SPECIAL FEATURES #1 – PART 1: The Celluloid Sorceress talks Joel Schumacher & ST ELMO’S FIRE
In the first of our new series of interviews with the working acts behind the screens, Rebecca Nicole Williams, aka The Celluloid Sorceress, discusses the maximalist widescreen aesthetic of Joel Schumacher.
Nikki is curating an ongoing retrospective of Schumacher’s films, which started with 35mm screenings of THE LOST BOYS in Bradford and Brighton, and a digital presentation of D.C. CAB at The Cinema Museum. Next up is ST ELMO’S FIRE which screens at Genesis Cinema (22 MAR 20:50) with an introduction from The Celluloid Sorceress herself, a carefully chosen playlist and some vintage trailers.
We look forward to seeing you there.
It’s time to bring on the #Schumachatak.
RADIANT CIRCUS [RC]:
You’ve already screened THE LOST BOYS in two cities outside London, and also D.C. CAB at The Cinema Museum. Why Joel Schumacher and why these films?
CELLULOID SORCERESS [CS]:
THE LOST BOYS is just a widescreen masterpiece. We’ll come to Schumacher later, but I’m going to throw that in there now. One of the many reasons I’m showcasing Schumacher is because of his command of the widescreen aesthetic. ST ELMO’S FIRE is actually a key Panavision movie because it harks back to the great CinemaScope era of the 50s and 60s when everything seemed to be shot in CinemaScope; kitchen sink dramas, four hour epics, it was all in CinemaScope with the big colours. Seeing HOME FROM THE HILL the other day with The Badlands Collective, the Vincent Minelli movie… I was looking at how many big reds and vivid palettes there were in the design of the interiors and Schumacher talks about this in this director’s commentary. ST ELMO’S FIRE was shot by Stephen H. Burum who photographed THE UNTOUCHABLES and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for De Palma. By the mid-80s, those domestic dramas – the BREAKFAST CLUB-Y, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT-Y, AN OFFICER AND A GENLTEMAN-Y shows – they’d all gone back to flat 1.85. Widescreen was then very much your CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, your STAR WARS, your RAIDERS.
Even though it was on a low budget, Schumacher decided to shoot ST ELMO’S FIRE on anamorphic widescreen and use big colours that directors of photography, particularly in the post-GODFATHER Gordon Willis era of the late seventies, early eighties would shy away from because of the additional lighting complexitites. DPs like Bruce Surtees made it seem like they were sitting there going “we can see too much in that, dim it down a little bit”. All shadows and murk. A lot of those movies played terribly on television back in the day. You couldn’t see anything. And even PALE RIDER, which is a Bruce Surtees shot film, got a lot of complaints at the time of theatrical release for being too dark. These issues of contrast and grading are not something that originated with David Fincher, or even Burton’s BATMAN, which was remastered and re-released on vido in a brighter transfer. It has been going on for a very long time.
But Schumacher makes really bold use of colour in ST. ELMO’S FIRE in a way that was perceived as contemporary but was actually quite classical. One of the criticisms that has been levied at Schumacher is “who the hell can afford these apartments at such at such an age?” But looking back at ST ELMO’S FIRE now, the way Andrew McCarthy and Emilio Esteves are living is perfectly feasible. If you look at the way Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson are living, pretty feasible. But if you look at Demi Moore’s interior design, that is bespoke, that is Schumacher saying, “Jules would have big pink walls and I am going to shoot those big pink walls in widescreen and broaden this vista”.
ST. ELMO’S FIRE was Schumacher’s first ‘scope movie. THE LOST BOYS was his second. And clearly by that point in time he’d hit his stride. THE LOST BOYS isn’t in any way confined by the era that it was made. The fashions transcend, the music transcends, the story transcends. I get kind of irritated with people who go “Lost Boys, Near Dark, Near Dark, Lost Boys” and insist on making negative comparisons. Both can co-exist. 1987 produced two great vampire movies that both are what they are, from film makers who have different voices, but actually comparable styles when you look at some of their work: the visual styles. Bigelow is big on the visuals as well, and big on the ‘scope visuals. POINT BREAK, proves that, STRANGE DAYS proves that. Both magnificent widescreen movies.
Is it the aesthetic that is driving this programming? I’m interested in your widescreen fascination and particularly that kind of way of framing stories. Why do you think that stands out for you?
I don’t know, maybe I’m just a sucker for it. The big vista struck me many times in my formative cinema experiences. The majority of the films I have screened are ‘scope rather than flat. Equally, a lot of the films that I show are Warner Brothers. I had this conversation with Gregory Orr, Jack Warner’s grandson, at Widescreen Weekend. I said to him over a curry: “I don’t know why that is. It’s not by design. Maybe it’s just because the cinema I spent the most time around as a kid was the one that showed Warner Brothers films?”. So in my heart, maybe I have more of an affection for the films I saw in a certain place than others. But who knows, I’m not solely driven by the windscreen aesthetic. There are many, many, many flat movies on my “to screen” list, But when I started looking at Schumacher titles, there were so many that I wanted to show, both widescreen ‘scope and flat, it became apparent that I needed to screen them all, so they can be seen as a body of work in comparison to each other. So my intention is to showcase him, his full career, and actually get his films back up on screen where they belong, because they all stand up, some in much deeper or prescient ways than were realised at the time.
He’s issued his own apologies for BATMAN & ROBIN, whether he needed to or not, that’s out there. And we don’t need to apologise for it.
Well, I’m not going to apologise for him. And I actually think he gets a bad rap, and has for decades. If you Google “Joel Schumacher”, the first two or three pages is “Joel Schumacher apologizes for BATMAN & ROBIN”, “Joel Schumacher says sorry for BATMAN & ROBIN” and yeah, you know, BATMAN & ROBIN was a massive, massive, massive disappointment. I took all my friends to see it. I was really excited about it. I was going on about it for months and within 10 minutes we were like, “Err, this isn’t really what we want…”.
BATMAN FOREVER, however, is a decent movie. Everybody seems to forget it’s got a cult following of its own, with an alternate version and all the fan faves. BATMAN FOREVER was made on a modest budget and took a lot of money. It was just when it came to BATMAN & ROBIN, as he rightly says, they gave him the mandate to make a two hour toy commercial for six year olds. But a generation grew up with it and if you do actually sit and watch it with some six year olds, it works. The film totally delivers, without question. And, let’s face it, it wasn’t the first, or the last time the DC franchise went wrong. Schumacher’s BATMAN TRIUMPHANT got put into turnaround, but there’s still a lot of interest in what it might have been.
Now, if you Google ST ELMO’S FIRE the whole first page is “Is ST ELMO’S FIRE the worst movie ever made?” or “Which of the characters in ST ELMO’S FIRE is the most loathsome?” And it’s all by people who hate Reaganomics, who hate Thatcherism, who hate the 80s on principle (and some of them didn’t live through the 80s like you and I had to). The entire point of ST. ELMO’S FIRE is that by 1985 privileged white kids were coming out of Georgetown all stressed out about money and their careers and Schumacher, a bohemian with a very urban background, is asking “why is this happening? Why aren’t they hanging out and bumming around and making life up as they go along?”. ST. ELMO’S FIRE is a funny movie, and I think whereas the second half of the 80s were so ramped up and “high octane” in general, a lot was taken literally as something to aspire to. A lot of Schumacher’s observations are much better read in retrospect, given that the pressures on young people he highlights have only been exacerbated over time.
Another director who was a big influence on me was Tony Scott, who never made a movie in 1.85 flat. Every single one of his movies was in 2.35 scope, every single one of them. His films really captured me. Everyone’s going to think I’m going to invoke TOP GUN here, but no. BEVERLY HILLS COP II was the one I watched over and over and over again after my cinema experience on a dodgy copy of the pan and scan VHS. That was where I started to notice grading, use of coloured filters, use of the camera moves and editing, use of light, even the pan-and-scan process caught my imagination. Tony Scott, was another director who got a bad rap through most of his career. THE HUNGER is now hailed as a masterpiece but in 1982 he lost his job on STARMAN within half an hour of the Los Angeles preview starting. They were painting John Carpenter’s name over his parking space while his debut was still rolling!
TOP GUN’s aerial photography remains among the best ever captured. The story is very light, but TOP GUN is TOP GUN, undeniably one of the biggest films of all time. BEVERLY HILLS COP II not so much, but it’s a film that came out in the big Paramount run of 1987. THE UNTOUCHABLES was trailered on all the prints that went out of BEVERLY HILLS COP II and a lot of THE UNTOUCHABLES’ success is attributed to that roll over.
1987 was a big year for me and I remember clearly my experience of all these films in the cinema. I followed Tony Scott’s career through REVENGE, which is a film that people lament and had a problematic shoot leading to the two versions now available, but I remember like 1995, 1996, he’s just done TRUE ROMANCE, a masterpiece, best thing Tarantino’s ever had his name attached to, and then CRIMSON TIDE which is a terrific movie and the supposed intelligentsia question his right to be regarded an artist. But all the visualist of that era took the same flack to some degree or other. You look at the Tony Scott and the Joel Schumacher aesthetic and various others were criticized for all the same reasons. Sir Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne all got criticized for “style over substance”. Rubbish. I’m sure in the 50s the same was levied at the great noir photographers now, you know, going “Oh yeah, it was all style over substance…”? Style is a major part of telling a story.
This takes us into a conversation about Schumacher himself because we’ve spoken a fair amount about his films, but when we’ve discussed him, you’ve been clear that here’s a filmmaker who’s worthy of reconsideration. You’re at the start of your process of screening many of his works. What are you discovering about Joel Schumacher? What are you hoping your audiences will spot?
Well, I’ve followed Schumacher’s career all along, you know, right from THE LOST BOYS. THE LOST BOYS would’ve been the first one that I saw in the cinema. Saw that the day after my fifteenth birthday so was the first legit one, you know, and I was captivated by the name and the images and so I purposefully followed his career. I’d see his name on something, it’s like, yes, I want to see this for better or for worse. People are going “ooooh, it’s by that guy who directed BATMAN & ROBIN”, But what did Schumacher follow THE LOST BOYS with? COUSINS which I’m showing at The Regent Street (June 5th, 19:30) from a very, very, very rare archive print.
Schumacher grew up living behind a cinema in New York and he had very bohemian and liberal upbringing and was fascinated with the arts. If you watch the Hollywood’s Greatest Movie Directors on TCM he says “I was like the kid in CINEMA PARADISO”, which I identify with having spent so much time behind the scenes in the theatre and cinemas managed by my father and his friends. So he fell in love with movies at a very early age. There was a whole thing running him down. “From window dresser to filmmaker”. Clearly his aesthetic judgement served him well in getting gainful employment when he was starting out but his first and foremost interest was always, always film. His way into film was as a costume and production designer. Through that work and meeting other filmmakers, he was encouraged to write, which he wanted to go into, and that was where he made his name. People forget that Schumacher first came up in the business as a writer of note as he did the musical SPARKLE, which is way way ahead of its time.
He said in interviews that he wrote SPARKLE because it was a fascinating story about people in a certain period with great music and a basis in reality. I’ve never taken him as disingenuous about his failure to realise the Warner Brothers of 1976 would see it as a so-called “black movie” which only people of colour would go and see and barely gave it a release, not knowing how or who to market it to, which is just ridiculous. And if you look at that movie now, the story that it tells is the same story as DREAMGIRLS which was a monster hit on stage and screen. SPARKLE is arguably the better of the two. Certainly of the films.
Joel Schumacher was actually quite “woke”, as it was fashionable to say not too recently, right back through the 70s, 80s and 90s. He was openly and proudly gay but still made it to the A-list where many others were, and still are closeted, while many others didn’t make it in their careers. He is very aware of diversity in the community and this is very much reflected in his early work. You look at D.C. CAB: it’s a very broad palate of people in one community, as was CAR WASH. He wrote CAR WASH too which was a monster hit for Universal. In fact D.C. CAB is kind of like the ruder older cousin of CAR WASH.
When you screened D.C. CAB, you put a programme note out saying this was a film of its era. Why was that?
After the fact I kind of felt I hadn’t needed to. We ran some old 80s adverts and trailers to set the tone, none of which targeted anyone or would cause any real offence, but some of which had words or stereotypes that really were “It Was Alright in the 80s”, if you get me. They went over very well, and were a lot of fun and it set the context for the film perfectly. In the film Schumacher’s voice comes through a number of different characters, it does in all of his films and in D.C. CAB, one of the most vivid is Gary Busey ‘s character who reflects an awareness of white privilege in that time and an actual happiness to redress that balance and wish for that to happen. Due to one flippantly used word, which a sympathetic character wouldn’t say in films today but which was absolutely the (dreadful) norm then. People might steer away from showing that now, and I did feel a sharp intake of breath among some members of the audience. But as soon as what Busey’s character is saying becomes clear actually, for the 80s, it’s a pretty radical notion, especially from a sincere white male filmmaker. Schumacher does like to test his white mainstream audience, in some films more than others. FALLING DOWN was always a challenge to examine our unconscious biases.
Sometimes the substance is quite easy to miss in something as well composed and beautifully shot and tightly edited in a way that’s new and setting fashion. Schumacher is a tidy, resourceful film director. He doesn’t mess around. He’s got a good reputation on set. He directed PHONE BOOTH on a street in New York over 13 days on a miniscule budget and arguably it’s one of his best movies. Some people say it is his best movie. I don’t think it’s his best movie. I think Schumacher has maybe three or four masterpieces. LOST BOYS, FALLING DOWN with TIGERLAND and PHONE BOOTH as companion pieces (which is why I’m showing those last two as a double feature).
I’ve certainly found that when you stand up and announce you’re programming a Joel Schumacher retrospective the reaction is based solely on two BATMAN movies and THE LOST BOYS. But then you start to read out his full filmography and there’s so much great stuff in there. So much interesting stuff. So much stuff that people don’t reference when they talk about him, but which is loved and respected, and that’s probably why this season is gaining as much momentum as it is.
Hungry for more?
- ST ELMO’S FIRE 35mm screens at Genesis Cinema (22 MAR 20:50) with an introduction from The Celluloid Sorceress herself, a carefully chosen playlist and some vintage trailers. We look forward to seeing you there.
- [UPDATE 23 APR]: The Sorceress continues to screen the films of Joel Schumacher with her #Schumachatak: COUSINS 35mm (05 JUN 19:30, Regent Street Cinema); DYING YOUNG (20 JUN 19:30, The Cinema Museum); FLAWLESS (18 JUL 19:30, The Cinema Museum); FALLING DOWN 35mm (14 AUG 20:45, The Prince Charles Cinema); A TIME TO KILL 35mm (19 AUG 15:00, The Cinema Museum); DOUBLE BILL: TIGERLAND & PHONE BOOTH 35mm (30 SEPT 15:00, The Cinema Museum); SPARKLE 16mm + Samira Ahmed In Conversation (28 OCT 15:00, The Cinema Museum); and, BAD COMPANY (14 NOV 19:30, The Cinema Museum).
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- COMING SOON: We’ll post more of our interview with The Celluloid Sorceress here.