From Rags to Riches

Joel Schumacher, the director of such hits films as Flatliners, St. Elmo's Fire, and The Lost Boys, started out 21 years ago as a costume designer. In his Bel-Air home, he admits that his movies are like his "children," and says he worries whether sometimes he has "failed that child."

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Joel Schumacher grew up in a tenement house in Queens. His father died when he was four. His mother worked two jobs. Little Joel spent all his free time at the neighborhood movie theater. "Ever since I was seven I wanted to be a movie director," he says. In 1979, at the age of 40, Schumacher's dream came true: he was handed the directorial reins on a Lily Tomlin film called The Incredible Shrinking Woman. So what kind of thrill was it for him to sit in a theater and watch his first movie? "It was devastating. I was shocked at how untalented I was," Schumacher says. "It's a delusion to think that just because you want to do something all your life that you have a knack for it. I realized then that I had two choices: I could either leave the business and move to Australia, or I could start going to film classes and get better. The fact is, I was so bad, I could only get better."

So Schumacher stayed and learned and prospered. His resume now includes films like The Lost Boys, St. Elmo's Fire, Cousins, Flatliners, Dying Young and the recent Michael Douglas drama Falling Down. He has become, in the last decade, a bankable director and offers pour in daily. Despite his success, Schumacher remains, according to Michael Douglas, who's known him for two decades, one of the nicest guys in the business. "Joel likes people, he listens, he's compassionate. On the set, he's never threatened by a new idea. He allows impulsive things to happen. And he keeps things in perspective. He's aware of the absurdities in this business, and he knows that moviemaking is not brain surgery. Joel's come a long way, and he's grateful for where he is right now."

And why not? Where he is, these days, is a hilltop hideaway that overlooks the Hotel Bel-Air. On the morning I arrive, a security guard wants to know my business. I tell him, and he barks into his walkie-talkie. The driveway gate shudders and slides open. An agreeable blond chap in a sweat suit strides across the driveway, extends a hand and says, in an impeccable English accent, "Good morning. I'm Andrew, Mr. Schumacher's butler. Can I get you something to drink?" I ask for coffee and walk into the foyer which is swarming with poinsettias, leading me to suspect that Schumacher never saw the play Tru, in which Robert Morse, playing Truman Capote, calls poinsettias "the Bob Goulets of botany." Schumacher is prepping a holiday party, so there are workmen in the hall repairing a broken water heater, and outside, more men are tending to the vegetation and the pool.

Schumacher's assistant, Bettina, bids me to step into the sunken living room, which is crammed with what Schumacher will later call "an eclectic bunch of shit." A fire is blazing. There are Navajo rugs and religious art all over the place. (Schumacher's mother was Jewish, but he apparently never met a cross he didn't like.) There are two carved chairs from Kenya and two scarred leather chairs ("falling apart and decadent, like me"), a coffee table made from the inner ring of a jet engine, a candle chandelier that is lowered and raised by a pulley, and three burlap sofas awash with pillows.

Looking around the room, I am reminded that Schumacher was an art director before he was a director. Catching sight of Schumacher--who sweeps into the room in jeans, navy sweater and a black leather jacket--I am reminded that he was a costume designer as well. His first words to me--"Where shall we sit? Well, let's get rid of some of these fucking pillows"-- make me remember that he was a writer, too. Schumacher is 53 now, and though this last decade has been good to him, you can still see, in the fault lines of his face, traces of the lean years and the party years when he slept little and tried everything.

Other than William Cameron Menzies, Harry Horner and Mitchell Leisen, there haven't been many art directors who've gone on to direct films, and even fewer costume designers who've done so. Until Schumacher, there hasn't been anyone who did either and made so many films that have been so profitable. How has he succeeded where others have come up short? "I had a great luxury that many directors don't have," he says. "I worked for a lot of directors before I became one myself. I got to sit around and watch what worked--and what didn't. I watched them repeat themselves. I watched them close themselves off from the cast and crew when they should have been saying, 'I don't know what the hell I'm doing, does anyone have any ideas?'" What about the personal qualities that have fueled him during the long climb? "Hubris, trust and a certain blindness, an ignorance of the odds against succeeding in the movie business. I had this dream that I was going to be a director. If I had stopped to think about the chances of that actually happening, I never would have been able to hold out."

In order to appreciate how enormous those odds were, you have to understand just how low Schumacher had sunk before he was tossed a lifeline.

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