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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector Series: Joel Schumacher (Phantom)

Director Series: Joel Schumacher (Phantom)

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Joel Schumacher, director of Phantom of the Opera, studied at the Parsons School of Design and upon graduation worked with fashion gurus John Fairchild and Eugenia Shepard. At what he calls a “personal” low point, he looked inward and asked the big question: “What do I want to do for the rest of my life?” The answer for the movie-obsessed youth was a no-brainer, and his persistence and people skills (“plus a bit of begging”) landed him a job designing costumes for the 1971 film Play It As It Lays. Several credits later he worked for Woody Allen (“one of the biggest influences in my life and career”) and segued into production design, screenwriting and television movies prior to his big-screen directorial debut in 1980 on The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Schumacher’s credits comprise an enviable list of popular successes and include The Lost Boys, Falling Down, The Client, Batman Forever, Tigerland and Phone Booth. Critical favor has been more begrudging and doubtless his box office acclaim and eclectic choices have made him difficult to pigeonhole. The Phantom of the Opera is his first musical and his association with it dates back to 1988. When it finally became a reality, he says he had the maturity and experience to “pull out all the stops.”Below the Line: Isn’t this your second go around with Phantom?Joel Schumacher: At least. Sixteen years ago Andrew Lloyd Webber saw The Lost Boys and told his then wife Sarah Brightman, “This is the man who should do the movie version.” When he contacted me it was still relatively early in my career and I was convinced he had to be confusing me for someone else. But he insisted and we met and the project got pretty far along. Sarah and Michael Crawford, who originated the roles on stage, were going to star, it would film in Munich and Jan De Bont was the cameraman. But then Andrew’s marriage started to fall apart and so did the project. We stayed friends but I wasn’t involved again until 2002 when I was finishing up Veronica Guerin in London.BTL: Webber has a reputation for being very hands on.Schumacher: Yes, I know. But really I’ve never found him to be intrusive in a negative way. My first thought when he brought it up again was that I probably shouldn’t do it. Then, I switched gears. I started to think about what conditions I would want if I did it and the thing that was most important for me was that the leads had to be young whether they were stars or not. Andrew’s condition was that they all had to do their own singing and that was about it.BTL: I was a bit surprised to see that you’re working with all your keys for the first time.Schumacher: You know, I don’t work with a lot of people twice and that includes actors as well. I’m not so sure that collaborating with the same people over and over again helps to keep the environment challenging and exciting. I’m not crazy about developing too much of a comfort zone. Every set has a unique dynamic and I think back to working for Woody [Allen] at the start. I kind of aim to make my sets like his. I’d compare it to a high-school play where everyone pitches in, and even though you have a specific job you wind up multitasking and listening to everyone’s ideas. I’m a big believer in availing myself of the talent and experience of the cast and crew.BTL: Did you study recent musicals like Chicago and Moulin Rouge?Schumacher: Hmmm, study isn’t exactly right but I certainly looked at them and they didn’t apply to what I was going to be doing. I should also point out that this isn’t simply my first musical, it’s my first period piece if you discount going back to the ’60s. Really I wound up looking more at dramas, particularly Visconti and The Leopard. If he were alive I would have begged Piero Tosi to do the costumes.BTL: Is that why you wound up changing your production designer?Schumacher: I wanted Anthony Pratt from the start but one of the production managers convinced me he was too expensive and that I should hire someone else. The guy was very good but wrong for this production and we both kind of realized it. We tried but after about a month of preproduction he came to me and we mutually agreed it wasn’t working. I went back to the production manager and said, ‘now can I have Anthony Pratt?’”BTL: Pratt told me that he had no idea why you hired him. He said you could have designed the film yourself.Schumacher: Oh, sure. You wouldn’t want to see that film. He is a genius and there’s no way I could have created the opera house and the lair and the candles coming out of the water. What I can do is give a vague notion of what I want; maybe a bit more than vague. He gives you more than you could have dreamed. We really had this wonderful communication. He’s totally unpretentious, and I can’t do psycho-babble. So, when we were trying to visualize the theater and not quite connecting I said, “let’s make it a beautiful woman.” I think he might of murmured and nodded, and he came back with this amazing set.BTL: He also told me that he felt that he was doing a lot of catch up.Schumacher: Well then he’s a good runner, with a lot of stamina. Really the key visual department heads worked well together. I tend to crew up before I do the casting because I’m a big believer that content dictates form. Once I can see how the picture’s going to look, I have a much better idea of who should play the major roles.BTL: Is it fair to say that the choice of the mask involved a lot of collaboration?Schumacher: Definitely. It’s really a crucial element and you can’t duplicate the sort of exaggerated half mask that was used on stage. It had to work for a lot of people, obviously Jenny Shircore who did the makeup but also Tony and Alexandra Byrne, the costume designer, and our cinematographer John Mathieson. But there was also Gerry [actor Gerard Butler] and he wasn’t really available to us because he was doing some soccer movie. You can theorize all you want but if it doesn’t suit his face or he’s not comfortable wearing it, it’s back to square one. There was a certain amount of guessing, so when he finally arrived, the adjustments had to be done very quickly. We found that soft leather worked best for him and photographed well.BTL: You mentioned Visconti earlier. Am I missing something in the film? He didn’t particularly strike me as a reference point.Schumacher: Well, I can understand that. Really the only person who can do a Visconti movie is Visconti. I watched other films and was a big fan of John Mathieson and the work he’s done for Ridley Scott. I sensed he could bring both a historical context and a fantasy element to the project. He’s really an extraordinary person in a lot of ways. John has a fabulous personality and I was struck by how elegantly he dressed when we first met. He had this beautiful hat and twill coat and I thought I’m dead; I’m not in his class. We sat and talked about history for two hours and never mentioned Phantom. I thought he’s never going to do this project but the next day his agent called and said John was ready to commit.BTL: There’s definitely a sense of a heightened reality.Schumacher: I wanted everyone to push things up a notch. Obviously there’s a sense of unreality in musicals but I didn’t feel we had to go into outer space. There are a couple of other things I wanted to say about John and they certainly apply to the others. I think I’ve already mentioned how wonderfully they all worked together and they’re all first class. Alexandra also did Finding Neverland and she’s rather amazing both in getting it and providing a real texture to the work. But what I was going to say was that these people, and particular John, are people that very quickly earn your complete confidence. Sets are like hav
ing a new family—a very intense one. And the people you’re really in the trenches with on a daily basis are the DP, script supervisor and first assistant. You better like those people or the experience is going to be hellish.BTL: It’s fair to say personality is also important in working with an editor.Schumacher: Yes, unquestionably. You’re going to be locked in a room with them for months. Terry Rawlings is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met as well as a great editor. He’s also charming and funny and I sensed that the moment he walked in for a meeting. I hired him on the spot and that’s not common for me. He’s someone that doesn’t argue. I’d suggest something and he’d do it and, if it was wrong, he had the good grace to wait for me to realize it and tell him I was an asshole. Terry has that quality I’ve found in great editors. He can tweak a scene and make something that just okay really work.BTL: We talked briefly about Andrew Lloyd Webber: it’s his music and he was a producer. How proprietary was he about Phantom?Schumacher: Surprisingly not as much as you might think. There was that condition I mentioned about the actors and he did want to approve the key cast but he loved Emmy [Rossum] and Patrick’s [Wilson] classically trained voices and really embraced the kind of raw, funky rock ‘n’ roll that Gerry brought to his role. But he wasn’t hovering over me on the set or whispering notes in my ear. Andrew definitely didn’t want the music and his songs to overpower the production. He told me a couple of times that it was okay to bring up the sound effects or to mix the music lower. You know it’s taken a long time to get it on screen and he just wanted it done right and that can put enormous pressure on you. I can honestly say I never felt it. He let me hire who I wanted and pretty much stayed out of the day-to-day production decisions. I did feel a little tinge just before he saw the picture but it passed.

Written by Len Klady

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