PHANTOM REBORNJoel Schumacher Brings Long-Running Musical To the Big Screen
One can almost imagine Joel Schumacher’s finger running down the list of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s runaway hits and stopping at The Phantom of the Opera. “Yes, that’s the one,” he announces. “That’s the one I want to do.” The director is, plainly, fearless. After two-dozen films, he decides it’s time to do a musical—and what, pray tell, does he pick to do? Only the most successful property—on stage or screen—of the 20th century, that’s all.
The phenomenal Phantom has racked up more than 7,000 performances in both London and New York and, with comparable companies dotting the globe, amassed $3.2 billion. And Schumacher’s 17-years-in-the-coming film version, due Dec. 22 from Warner Bros., should send that figure reeling.
It wasn’t all that carefree a decision. In a pinch, Schumacher admits—“probably, deeply, subconsciously”—a twinge of intimidation about taking on such an iconic project. “You can’t really let that stop you, though. It’s like you’re climbing Mt. Everest and feeling that you are going to fall off any minute, but you have to put that aside somewhere in your subconscious and just move ahead and do the best job that you can at interpreting it—you know, ‘fools rush in’—because, if you worry about all that, you’ll never do it.”
Intimidating cinematic Everests have an energizing effect on Schumacher. “I owe the hard-core fans the Batman movie they’d love me to give them,” he proclaimed when he went after The Caped Crusader of Marvel Comics. Similarly, with a real do-justice-to determination, he set out to deliver a ravishing visualization of a show that’s pretty much in the pores of the populace who love it—yet still plays to people who never saw it.
“The real privilege of making this movie is for people who can’t afford the legitimate theatre or don’t live in a region where it would be. If you start to think of all the great movie musicals made from very successful stage productions, you can’t begin to compare the number of people who’ve seen it on stage compared to those who’ve seen it on film.
“You try to honor the source material and then try to give it something that they wouldn’t be able to have in the theatre. And, of course, once you have a camera, there’s that whole world of the backstage, of Paris in 1870—that whole epic sweep only a camera can do.”
It is easy to understand Schumacher’s attraction to the project. As surely as Lord Lloyd Webber did Phantom to make a star of one of his Cats dancers (Sarah Brightman)—and, even before that, going back to the original source (Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel, Le Fantome De L’Opera), as surely as the Phantom himself composed to bring a cutie from the chorus center-stage into the star spot—Schumacher the starmaker saw in this presold property the chance to launch a mini-galaxy of newcomers into the mainstream limelight.
The previous products of Schumacher’s famous star-machinations include Jason Patric, Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Jami Gertz and Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys); Sutherland again, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt (Flatliners); Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Mare Winningham and Andie MacDowell (St. Elmo’s Fire); Matthew McConaughey (A Time To Kill), and, most recently and spectacularly, Colin Farrell (Tigerland and Phone Booth). To that list, now chisel the names of Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson.
Butler rises from the ashes of the Lara Croft Tomb Raider sequel to make a quantum leap to title Phantom, a damaged romantic roaming the wings and catacombs of a Paris theatre, making deadly sure his operas are performed to his liking. The object of all his ardor and angst, Christine Daae, is played by Emmy Rossum, last seen fleetingly as Sean Penn’s murdered daughter in Mystic River and as the young Audrey Hepburn in ABC’s 2000 telefilm bio. Wilson, as her saner suitor, was well-marked with Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for Angels in America and a Tony nomination for The Full Monty.
All three were Schumacher’s idea, and not one of them had their singing dubbed. “The deal I had with Andrew was: I could have any one I wanted in those three roles, but they had to do their own singing. My part of the bargain was: I want them to be very young, very beautiful, very sexy. If they’re known, that’s fine; if they’re unknown, that’s fine.”
The only person in the whole film who doesn’t do her own singing is Minnie Driver. “You can only have an opera singer do the opera singer,” reasons Schumacher. “Someone asked me why I didn’t hire an opera singer for that role. The reason’s simple: I never met one who had any sense of humor about themselves. I didn’t want someone who was that character. I wanted someone who could play that character.” And play it Driver does, almost stealing the film with a deliciously mean dissection of a diva in the difficult mode.
Lloyd Webber made what may be Academy Award amends for “muzzling Minnie.” He wrote an Oscar-eligible new song for the film (lyrics by Charles Hart), “Learn To Be Lonely,” and gave it to her to do in the end credits in her own pop-sound voice. (“You Must Love Me,” the bauble he tossed Madonna for the movie Evita, got Oscared in ’96.)
Some expertly plucked English actors round out the supporting cast: the feline Miranda Richardson as Madame Giry, a ballet mistress with a Phantom past; Murray Melvin as the prissy, precise conductor, and Ciarán Hinds and Simon Callow as sleazy opera managers.
But it’s in this newly minted star power that Schumacher shines. To preserve his vision of casting the picture young meant that he had to turn a deaf ear to the rather public pushes for Antonio Banderas and even the Tony-winning original Phantom, Michael Crawford.
Actually, the stage leads—Crawford and Brightman—were first (and only) choices for the movie when Schumacher began the project. That was, he dimly recalls, “around 1988. We prepared the movie for Munich and Prague, and we were going to shoot it around 1990. We were all set. The costumes were designed, the sets were all made, everything was ready to go—then Andrew and Sarah divorced, and the project got aborted.”
Although a number of brand-name directors were dying to do the movie Phantom, Lloyd Webber was struck by the way Schumacher had married the music with the visuals in The Lost Boys and zeroed in on him. The two stayed friends and periodically reconnoitered about the project. “My career took off, to my surprise, and we could never get together,” Schumacher remembers. “I was always making a movie or planning the next one, so I suggested a lot of other directors, and I think he did go down several other courses with other directors and other actors, but I wasn’t around for that. That wasn’t on my watch.”
This dance continued till Christmas 2002. “When I was doing the post-production of Veronica Guerin, Andrew and I had Christmas dinner, and it came up again. I thought about it, and I said to him if I could have a very young cast and wasn’t saddled with any names, I’d do it.”
Schumacher was adamant in putting the accent on youth. “The story doesn’t make sense unless the girl is very young. I wanted her romance with Patrick Wilson to be her first sexual awakening, contrasting that with the dark passion that draws her to Gerry’s character. Also, if you study the period and look at the paintings of that time, those girls were very young indeed. Girls performing at the Paris Opera were girls in their teenage years.”
Wilson, with his Broadway chops, was the first and easiest to cast. Butler was a bit dicier. “I’d known Gerry for a couple of years. I saw him in Dracula 2000 almost by accident and thought he was great—a friend of mine is his agent—and whenever he was in L.A., we’d lunch. He told me he’d been in a band, which of course means nothing—you shake the tambourine and pick up girls or pretend to play the guitar and pick up girls—so I said to him that I’d love for him to try out for the Phantom, but could he really sing? He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘No, really sing. Could you sing for Andrew Lloyd Webber?’ There was a long pause, and he said, ‘Well, I could try.’ And so he did. He went to Andrew’s house in London and sang ‘Music of the Night’ and got it. I knew he’d be a stunning Phantom.”
Rossum, 16 at the time she auditioned, made it into the picture right under the wire. “I don’t know where her agent was during the six months we were casting—I think he thought she was too young—but she showed up at the last second, two days before the last screen-testing. Not only was she a wonderful actress, she had sung at the Metropolitan Opera since she was seven. And with that gorgeous dark hair and those beautiful eyes and that stunning figure—I mean, it was as if we had ordered her. That was really a miracle.”
If you take the word of this starmaker, they arrive as miracle and you could do what he does with that given ingredient. “I don’t know they’re going to be stars. I know there’s no one else like them—and they’re right for the role. Everybody thought I was crazy when we did Tigerland. They said, ‘You’re going to put an Irish kid playing an American G.I. in a Vietnam movie? You’re nuts!’ But he happened to be right for the role. And he was certainly right for Phone Booth. We made that movie in 12 days, and we couldn’t have done that if he wasn’t. Now Colin Farrell is making more money than I am.
“I don’t think I’m making stars, and, of course, if you go back to St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys, I didn’t know anybody would go see those movies. It’s just I think anyone would hire them. I think if these people walked into your office, you would hire them also. You’re casting Flatliners and you have four guys and a part for a girl. You’ve met 200 actresses in Hollywood—and Julia Roberts walks in, and you go, ‘Thank you, God!’”
Who’s the next star on Schumacher’s runway? He doesn’t know, but, he promises, it will be a hell of an actor. “The Crowded Room is something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s about William Milligan, the first person found not guilty of criminal action because of insanity. He has the world’s record for multiple personalities that have been recorded. It’s about a man who was so abused that he developed multiple personalities to save himself.”
Dramatically, a tall order to fill—but Schumacher isn’t shirking. “You know what? I’m going to meet ’em all. There are so many young people coming up every day. We stay open and meet everyone, known or unknown. You make your best choice out of that.”