When Joel Schumacher was first offered the chance to direct a film version of “The Phantom of the Opera,” he instinctively jumped at the opportunity. It was 1988, and Schumacher was a near-novice director with just four films – among them “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” – to his credit. The cast was going to be headed by the unbeatable combination of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, who were fresh off the enormous success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version of the century-old story. Perhaps most enticing of all, Schumacher was Webber’s handpicked choice to direct the film version of his musical “Phantom,” whose origins date back to the 1925 Gaston Leroux novel.
“Andrew offered it to me after he saw ‘The Lost Boys,'” Schumacher’s 1987 vampire film. “Which was amazing to me – he was a legend and I was a beginner. I thought he made a mistake – literally got the wrong name.”
It wasn’t a mistake. Webber had admired the stylishness and sexiness, the Gothic tone and the theme of youthfulness – all elements appropriate for “The Phantom of the Opera” – that Schumacher had put into “The Lost Boys.” Before shooting began, however, Webber, whose marriage to Brightman was coming to an end, pulled the plug on the production.
Despite the scrapped plan, Webber never put Schumacher, or a film version of “The Phantom,” out of his mind. The two stayed friends, and the idea of resurrecting “The Phantom of the Opera” was a frequent topic of conversation. Finally in 2002, while Schumacher was in London doing postproduction on “Veronica Guerin,” he and Webber hammered out a plan over Christmas dinner.
Sixteen years after Schumacher thought Webber had mistakenly contacted him, “The Phantom” is finally hitting the screen. And the director could hardly be happier about the long gestation.
“I had only made four films then; now I’ve made 18,” said Schumacher, by phone from Los Angeles. “Hopefully I’ve grown up.”
Film technology has most definitely grown up; the 16 years between 1988 and 2004 might as well be an eternity in terms of special effects. Schumacher takes full advantage of all those developments. His “Phantom of the Opera,” which opened in Aspen this week and shows as part of Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings series on Sunday, Dec. 26, at 8:15 p.m. at Harris Hall, is a lavish, kinetic, visually dazzling spectacle of a musical. In the late ’80s, such a glorious look would have been impractical for a midbudget film.
“There are things we did that would have been too expensive and difficult to do that are simple now,” said Schumacher. “Unlike some musicals, it’s very cinematic. It’s part Gothic horror, part romance with candles and gaslights and masks. And we added carriages and sword fights.”
The decade-and-a-half since Schumacher first began thinking about “The Phantom” allowed him to become an expert on the story’s frequently revisited history. Schumacher is conversant in the first big-screen version, the 1925 silent Technicolor classic starring Lon Chaney as the disfigured composer haunting the Paris Opera. He is an expert on Webber’s 1986 musical telling, which is the source of the current movie. And Schumacher even unearthed a 1937 black-and-white Chinese adaptation, renamed “Night Song” and transported to the Peking Opera, which he calls “gorgeous.”
One thing that would have been impossible 16 years ago, but that Schumacher considers absolutely essential to his “Phantom,” is the casting of Emmy Rossum. The 18-year-old New York native, who was featured in last year’s “Mystic River,” plays Christine, the young soprano torn between the ghostly composer (played in the film by Gerard Butler) and the elegant theater patron Raoul (Patrick Wilson). Rossum earned a Golden Globe nomination for best performance by an actress in a musical or comedy. (“The Phantom of the Opera” has also been nominated for best musical or comedy, and the film’s “Million Voices,” by Wyclef Jean, has been nominated for best original song.)
“We were waiting for Emmy to be born and grow up,” said Schumacher, explaining the years that passed before “The Phantom” was made. “Because I couldn’t have imagined making the film without her.”
But Schumacher didn’t want Emmy to be too grown up. As with his “Lost Boys,” Schumacher wanted youth and young lust to be at the center of the film.
“I said the secret, Andrew, is that Christine must be very young. She must be a teenager,” said the silver-haired 65-year-old. “Because in that day, the actresses were very young. And she had to be innocent; she’s under the spell of her father’s death. And I wanted her relationship with Patrick Wilson’s character to be her first sexual awakening, and her relationship with the Phantom to be a darker, more passionate love.”
But Schumacher didn’t have to leave too much of his hand on “The Phantom of the Opera.” Webber’s stage version is the highest-grossing of any production ever, eclipsing the $3 billion mark. The soundtrack, led by “Music of the Night,” has likewise become a best seller. And the numerous productions of “Phantom” over some 80 years testify to the accessibility of the original story.
“‘The Phantom’ has been successful for almost 100 years,” said Schumacher, whose filmography includes gritty low-budget films like the soldier story “Tigerland,” thrill-laced human dramas like “Falling Down” and “A Time to Kill,” and blockbuster hits – “Batman Forever” – and misses – “Batman & Robin.”
“The novel was successful,” Schumacher continued. “I think [Leroux] took a little ‘Svengali and Trilby,’ a little ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ a little ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ And because of the superstitions in the theater world, I’m sure you can imagine the rumors and ghosts around the Paris Opera.
“There really are all these catacombs and tunnels beneath the Paris Opera. They’re lit up now, but they’re still scary.”
As many different takes as there have been on “The Phantom of the Opera,” and as many people in various cultures who have seen those productions, Schumacher is thrilled at the idea of turning on new audiences to the old story.
“I thought of the people who would never have seen a production of ‘Phantom,'” he said, “and how musicals on film have meant so much to people.”
There is at least one additional reason Schumacher might have been glad to have waited so long to make his “Phantom.” In 1988, the musical film was an artistic form considered long dead. Audiences were too savvy to buy the idea of characters spontaneously breaking into song and dance. That didn’t faze Schumacher at all: “I believed in ‘Phantom’ because of the story, and Andrew’s musical,” he said.
But the last few years have seen a turning of the tide. First “Moulin Rouge!” starring Nicole Kidman as the star-crossed lover Satine, earned critical nods and decent box office receipts in 2001. And the following year “Chicago,” the murder satire adapted from Bob Fosse’s musical, earned six Academy Awards, including best picture.
“The success of ‘Moulin Rouge!’ and ‘Chicago’ didn’t hurt,” said Schumacher. “It helped us raise the financing. If anything makes money, someone will take a flier on something like it.”
But in the end, Schumacher dismisses the notion that big-screen musicals have made a comeback. “Moulin Rouge!” and “Chicago,” he agrees, were very likable films that happened to be musicals. He doesn’t expect “The Phantom of the Opera” to build a following on the idea that filmgoers are drooling over the thought of a musical.
“I don’t think the audience goes by trends,” he said. “I don’t think a guy says, ‘Hey Martha, musicals are in. Let’s go see a musical.’ “