Joel Schumacher, the costume designer turned prolific Hollywood hitmaker behind such films as St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Batman Forever, and A Time to Kill, died on Monday following what his publicists referred to as a “year-long battle” with cancer. He was 80.
Born in New York in 1939, Schumacher didn’t make his directorial debut until the early 1980s with the mostly forgotten comedy The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin and Charles Grodin. It was Schumacher’s third film, St. Elmo’s Fire, that set him on a track of mainstream success.
“St. Elmo’s Fire didn’t get one good review in the United States. Nobody believes that. Even critics now who call it a watershed movie and talk about it glowingly and even interview me about it. But the audience got it. And I never planned to make movies for critics,” Schumacher said in a 2011 interview.
Schumacher, who would become known for his keen casting eye, stocked his now-quintessential 1985 Brat Pack drama with a roster of up-and-coming stars, including Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, and Ally Sheedy.
“I resented the Brat Pack title. We were on the cover of New York with a fabulous picture of the cast, but it coined the term. It was such an unfair thing, but in some strange way, it may have solidified the movie in some people’s minds,” Schumacher told Entertainment Weekly in 2017.
After closing out the 1980s with thrillers The Lost Boys (which helped launch the career of Kiefer Sutherland) and the 1990 release Flatliners (where Schumacher cast Julia Roberts in a lead role before the premiere of Pretty Woman), Schumacher hit another level of Hollywood success in the mid-1990s. He directed the John Grisham adaptation The Client (which is remembered for a breakout performance from Brad Renfro) and then took over the Batman franchise from Tim Burton, starting with Batman Forever. That film starred Val Kilmer as the Caped Crusader and cast Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey as its main villains. While the finished product was a success with audiences (it out-grossed Burton’s controversial Batman Returns), its production was anything but smooth. As Carrey recalled years later, Jones bristled at his costar’s comedic energy; at one point during production, he allegedly told the Ace Ventura star, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”
Said Schumacher of the dust-up in 1996, “Jim Carrey was a gentleman, and Tommy Lee was threatened by him. I’m tired of defending overpaid, overprivileged actors. I pray I don’t work with them again.”
But it wasn’t just the supporting cast that made Batman Forever a difficult shoot. Schumacher called Kilmer “childish and impossible,” which made the transition to George Clooney, who took over the Batman part in Schumacher’s sequel, Batman & Robin, that much easier. ”I was told that Val was difficult and wasn’t [right] for me,” Schumacher said during production on the 1997 film. ”Clooney has a sense of humor. With some people, what you see is what you get.”
Despite the more convivial set, however, Batman & Robin was a calamity. Released the year after Schumacher scored with another Grisham adaptation—the courtroom drama A Time to Kill, in which Matthew McConaughey landed his big break—the film was a notorious flop both commercially and critically.