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INTERVIEW: Joel Schumacher on "The Phantom of the Opera"

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: January 6, 2005 | Publication: Cinema Confidential | Author: Thomas Chau in New York City

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If we could use "A Time to Kill" and "Tigerland" as examples, Joel Schumacher can do great films from time to time. But as an avid fan of the Batman mythology, I just can't seem to forgive him for the 1997 debacle "Batman & Robin," something I still despise him for to this day.

And as Joel takes on a very different kind of adaptation, he's sure to stir some more controversy among rabid fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of Opera."

Already out in limited release, Schumacher brings his theatrical vision of the hit Broadway musical, which has been playing in New York City to packed houses since 1986. The movie stars Gerard Butler as the Phantom, Emmy Rossum as Christine, and Patrick Wilson as Raoul. The movie tells the story of a disfigured musical genius (Gerard Butler) who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera where he rages a reign of terror over its occupants. When he falls fatally in love with the lovely Christine (Emmy Rossum), the Phantom devotes himself to creating a new star for the Opera, exerting a strange sense of control over the young soprano as he nurtures her extraordinary talents.

Joel was in New York City recently to talk about his new picture and below is what he had to say.

Q: Why did you want to do this after it’s been a worldwide phenomenon?

JOEL: Well, actually, it’s even crazier than that, because he asked me to do it in 1988, when he was already a legend. The show was a phenomenon and I had just done four movies. He saw “The Lost Boys” and he loved the way music and visuals were used— his words, not mine. He flew me to London and asked me to do it. I saw the show in New York on my way to the meeting, and I thought that of all the musicals I had seen, it was the most cinematic. I also thought that what they brought to it, and whether this was Andrew’s idea, it was the first “Phantom” I’d ever seen where it was a real love between the Phantom and Christine. It wasn’t the ghoul and the damsel in distress and I loved the ending where they all have to make sacrifices, and I thought I really want to make a move of this.

We were going to make it with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman then, and we prepared it in Munich and Prague to shoot in 1990, and then for a lot of personal and professional reason, Andrew cancelled it. But we stayed friends over these sixteen years, and in 2002, I was finishing “Veronica Guerrin,” doing the post in England and had a Christmas dinner with Andrew and his wife Madeline, and she was very persuasive in getting me to think about it again. I had never done anything as romantic as this. It seemed to be more challenging and more creative than anything else I could have done last year.

I like to do very different things, as you know, and I said I’ll do it, but the girl has to be very young. I took the music and the costumes and the sets and all the glamour and romance that is obligatory and put that aside, and thought as a storyteller, what story am I telling? The story has to be this very young girl for the first time experiencing a romantic awakening with Patrick Wilson’s Raul, and also experiencing with Gerard Butler’s Phantom, a much darker, more sexual and obsessive relationship…you know…”the good kind” of relationship. These three young people caught in this tragic love triangle. That’s certainly a story I’d never told and that’s a wonderful way to start out. I said to Andrew they had to be really young and if they’re famous or unknown, that’s fine, but I just didn’t want anyone that’s not right for the story. He said that I could have anyone I want but they have to do their own singing, and I thought that was fair and we shook hands on that.

Q: What was your first reaction when you first heard Emmy, Gerard, and Patrick Wilson sing?

JOEL: Patrick was a no-brainer, because I had seen him on the Broadway stage, but I thought he was 40, because when I saw “The Full Monty,” he played the father, so when his agent called me, I said he was too old. But his agent said he’s like 30, but he looked so different. He came in while he was shooting “The Alamo,” and I was down in Austin at the film festival with “Phone Booth,” and he walked in the door, and I thought he was perfect. We expanded that role enormously. In the play, it’s very token. He was very handsome. I knew he sang beautifully. They hadn’t finished the cutting of “Angels in America” yet, but Mike Nichols told me he was just dazzled by Patrick. You can imagine how many actors wanted that role and Patrick got it, and I think that was his first film role. I sent him to London and he sang for Andrew.

I had known Gerry for a couple of years and wanted to work with him. He told me that he had been in a band in Scotland, which means nothing except that you want to pick up girls. When I gave him the script to read, he was so connected emotionally to this character and his loneliness, but he broke down crying when he talked to me about this character. I said, “Gerry, you’ll be a great Phantom, but you have to sing for Andrew Lloyd Webber or you can’t have this part.” So he said he’ll try. I thought that was very courageous of him. He came in and sang “Music of the Night” for Andrew and me, and I saw Andrew jump up and charge across the room and shake his hand vigorously. I’ve known Andrew for sixteen years now, and he would have been polite. And so, Gerry got the role.

And then Emmy came in at the last second. There were five young ladies, some famous and some unknown that I was going to screen test, all beautiful and very talented. 48 hours before that, Emmy came in and that face, that figure, that talent, and acting ability and intelligence, and also she’d been singing at the Metropolitan Opera since she was seven. Not that the other girls weren’t great!

Q: What are the challenges of bringing a stage musical onto the big screen?

JOEL: It’s one of the reasons why I did the black and white sequences. I felt we did Paris in 1919 and it was a gritty, dirty and industrial Paris with automobiles and the first World War had just happened. It was an unromantic, unmusical Paris that I was trying to give you a way into the musical section, so I felt that when the chandelier brings the theatre to life and we go into color that you would almost be this dying old man’s memory of his youth when he was in love for the first time. When all options were possible and he was brave and bold and so was the world. I thought it was important that we start off with dialogue and ease you into the singing. I use the journey to the Phantom’s lair by Christine the first time is almost more in her mind. It’s like when you’re in love and you go to this restaurant and it’s so beautiful and then you’re out of love and you go to the same restaurant and it doesn’t look the same. Because the hallway with the gold arms with the candelabra that I stole from Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” —if you’re going to steal, steal from geniuses—but when Meg, her best friend the ballerina, goes through that tunnel, it’s just a black filthy wet rat-infested tunnel, but of course, in her mind, she’s young and impressionable and he’s hypnotic.

Q: One might say that the problem with celebrities being in the star roles because it takes from the magic of the movie. This movie, instead, is just such a spectacle by having two unknowns. It allows the audience to experience the magic so much more.

JOEL: I’m glad you feel that way, because I always feel that way. As you know, I’ve done so many movies with newcomers, and it’s always exciting for me when I see new people on the screen. Certainly, there are movies, like “Tigerland,” where I said to Arna Milchan, who financed it, that w were going to go with all unknowns. In this case, quite sincerely, I think it always makes people comfortable if you have movie stars, not that that always means you’re going to have box office success, but it always makes the “suits” happy. In this case, because Andrew had raised the money himself—his company—and we had no bosses. It was just the two of us. He really gave me full rein, and the respect I paid him was that if he didn’t like their voices, I wouldn’t have cast them, no matter how great they were. As perfect as Emmy was, if Andrew didn’t think her voice was right for the role, I would not have been able to cast her, because that would have been really unfair. If you see a movie where a famous movie star is the lawyer, you know who’s going to win the case, whereas if it was Matthew McConaughey in “A Time To Kill,” who was the only unknown person in the cast, you really didn’t know how it was going turn out.

Q: Was it difficult to cast Gerard because he had NO prior singing experience whatsoever before this movie?

JOEL: I think it was harder on him than it was on us, because Andrew and I really had faith in him and most importantly, Simon Lee, who coaches the singers, he really felt he can bring Gerry to this point, but it was much harder for him than Emmy or Patrick because he had to have endless coaching. There was a raw talent that Andrew loved, but he loved that Patrick has this very pure lyric tenor voice and that Gerry had a coarser, more rock ‘n’ roll and a much sexier voice. There was such a unique difference between the two of them. I think we both believed in Gerry, but I think Gerry was very nervous and insecure. We had six weeks of rehearsal. Gerry was contracted to do a soccer movie in Brazil—I told him that if he broke his ankle doing that movie that I was going to kill him and that there would be blood on his kilt when I finished with him--so he came in at the last second, so he didn’t have those six weeks of rehearsal that everyone else did.

He kept calling me from Brazil. He was so nervous because he was so worried about the movement and the singing. If our musical people had said they didn’t think he could do it, he probably wouldn’t have been hired.

Q: Were you nervous about doing live performance on camera as opposed to the singers lip synching?

JOEL: No. The old way the movies used to be made and even some of the modern musicals, they did the album first and then they would lip sync it. I thought because this was a lot sung-through, the lyrics provided the dialogue of the film the same that poetry does for some plays, that it was more important for the actors to act it than perform it for the balconies, which you have to do. What we did is a scratch track for them to follow, because the music has to be the same, but if they cried or laughed or paused or whispered something. For instance, there are things in “Music of the Night” that of course, when you’re on stage, you’re singing for the whole theatre, but when he has Christine next to him and he has her in his embrace, he can whisper to her.

“The Phantom of the Opera” is currently playing in limited release; the movie will open nationwide January 21st.


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