Joel Schumacher, Director With a Flair for the Distinctive, Dies at 80

Joel Schumacher OBIT - Getty - H 2020
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The former costume designer helmed 'St. Elmo's Fire,' 'The Lost Boys,' 'Flatliners,' 'A Time to Kill,' 'Falling Down' and the lambasted 'Batman & Robin.'

Joel Schumacher, the writer-director who came from a world of window dressing and costume design to bring a singular style to films including St. Elmo's FireFlatliners and a pair of Batman movies, died Monday. He was 80.

Schumacher died in New York City after a yearlong battle with cancer, a representative announced.

Schumacher's directorial body of work also included the horror comedy The Lost Boys (1987), which he was handed after Richard Donner passed on it to helm Lethal Weapon; the John Grisham thrillers The Client (1994) and A Time to Kill (1996); and 8MM (1999), the noirish drama starring Nicolas Cage.

The Warner Bros. regular dealt with dark themes with the medical thrillers Flatliners (1990) and Dying Young (1991), both starring Julia Roberts, and Falling Down (1993), with Michael Douglas playing an unhinged man who embarks on a violent rampage all around Los Angeles.

Schumacher had an uncanny ability to recognize young talent, and he cast members of "The Brat Pack" — including Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy — in St. Elmo's Fire (1985). He also boosted the careers of other young actors like Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell by giving them prominent parts in his films.

Early on in Hollywood, Schumacher served as costume designer on Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973) and Paul Mazursky's Blume in Love (1973) and wrote screenplays for the well-received Sparkle (1976), Car Wash (1976) and The Wiz (1978). One of the first features he directed was D.C. Cab (1983), starring Mr. T.

After Tim Burton helmed the first two Batman films starring Michael Keaton in 1989 and 1992, Warners entrusted Schumacher with the franchise, and he pumped up the visuals in Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), infusing the movies with a more comic-book feel. (He also gave Val Kilmer's Caped Crusader more muscles and George Clooney nipples on his Batsuit.)

Batman & Robin, however, was a critical disaster, and Schumacher admitted years later that he had made a mistake by listening to studio marketing executives, who wanted to target the film to kids. 

"I want to apologize to every fan that was disappointed because I think I owe them that," he said in a 2017 interview with Vice

"A lot of it was my choice. No one is responsible for my mistakes but me. I think one curveball we got was at the eleventh hour; Val Kilmer quit due to a role he got in The Island of Dr. Moreau. There had been talks about it, but none of us were involved, not with Warner Bros. and certainly not with me. I talked to Val, and all he kept saying was, 'But man, it's Marlon Brando.' It's not like he was on a hook and chain here, so Val went. So it was [then-Warners co-CEO] Bob Daly's idea to acquire George Clooney. He was an obvious choice because he was a rising star on ER. I had a talk with him and he was like, 'All right, if you do it, I'll do it.'

"Then we had a desire to bring in Batgirl [played by Alicia Silverstone] to maybe get younger girls into the franchise. I mean, I had a long history of fighting for unknowns, for fighting for a little extra budget when we needed it, so nobody never, ever forced me to make a decision I didn't approve of."

Schumacher was born in the Queens, New York, neighborhood of Long Island City on Aug. 29, 1939. He was an only child. His father, who worked in a pharmacy, died when Schumacher was 4; his mother, who was from Sweden, also passed away when he was young.

"By the time I was 7, I was really out on the streets," he said in a 1999 interview with Venice magazine. "I've really done everything wrong that a human being can possibly do, except murder someone, thank God. Fast lane, drugs, you know. I'm a survivor of the '60s who stayed way too long at the party."

Schumacher, though, said he had been sober since 1992.

He attended the Parsons School of Design at New School University and the Fashion Institute of Technology, paying his way by designing clothing and packaging for Revlon and working as a window dresser at Bendel's department store in New York.

"It was very progressive, and so we were able to do shocking, interesting, exciting windows," he told the Independent newspaper in 1993. "We had mannequins committing suicide. But my favorite was, I got a piece of shatterproof glass the same size as the windows, backed it up to the real glass and then smashed it, so that from the street it looked like the whole store had been broken into. I had all the mannequins cowering in a corner. It was fun."

He came to Los Angeles for a job as a costume designer on the Tuesday Weld film Play It as It Lays (1972), written by husband and wife John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. The couple "made life really bearable the first years I was out here, very kindly inviting me to their home for dinners," he recalled.

He said Sleeper cost $2 million to make ("It was like the high school play"), and it was Allen who was the first to encourage him that he could become a director. "The dream seemed so far away, and for someone like that to say, 'You've got it, you're going to do it,' it meant the world to me."

In 1974, Schumacher co-wrote and made his directorial bow on an NBC telefilm, Virginia Hill, which starred Dyan Cannon as a former prostitute and girlfriend of Bugsy Siegel (Harvey Keitel). Five years later, he received high marks for writing and helming another NBC movie, Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill.

Schumacher's feature directing debut came in 1981 with The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which starred Lily Tomlin and showed off surprising color schemes and a striking design. After D.C. Cab, he wrote and directed St. Elmo's Fire, penned with Carl Kurlander, his assistant at the time.

Following his Batman brouhaha, Schumacher went in a different direction with his 1999 releases 8MM and Flawless, the latter featuring the up-and-coming Philip Seymour Hoffman as a drag queen.

In 2000, Schumacher directed Tigerland, a Vietnam War drama that was widely praised and showcased another new talent, Farrell. He employed the Irish actor again for Phone Booth (2002), a psychological thriller about a smarmy publicist trapped by a sniper.

Schumacher's résumé also included The Last of Sheila (1973), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) and Allen's Interiors (1978) as a costume designer and the remake Cousins (1989), Bad Company (2002), Veronica Guerin (2003), The Phantom of the Opera (2004), The Number 23 (2007), Twelve (2010) and Trespass (2011) as a director. 

In 2013, he helmed two episodes of Netflix's House of Cards.

Asked in the Venice magazine piece if he had any advice for first-time directors, Schumacher replied: "Be bold, take risks, follow your own instincts, listen to other people only when you really believe in your gut that they're right. Get a great cast. Get a cinematographer that isn't jealous that you're the director. Get an editor that's not jealous you're the director. You can do it."