She was only passing through to attend a family reunion in Las Vegas. So she left. Fortunately, she changed her mind over the weekend, and here we are. You can't imagine the movie without her. Now when people ask why the movie took so long to make, I say, 'We were waiting for Emmy to be born.' "

Copyright 2004 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.


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