Joel Schumacher died on June 22, 2020. We are revisiting this interview, which was originally published in August of 2019, in commemoration of his life.
Speed couldn’t kill Joel Schumacher, and neither could AIDS nor brutal Batman & Robin reviews, so his personal trainer apparently did his best to finish him off with a brutal workout. On a recent Wednesday, the 79-year-old director, sitting in a chair in his Greenwich Village loft, is unable to get up and not entirely certain he’ll live to see Thursday. “It was a leg day yesterday,” he says woefully. “Oh my God, it hurts so much. The glutes.” But, per usual, Schumacher, reliable survivor, will survive. “I know what leg injuries are,” he says. “I was a runner for 30 years. I’ve had skiing accidents. When you’re a very active person and you make movies, shit will happen to you. What I say to film schools is making movies is not all blow jobs and sunglasses. Every shot is grunt work. And happily, there’s nothing I would have rather done.”
Schumacher was able to do what he loved for an extraordinary stretch, directing 25 features of diverse genres from 1974 to 2011, when his last film was released, the violent Nicolas Cage–Nicole Kidman thriller Trespass, a movie that, like the majority he made, didn’t exactly test the capacity of Rotten Tomatoes’ review meters. But Schumacher was always a hardy Hollywood organism, never paralyzed long by bad reviews, and for decades spared movie jail thanks to a streak of solid earners, from St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), to Flatliners (1990), to Phone Booth (2003), and a few bona fide blockbusters like Batman Forever (1995) and A Time to Kill (1996). Gen-Xers who first became aware of him as the director of 1987’s The Lost Boys may be surprised to learn that directing was in fact Schumacher’s second career, and arguably not even his most glamorous. Frédéric Tcheng’s recent documentary, Halston, in which he is featured, finds Schumacher recalling the ’60s, when he and the film’s titular fashion designer were inseparable tall drinks of water, the two coolest kids looming over the Manhattan fashion world.
You know and have worked with so many people that it might be easier to ask, is there anybody you don’t know?
Well, yeah. But it was a very small community when I went out [to Hollywood]. You knew everyone. You knew the studio heads by their first names. It was a world where everyone gave dinner parties at their houses. And people were very generous in inviting me. Once a week, Sue Mengers, one of the biggest agents in Hollywood, would give a fantastic party. Barbra Streisand and Robert Evans and Ryan O’Neal — Tatum O’Neal, when she was very young — would be there. There would also be Brenda Vaccaro, who was a big star then. She was going with Michael Douglas. Michael always says, “We became friends because we were always at the dinner table with no place cards.” I was a $200-a-week costume designer, and Michael was on TV. He was the co-star of The Streets of San Francisco with Karl Malden, and TV was considered a lesser art in those days. It was Brenda who was the draw.
One of your first breaks in movies was when Woody Allen hired you as a costume designer on 1973’s Sleeper. I understand you became friends and went out together a lot.
He and Diane Keaton had broken up, and he was sort of a bachelor-around-town in New York. Many times we were both single. There was a New Year’s Eve when we took all our invitations, his and mine, and we decided we were going to go to every single party together. From a small gathering to a huge thing. That was fun. Woody taught me, at a very early stage in my career, things that have carried me. So did everyone I’ve ever worked with. All I know about Woody is he couldn’t have been a more generous friend. And Mia was fantastic to me.
What are your thoughts about what’s happened to Woody?
I saw the interview with Dylan. She believes it happened. Her brother certainly believes it. Mia absolutely believes it. And I’m not saying it happened. I’m just saying they believe it happened. But she was so young at the time that I don’t know.
Are you still in touch?
These allegations were first made not long after Mia found out Woody and Soon-Yi were involved.
Well, Mia found the Polaroids, which were on the mantle. They lived at opposite sides of the park. Woody is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. And Mia had a key to that apartment. So he left them out, which is not something Woody would have done. He had a cook. He had help. I mean, you know, he and Soon-Yi were not the only people in the apartment. So I think that was his way of telling her.
Does he have a cruel streak like this? Leaving out explicit photos of Mia’s adopted daughter is pretty cruel.
But I think sometimes when people cheat, there’s a motel receipt and their significant other says, “What is this motel receipt?” I think it’s a way of not having to sit down and tell them.
You became a big deal while you were still studying interior design at Parsons. Did you get all the attention because as a student you were decorating Henri Bendel’s windows in the city?
Bendel’s was then the jewel of all stores, probably in America and I’d won every award you could possibly win at Parsons. And I met the whole fashion world, the whole society world, everybody. I amused people like John Fairchild, who [was the editor-in-chief of] Women’s Wear Daily, so just walking out of a nightclub, I got photographed and was in Women’s Wear. I knew everybody, including Mrs. Vreeland, who was the high priestess of fashion at Vogue and was very helpful. Then when I got out of [Parsons] art school, Mort Janklow, who is a literary agent, who was then just a great lawyer, made a deal for me with [Revlon founder] Charles Revson — $75,000 a year with perks. I had a car and driver, I had this, I had that. But then, as everyone predicted, I was not meant for Charles Revson or the corporate life. Mort negotiated a fantastic deal for me to leave. I was thrilled.
And after leaving Revson, you were $50,000 in debt. Did you just not pay taxes while you were working?
I didn’t even think of it. I had no supervision. So I crashed and burned in fashion, which was well deserved, because I hated it.
You became close to gossip columnist Liz Smith during that period. Didn’t she move in with you in the early ’70s?
Yes. I think I’d just gotten sober or was about to be. She and her significant other at the time lived in a fabulous, high-ceiling apartment in Murray Hill, which probably was very cheap because they didn’t have a lot of money but entertained all the time. And I met Nora Ephron there and her husband was Dan Greenburg, also an excellent writer. There were a lot of people around Liz all the time, and she had a very eclectic group of friends. But anyway, she and her significant other had a falling out, and, typically, Liz left [the apartment and] everything to her partner and came and said, “Honey, can I stay in your apartment?” And so we didn’t have a pot to piss in. We used to save pennies because there was a Chinese restaurant on the second floor, opposite Bloomingdale’s on Third Avenue, where you’d get five courses for 99 cents. We also accepted every cocktail party and ate the hors d’oeuvre. I lived on $2 a day for almost two years.
You and Halston were also close. Were you ever involved?
Oh, no, we were never lovers. He was a great friend, one of the greatest.
And you co-designed his first fashion line?
No. I worked on it with him. Halston knew what he was doing. His first collection was an overnight success. Everything was so glamorous about him. He maintained his beautiful image all the time. We would all be on acid, and Halston would sit like a gentleman, on the same drugs that we were on, but he never lost Halston. He was so helpful to me in Hollywood, because [during my first costume-designer job on] Play It As It Lays, some of the people were playing very affluent people and we had no money in our budget for those kind of clothes for the women. I called Halston, and he sent me samples of clothing to use, which got sent back to him. But I was able to dress people very rich and in incredible clothes. He did that on a couple of my films.
Did you see that Steven Gaines’s biography of Halston is being turned into a limited series with Ewan McGregor?
Well, I mean, with all great respect for Ewan, but he doesn’t look anything like Halston. Armie Hammer should have played Halston. He’s perfect.
Oh, that’s great casting. You’re famous for your casting. Colin Farrell has said that had you not cast him in 2000’s Tigerland, he would’ve had no career.
Yes, but that diminishes him.
He said it.
When Colin walked in the room, he had an old motorcycle jacket on, a T-shirt, some jeans and boots, and I think he was late ’cause he probably had some drinks for courage. I said, “Look, there’s a lot of parts for guys in this movie. And you have something special. What I want you to do is go back to Ireland and watch Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because these are guys that totally fucked with the system. Do a little tape and try to imitate a Texas accent.” When he came in, it’s like the whole room was filled just with his presence. There was something about him. It was like when I first saw Demi [Moore] at a distance. Kiefer [Sutherland] had like one shot in At Close Range, just one. He had a larger part that was cut out, and I remember I said, “Bring that kid in for The Lost Boys.” I didn’t know he was Donald’s son. It’s kind of like falling in love. You know there’s someone out there, but you haven’t met them yet. And then Julia Roberts comes in at 19 or 20, and you say, “Thank you, God.”
Recognizing unknowns as future stars is a real gift, though.
If you didn’t hire her, then you shouldn’t be in the movie business. I mean, what were you waiting for?
Do you know why some actors you’ve cast young went on to have really long careers, and others, like Jason Patric, whom you cast in The Lost Boys, kind of disappeared?
Jason and I have talked about this many times. Jason Patric had it all. He ran away from fame. He absolutely turned his back on it when it happened on The Lost Boys. And there’s a lot of reasons for that, but it’s not necessary to go into, it’s private.
His father was the writer and actor Jason Miller, who played Father Damien in The Exorcist. He died at 62 of a heart attack.
Yes, he was a big alcoholic, and Jason was also the grandson of Jackie Gleason. I have a feeling he grew up maybe not sensing that fame was a great thing. But why is it important for people to be movie stars? Jason Patric, at 18, with those looks and deep acting talent, could’ve had it all. He didn’t want it and purposefully ran the other way, and I respect him for that.
And then there’s Julia Roberts, who weathered a lot in those early years.
Julia didn’t change, the world changed. Overnight, when Pretty Woman opened, she became the No. 1 female box-office star in the world, and she was not prepared. It was a fish bowl — “Let’s watch this girl handle this bucking bronco,” and let’s see any time she makes a mistake. Did she drink too much? Did she meet the wrong boyfriend? What did she do wrong? Right after Flatliners, we were shooting again together [on Dying Young]. And she was in my arms in the back of a car, sobbing. Her mascara was rolling down her eyes because someone she had gone to high school with had told a story from Smyrna, Georgia, about boys she had gone out with [back then]. Someone left behind made $1,800 to sell the story. And I said, “Julia, I wish I could tell you that this is a one-off kind of thing. But you have to become very strong now because you’re a phenomenon. And everything in the world from the highest praise to shit like this is going to happen to you.” And she looked up at me, crying, and said, “I never needed to be this famous.” And it was so profound to me because I realized you can’t decide how much fame you want or get. It’s not up to you. You now belong to them. I think she did eventually become very strong. She had to be. What was her other choice?
Another one of your talents has always been your respect for actors. You very infrequently said terrible things about them in the press.
No, I said Tommy Lee Jones was an asshole in People magazine.
But you hired him twice, in The Client and then Batman Forever.
He was fabulous on The Client. But he was not kind to Jim Carrey when we were making Batman Forever. And I didn’t say Val [Kilmer] was difficult to work with on Batman Forever. I said he was psychotic.
Tommy Lee Jones played Two-Face; Jim Carrey played the Riddler. What did he do to Jim?
Tommy is, and I say this with great respect, a scene stealer. Well, you can’t steal the scene from Jim Carrey. It’s impossible. And, I think it irked Tommy.
So did Tommy attempt to steal the scenes?
No, he wasn’t kind to Jim. He did not act towards Jim the way an Oscar winner with a star on Hollywood Boulevard, being the oldest member of the cast, and having such a distinguished career and the accolades to go with it, should have acted towards Jim. But what happens on the set stays on the set.
And how was Val “psychotic”?
You should look up the huge article that Entertainment Weekly did.
I seem to remember there were two directors on The Island of Dr. Moreau, and both said he was a nightmare.
I was not there. I think Richard Stanley told me he had a nervous breakdown. I do know Marlon Brando threw Val’s cell phone in the bushes and said, “Young man, don’t confuse your ego with the size of your salary, ever.” Here’s the difference between Val Kilmer and Tommy Lee Jones. I don’t care what state Tommy is in emotionally, when that camera rolls, there is no bad take. Val is a different story. But he was a fabulous Batman.
It speaks to your equanimity that when you were asked once, you picked him over Michael Keaton and George Clooney as the best Batman.
You know George always says [the failure of] Batman & Robin was his fault. No, it’s not.
Clooney did a whole press tour where he said that he destroyed the franchise.
Well, you know, that’s very George. First of all, Batman has survived since 1939 — we’re the same age. Nothing has ever stopped Batman.
Your father died when you were 4, and your mother brought you up in Long Island City. What were you like as a kid?
I did not grow up with God and wall-to-wall carpeting, the standard middle-class values. If you’re an only child, your father is dead, and your mother is at work six days a week and three nights a week, you are free. I was on my own. The street was my education. You could ride your bike over the 59th Street Bridge then. So I rode my bike everywhere. I was in Manhattan all the time and all over Queens. If you’re a kid on a bike, anything can happen, and predators come out of the woodwork, my God. I looked very innocent, but I wasn’t.
And you started drinking early, I gather.
At 9. Looking back now, I was born for drugs and alcohol. I had no period of adjustment at all. A lot of people throw up, they have blackouts. I never did. I loved it. I have an enormous tolerance for drugs and alcohol. Bill Maher introduced me when I got an award a few years ago and said, “The reason I love Joel Schumacher is he went to a party when he was 11 and got home when he was 52.” That says it all. But I did not do it when I got to Hollywood. I never would do it when I was on a job. If I lost any jobs for lack of talent, that’s fair, but I did not want to lose them because I was drinking or doing drugs.
You once said you’d hoped to buy your mother a house but sadly she didn’t live to see you become a rich, successful Hollywood director.
I just wanted to get her an apartment, to get her out of that teeny apartment. She saw a lot of praise for me. She knew I got the scholarship to Parsons, and she knew I got the job at Bendel’s. I was getting photographed for Vogue and all over the place. And those were very big. She worked in a dress store, so she could show the other ladies, “This is my son.” When you have diabetes, it can turn to gangrene very rapidly and go straight to your heart. It happened overnight. And then it all seemed so futile.
How old was she?
I’ve blocked all of this. I don’t know how old she was, and I don’t know what year it was. When I went to see a shrink, she asked me those questions and I said the same thing. And she said, “So, we have a problem with loss.”
You have often alluded in interviews to also having quite a bit of sex since you were a youngster.
The whole thing started as a joke, when I was asked by journalists some question and I said, “I’m overpaid, I’m overprivileged, and I’m oversexed.” That was a joke. Most gay men have many partners because it’s not a very “no” culture. I started drinking at 9, smoking at 10, and fooling around sexually when I was 11.
This was in the 1950s in New York, where you grew up. Gay sex must have been taboo.
I don’t know if it was legal or illegal, I just knew you didn’t talk about it. But I had three girlfriends I had sex with, and some of the guys on my baseball team, a couple guys in high school. I had my first love affair when I was 15 to 17, and he was 17 to 19. That was the first time I remembered really being in love with someone, or let’s say, infatuated. But we both had girlfriends.
Did you have sex with older people?
Mm-hmm. When I was a kid, I didn’t like very young people at all. There was a married man in our neighborhood, but we weren’t having missionary-style sex. We were, as we would say now, messing around. At that particular time, there were no magazines that dealt with homosexuality, no newspaper articles, there weren’t books, there was no education about all of this. I just was who I was.
Looking back on it, do you think you were abused by men?
I never felt abused.
But there are a lot of people now who had similar experiences and do feel abused.
I know, and they have every right to, and they were.
Obviously, there is a serious issue if you’re not the age to consent.
I would think people know the difference between being molested and mutual consent. Legally, a minor is considered not able to make up their own mind, and they’re taken advantage of, but I never, ever, felt that in my life. I know what other people have suffered. I have friends that were molested at early ages. I have a friend who was raped at a very early age. That’s horrific for them. I mean, off with their heads, the adults that did this, as far as I’m concerned. I believe that a person knows when they’ve been molested, and certainly knows when they’ve been raped. But those things didn’t happen to me. There were predators, some guy in Central Park wanted to take pictures of me because he was doing a book on little boys. They’d drive up in a car by your bike and say, “Hey, little boy, you must be tired, why don’t we put your bike in the back, and I’ll drive you home.” I would let them do their pitch, and then I’d go, “Get the fuck out of here before I call the cops.” They thought I was an innocent young boy, but I was a wiseass. I matured very young. What I did see was that when certain people were attracted to me, I could gain knowledge and find out things.
Was there ever a point that you would have called yourself a hustler as a youngster?
No, because money never exchanged hands. But I would say that, like anyone that was considered attractive, male or female, in the big city, I’ve seen my opportunities and I took them.
But I think if anybody reads about any kind of assignation that involves an older person and a younger person, it automatically seems creepy, correct?
Listen, I mean, if I say this I’m gonna be killed — there are very seductive children. I was one of them. I was very seductive at a very young age. That doesn’t mean that anybody who was older should’ve said yes or just complied, but I feel in my lifetime I’ve always been a very results-oriented person.
I found the Michael Jackson documentary, Leaving Neverland, very affecting. These guys didn’t initially consider themselves victims. But it took them years to process this. I wondered if there’s a possibility that there might be an overlap between what would seem to be consensual and enjoyable, and abuse?
That’s up to the person who’s bringing up the situation, their feelings about whatever transpired. I have not seen the documentary, and I’m not planning to. As you know, I worked with Michael when he was very young on The Wiz. He was shy, beautiful, and a genius, and we stayed in touch over the years. We had many phone conversations. I don’t know anything about what happened. I don’t know enough about what you’re asking me to give you an educated statement.
Why don’t you plan on seeing the documentary?
Well, to what end? If the boys are right, they’re right, and if they’re not, I feel sorry for the Jackson family. But I don’t know. I can’t.
The Atlantic ran a big story about Bryan Singer taking advantage of young kids. I see these pictures of these parties that he threw with all these boys, and they all look like victims to me. But as we’re talking, I just wonder if somebody at a certain age should have the responsibility to understand that they are in danger. Am I looking at the issue the wrong way?
I never went to one of those parties. I don’t know what happened. I know certain things that are accurate. Bryan was so talented at a very young age, and socially, Bryan was always so charming. He had young boyfriends, but I don’t know what age they were. And I don’t know if they were taken advantage of or if they were thrilled. I wasn’t there.
I hesitate to even go into some of this, but some of the unsourced, gossipy stuff about abuse in Hollywood from message boards like Crazy Days and Nights has seeped into the mainstream. There was an interview in The Hollywood Reporter with Corey Feldman, who has been vocal about both he and Corey Haim being abused by various players. You directed both of them in The Lost Boys. The interviewer asked pointedly about his experiences with both you and Steven Spielberg, who’s also alluded to all over those boards.
Corey also gave another interview where he said that he and Corey Haim had been sexually abused, but not by Dick Donner, Rob Reiner, Steven, or me. He went out of his way. I remember an agent called me who didn’t even represent Corey Haim and she said there’s this little movie called Lucas, see it. This kid’s a genius, all right? And I saw that movie, and we gave him the part over the phone and never regretted it. What happened with Corey’s life is very sad, but there are a lot of elements that led to that. And, yes, I did create what was called the Coreys, and they got movie after movie and millions after millions. And now I’m not sure that was the greatest thing. Corey Feldman survived, but let me tell you, both these boys had very, very rough childhoods.
Corey Feldman said nothing but good things about you and Spielberg, but it was a loaded question. In your case, do you think these rumors persist because you’re gay?
Well, everybody else gets it, so why not gay people? It’s very democratic. What was that [book about] Jim Morrison called? No One Here Gets Out Alive. That’s the way it is now, and what I’m most worried about is that young people, with all the bullying and all the hate that has infected the internet, that some people may be afraid to put their ass out there, and that would be a shame. But I can’t stop the hate.
Brad Renfro, whom you discovered and cast in The Client when he was 10, died of a drug overdose.
It was terrible.
BuzzFeed recently did a big story, “How Hollywood Failed Brad Renfro.” Do you think that Hollywood does this to children?
You mean, what would have happened if I hadn’t put him in the movie?
You do think about that?
Yes. But if you knew Brad’s background in Knoxville …
I know his mother had been a heroin addict.
[His parents] dumped him at a very young age with his wonderful grandmother Joanne, who couldn’t control him. And, like me, he was the scourge of his neighborhood. I didn’t want a child actor for The Client. Most child actors are trained to speak in a certain way to directors that scares the shit out of you, you know, trained to do cornflake commercials. [Casting director] Mali Finn had been to nine cities and auditioned 6,000 boys. I wanted a real kid with the real accent to do this part. With Flatliners, we’d needed children to act out the sins of the young adults so we’d looked for kids with difficult childhoods. I said to Mali, “Well, what about kids that are in trouble for this?” And so she went to the police, and Brad was in trouble at 10 years old with the police already, drinking and smoking and hanging around with teenagers. Sound familiar? And his audition is un-fucking-real. It’s so brilliant. Susan Sarandon and I got him into a very good school. We did everything we could. What happened was, a lot of people took advantage of him from that moment on. Suddenly, he was a star making money. So, I don’t know what would have happened to him in Knoxville, Tennessee, if he hadn’t gotten the role. But it breaks your heart.
Your friend Liz Smith said you referred to yourself as a “sexual outlaw.” Have you ever guessed the number of partners you’ve had?
It would be in the double-digit thousands, but that is not unusual.
Double-digit thousands. You mean like 2,000 or 3,000?
That’s not double digits, that’s single digits.
Oh! So 20,000 or 30,000. Somewhere in there.
Or 10, or 20.
That’s really amazing.
It’s not for a gay male, because it’s available.
Did you date famous men?
I’ve had sex with famous people, and I’ve had sex with married people, and they go to the grave. I’ve never kissed and told about anybody who gives me the favor of sharing a bed with me.
I’ve read about what sounds like your lost summer in the Pines.
Lost summer? There was a lost five years. From ’65 to ’70.
But I gather there was one specific period where you wore nothing but a Speedo.
There was a summer towards the end of my intravenous-speed run. I was so stoned I wore a Speedo through the whole summer. I was so stoned all the time on speed, I’m lucky to be here.
When I read that story about the Speedo, all I could think of was, I hope you had a sweatshirt, too, because it gets cold at night.
You’re so cute. It was a small community, and, I mean, no one would have left anybody too cold or abandoned. I would get up, and I would go in the ocean, and then we would do what we called shake and bake, which was just lie in the sun and worship the sun. It’s so hard to explain the ’60s. Paul Jasmin, who is a great artist and photographer, once said to me in the ’60s, “Sug, wherever you go, if there’s a shower, take it. ’Cause you never know where you’re gonna find another one.”
Did you wake up in the morning and immediately shoot speed?
There were pills involved too. This was liquid Methedrine, which must have been stolen from trucks or something. Methedrine is sort of the mother drug of meth. They were capsules that you snapped the top off, so they had to be clinical. I’m not going to tell you the whole process you go through to shoot drugs. You’ve probably seen it in movies.
Do you have track marks?
I still have a little scar tissue here; it’s almost minuscule, though. I didn’t have those things where you shoot the wrong way. In many cases, vanity saved my life.
Like meth, was it a drug that you could have sex on?
Oh my God, you’re horny all the time. And fortunately, it was quite available. You’re just starving for sex all the time. Every drug, in my mind, was a pathway to sex. So was alcohol. There was an adventure going on, and sex would be the cherry on that sundae. Now, a lot of gay people are getting married, they’re adopting, or they’re having children. There wasn’t any of that when I was young. If you went into a gay bar and there were 200 men in there, and you said, “Okay, who wants to have a little house with a white picket fence, and a dog, and a child, raise your hands,” or “Who wants to get laid tonight?” The concept of a lovely suburban life or raising children was not a high concept.
Did it seem strange to you when gay men started wanting to be married and have kids?
No, because I think AIDS changed a lot. We all had to look at sex, not only as it could kill you, but how reckless we had become as a culture.
I assume you lost a lot of friends.
Oh, God, yes, too many. One is too many.
Did you think that you would die of that?
A friend who was not promiscuous was the first person I knew that had it. I think he was diagnosed in ’83. And I was extremely promiscuous, so I thought, “If he has it, I must have it quadrupled.” I went to get tested. I was sure I had it, I was planning my death. In those days, the test had to be done by the Centers for Disease Control. So it was sent away, and it took three weeks or more until you got the answer. When the doctor called me and said, “No, everything’s fine, it’s clean, Joel,” I went and got tested again.
Do you remember any of your plans for your death?
I was going to ask my friends Nan Bush and Bruce Weber if I could live on their ranch in Montana. If I hired someone to take care of me, I wouldn’t bother them, because they’d be working all over the world anyway. I thought that would be a nice place to … But after [the negative test] I think I got wilder. What my psychiatrist said that was really fascinating was, “No, you are desperately afraid of death. It’s like swimming out further and further every night in the ocean and seeing if you can get back, and when you get home, it’s like, ‘I fucked death again.’”
So you weren’t careful?
I used condoms. But condoms broke. And there was a lot of drug taking, a lot going on then. It was a way to deal with the loss, I think, of so many people I loved, or liked, or had affection for, or admired.
Much has been written about how your Batman movies, especially Batman & Robin, made the franchise gayer. That the one-liners were campy.
If I wasn’t gay, they would never say those things.
So do you think it was homophobic or just lazy for people to say that?
You know what I think? I shouldn’t have made a sequel, and that’s all there is to it. I learned that sequels are only made for one reason. I’m sure that Batman Forever was the cheapest Batman movie ever made because Val didn’t get a lot of money, Nicole [Kidman] didn’t, Chris O’Donnell didn’t, and I didn’t. Tommy got a bit of a payday because he’d just won the Oscar for The Fugitive and Jim Carrey had already done Ace Ventura.
Some said that you portrayed Bruce Wayne as a closeted gay man, citing his line about not being the marrying type. They also said you redesigned the Batmobile to be phallic.
This all started way before me. Long before I came along, someone wrote a whole thing about what the real message of fairy tales and children’s stories are. Snow White was all about having bad stepmothers. And Batman and Robin are two homosexual men living in a cave, living together. There’s always been this thing about Batman and Robin being gay.
So you didn’t address this in Batman & Robin in a kind of a winking, knowing way?
No. Nor do I ever think Batman and Robin are gay. There were a lot of people who I would say, in one particular community, wanted George Clooney to be gay so badly.
Are you talking about the gay community at large? Or specific people?
Well, the only people who ever said that to me were definitely gay men. I think it happens with people that are romantic sex symbols who are on somebody’s wish list.
There do seem to always be rumors about so many actors being gay.
I know. I get asked it to this day.
No. Tom Cruise. No, now that George has gotten married and has [children], he’s okay. George has the most wicked sense of humor. I think he enjoyed every second of it. I mean, George is an incredible human being.
Your first big studio movie, The Incredible Shrinking Woman was a favorite of mine when I was a kid.
But you once said of it something that I thought was quite poignant. You said, “It’s very hard to realize you have a calling and realize you’re not gifted. I wanted to be a director all my life, and when I finally got the chance, I was so miserably untalented.”
It was too big for a first movie, because the way to make a person tiny then was so difficult. Visual effects were not at that level. It was so technically complicated. It took hours and hours and hours to get each shot.
The critics did not like it, but it was successful. The audience loved it.
Because of advice Woody gave me, I didn’t read reviews. But you just knew the audience loved it. I was never out of the box as the critic’s darling. St. Elmo’s Fire had not one good review in the United States of America.
You’ve said that before, but The Hollywood Reporter liked it.
Not to take anything away from The Hollywood Reporter, but the people all over the world were not reading an industry paper.
What is it like to have a movie that critics don’t like perform extraordinarily well at the box office?
It is the greatest thing that can happen to you. Because it reminds you who you made the movie for. And if you want to make movies just for the critics, they will fuck you anyway. It’s like people who have a genius first novel. And then they do a second one, and then a lot of critics will be, Oh, did I give them too much power? This one isn’t as good, so now I will eviscerate you and make you scum. The biggest case of that was Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh, at a very young age, did Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Discovered at Sundance. Swept the world. Incredible movie. Right? And then he made his dream project, Kafka. Then the critics decided, Oh no, we shouldn’t have raved that much. He didn’t work for a long, long time after they eviscerated him. And then he did the movie with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, Out of Sight, and then they loved him again. But he’d retreated. It was like you are Jesus come off the cross.
The fact that a lot of your movies weren’t loved by critics but made a ton of money seemed to really upset the critics.
My success annoyed a lot of people always. Maybe they thought I didn’t deserve it. You’re going to be burned for even doing an interview with me.
Because people will say, “He doesn’t deserve an interview.” Siskel and Ebert were so outraged by St. Elmo’s Fire they did it two Sundays in a row. I was watching it, and I think I was getting dressed to go out or something, and I thought it was hilarious. They were in such umbrage about the behavior of these young people. And then they went into, “Well, we both were in college, and nothing like this ever happened in college.” And I screamed at the TV, “This movie’s about people who got laid, okay?”
Charlie Rose had a whole segment on Batman Forever, the Monday in 1995 after it had the highest-grossing opening weekend in history; David Denby from New York, Janet Maslin from the Times, and Stephen Schiff from The New Yorker all talked about how bad it was as a film, and for cinema in general. Denby said he thought it was “disgraceful.” Why were those adults all getting so worked up about a movie?
Well, they always are. That’s how you know you have a success. And then you get sued. Someone will sue and say you stole everything from them. It happens to everybody who has a hit. People are infuriated by success.
I just didn’t understand why a comic-book movie was treated as such a danger to society. I guess Trump makes you forget that people used to be outraged by truly inconsequential stuff.
I think of that all the time.
The craziest thing was that, two weeks later, Charlie Rose had you on his show and played the clip of Denby saying all these terrible things. Did you know he was going to play that?
He sandbagged me with that. And not that he shouldn’t ask the hard questions, but I was hurt that Charlie did that on the air without any warning. Because we were friends. I remember laughing at David Denby. David Denby was so fat, and he had this big black beard. He looked like a character in Chekhov who never got to Moscow. Didn’t I say, “Was he expecting Long Days Journey Into Gotham City?”
I think you said Battleship Potemkin.
Can you imagine if I’d made a Batman for David Denby? Listen, years ago, when I was filming in England, there was a show at the National Gallery of [James McNeill] Whistler and [John Singer] Sargent. Both Whistler and Sargent were despised by the art critics, and they did a brilliant thing. Right next to them on the wall, framed right next to the paintings, were all their horrible reviews. Who remembers these reviews?
This interview has been edited and condensed from three conversations.
Andrew Goldman is a writer and host of The Originals podcast.