Joel Schumacher on Batman and Why He Fell Out With Hollywood

The legendary director reveals how he went from having blockbuster hits with St. Elmo's Fire, Lost Boys and Batman Forever to that stinking turkey Batman and Robin.
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The legendary director reveals how he went from having blockbuster hits with St. Elmo's Fire, Lost Boys and Batman Forever to that stinking turkey Batman and Robin.

I woke up at seven on Saturday morning, having crashed out at 11pm Friday night after three (count 'em) glasses of wine (hey, I know how to party). Failing to sleep any longer, I switched on Sky and immediately bumped into Joel Schumacher's Batman And Robin, which I hadn't seen since Schumacher originally shat it out 1997. Now here's a film that hasn't got any better over time. The Saturday morning toddlers' slot is about right. Three year olds aren't known for being too discerning. Although even three year olds, on account of them being human beings, deserve better than Batman And Robin. I don't want to waste any space talking about how utterly wretched it is; suffice to say, Coolio's in it.

In 2000, I was offered a phone interview with Schumacher. He was promoting Flawless, a mediocre little film about a stroke victim and a drag queen, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert de Niro; before that (immediately following the reviled Batman And Robin), he had directed Nicolas Cage snuff thriller 8mm, and had recently completed Vietnam film Tigerland, Colin Farrell's breakout, which turned out to be great. Schumacher's CV is nothing if not eclectic, and I jumped at the opportunity to talk to him about what he was up to. Mostly, I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about what went on with the Batman films (before Batman And Robin, he'd directed Batman Forever, which wasn't much better) - to my knowledge, at that point he hadn't really discussed the experience in any depth. He didn't really appreciate my line of questioning. And why would he? Some little pisser, with no relevant authority or filmmaking experience, giving him grief. I'd only been a journalist for six months, and remember panicking slightly as I thought he was going to hang up. I didn't exactly smooth things over by, in an attempt to move the conversation on, asking him why the 8mm screenwriter hated what he did to his script. Reading this now, I credit Schumacher for not telling me to piss off. In the end, he came round and, I think, was pretty honest about the whole debacle.

These two films you made last year, Flawless and 8mm - were they an attempt to go a bit smaller, darker? Was there an element of knee-jerk reaction to the Batman circus?

Well definitely, yes, because you know, I had never planned on being the summer blockbuster king, and it was fun, but by Batman And Robin, the box-office had started to become more important than the movie.

To you or the industry?

Everybody. The media. When you’re in the blockbuster world you’re either a blockbuster or you’re not.

Did you feel you were expected to make that sort of film?

Well you can’t make a Batman film if it’s not a blockbuster. I mean, you’re judged by that. But it’s not that, it was that I had never done a sequel before. There had been a lot of pressure to do a sequel on St. Elmo’s Fire and Lost Boys, and Flatliners, when I did them. And I always knew that there weren’t sequels to those films, to me anyway. Batman Forever was my first Batman movie, and no one, including me, expected it to be as huge as it was. And then there was so much pressure to do another one, and I thought, well because the comic books are so different each time, I thought maybe it won’t be a sequel, it’ll just be another version, but I found something out that I guess I always knew but I forgot, which is there’s only one reason people make sequels. Money. And the first time you make something there’s a passion and a discovery, and a wonder. There’s a certain… I can’t think of the exact word that I wanna use, there’s a certain… well there’s a freshness to it, definitely, because you don’t know if you’re gonna succeed. And then the sequel: nobody needs a sequel. Sequels are made to make more money.

Did you feel this way at the time though? Before you made Batman And Robin?

I don’t know if I was thinking, because I was making another movie; I got the phone call while I was shooting A Time To Kill, “We want another Batman movie, can you get it ready to shoot in September?”, and it had been so popular, and the fans were saying “Make another one,” and I thought “Well okay, everybody loved it, I’ll make another one...” I wasn’t thinking, I think I was just going along with the program. But I take full responsibility for the choice. I’m not saying that I was… you know, I wasn’t victimised into this at all. I thought it would be fun. But there was so much more pressure to sell more toys… the merchandising, the licensing… you know, it makes so much money for all the ancillary rights.

And then I was expected to do another Grisham, because The Client and A Time To Kill had been so successful. And I pulled out, I just couldn’t do it. And I purposely took 8mm because, well I liked the story and I knew it would cause a lot of trouble

Do you feel you kind of got sucked into all that?

Well we didn’t feel it as much in the first one because [Tim Burton's] Batman Returns had sort of destroyed the franchise, and no one wanted us. None of the toy manufacturers, or the stores… they had all been burned by Batman Returns, and the theatre owners didn’t want us. There was a real stone wall against Batman. So, we sort of were like the new people on the block saying, “Please let us in, let us join your club,” you know, and there’s a kind of fun to being the outsider. And then the movie opened and it became the biggest box-office movie of the year, and no one expected that, and so the people who came on the bandwagon, the manufacturers and merchandising people, when they started seeing parts of the film, made an enormous amount of money.

So then, that all happened. The film produced that. Then what happened was, the cart was sort of running the horse, it was: How much money can everyone make, and how can the movie serve that? So it all changed, and that I didn’t anticipate. So I felt that…you know, you’re suddenly in endless meetings with Walmart and K-Mart and McDonald's and Taco Bell, and… as I say, no one forced me into this, I take full responsibility, but yes, it did feel to me that it was common. So it was scary. And then I was expected to do another Grisham, because The Client and A Time To Kill had been so successful. And I pulled out, I just couldn’t do it. And I purposely took 8mm because, well I liked the story and I knew it would cause a lot of trouble and would be dangerous and there would be a lot of clucking of tongues, and it’s fun to make trouble.

It also was as far from a summer feelgood movie as you could possibly get, and that was very exciting. And I wanted to work with Nic Cage, and we had a wonderful cast and I’m very proud of the film. Then I wrote Flawless just while I was preparing that, and was lucky enough to get Bob [De Niro] and Philip [Seymour Hoffman], and we made that for very little money, and that film is not the ordinary studio fare. That’s not the kind of movie that studios normally greenlight. So that was really fun, that was very small and intimate. And now I’ve just done a film [Tigerland] that’s even farther than that, in 28 days, with all unknowns, no make-up, no hair, no stunt doubles, 16mm handheld, no dressing rooms, no trailers, no nothing.

And it’s getting a good response isn’t it.

Yeah yeah, we’ve been very lucky.

So how do you feel now about what Batman And Robin did to your reputation as a filmmaker - do you think you suffered, in the public eye?

Did I suffer in the public eye?

Well do you feel that your reputation was damaged? Because the film got a mighty battering, and inevitably a lot of criticism was aimed at you as director. Do you understand what I mean?

No. (pause) You mean that all my other movies would be meaningless?

No...

You mean that I would be judged on one misstep?

No, you were saying after that film that you wanted...

You asked if I think my reputation was damaged. And my question to you is, because I made one film that wasn’t as popular as the other ones?

But it was enormously unpopular, wasn’t it.

(pause) Maybe to you, I don’t know.

And so after St. Elmo’s Fire and Lost Boys I just kept being offered movies I wanted to do. I did have stories I wanted to write, but there was no time.

Did you not feel that?

I didn’t think it was as popular as my other films, but do I feel that the public then didn’t like my other films? I don’t think I understand the question.

Do you feel...

You know what it feels like? It feels that you’ve made a decision and you want me to agree with it.

That’s not true.

I will if you want…

No. You were saying that 8mm was a positive attempt after that to make a darker film.

I think this is what you think. This is what I think you’re saying. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Okay.

What I think you’re saying is: “Oh my god, no one loves me any more. I’ll do a film about snuff and then they’ll all love me again.”

Not really.

That’s what I think you’re saying. That of course would be the most foreign thing you would ever do. If you want people to love you again, I would think you would do a movie like You’ve Got Mail.

No, I don’t think that. You were saying before, when I asked, that it was a kind of response, an attempt to get back to making smaller, darker films again.

No. I didn’t say that.

Sorry, I thought that was what you said before.

No. I purposely chose 8mm because it was as far from a feelgood movie, ‘cause I needed to get back to storytelling. But I didn’t do it to make people love me.

No, I’m not saying that, I’m just asking...

Well wasn’t the question concerning whether my reputation with the public was so damaged? Wasn’t that your question?

Yes. And I was asking if part of your reason for doing 8mm was a response to having made the big blockbuster movies.

What I would think, if you were in that situation, if you were concerned that you’d lost public approval, then you would then choose a very feelgood movie that might win the public. I don’t think that you would go to 8mm.

Okay.

If you did a film like 8mm, you’d automatically know that there are tonnes of people on the planet who could never, ever embrace a film like that.

Okay. So what can you tell me about [screenwriter] Andrew Kevin Walker’s reaction to 8mm? He wasn’t happy about the way his script turned out, was he. [Walker, who had previously written David Fincher's Se7en, allegedly disowned 8mm after Schumacher rewrote some of the film, lightening the tone at the studio's request]

I don’t know, you’d have to talk to Andrew.

Okay. So, Flawless you wrote yourself. Am I right in saying that it was the first screenplay you wrote in 15 years?

Since St. Elmo’s Fire.

I was going along and my career was just doing great, and it was building and building and building, and then Falling Down was like, Big Hero. Then The Client: Bigger Hero. Then Batman Forever: BIIIIIG HERO! Then A Time To Kill: BIGGEST HERO OF THEM ALL! Batman and Robin: Scum.

Do you like writing screenplays yourself? Why was there such a break between the two?

I never really wanted to be a writer. You know, I started doing costumes and sets, and I started writing because I couldn’t become a director any other way, and so – I saw writers getting the opportunity to direct, so I started writing because I had nothing to lose, and the first one sold was Sparkle, and it got made, then I wrote Carwash, and that was a big hit, but no one would let me direct yet. I kept writing, and I did two TV movies that they did let me direct, and from that I started directing.

I never planned on writing my own films, I just wanted to direct. I wrote St. Elmo’s Fire because after DC Cab I was only offered wacky comedies, and I wrote St. Elmo’s Fire ‘cause it was better than the scripts that were being offered to me and I hoped someone would make it, not knowing anyone would, and we certainly didn’t anticipate its success. And so after St. Elmo’s Fire and Lost Boys I just kept being offered movies I wanted to do. I did have stories I wanted to write, but there was no time. I think one of the things that… How old are you, may I ask?

26.

Well I think one of the things that’s probably difficult with our age difference – you know, it probably seems to you that I’m a successful Hollywood director… and I am. Thank God. But I wasn’t. You know, I started as a $200 dollar a week costume designer. So I was going one movie at a time, never knowing if I’d get the next opportunity. So I took the jobs that I could get, and did the best I could with them, hoping to get the next job. Or else… you can’t be a director, if somebody doesn’t let you direct.

I had wanted to write Flawless for three years, because a friend of mine had a stroke, and they used singing lessons to rebuild their speech. But I had no time because I got the idea while I was shooting Batman Forever. So during the time I did Batman Forever and A Time To Kill and Batman And Robin and with the promotion of those films, and the success of them, there was no time to do anything. So when I pulled out of Runaway Jury, the Grisham book, that’s when I first had time to sit down, but it wrote very quickly because I had a whole book of notes on Flawless, it was sort of ready to write. Every time I’d been on a plane I would sort of get an idea, I’d written it.

And how do you feel now, as a filmmaker - do you still have the same desire and passion that you did early on?

Oh I think much more so. I don’t even know what my motives were when I was younger. I think that maybe this will help answer the question… I still don’t quite understand the question that you were asking me, and I feel badly that I didn’t answer it properly, because I still don’t know what you were trying to say.

Which one?

About losing the public or something, I can’t remember how you phrased it. I think I understand the perception you’re coming from, and maybe this will help… What happened to me is, that at a certain moment I remember that I wanted to become a director, ever since I was a child, for one reason. To make movies. To tell stories. That was it. My goal had never been to become a director so I could protect being an A-list director. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?

Yeah.

So therefore, what happens, when you’ve been lucky enough to have big success, which I’ve been lucky enough to have, is that suddenly, everything inside you and everything around you rushes to protect that. And you can see it happen with movie stars and record stars and anyone who’s had success. The pressure is to hold the status of it. Hold it; don’t let it go, you know. If you’re on the A List, don’t ever not be on the A List. And if you’re Number One at something, don’t ever be Number Two… and then, somehow you fall. And the truth is, the only reason you get successful is by taking risks. And what happens is, success breeds conservatism. And repetition. Because 'Oh, they loved that, so I’ll do it again.' So, yes, it was very interesting, the point you brought up, because it sort of went like this: I was going along and my career was just doing great, and it was building and building and building, and then Falling Down was like, Big Hero. Then The Client: Bigger Hero. Then Batman Forever: BIIIIIG HERO! Then A Time To Kill: BIGGEST HERO OF THEM ALL! Batman and Robin: Scum.

I think if you make a movie that you think is funny and no one laughs, you’re wrong, they’re right. And I think that I pleased a lot of people with Batman Forever, I think I disappointed a lot of people with Batman And Robin, and that’s not a good feeling, no. But I wasn’t killing children.

Yeah.

And that’s great. That’s great.

Why?

Because, the… [pause]… I don’t know, I don’t know, you know, you don’t wanna be the home run king forever.

Right.

You just wanna play ball sometimes. And sometimes… even though St. Elmo’s Fire and Lost Boys and Flatliners… even Falling Down, a lot of my hits, they’ve been very successful films, but never real blockbusters.

Sure.

And they weren’t designed to be. You know, it’s okay to make movies that don’t make billions of dollars. Some of my favourite movies don’t.

And does critical and public response affect you? Do you care what people think? Or do you primarily make films to please yourself?

Well, no... Listen, some famous person once said, “I’ve been rich and poor and rich is better.” Well, you know, I’ve been loved and hated, and loved is better. But at the end of the day it does matter what you think of yourself. I mean, you’ve got to respect yourself and your work. I don’t think any filmmaker has ever made a film that they didn’t want anyone to see. I mean maybe a video in their own house or something, but… If you’re not making a film for some audience somewhere, then I don’t know what the point of it is, you want to affect people in a way, even if you disturb them.

I think Falling Down and 8mm are very disturbing films. That’s the point of them, they’re supposed to disturb you. So I think that all storytellers want you to laugh at their jokes or cry at their sentiment or scream at their shock value, or be disturbed by disturbing subjects. I mean, you want an effect to happen on somebody. And I think that anybody who tells you they don’t is a liar. If you say, “Yes I do public entertainment but I don’t care what anyone thinks,” I think you’d be a liar. But sometimes you like the ones that don’t get the best critical response yourself, better than the ones that are the huge successes. And I remember when St. Elmo’s Fire opened, for instance, in the States – this is not an exaggeration – there was not one good review in the entire United States of America.

The critics were appalled at the behaviour of these young people. Appalled. And everybody was on their high moral horse about it, you know, ‘How dare they, with all this pre-marital sex and drugs and reckless behaviour,’ there were panel shows about it, it was great. Now, of course, these same journalists write about the film all the time as this sort of watershed movie of a generation. And some of them have even said to my face how much they loved it. And I said to them, “Well you know you hated it when it came out,” And they said, “No I didn’t, I love that movie Joel,” and I said “Well it’s fine you love it now, but you didn’t then.”

But it was something I was very proud of, and the audience got it. Woody Allen once said to me “The audience is never wrong.” And I agree with him, I think if you make a movie that you think is funny and no one laughs, you’re wrong, they’re right. And I think that I pleased a lot of people with Batman Forever, I think I disappointed a lot of people with Batman And Robin, and that’s not a good feeling, no. But I wasn’t killing children. If I stumbled, it was over a comic book. You know: Mea culpa: Kill me. I think the audience is very forgiving, however.

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