Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
By Gregg Shapiro
Using an ever-shifting split screen, extreme close-ups, and a very scary and threatening disembodied voice on the other end of a pay phone, director Joel Schumacher creates a taut and claustrophobic film, much of which is set, fittingly, in a phone booth.
Trash-talking publicist Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell) answers a ringing phone and finds himself tracked down and trapped by an anonymous man, positioned in a building near the phone booth, who wants to teach him a lesson by threatening to kill him with a high power rifle unless he changes his ways.
Originally scheduled to be released in November 2002, the thriller was temporarily shelved due to the roving sniper in the area around Washington, D.C.
I recently met with the warm and accommodating Mr. Schumacher to discuss the controversy surrounding “Phone Booth,” as well as his work with Colin Farrell and other career high points.
BTL: Since starring in your movie “Tigerland,” Colin Farrell has gone on to become an in-demand actor.
Joel Schumacher: An international slut! (Said with a big grin and a twinkle in his eyes.)
BTL: How does it feel to have the distinction of being the director to have introduced Farrell, who is also the star of “Phone Booth,” to a mass American movie-going audience?
Schumacher: (Laughs.) You mean like Frankenstein felt when he made the monster. As you probably know, many of my films have had very young people starting out (in their film careers), and I got lucky that the audience loved them. I just think I’m lucky to have them in my movies. I don’t think I discovered anybody. I think, if you met Julia Roberts when she was 20 or Rob Lowe when he was 19 or Demi Moore or Matthew McConaughey or Brad Renfro, who was so great in “The Client,” who was 10 years old and had never acted before, if you met these people, if you would have met Colin when I was doing “Tigerland,” you would have hired him also. But now that he’s been unleashed on the world and making more money than I am, I hate him. (Laughs).
BTL: Occasionally a movie parallels something that is happening in the news. Barry Sonnenfeld’s movie “Big Trouble” had its release date changed because of the 9/11 attacks and “Phone Booth” also suffered the same fate because of the sniper situation in the Washington, D.C. area. Do you think that postponing the opening date of “Phone Booth” was the right thing to do?
Schumacher: Oh, sure! My God, these two men were randomly killing people. Although, Kiefer Sutherland’s character, in “Phone Booth,” would be highly insulted if you called him a sniper, because he’s really a moralist. He takes weeks to research his victims and find out everything about them. I think that he represents the fact that we know that we have no privacy. We know that if you’re on the Internet or if you’ve bought anything with a credit card or if you had a student loan or if you bought anything from a catalog … You buy one sweater from a J. Crew catalog and suddenly you get five thousand catalogs because obviously people sell lists. But there are people who know what TV shows we watch and what kind of things we’re interested in on the Internet because they’re sort of following us. Some of that is totally benign. But I think there is a primal fear that someday a phone will ring, and you’ll pick it up, and there will be a disembodied voice that you don’t recognize, and this person will know more about you than you’d like a stranger to know. And you have no way of finding out who they are.
BTL: That’s a very frightening thought.
Schumacher: It’s happened a lot in horror movies, where people are out in the woods, alone in the house – (in a scary voice) “Have you checked the children?” But to happen on a busy New York street, with millions of people around you, is even scarier because it means that it could happen any place, any time.
BTL: You have a habit of working with the same actor on different projects. You mentioned Julia Roberts. Tommy Lee Jones, who has been in a few of your movies, and of course, Colin Farrell, are just a few examples.
Schumacher: And Kiefer Sutherland, too. The “Lost Boys” was when he was 18, then “Flatliners,” then “A Time To Kill,” and now “Phone Booth.”
BTL: Why have you done that?
Schumacher: I’ve been lucky to work with all those great people. There are a lot of people, such as Susan Sarandon, that I would love to work with again because she’s a great actress and I loved working with her, but I don’t have a role for her. Nicole Kidman and I worked together on “Batman Forever,” and we’re dying to work together again, but we just haven’t gotten the right project yet. You just hope that you’re going to get that. Kiefer is one of those actors for all seasons. He’s a born character actor. He can play, as in “Phone Booth,” the most malicious …
BTL: … diabolical …
Schumacher: … diabolical, troublemaking villain. Or he can play the hero in “24.” He can do anything. And he can do comedy, also. And also fence, in “The Three Musketeers.” (Laughs). He can do a lot of things.
BTL: He has such a distinctive voice. Was he your first choice to play “the caller,” a character who is not seen until the last few minutes of the movie?
Schumacher: Actually, another actor did it. We shot “Phone Booth” in December of 2000, and “24” hadn’t happened yet, so Kiefer was, to some people, (but) not to me, dead in the business. He couldn’t get a job. So I had another actor do it, who is a wonderful actor, but his voice doesn’t have that resonance. I really needed that voice. By the time the movie was put together, “24” was a big hit and then they were begging me to put Kiefer in. It’s amazing how Hollywood works sometimes. But, I understand it.
BTL: Your 1999 movie “Flawless,” featured Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a gay man in one of the lead roles.
Schumacher: Well, now, the character would see themselves as transgendered. As a woman, born in a man’s body. (They) would not see themselves as a gay person. I just want to speak on behalf of Rusty Zimmerman, who Philip plays. Rusty is a very formidable person who doesn’t take any shit from anybody, as you know.
BTL: Right. As a gay man, how important is it to you to be able to present characters from our varied community?
Schumacher: I think that a lot of times “drag queens” are presented in movies as cutesy, adorable, asexual, fun-loving comic relief people that don’t threaten anybody, and kind of have just a great life. I started working in Greenwich Village when I was 16, as a busboy in a big restaurant. I remember meeting people – they didn’t even have the term transgender then – who lived in that world where they are not quite men and not quite women, and I think we’ve all come to learn that these people have suffered a lot in their lives. I thought that somebody like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, who isn’t RuPaul, who doesn’t have his own talk show – and more power to people like that – who has to ride the subway and take violent threats or actions from gangs, who is an easy target … I think that they have some balls. I always thought that it was a heroic personality. When I first wrote “Flawless,” a friend of mine had had four strokes and they used singing to rehabilitate his speech. I had the DeNiro character first, and I couldn’t decide who the singing teacher was going to be. First, I was going to make it that he (DeNiro) was a racist and that there was an elderly black woman (as the teacher) and they fell in love. And then I thought that I have done a lot of racial stuff in my movies. Then I thought that it would be a very young girl and it would be May/December romance and then I thought (that was) too soft. Then I was driving down Ventura Boulevard in L.A., and I passed a bar called The Queen Mary where they have drag shows, and there were posters for the female impersonators, and then I got it. With the DeNiro character, who is such a tough guy, and the female impersonator character being such a tough guy … they were really the same person and I could explore what it is to be a man. We have strange labels and strange ideas about everything, when we all know a seventy-five-year-old, five-foot-tall grandmother who has bigger balls then most of the men we know. The concept of what’s male, what’s female, who’s a man, who’s a woman – I thought we could play with that in a humorous way and get a lot of points across.
BTL: The important thing to remember is that at the Stonewall Inn on the night of the riots, it was the drag queens …
Schumacher: … that started it. If you’ve ever seen two drag queens have a fight, get out of the way. You don’t want to get near it because it’s very serious. But they have to be able to protect themselves because they are constantly vulnerable. Also, I felt that in the era of political correctness, when a gay man has to be a genius in a three-piece suit – (laughs) that’s fine and that’s appropriate – but I had never seen a movie where a character like this (Rusty) not only was one of the stars of the movie but also was a hero or heroine, depending on from whose point of you want to look at it, and didn’t get killed to save the straight people. (Laughs). (They) didn’t have to die.
BTL: You mentioned Susan Sarandon, and you have directed some of the best known actors and actresses in Hollywood, (such as Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Sandra Bullock and Anthony Hopkins). Are there still people with whom you haven’t yet worked that you would like to direct?
Schumacher: Oh, sure. Daniel Day Lewis. Helen Mirren – who is my favorite actress. Miranda Richardson, I love. I’d love to work with Brad Pitt – I think he’s great. There are tons of people that I would love to work with that I haven’t had a chance yet. I would love to work with Michael Douglas again. I think he did an extraordinary job in “Falling Down” – an amazing and courageous performance. I’m a fan. I’m in love with a lot of people whose work I see on the screen. Jack Nicholson was so brilliant in “About Schmidt.” It was a perfect performance.
BTL: Movies are a source of escape for many people, particularly during troubled times. As we prepare to go to war, what will you do to escape reality for a few hours at a time?
Schumacher: Since it’s been 11 years since I’ve had a drink or a drug, that’s out of the question. (Laughs). That was a long time coming. I’m 63 and I’ve been around a long time. Longer than I probably should have. (Laughs). I should have been dead by the time I was 18 because I had a very reckless, destructive life. I have come to the realization that I have no control over anything. I have no control over this war, I have no control over AIDS, I have no control over the insanity and inhumanity that goes on every day. Prejudice, sexism, bigotry, homophobia, madness. I can control one thing and one thing only and that’s how I, in my personal life, treat other human beings. I’m sure I fail that every day, but it’s my goal. I believe that small acts of kindness make a better world. All I can do to deal with what’s happening around me is to try, in my own life, to give other people a break, be sensitive to other people, and try to go past my own prejudices. For instance, I always thought that I was the most liberal person in the world and then when I see someone like Jerry Falwell speak, I want to put an ice pick through his eye. That’s not very liberal. Then I realized that I was a liberal as long as everyone agreed with me. (Laughs). So I wasn’t very liberal at all. Now I have to pray and forgive Jerry Falwell. That’s going to take a lifetime.