Joel Schumacher – 1939-2020: the maverick director who made studio films with serious style

"I think I’m one of the luckiest people that ever lived"

When Minnie Driver starred in The Phantom Of The Opera, she really, really hammed it up. Hearing someone else on set moaning about her performance, she went over to director Joel Schumacher and asked if she was being too over the top. “Oh honey,” he said, barely looking up from his monitor, “no one ever paid to see under the top.”

Finding the “top” and going way over it became Schumacher’s trademark across almost 50 years in the business – directing everything from sci-fi, superheroes, political thrillers, war movies, courtroom dramas, musicals and comedies with big, colourful, witty style and a rare sense of humour. Some of his films flopped, some were forgotten altogether, others stood as solid studio flicks and a handful leapt out as modern cult classics, but all were unmistakably Joel Schumacher movies.

Joel Schumacher
Joel Schumacher came to prominence as a director later in life. Credit: Alamy

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The director died on June 22 after a year-long battle with cancer, leaving behind a legacy of 24 films, dozens of TV episodes and a fine crop of music videos – not to mention the hundreds of Hollywood careers that owe everything to him, now lining up to remind the world what a funny, sad, sweet and genuine talent he really was.

Schumacher got his break in Hollywood as a costume designer (yep, the same guy who later put nipples on the Batsuit…), moving from dressing windows in New York to dressing Woody Allen on the set of Sleeper and Interiors. Costume work turned to script writing, and a few early directing duds turned into a bigger opportunity when he met The Brat Pack in 1985 for cool-kid coming-of-age drama St. Elmo’s Fire.

St Elmo's Fire
‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ arrived in 1985. Credit: Alamy

Two years later, the runaway success of that film and most of its young stars led to The Lost Boys – a moody, sexy, vampire film that was shot with music-video flair and quickly became everything Twilight wanted to be 20 years later. The early ’90s brought another dozen changes in direction for Schumacher as he honed his craft on most of the best films of his career including rom coms (Cousins), grown-up sci-fi (Flatliners), angry social dramas (Falling Down) and taught courtroom dramas (The Client).

By 1995, he was big enough for Hollywood’s greatest responsibility – taking on a Batman movie. Tim Burton had already laid the groundwork with two hugely successful and highly stylised movies, so Schumacher’s decision to come in and flip the whole franchise on its head was one of the ballsiest moves in superhero history. Swapping Burton’s dark and moody palette for neon camp and a Seal soundtrack, Batman Forever walked Bruce Wayne closer to the comics than ever before – proving the biggest hit of Schumacher’s career.

Batman Forever
Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell starred in ‘Batman Forever’. Credit: Alamy

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Fair enough, then, that his sequel, Batman And Robin proved to be his biggest turkey – and the one film that he often gets wrongly remembered for. “We deserved it,” he later reflected. “But isn’t it wonderful to remember a time that America was once so innocent that all we had to worry about was the next Batman movie?”

Brushing off the fallout, Schumacher continued into the ’00s with another crop of varied, interesting, original films – each one pushing him into new genres and different directions. Working with Nicolas Cage on seedy noir 8mm led him to a Vietnam war epic, Tigerland. Tight thriller Phone Booth was followed by Cate Blanchett’s journalist drama Veronica Guerin and then Driver’s “over the top” performance in gothic musical, The Phantom Of The Opera, which earned him three Oscar nominations. 2011’s claustrophobic crime caper Trespass was Schumacher’s last film, but it was far from his best work – proving for the last time that his career was so much more than whatever movie he happened to be making next.

The Lost Boys
Teen vampire drama ‘The Lost Boys’ was one of Schumacher’s most acclaimed films. Credit: Alamy

As actors, directors, musicians and friends take to Twitter to tell their best Joel Schumacher stories, it seems like his legacy is going to be much more than his work anyway. An openly gay director who claimed to have slept with 20,000 men at a time when Hollywood was still half-afraid to step out of the closet, Schumacher lived his life as boldly as he made his films – and he did it all without ever becoming a tyrant on set.

Seal remembers how he made the video for ‘Kiss From A Rose’ for free, just because he liked the song (“that pretty much defined my career” he says). Matthew McConaughey wrote about how grateful he was that Schumacher cast him in his first film (“Joel not only took a chance on me, he fought for me”), joining the likes of Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland and Colin Farrell who owe everything to him.

Speaking in 2017 at a retrospective of Batman And Robin, Schumacher reflected on his whole career. “I think I’m one of the luckiest people that ever lived,” he told the audience. “I got my dream. I got it so much bigger than even I could have dreamed it. You know, I’m just a kid whose parents died very young who was on his own and grew up behind a movie theatre before TV, and I wanted to tell those stories, and look what happened.”

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