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Joel Schumacher is enjoying getting smaller, he tells Alistair Harkness, after the premiere of his latest film, Tigerland, at the London Film Festival.

Joel Schumacherís moment of clarity came while doing the promotional rounds for 8mm in Denmark. The director, who made his name with such garish, overblown blockbusters as Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, discovered Dogme 95. Impressed by the bare-bones story telling of Lars Von Trier and his fellow film-makers in such movies as Breaking the Waves and Festen, he immediately resolved to locate a project on which he could apply similar principles. As he saw it, this would get him off the Hollywood treadmill, which was starting to make him feel nauseous. He found what he was looking for with Tigerland, a bruising Vietnam War drama.

Set in 1971, the film follows a group of new recruits through an intense infantry training programme in the most horrific boot-camp in America: a Louisiana swamp nicknamed Tigerland. Based on the experiences of screenwriter Ross Klavan, the stripped-down story forced the 61-year-old director to undergo his own form of basic training to make it "as documentary-like as possible".

Dispensing with make-up, special effects and artificial lighting and utilising Darren Aronofskyís regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Schumacher shot the film in just 28 days at the Fort Blanding military base in Florida. But he didnít fully adopt the Dogme manifesto. In order to get the gritty quality he remembered seeing in the newsreel footage of the conflict, he was forced to rely on more traditional methods than the Danish collectiveís favoured Digital Video format. "We were gonna do it digitally," says Schumacher, "but in our tests we found that video looked too good because it smoothes everything out. So we did it the old-fashioned way and used 16mm hand-held cameras to give it that grainy, gritty look."

"great talent for spotting the stars of tomorrow"

Nevertheless, it was a video that convinced Schumacher to cast the then unknown Colin Farrell in the leading role of Bozz. After almost blowing his chance by arriving late for his audition, the Irish actor nailed the part by sending Schumacher a screen test filmed by his sister on a camcorder in the front room of his Dublin flat. Which sounds like a unique way to get a role. "Oh it was," laughs Schumacher. "In fact, when Roger Ebert, the Chicago Film Critic, saw the film at the Toronto Film Festival he said I ought to put it on the DVD, so you might get the chance to see it."

Farrellís casting is further proof of Shumacherís great talent for spotting the stars of tomorrow. Heís the man who gave early career breaks to Julia Roberts, Demi Moore and Matthew McConaughey, although he admits that not even those illustrious stars came close to generating the kind of heat Farrell has been giving off lately. Prior to Tigerland the 24-year-old actorís career consisted of a starring in role in the British TV series Ballykissangel as well as a few bit parts in films such as Tim Rothís The War Zone and Ordinary Decent Criminal. After working with Schumacher however heís been dubbed the Irish Brad Pitt and recently completed a starring role opposite Tom Cruise in Steven Spielbergís Minority Report.

His star quality was certainly evident at the London Film Festival premiere of Tigerland last year when Schumacher introduced the actor to a riotous reception from the late night audience. "Just in case youíre thinking Colin is from West Life," quipped the director as Farrell bounded on stage to huge cheers, "he brought about 30 members of his family across so obviously theyíre Catholic."

Itís Farrellís intense performance that makes Tigerland such a powerful indictment of the madness of war and prevents it from becoming just another clichťed ĎNam movie. As the reluctant hero, Farrell is like R.P. McMurphy in fatigues and the film plays out like One Flew Over The Cuckooís Nest in the jungle. The comparison is not lost on Schumacher. "Thereís a great documentary by Frederick Wiseman called Titicut Follies that takes place in a mental institution for the criminally insane. That was really our main inspiration," he says.

"a significant change of direction"

If this all sounds like a significant change of direction for a filmmaker who has built his career on flashy visuals and rock soundtracks thatís because it is. In 1971 Schumacher started out as a $200 a week costume designer with the aim of becoming a director but it wasnít until 1985, when he wrote and directed the defining Brat-Pack movie St Elmoís Fire, that he got his big break. Two years later he made the classic cult vampire flick The Lost Boys and finally felt like a proper filmmaker, embarking on a prolific and generally successful career as a jobbing director on such slick commercial thrillers as Falling Down, The Client and A Time to Kill.

When he helmed the two Batman movies, however, Schumacher destroyed the credibility of the franchise so carefully constructed by Tim Burtonís psychologically complex predecessors. Reverting to the campness of the 60s TV show, he updated the films with a slew of corporate tie-ins and merchandising. "I was selling a lot of toys all over the world and thatís not why I became a director," he now says of his Batman experience. "It was good for my old age but I needed to get back to story telling."

Tigerland, then, is Schumacherís penance for going after the dollars. Indeed his last few films have seen him on a mission to purge himself of the blockbuster mentality. Immediately after Batman and Robin he made the dark, edgy thriller 8mm with Nicolas Cage. He followed that with the low-key comedy-drama Flawless, notable for the powerhouse pairing of Robert De Niro and Philip Seymour Hoffman. So, is he sick of making commercial movies? "You know when youíve eaten too much?" Schumacher offers. "Well it feels kind of like that. I just wanted to get away from that cycle where the box-office is more important than the film and with the 8mm, Flawless and Tigerland, and with the next film, I think Iíve done that."

"I hope Iím a better person"

The next film in question is Phone Booth, which Schumacher describes as "much more progressive, much more experimental." Once again starring Farrell, the film is set entirely in a phone booth and was shot in just 10 days using several different mediums. "Iím getting smaller and smaller," Schuamcher says as he reflects on the direction his filmmaking career has taken. "Iím still offered big movies and if they still want me after these maybe Iíll do one. I think Iíll be a better director after these films. I hope Iím a better person."

Published October 18, 2001

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Joel Schumacher


Tigerland is
"Joel Schumacherís best film since Falling Down (1993),"
says Richard Kuipers.

Australian release: October 18, 2001

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