Joel Schumacher Tells Movieline About the Time He Wrote The Wiz
This week brings Trespass, the latest film from Joel Schumacher. The occasion prompted the opportunity for Movieline to have a candid, wide-ranging chat with the veteran filmmaker about his career, his critics and his humble origins as a costume designer in the 1970s. And despite his glossy new thriller starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman, one subject demanded even more attention: The Wiz, the Motown musical directed by Sidney Lumet and written, in his brief, scrappy scribe-for-hire days, by Schumacher.
I'll have more with Schumacher later this week, but his recollection of the road leading to the legendary Bad Movie We Love -- and the relationships it yielded, from composer Quincy Jones to co-star Michael Jackson, on several of whose videos Schumacher said he later passed on directing -- is just, well, priceless.
"I got it because my first two scripts that I sold and that got made were Sparkle, which is about three African-American girls in Harlem who become stars -- sort of a precursor to Dreamgirls -- and Car Wash. So I was kind of the black writer to some people," Schumacher chuckled. "Sidney Lumet was a social friend of mine, and he asked to write the screenplay for The Wiz. I saw the play, and it was so magical that I didn't think I could do anything with it at all. I said no. And everybody in Hollywood that I knew as friends or who were in the business said, 'Are you insane? You're not going to do a huge musical with Sidney Lumet?' And I was so impressionable then that I thought there must be something wrong with me.
"So I got on a plane to go to New York to meet with Sidney, and when I got off the plane, Sidney said, 'I have great news for you: Diana Ross is going to play Dorothy.' And I played catch-up from then on, because my first conversation with Sidney was that we were going to go all over the United States and find a girl who was the appropriate age for The Wizard of Oz. And the concept of Oz being Manhattan... You know, Sidney was such a New Yorker, and New York was one of the stars of the movie. Well, I hadn't planned on any of that, nor was the play like that at all. I played catch-up the rest of the time, and I tried to roll with the punches the best I could. But, you know: Dorothy was suddenly 39 years old and a spinster in Harlem.
"I think everybody worked their asses off," he continued. "The movie is so loaded with talent. I think that it was historic; I don't think any African-American film had been made at that budget, and I think, at the time, Sidney was the only one who could have made that happen. And I was working with Lena Horne and Diana Ross and Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson when he was 17. Nipsey Russell. All the great people who are in that movie! Ted Ross, who played the lion. Mabel King. I was working with brilliant and talented people. The great Ozzie [Oswald] Morris, a very, very legendary cinematographer. It was quite an experience.
"Remember, I'm coming from Car Wash, which is a day in the life of a car wash and was made for $750,000. No one knew that Car Wash was going to be Car Wash -- certainly not me. In fact, one of the big moguls in Hollywood came to me and said, 'What is this movie you've written?' And I told him, and he said, 'Joel, people do not go to the movies to see black people washing cars. People go to the movies to see...' I can remember, he sort of put his hands up and blocked the words in front his face: 'Lawrence. Of. Arabia. Gone. With. The. Wind. They do not come to see black people washing cars.' And I remember when I left, it was night. I had a little Karmann Ghia convertible, and I never could figure out how to put the top up. And I literally had a white-knuckle ride home thinking, 'He's a billionaire. He's one of the smartest people I know. Oh my God. I am making a movie about black people washing cars!'" Schumacher laughed. "And then I thought, 'But I think it's pretty good and pretty funny!' So we had the last laugh, obviously.
"I never thought I totally got my ass in the seat because the direction of it had changed so much. But the movie is so beloved, especially in the African-American community. Everyone grew up on it. Everybody's kids love it. And I think that's true of some of the Caucasian community, too. I mean, it's quite a fascinating film visually, and it does have Michael Jackson at that age, which will be forever preserved, and Lena Horne, who nobody may ever know of or see any other way. I'm still friends with Quincy Jones to this day. Michael and I stayed in contact for many years. He was always trying to get me to do a music video or put him in a movie."
Alas, Schumacher and Jackson never collaborated. "'Scream' was the last video I turned down with him," the filmmaker said, explaining that he was already committed to a range of projects during a particularly prolific period that yielded his two Batman movies and his hit John Grisham adaptations The Client and A Time to Kill. "That was the last conversation I think we had together; it was right around the time of 'Scream.' And if you'd met Michael when I knew Michael, you'd never have believed that he could have done anything to his face or anything. He was such a beautiful, brilliant talent. Well, he was always a brilliant talent. But it would have been impossible to know that there were demons lurking in that shy, exquisitely mannered, young, beautiful boy. The minute Sidney yelled, 'Action,' it was like, 'Oh my God. Look at this child.'"
Now you know. There's more where this came from, too; please do check out the rest of Movieline's chat with Joel Schumacher later this week.