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Joel Schumacher

Alumni / Joel Schumacher

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Like good orchestra conductors, successful filmmakers understand the parts they're meant to harmonize and how each contributes to the overall effect. It helps if, like Joel Schumacher, you have hands-on experience with all of the elements of your craft.

Today Schumacher makes blockbuster films and independent classics, but long before he stepped behind a movie camera, he had cultivated a design sensibility in his childhood neighborhood in Queens, New York. As a young person, he offered to design window displays for local retailers, a skill he eventually brought to fashionable New York City shops like Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel. His work creating elegant tableaux to attract passersby with miniature scenes of fantasy prepared him to frame imaginary worlds later on film.

Window dressing also exposed him to fashion design and retailing, a field Schumacher saw as a next logical step in his career and artistic development. Intent on a rigorous formal education, he chose Parsons, which had established the nation’s first fashion design program. Schumacher’s ability earned him a scholarship to the school, whereupon his talents flourished in the stimulating academic environment.

After graduating with honors from Parsons in 1965, Schumacher applied his creative and marketing abilities broadly, designing clothes, starting an influential boutique called Paraphernalia, designing for Revlon, and working on Halston’s first collection. Seeking new challenges, Schumacher began art-directing TV commercials, a job that built on his existing design skills and brought him closer to his childhood dream of filmmaking.

It was fashion, though—in the form of costume design—that provided entrée to the world of television and film once Schumacher moved to Hollywood to begin a career in the entertainment industry. His first break was to dress Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins in Play It As It Lays (1972), but Schumacher’s design talents were on full display when he outfitted Woody Allen with costumes for Allen’s sci-fi comedy Sleeper (1973). The subtle details of his designs for Sleeper underscore the film’s satirical tone and slapstick humor. In Schumacher’s own films, made after he began directing, costumes continue to establish and define characters: Think of the memorable trench coat–clad vampire David in The Lost Boys (1987); Batman and Robin; and Christine, the Phantom, and the Vicompte from Phantom of the Opera.

In the mid-1970s, Schumacher transitioned from wardrobe design to screenwriting, penning movies such as Car Wash and the hit adaptation The Wiz. Schumacher’s success at writing opened doors to directing in the 1980s, first in TV and then in film. His first big project film project featured Lily Tomlin in The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), which he directed and co-wrote, and The Lost Boys (1987) demonstrated Schumacher’s refined skills and increasing confidence. Films of this period also established Schumacher as expert at coaxing star-making performances from young talents like Demi Moore, Andie MacDowell, and Rob Lowe in stories of young people struggling at the threshold of adulthood.  

Next, Schumacher proved skillful at making thrillers with bigger stars, such as Flatliners (1990) and an adaptation of Grisham’s The Client (1994), which gave Susan Sarandon an Oscar nomination for best actress, and A Time to Kill (1996). In between, he made the controversial but critically acclaimed Falling Down (1993), and helmed the first of the two Batman films he directed. In the years since, Schumacher has made works on both large and small scales, includingTigerland (2000), Phone Booth (2002), and Veronica Guerin (2003).

His latest offering, Twelve (2010), is an intimate portrayal of the collapse of a young drug dealer’s life and includes breakout performers Chace Crawford, Emma Roberts, and Rory Culkin. Twelve closed this year’s Sundance Film Festival, landing a distribution deal before it did. Schumacher already has a number of new projects in development as well.

To each new project, Schumacher brings his 360° artistic vision, design skills, and ability to bring idiosyncratic stories to life. Considered together, his impressive array of genre-defining films are complete visual experiences that stem from the Parsons alum’s expertise in designing and directing the many elements that appear onscreen.

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