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25 November 2017
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Ducking into doorways: on the set of Phone Booth

Joel Schumacher is the US director of both big and little budget Hollywood studio films, including Phone Booth, 8MM, Veronica Guerin, Flawless, Tigerland, Falling Down and the 80s classics The Lost Boys and St Elmo's Fire. He was keynote speaker at this year's ASDA Conference in September.

Here is an edited transcript of his talk on low-budget filmmaking.

In the beginning…
Several years ago I was cutting 8MM and there was a big bidding war for the script of Phone Booth. Fox got it and they wanted me to do it with Mel Gibson. The day I was going over to talk to the president of the studio, I found out that Robert De Niro was doing my script Flawless (a labour of love), so I said I wouldn't be able to do Phone Booth. The project then went through many machinations: Mel dropped out at a certain point, Michael Bay had it for a while with Will Smith, Jim Carrey was interested in it.

I made several movies during that time and when we shot Tigerland in Florida, and I came back to Fox to cut it, the head of Fox 2000 said, 'you know we never got Phone Booth off the ground, would you still do it?' I was interested and they agreed - but if I was going to make it with an unknown actor Colin Farrell (at that time he was an unknown), it would have to be for, you know, a dollar or so. That's why the whole film was done in 12 days and the actual Phone Booth set was 10 days. We had to stop shooting at four because we would lose the light - it was winter, so it was impossible, but we got there.

It was right before Christmas and I think everybody went into it with great trepidation. We rehearsed for two weeks and you can see from the way the camera moves around the booth, that you actually hear what every single person is saying, and yet it seems like they're just making it up on the spot - well that's talent and a great steady cam operator.
The importance of cinematography
The cinematographer, the first AD, the camera operator and the script supervisor that you're actually making the movie with are the people that are in the trenches with you every second. The cinematographer is going to be the eyes of the film. I've had the privilege of working with a lot of great cinematographers including Matthew Libatique (who shot Darren Aronofsky's films Pi and Requiem for a Dream, and he did Tigerland with us). If anybody has seen Tigerland, it's done in old 16mm and the lighting is all outside natural lighting and inside fluorescent lighting. It's about teenagers who go to Vietnam in 1971, done in a documentary style. We were very influenced by Wiseman's great documentary Titicut Follies (set in a mental institution for the criminally insane) and we tried to make Tigerland in that style, against the wishes of the studio. They didn't want us to do 16mm because we did it the old-fashioned way, with the little Bolex cameras, and we did reverse printing. That's the advantage of when you make a low-budget film and that's the trade off.

We used four cameras and they're not static; they're moving around all the time. At any given moment the camera can go anywhere, so half the problem of making the movie is you have to make sure you're running and hiding. The script supervisor and I were ducking into doorways every second.
The freedom of a low budget
If you make a big-budget movie the studio expects asses in the seats. If you make a radical small movie for very little money you don't have all the toys to play with - but you have more freedom, you can take more risks because they sort of chalk it off and figure maybe they'll get lucky. The movie can go to DVD and still make a lot of money for them.

Phone Booth was made for a million because that's all we could afford in the 12 days and a lot of people gave us favours. Nathan McGuinnes, a great Aussie, did our visual effects in the opening titles because he liked the film so much, and everybody worked with scale, the lowest amount of money you can make and still belong to your unions. If Tom Cruise was standing in that booth the studio would have given us anything we wanted.

On set the second AD was dressed up as a policeman. One of the problems for crew is that they have ear pieces, where they can hear other people's cues, but they're all talking at once - so the AD dressed as a cop would walk over to Forest Whitaker, who plays the head of police, or to … I can't call the girls hookers because they prefer in the film to be called escorts … and Jay, our great sound man, recorded each actor on a separate channel so we didn't have to do a lot of looping, stuff that you add later on if you have a plane going over or people talking over each other.
The role of the performers: actors and extras…
I don't like to call them extras. I like to call them background artists because, in a movie like Phone Booth, they are part of the ensemble and their reaction is mostly what an audience relates to; they're really the Greek chorus. We had a wonderful group. We couldn't afford a lot of them but, because they didn't know what was going to happen every day, a lot of their reactions are happening right there. People like Forest Whitaker and Radha and Katie Holmes were just great in their patience and hard work. I really have the career I have because of my casts … they make me look like a good director.
Approaching rehearsals
Phone Booth was very easy to rehearse because it's like a play in the sense that everybody's in the same spot. With Tigerland, because I was dealing with 40 young actors in a platoon, many who'd never been near a camera before, and we wanted to shoot documentary style, we put them through boot camp with the army. Then I stole a trick that I learned from Mike Leigh, the great English director, where he makes them do a whole history for themselves: not just the natural actor's preparation but where they grew up, who their parents were, did they take buses to school, did they walk … great detail, what was the number of the bus, what did they eat, when was the first time they had sex … Then I showed them lots of documentaries and films from 1971, because they were all very young and didn't have a real memory of how torn the country was over Vietnam, and how tired most people were of it, except for Richard Nixon.
The key to low-budget is flexibility
We were near the freeway and this helicopter was hovering. We couldn't afford a helicopter so we just grabbed a shot of it that we used in the film. You have to be flexible with the actors too. I don't like to over-rehearse anything because a lot of times it's a scene you're going to do three months from now - so if you really pay attention the movie's going to teach you what it is; you're never making what you think you're making.

I worked for a director where he would rehearse the movie three weeks before he shot it - a really talented American director - plan the camera angles with the cameraman and nothing ever changed and that was it, and that scared me. But when I worked with Woody Allen he was very different. I did costumes and sets on a couple of his films and he was imaginative, inventive and creative with each moment, and allowed us all to contribute to the film. I also read an interview with Stanley Kubrick where he said that his secret was that he steals from everyone on the set. That's the secret to directing because you are surrounded by so many talented, intelligent people, and directing is very lonely. If you're just going to be closed, and it's your way or the highway, I think you might lose some great moments.

Reprinted with permission from the Australian Screen Directors Association.