Joel Schumacher: the director who made Colin Farrell a star and helped invent the 1980s
The late film-maker defined an age, made movies whole generations hugged to their bosoms
Joel Schumacher: “I caused a lot of trouble with my movies on purpose.” Photograph: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times
For the rest of the world, Joel Schumacher, who died on Monday at the age of 80, was one of the men who – then already deep into middle age – helped invent the 1980s. What would that decade have been without St Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys? A former window dresser and costume designer, he never left a corner of the frame undecorated.
In this country he will, however, always be “the man who discovered Colin Farrell”. Obviously, we already knew the Dubliner as the hunk from Ballykissangel. But it was his performance in Schumacher’s Tigerland, a Vietnam drama from 2000, that announced Farrell to the world. Schumacher went on to cast Farrell as the lead in Phone Booth and in a smaller role in Veronica Guerin. “I love Joel. He kind of did discover me,” Farrell told this writer a few years ago. “He made the international discovery. But I wouldn’t have got in the room without the work I’d already done.”
By that stage, Schumacher, had been in the business for close to 30 years. He began in the fashion industry. Raised in New York, the son of a Jewish mother and a southern Baptist father, Schumacher studied at the Parsons The New School for Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology in his home city. He soon realised that movies were his true ambition and, after moving to Los Angeles, eventually scored work designing the singular costumes for Woody Allen’s Sleeper.
His first hit away from the sewing machine was as writer of the delightful disco-stuffed comedy Carwash in 1976. Sidney Lumet hired him to adapt the 1974 Broadway show The Wiz into the financially underperforming (but strangely durable) 1978 film version. He got to direct Lily Tomlin in the undistinguished The Incredible Shrinking Woman three years later.
The Lost Boys, a satin-draped vampire thriller from 1987, and Flatliners, a supernatural romance, confirmed him as the era’s master of pop camp
The Schumacher origin story was completed with the release of St Elmo’s Fire in 1985. Critics have ever since argued over whether it’s a good-bad film or a good-good film. Only a person with anthracite where others have a heart could be entirely resistant to this delightful soap opera about a bunch of differently troubled alumnae of Georgetown University. Rob Lowe plays the sax. Judd Nelson offer practical definition of the coming word “yuppie”. Demi Moore tries to kill herself by sitting in front of an open window and welcoming the same winds that rustled contemporaneous pop videos. It’s a delight. Even those who didn’t like the film had to admit that it launched a movement. Here is the “Brat Pack” in all its high Reaganite glory.
The Lost Boys, a satin-draped vampire thriller from 1987, and Flatliners, a supernatural romance, confirmed him as the era’s master of pop camp. Few of the films got good reviews, but they became immovable pillars of repertory cinema in the coming century. No 1980s season at The Light House cinema in Dublin is complete without The Lost Boys and St Elmo’s Fire. His taste for visual excess both reflected and influenced the Age of the Shoulder-pad.
People love my movies. They connect with them. I think I am one of the luckiest people on the planet
In 1993 Schumacher directed a film that got good reviews from even those not predisposed to put tongues in cheek. Falling Down, a tale of crumbling urban angst with Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall, was as gripping as it was moving. His John Grisham adaptation The Client made good use of Susan Sarandon a year later. Was Schumacher about to become a William Wyler for the millennium? Not quite. His two Batman films, Batman & Robin and Batman Forever, got the sort of kicking critics usually reserve for Adam Sandler projects.
An endlessly charming man who spoke in a melodic, irony-tinged drawl, Schumacher remained philosophical about the critics. He always made it clear that he appreciated the gifts that had come his way. “Oh, I think I’m treated fairly,” he told me. “I have caused a lot of trouble with my movies on purpose. But people love my movies. They connect with them. I think I am one of the luckiest people on the planet.”
Hits were harder to come by in the 2000s. Tigerland did well at the box office. But his expensive version of Phantom of the Opera could not replicate the success of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s lavish musical (though, when set beside the recent Cats, it feels like a triumph for the ages). In 2002 he came to Dublin to make Veronica Guerin. Starring Cate Blanchett as the murdered journalist, the picture proved – as had Tigerland and Falling Down – that he was capable of dealing in grit when grit was required. But nobody outside Ireland was interested. The picture barely scraped back half its modest production budget. His most recent feature was the ill-received Trespass in 2011.
By all accounts, he remained good company throughout his later days. If you wish to impose double entendres on that last sentence then have at it. Just last year, in a typically forthright interview, he turned heads by claiming he had sex with up to 20,000 partners. Film enthusiasts spent the following weeks furrowing brows over calculators. “I’ve had sex with famous people, and I’ve had sex with married people, and they go to the grave,” he told Vulture. “I’ve never kissed and told about anybody who gives me the favour of sharing a bed with me.”
He would have chuckled at that quote turning up in so many of his obituaries. After all, today’s reports were not backward in celebrating his professional achievements. He defined an age. He made films that whole generations hugged to their collective bosoms. And he discovered some durable actors.
“Oh, there’s always risk. But, you know, the Good Lord has always been kind to me with unknowns,” he told me.
Like Colin Farrell?
“Yes, I have heard of him,” he purred.