Director Joel Schumacher first exploded onto the scene in the early 1980s. Armed with a slew of amazing films — from the quirky “D.C. Cab” to the dramatic “St. Elmos Fire” to the genre defining “Lost Boys” — he quickly established himself as one of the most diverse directors in the game. The decades to follow were no less eclectic and pushed him to take his creativity to even greater heights, providing fans worldwide with exciting new films such as ‘”Flatliners,” “Falling Down,” “8MM,” “Bad Company,” “Phone Booth” and “The Number 23,” just to name a few. Now in his 70s, this amazing artist is showing no signs of slowing down and is back once more with a pulse-pounding new thriller, “Trespass,” starring Nicolas Cage, Nicole Kidman, Cam Gigandet and a host of other talented character actors. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Joel Schumacher to discuss his humble beginnings, his evolution as a director, the making of “Trespass,” his advice to young filmmakers and much more!
First, I want to thank you for taking time out to talk with us today.
Don’t be silly! Thank you for your interest!
We are all familiar with the great films you have done in the past. What got you started on a journey in the entertainment industry as a director?
I had wanted to make movies ever since I was 7 years old. I didn’t know that it would ever happen. There was a terrific man named Dominic Dunn, who became a successful novelist and TV personality. In 1970, he was a producer and I just stalked him, after I got off intravenous drugs, this is a very long story but he brought me to Hollywood as a $200 a week costume designer. He gave me my first job and I did costume design and art direction. I was lucky enough to work with Woody Allen, he told me to write. The script sold. Eventually, somebody picked me to direct and I had no idea what would follow and that I would be on the phone with you today. That is what is funny about a body of work, how could I have known?! I am lucky! [shouts] I’m a lucky guy!
Who would you cite as your biggest professional influence as a director?
I would say that my earliest films, which I wrote, like “Car Wash,” are very [Robert] Altman-based because Altman always did ensembles. I usually write ensemble and I have directed tons of ensemble movies, including the new one, “Trespass,” which has Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage but it also has five other people that are also brilliant actors. It is about those seven people. This is going to sound so corny! But life is an ensemble really! Because it is never just your story. It is everybody around you and their stories. Those are the stories that I am most interested in. I think that Altman was a huge influence. Woody Allen was a huge influence because he encouraged all of us that worked with him to take risks and contribute to his filmmaking. That was interesting and very appreciated! You do your best work when someone encourages you! He is the one who said, “To be a director, you must write.” And it was my writing that sold and eventually helped me to land my first directing jobs. So, he was right! He was a great mentor. Then, I didn’t get to know Billy Wilder until late in life but he was one of my greatest influences when I was young because it was always a Billy Wilder film but they were totally different. He went from the wackiest to the most touching to the most, I guess you would call it nihilistic. He was comfortable in all of those genres and while although I am not comparing myself to Billy Wilder, I try to tackle different genres myself.
Your latest project, as you mentioned, is “Trespass.” What attracted you to the project initially?
First of all, I think it is because it is based on a primal fear of: someone breaks into your house. Then, it is a psychological thriller where seven people are together in a pressure cooker. “People break into your house” is one sentence. It is what happens in the next 90 minutes that is the story. Because there were so many cross currents, secrets and lies and nothing was as it appeared to be, it was a chance to, pardon the cliche, but peel the onion down to nothing. I really like flawed people in pressured situations. I have made a lot of different movies and journalists will ask, “What is the common thread?” The only one that I can really see is flawed people in high pressure situations, how they are going to react and what is going to happen. This film had that and it also gave me the opportunity to reach out to a great cast. I asked Nicole first. She said yes and then Nic Cage was second. Then it was great to find the other people because some of them are not as well known but YOU WILL know them eventually! They are all great character actors! It was a tough shoot because it was very physical and the cast really had to help each other. It was a real dance with cameras, etcetera, etcetera. But every movie is hard to make and our movie was certainly no harder to make than anybody elses.
This isn’t your first time directing Nic Cage. What is it about him that intrigues you as a director?
I met Nic when he did “Valley Girl” and I have always been trying to put Nic in movies because there is no one like him. I mean, if you think of Nic Cage, he is not like any other actor that you know or have known! A total original! Finally, when I asked him to do “8 MM,” he said yes. We had a pretty amazing journey together on that film. I was really proud of him. I didn’t really have another role for him for quite a while until this new movie. I was just thrilled when he said yes. I had worked with Nicole on “Batman Forever” and we had had some success. It was like being old friends again in a way. Then there is more pressure because you don’t want to disappoint people who have put their trust in you again. That is an added pressure but that is my job!
Looking back on your tremendous body of work, how do you feel you evolved as an artist through the years?
It is really interesting. One of my best friends talks about this to me all of the time. I don’t really look back and sometimes I forget that I have made so many movies. It is only when I run into people — we had our premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. In that case, there were hundreds of fans for Nic Cage and me. I actually forget all of the movies that I have made and that they have fans. I don’t say that to be disingenuous but I am always worried about the future and I am always moving on. So, no, I don’t sit home and focus on it. But sometimes, when I come home really late at night, there might be one of my movies on five channels. Not the same movie but all different movies! [laughs] I think, “Oh fuck! I have made a lot of movies!” [laughs] I am always worried about what is next. I kind of move in life like that because I come from humble beginnings and I have always worked since I was a kid. I lost my parents young, so I have only had myself really, so I am always worried about what I am going to do next. I love directing film so much that I just hope that I am lucky enough to keep directing. I never planned for people to know my name or that I would have hit movies. How could you plan that? It evolved from humble beginnings, as I said, as a costume designer for $200 a week. How could I have known that any of this was going to happen?! Each one was a separate journey, there was no plan. It was always just the next job in a way or if I could write something that people would let me direct, maybe I could change my direction that way because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. I would always try to find something very different from what I had just done and move on. As I said, I am one of the luckiest people that I know, so no false modesty. But no, I don’t sit home and watch my old movies like “Sunset Boulevard,” like the character in that film who sits and watches her old movies all of the time and resents and thinks about the old days! [laughs] Today is today! It is about what is happening now! I am proud of my cast on “Trespass” and I think that we made a pretty unique movie with a very obvious plot, you know, with people breaking into your house. It is really what you do with that and it is all about my cast. I think I have what is called a career because of my casting. I think that my casts have made me look like a really good director. I am very cast dependent. Certainly in this movie, which as I have said, is seven people in a pressure cooker and they are the ones that make it happen! I just stay out of their way! [laughs]
Being a seasoned vet of the film industry, what is the best piece of advice you can pass along to young filmmakers?
I think the best advice in the world is that if they want to direct, they should audit an acting class. That was suggested to me by Daniel Mann who was quite elderly and had directed Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani. He did a lot of great movies and a lot of great stage work. I did a director’s workshop with him. I said that I would like to do it again, this was right when I first started directing, and he said, “No. You have learned everything that you needed to learn here. Go to acting class now.” I said, “But I am not an actor!” And he said, “If you audit an acting class, that would be the best thing for you as a director.” That would be my best piece of advice. If you audit an acting class, I did it for five years, two nights a week, you will hear everything an actor can ask you. You realize that there is no method and that every actor is different. You will learn tricks on how to pull stuff out of people, how to demand some stuff from people while making them feel good about it or kicking their ass if you need to! I think that sometimes when friends of mine that are directors say that they hate actors, they really mean that they are afraid of them because they are afraid that the actor is going to ask them something that they won’t know the answer to. And ya know, if you don’t know the answer, “I don’t know, let’s find out together!” is a great answer because they know if you are lying to them and you don’t want to be that person. That would be my biggest piece of advice. And also, to try and learn the history of film! Watch black and white films, watch foreign films, watch the films that made filming. I remember Lillian Gish, very late in her life when she was doing an interview, she was part of the D.W. Griffith group as a very young girl, it was her and her sister. They were asking her about those old silent movies. She said, “Young man, you must understand that we started making movies when we didn’t know that there would be movies!” It is so true! I think, not that people have to spend their life doing this, but I hope you don’t think that film started with “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.” They are great and they are classic and we all should know them but it would be nice if you had a little encapsulated version of how we got here!
You might learn some tricks to steal from! The opening of “Falling Down” is not an homage, it is a rip-off of “8 ½” by Fellini! So, if you are going to steal, steal from the best! [laughs] There are other things, I am not going to say it is an homage, I will say I just stole them! [laughs] For example, there is a little boy in “Flatliners” who wears a red sweatshirt with a hood. He is the ghost who is attacking Kiefer Sutherland. That is definitely stolen from Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece “Don’t Look Now” because there was a midget in a red hood! A very scary movie but beautifully done! He is one of my favorite directors. It is sort of selfish stuff! [laughs] It is education and a little selfishness because you might steal some stuff but also it is just nice to know who came before you and what they did, I think. But there are many kids that are making movies too that don’t need to know that because they may be so naturally gifted and the time is now. I don’t think that times were ever better. They were just different. I think that now is now and that now is the time for — I am sure that you are much, much younger than I am, but don’t let anyone tell you that, “It’s the end of America” or “It’s the end of the world.” You know? No. This is your time. Every generation has been through its shit storms. Just go on, make merry and be good to other people! [laughs] I sound like a minister now! [laughs] But I don’t like all of the doom and gloom that is thrown at young people now. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” Every day! I have been hearing that for years. It hasn’t fallen yet. So, PARTY ON! [laughs] I think Snooki said that at Rutgers University! [laughs]
It has been a pleasure talking to you, sir! I know you have to run, so thanks again for your time and I wish you continued success!
Thank you very much! I appreciate it and take care!