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Joel Schumacher feels free

TORONTO -- Joel Schumacher is not exactly singing "Amazing Grace," but from the way he talks, he once was lost and now he's found, was blind but now he sees.

Here is the man who directed "Batman and Robin" and "Batman Forever," with their combined production and marketing budgets of maybe $250 million, and he has made a $10 million movie in 28 days and he says "this film afforded me one of the purest experiences you can possibly have as a filmmaker."

The movie is named "Tigerland" and it stars a cast of unknowns in the story of draftees in the last stages of advanced infantry training before Vietnam. After basic training, they're promoted to Fort Polk's "Tigerland," a training ground that duplicates the reality and dangers of Vietnam.

The Army has headaches with this group of the trainees, however, because of the troublesome Bozz, who is relentless in resisting authority. Bozz is a focus for the fears and resentments in his group, and the officers seem in danger of losing control of these young men.

Schumacher shot the movie in 16mm, abandoning the demanding 35mm cameras and their crews of acolytes, leaving behind the elaborate lights and support mechanisms of big-budget movies, filming fast and close to the action. It was a declaration of independence after his toil in the service of blockbusters.

"My goal in life since I was a kid was to be a director in order to tell good stories," he told me one day at the Toronto Film Festival. "The goal was not to protect a Hollywood career. I felt I had to back away from the summer blockbuster world because the box office was starting to become more important than the movie. It was scaring me. I felt like I'd lost myself."

Schumacher is a sunny man with a quick smile; nothing about him suggests that most of his projects have involved versions of death--notably in "Flatliners" (1990), a drama about cocky medical students who try to investigate the afterlife experience by actually dying, and then trusting their friends to resuscitate them with a tale to tell. "Some of my earlier films ("St. Elmo's Fire," "Dying Young," "The Lost Boys," "Cousins") were small-budget pictures with actors who were relative unknowns at the time," he said. "I'm back to that with 'Tigerland.' This feels comfortable to me. Working with unknowns in a risky project is exciting."

How unknown? His lead, an actor from Dublin named Colin Ferrell, missed the audition. "His plane was late. I thought he wasn't coming. I was leaving the hotel when he showed up and just filled the room. He was very funny, smart, a great heart and soul, a dirty mouth, interesting."

Schumacher had to catch a plane, but asked Ferrell to send him something. Ferrell, who was also at the Toronto festival, picks up the story: "We got a camcorder and borrowed someone's apartment, and my sister ran the camera and read the part of the two girls in the bar from offscreen, and I did my best West Texas and sent it off to Joel."

He got the job. That's not how actors are auditioned for a Batman movie.

"What happens with success," Schumacher said, "is, you start to protect the success by repeating the success. That led me down a road that wasn't comfortable for me. I'm not complaining. I was overpaid to do those jobs. It's fun to make Batman.

"But the way those pictures are made! I don't know how we do it. You get there in the morning, you have a little rehearsal, and everybody goes to hair and makeup--which on a Batman movie could take four or five hours. Then you've got to film a scene that all our careers and the future of all the toy licensing , Walmart, K-Mart, fast food franchises, the Warner Brothers studio stores and Hasbro Toys are all hinging on. And you gotta get that done before lunch."

Working with special effects, he said, creates a weird kind of distancing effect between the director, the actors, and the material. "You're sitting looking at a video monitor on a huge sound stage with the cast far, far away from you, and hundreds of extras, and you're shouting directions into a microphone or bullhorn. And even when you're close to the actors, they have so much armor and makeup around them that you're constantly trying to get some humanity out of it.

"And then there's the blue screen, which a lot of the time is the way special effects are done. The actor is alone and there behind him is a big screen, which eventually I'm going to put computer graphics on--people attacking, space ships--and I'm shouting, look up, look right, look left, here they come on that side, now they're gonna get you! You're back to being four years old going bang bang, you're dead! That's not an exciting way to direct."

Still, he said, he understands why movies are made that way.

"The more money you spend to make on a movie, the more fair it is for the people who give you the money to expect more asses on the seats. The more asses they expect, the more you have to go toward vanilla, because vanilla is the biggest-selling flavor, even if Rocky Road and Cherry Garcia are more interesting."

On "Tigerland," he said, he could "smell the truth" when he read Ross Klaven's original screenplay.

"He lived it. He went through boot camp and training and Vietnam and came back. He became a novelist and this is his first screenplay. There really was a Bozz. This is a story that hasn't been told. It isn't about the war, it's about the war at home. The war within people."

Bozz is frank about his own motivation, which is not to get killed. He finds all the loopholes and gets other guys out of the war, helping them manipulate the rules. His captain despairs, because he can see that Bozz would be a great leader if he were not such a lousy solder. As it is, he does a brilliant job of leading his fellow trainees in the wrong direction.

"You're this kid," Schumacher said. "You're 19, which is the average age of the soldier who went and died in Vietnam. You're drafted. You have no choice. You know that your family, your school, your girl friend, your country are all torn apart by this war, and no one agrees on anything. And you're told, don't think. Just do. Just kill."

Were you in the war?

Schumacher smiled ironically. "I lived through it, most of it in a drug haze, but that was one of the wars at home, too. I was, I guess, another kind of a casualty through it, but I survived, as Ross Klaven did."

Schumacher, a longtime recovering addict, has always been frank about his onetime drug usage (indeed, he makes it into Liz Smith's new autobiography as a purveyor of emergency overdose advice). As he talked about freeing himself from the box office blockbuster syndrome, it was like he had moved on to a new kind of recovery.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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