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
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