Joel Schumacher — the prolific director behind St. Elmo’s Fire, Flatliners and two Batman films — passed away in New York City after a battle with cancer. He was 80. Jeremy Garelick, the writer-director whose credits include The Wedding Ringer and the founder of American High, recounts his time spent as Schumacher’s assistant.
I was an assistant at CAA and I had always wanted to be a director. Kevin Huvane said, “Well, if you want to be a director, go work for the director.” And I said, “Great, I’d love to.” I got a call a month later saying that Joel Schumacher needs an assistant on Tigerland, a movie he was going to direct in Jacksonville, Florida. It was New Years, 2000, and I got in my car and I drove across the country.
I was hired to hold Joel’s glass bottle of Evian water and his Planters peanuts and to drive him around and to answer his phone. The very first day of shooting on Tigerland, on the first setup, he turned to me and he said, “What do you think?” I was sitting there, thinking, “What?” I’d never been on a movie set before and he’s saying, “What do you think?” I was super intimidated, but I assumed he was actually asking for my opinion. So I said, it was really good, but I think it be cool if you put the camera behind the target and rack focus to [star Colin Farrell]. If you watch Tigerland, today, you’ll see that shot in the movie. It was something I’ll never forget.
He used make an announcement on set and say, “Don’t go home and tell your husbands or wives or boyfriends or girlfriends what I did wrong today. Make sure to come up to me and tell me your suggestion, so that I can try to fix it before it’s too late.” As a director, one giant lesson that I’ve taken from Joel is that film is such a collaborative art, and everybody might have a great idea. You don’t want to discount anybody or disrespect anybody who could help you make your film better.
He was incredibly respectful and grateful to be on set, every single day. He survived the AIDS crisis, he survived lots of years as a drug addict, and he was always grateful to be alive. Being on set, that was his win. I think that Joel always felt that as long as he was working and he was on set, he was surrounded by family. He would always say that his movies were all his home videos. Whenever we’d be in post or we’d watch the movie down at a premiere or see a movie come on television, we weren’t watching for the scene. We’d be watching and Joel would say, “Oh my gosh, do you remember that morning? We were driving and I almost lost my mind, and we were trying to eat that soup from Soup Dragon and Matty [Libatique] or Beau [Flynn] was trying to call me and—”
When I came to work for Joel, he was not in a great career spot. He had just come off of a few films that did not do that well. He took a risk with Tigerland. For Joel, Tigerland was like a tiny student film — we shot handheld on 16 millimeter film. Joel did that movie because he just wanted to tell a great story, which is what got him into directing in the first place. He had been so caught up with the Batman world, where he felt like he was selling toys. He wanted to get back into the filmmaking.
I know there was a part of Joel who wanted to win an Academy Award and wanted to be considered one of the greats. But I think because of the broad spectrum of movies that he’s made, it’s hard to define the kind of filmmaker Joel was. (Other than insanely prolific, massively successful, genre bending, daring and sexy — always sexy!) So, even though I had seen and loved many of his movies before working with him, I didn’t know they were Joel Schumacher movies at the time. Even though I loved Falling Down, I had no idea that Joel had directed Falling Down. I loved Lost Boys. I love St. Elmo’s Fire and The Wiz. There was a such spectrum of genres.
If there was one thing that really separates him from all the other great filmmakers, it is just the amount of young talent he discovered. He put so much trust in his instincts and his belief in someone that he thought could become movie star. I saw it on Tigerland. There was this kid, Colin Farrell, who had never been in anything. While we were making it, it was clear that this kid had a lot of talent. I’ll never forget when we were in Toronto, at the premiere, and we walked into the movie and nobody knew who Colin was. After the movie and the lights came on the entire theater mobbed him. I just watched in that one moment a movie star get made. And Joel had done this so many times. For this, I believe he should be considered one of the greats.
The critical success of Tigerland sparked Joel’s comeback, and I was with him during this period. In two years, we did four movies— Tigerland, Phone Booth, Bad Company and Veronica Guerin. They were all so different — different budgets and different genres. We lived in New York, we lived in Ireland, we lived in Prague and we lived in Starke, Florida. We were together 24 hours a day, and I grew so much as a person over the course of those films.
He always encouraged me to do more and he believed in me. We would write together, and I sold a script while working for him. I knew then that it was time to move on, but it was really hard because it wasn’t like I was just leaving a job. It felt like I was ending a relationship. But when I told him he gave me a hug and told me how proud he was of me, and that he’d always be there for me. And he always was. And he always will be. When I got married, he hosted my wedding party at his house, and he’s never not been in my life since. He’s always been Uncle Joel. I miss him terribly, but so much of who I am today is because of my time with Joel.
I love you, Joel, and I hope there’s a glass bottle of Evian water and Planters peanuts waiting for you in heaven.