Most who worked with director Joel Schumacher walked away feeling like they’d made a friend. He was generous in spirit, open and honest about his own success and flaws and disappointments. He had a strong eye for budding talent, an audacious visual sense, a past history he’d tell anyone about, one that almost killed him before he moved from being a window dresser to a successful filmmaker. Even journalists who interviewed him came away with a ton of great quotes and a feeling they were better for the experience. Carl Kurlander, who went from being Schumacher’s assistant to writing the zeitgeist hit St. Elmo’s Fire with him that launched his own career, paints a picture of what made Schumacher special.
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I first met Joel Schumacher when I was right out of college, interning for the head of production at Universal who had requested I get lunch for a meeting he was having to discuss a project Joel was to direct called D.C. Cab. I got Joel gazpacho, no croutons, no sour cream, and chopped egg on the side. As I nervously put the order down, I can still recall Joel’s warm smile, his grateful, almost overly-enthusiastic acknowledgement to me for having brought his order (“this is fabulous!”), and noticing there was something larger than life about this lanky, elegant man in his linen suit and brightly colored Ralph Lauren Polo– a glamour and sophistication that made it apparent to all that he was special. I was not surprised when someone told me after that meeting that in his younger days Joel had been photographed several times for Vogue and, prior to coming to Hollywood, had been a star in the fashion industry.
A year later, a production secretary on the Universal lot invited me to watch dailies with her and the crew for this new movie she was working on starring Mr. T. I asked if she was sure the director would not mind and she assured me he was a sweetheart. We sat in the dark watching take after take of Mr. T in his Mohawk, breaking through the wall of some unsuspecting family eating dinner. The lights came up, and there was Joel. He turned, spotted me in the back of the room and called out: “Who the hell are you!?!” Terrified, I blurted out “I’m Carl. I got you gazpacho, no croutons, no sour cream, and chopped egg on the side a year ago.” Joel laughed and without missing a beat told me to get him a “Perrier, lemon, no ice.”
I soon became Joel’s assistant. Between takes on the set, he would ask me about my hopes and dreams. I would tell him how I longed to write a movie for my generation. “Your generation?” he asked, smiling at my naivete. “You think you have your own generation?” I explained how Joel who was twenty years older than me had grown up with drugs, sex, and rock n roll and causes like civil rights and the anti-war movement to believe in; whereas we had come of age in the era of Watergate, disco, and with the star of Bedtime for Bonzo as President. I told him how we worried whether we would ever have a life that would be anything like those who had come before us. Joel assured me what I was talking about was hardly unique, and that young people were always questioning, restless with the world they inherited, and wondering who they would be.
A few weeks after D.C. Cab came out, Joel and I were in his office on a rainy Thursday afternoon when I told him about a short story I had written in college which I had adapted into a screenplay about a waitress I had become infatuated with while working as a bellhop at the St. Elmo Hotel. Joel asked to see the short story and the screenplay I had written. The next day, he came into the office and told me how he wanted to do his next movie exploring the lives of young people out of college and wanted to use the title of my script, St. Elmo’s Fire and the plot line as part of the ensemble he was envisioning.
Though Joel and I came from different backgrounds, we both were connected by having been raised by single mothers. Joel’s father died when he was four and he had grown up poor in Long Island City where his mother worked six days a week at Marshall Fields leaving Joel to spend much of his time at the movies. The first film he saw was David Lean’s version of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations where he immediately identified with the orphan Pip in the movie’s opening graveyard scene. Joel told me he knew then he wanted to be a film director.
As a kid, he rode his bike into Manhattan to see the glamorous world he had seen in movies, a world he wanted so much to be a part of. By the time he was twenty, Joel was a rising star in the fashion world at Parsons where he spent all the money he had to make a coat like the one Omar Sharif had worn in Dr. Zhivago. Tragically, Joel’s mother died around then, but he threw himself into his career, getting a job as an assistant to Charles Revson, the founder of Revlon, and a 24 hour car. Joel always warned me: “success– better too late than too early.” While he would make a name for himself designing windows at Henri Bendel’s, paper dresses at a hip youth store “Paraphernalia”, working with Halston and partying with the wild Andy Warhol crowd all before he was thirty, Joel almost blew it all on drugs, losing five teeth and nearly killing himself with speed and heroin.
But Joel had an amazing way of reinventing himself, and he cleaned himself up and soon became a costume designer for directors like Paul Mazursky, Herb Ross, and Woody Allen– who encouraged him to write as a way of becoming a director. Joel wrote the screenplays for Sparkle, Car Wash, and The Wiz that led to his opportunity to direct his first feature Incredible Shrinking Woman. A challenging film for a first time director as it involved many special effects, it did just okay at the box office. Hampered by its R rating, D.C. Cab had also disappointed, raising the stakes on the script we were writing which might determine whether Joel would have the directing career he had so longed for.
Even before our formal collaboration, Joel had taken an interest in my life, mentoring me socially, teaching me the ways of Hollywood: How to “duke” the maître d to get a good table at The Ivy; how to own the blue shirt, khakis and Tretorns I wore everyday as “my style”; and he even became my sexual consigliere. Openly gay at a time that was still controversial, Joel always saw himself as sexually liberated and encouraged me who was painfully shy with the opposite sex to be more assertive. At one point, I asked Joel if he thought maybe the reason I was so bad with women was because I was gay. Nonplussed, he asked me who I thought of when I pleasured myself: men or women. I told him “women” and he assured me I was not gay, and he would know it if I was.
A version of this conversation made it into the script of St. Elmo’s Fire when Demi Moore’s Jules character suggests maybe the reason Andrew McCarthy’s Kevin has no girlfriend is that he is gay. That and so many other things in the movie came out of the ongoing dialogue Joel and I had with each other.
Within a month, we finished the script for St. Elmo’s Fire. Columbia wanted to change the title to Sparks or The Real World. Joel stood his ground, believing there was something magical about St. Elmo’s Fire. To try to thwart the studio from changing the title, Joel had me write a speech about St. Elmo’s Fire into the script’s climax. Near the end of the film, Rob Lowe’s Billy reassures Demi Moore’s Jules as she is having a breakdown that she is going to get through this crisis, telling her about St. Elmo’s Fire, this phenomenon sailors would observe– this blue electric light they would see in the sky during turbulent storms– and believe upon seeing it, that everything would be okay.
In some ways, Joel was my St. Elmo’s Fire– that guiding force that helped me go from a struggling writer living in a laundry room in an anarchist collective, longing for love and connection– to someone who would soon have my own first apartment, a writing career which has lasted a few decades, and an encounter with a girl on a plane that almost crashed in a storm’s turbulence that led to my first real relationship. I got to introduce that young woman, Natalie, to Joel who said we made a cute couple. I am married to her till this day.
A few years ago, on Fathers’ Day, I called Joel to thank him for all he had done for me. Though we had collaborated on other projects, including a sequel to St. Elmo’s, it had been too long. I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and told him how I often shared with my students the lessons he had passed on to me. I also admitted that in listening to stories about their lives I realized how he had been right about each generation having to go through finding out who they are.
I tried to tell Joel just how much his helping get me through that period of time in my life meant to me and how he would forever be a part of my life because of the impact he’d had on me. But he modestly would not accept any of my praise, instead deflecting to stories about the actors we’d worked with.
There is an exchange in St. Elmo’s Fire where Emilio Estevez’s character Kirbo turns to Kevin, Andrew McCarthy’s character, in front of the St. Elmo bar, seeing a different gang at the table their friends used to hang out in. “I always thought we’d be friends forever…” Emilio says. To which Andrew retorts: “Yeah, well, forever got a lot shorter all of a sudden.”
Hearing that Joel passed away, I felt profound sadness at not having had another conversation with the man who was one of the most fascinating, funny, and remarkable people I ever met. I have a life now I might not have had without Joel. Today, forever has gotten a lot shorter all of a sudden.
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