Just as New Yorkers rarely go to the Statue of Liberty, we
usually don't go see shows that are really theme parks built for tourists.
Ghosts haunting opera houses in Paris? Ok, but I'd rather go see Rent, a movie
about evil landlords-now there's a plot that will draw the New York
crowd, especially if there's handy advice for dealing with legal issues in
the context of rent-stabilization laws. The advice in Phantom, typical of
horror films, is all bad advice. That's a famous trope and I won't
rehearse it for you here, but I confess to some impatience. I mean, clear out
the opera house, get the police, find the nutjob, lock up the nutjob, fill the
seats, get the show up on the boards. How hard is that? Isn't that what
you learn in Impresario 101? If you read Phantom as a sort of period Handbook
for Landlords, seems that back then they preferred to work out tenant
issues over a long period of time. The more intransigent the tenant, the
more time they gave him. If the tenant was insane, they paid him a salary.
Now close your eyes and let's
Joel Schumacher's movie of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera is
a faithful recreation of the stage play.
Far more a romance than a horror story, this Phantom, trapped in the
night and in the mind, struggles towards daylight and a healing that only one
woman's love is equipped to help him achieve. Raoul, the Viscount who is the
Opera's chief patron, enters the operatic community just as the young soprano,
Christine Daae, rises to a leading role in the performances, but Raoul soon
discovers that the innocent Christine is caught in a strange dark relationship
with her never-seen music teacher, a figure identified only in his acts of
vengeance and in the enforcement of his will --The Phantom of the
Opera. As Raoul and Christine's love for each other grows and deepens, her
guilt and fear at abandoning her teacher, who loves her obsessively, overwhelms
her and forces her to choose between one good man, and one man with a twist in
his soul that will destroy anyone who comes to close to it.
This story, like all great classics, asks questions that are
deeply personal: are we capable of empathy? Do we truly believe in
transcendence and healing, or do we prefer to make gestures towards healing
only from the comfort of our own secure lives and relationships -- when we are safe? Will we take risks with our
compassion, or will fear rule us? Then there's what I think of as the Raoul
question: is there a kind of mental healthiness, so-called, that fears
and despises the damaged soul so much that it condemns that soul to a future
with no hope of help? Raoul is in the story primarily to interfere with
Christine's absorption into the life of the Phantom, but you wonder if it would
been so bad -or even better- for Christine and the Phantom if Raoul had just let
them alone and let nature, even malformed nature, take its course. The story is
an eternal one and as you leave the theater you feel nothing was truly
resolved, that this is the story of a struggle between gods or archtypes and
that it will never truly be over.
As directed by Joel Schumacher and photographed by John
Mathieson (Gladiator, Hannibal) this is truly a gorgeous motion picture,
painterly, designed and wonderfully lit, spilling over with lights, costumes,
bosoms, staircases, and the
chandelier; dancers and singers and dwarves, Viscounts, monsters and the bourgeoise.
The set design and rich colors of the production bear up under the weight of
the operatic emotions. Schumacher's camera work is active and dynamic, and he
is always on the search for a new shot or angle to give us some fresh take on
the Opera House and the many worlds it contains.
The music is familiar to anyone who's seen the play or heard
the soundtrack, and for those who haven't heard it, the recording is clear and
the vocal phrasings are well articulated, at least when the leads sing, so that
you'll miss nothing. The group recordings, on the other hand, are muddied and
confused and sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestrations and you'll have to
strain to get the words, as I did. But there's so much to look at during those
group numbers that you may not notice.
As a regular opera goer, it's a little strange to go to a
movie about the opera -- and and hear no real no opera music. That said, there
are a few numbers that borrow riffs from the standard repertoire of arias, the
standout piece being one of the first, which directly quotes the Queen of the
Night aria from Mozart's Magic Flute. This theatrical warhorse has been up in
lights every night for so long, I'm sure someone has written a dissertation
analyzing Phantom's musical influences. (I didn't find one, but this
link about the influences on another work of his is telling: http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/040924-NL-lloydwebber.html)
I think one question that would have to be on everyone's
mind who's seen the play would have to be: is there enough new material that
it's worth it for me to see the movie? I think so. For one thing, Emmy Rossum's
performance is really something to behold, for she gives herself over to it in
a way that only a young person can, with her whole heart, and that comes across
on screen. And oh. my. God. she is beautiful. The two male leads, Gerry Butler
and Patrick Wilson, also deliver effective performances, especially Butler's
tortured Phantom, who is believably handsome and frightening and brilliant at
the same time. Minnie Driver's Carlotta the Diva is very funny. Also,
Schumacher's set designs are entirely original and sumptuous, and his deep
understanding of the camera's vocabulary and the ways it can open up a stage
story to a movie audience deliver new visual riches to an eye that knows the
stage sets. Finally, the characters are given histories by showing their
stories on screen in a way that gives you a new understanding of what drives
them, and what binds them.
Now you have two reviews.
Choose, Christine. Choose.
One final story about Phantom of the Opera, the
original silent movie with Lon Chaney. My friend Cassie Chan, a mystery writer
(whose new book The Young Widow: a Philip Bethancourt Mystery will be out in
August 2005, St. Martin's Press) was told by her father all the while he was
growing up about this movie. Her father, Ed Chan, an illustrator, loved the
movie and told Cassie and her mother, Doe, about the movie's hero, a poor
misunderstood man whose art redeemed him. Years later, Cassie caught the movie
on PBS and began watching it -and couldn't believe her eyes. "Poor
misunderstood artist my foot!" was Cassie's reaction. "What was my father
thinking? The Phantom is a monster."
and for those of you who want the source material here's the
Gaston Leroux novel:
and an interview with Joel on the night the movie was shown
at the DGA in New York.
Alison McClean (Jesus' Son) interviews Joel Schumacher
November 18 2004
Dialog remembered, not recorded, but it's damn close
MCCLEAN: How did you come across this material originally?
SCHUMACHER: Well, you know, I'd just done my fourth film,
LOST BOYS, and it was 1988. And Phantom had already been a hit in London
and it had opened in New York. And Andrew Lloyd Webber had seen them and I was
shooting in Vancouver and ALW contacted me. And I thought he'd made a mistake,
you know, that my name looked like someone else?s and he'd seen someone else's
movie or something, because I was new.
Anyway, we were going to do it in 1990. I was preparing for
it all through shooting Flatliners, and we were going to shoot it in Munich and
Prague, and then we couldn't because ALW was having problems, some of them
business and some personal. And so it went by the boards and my career suddenly
took off and I wasn't thinking about it. I had too much to do and I thought,
you know, that was it. It was over.
Anyway, during Christmas 2002 it came up again. A friend of
mine said to me that if the passion was there I should still do it, and I spent
a long night thinking about it and analyzing that. And I said I'll do it on two
conditions: the woman has to be girl, she has to be really very young,
because that's the only way the story works for me. It has to be her first
love, she still has to be dealing with her father's love, pulling away from it,
and she has to be confused. And it had to be dark and passionate and sexual.
And the other condition was that they had to sing their own
MCCLEAN: Was it a challenge to find your Christine, a girl
that age who could handle the role, singing and acting.
SCHUMACHER: Oh, well! We had everyone else cast, you know,
we had our boys, Gerry and Patrick, and we had Jenny Ellison, her best friend
and Miranda Richardson. Finally, we had about six actresses coming in and the
first five came in, some famous and some not, and everyone was just great. And
Emmy Rossum was the last one.
And she barely made it there, and she was nervous because
she's sixteen and really wanted the role and really didn't want the rejection.
And finally, we saw her. She was on her way out to a family reunion in Las
Vegas, a relative had been organizing the reunion forEVer. And she came to my
house and when she walked through the door. I mean, she's beautiful. That face
and figure. And she's been performing at the Metropolitan Opera since she was
SEVEN! I just looked up and said, "Thank you, God!" It was as if I'd ordered
MCCLEAN: It's your first musical.
SCHUMACHER: I try to do something different each time,
because I think that's the only way you can evolve. And in this case, you know,
ALW handled the music and he's the only person I've ever met who didn't know
more about movies than someone who makes them. Music is what he does: so he
handled that and I handled the filming and it worked out really well.
MCCLEAN: Did you two see eye to eye on how to adapt the
story for the film?
SCHUMACHER: Well on stage it was very romantic, and
that was what the story was. You know in the old stills it shows Christine
shielding her eyes and the horror story is what matters. But this is a deeply
romantic story and I didn't want it done as horror. And Emmy approaches the
part with such compassion for the Phantom, who's given her music, and it gives her character this
wonderful integrity. You know, it's a really a tragedy, because he had needed a
compassion the world couldn't give him, but she of all people might have been
able to, to bring him back from the darkness. But he's become twisted inside,
and when he murders someone he's gone and there's nothing she can do to bring
MCCLEAN: Were the there more spoken scenes in the film than
SCHUMACHER: Well, rather, I tried to show more. The
Viscount, Raoul, he's much more fleshed out. Onstage was a figure who just sort
of came on when you need him, and I try to show more. I try to show the
Phantom's story with the crowd attacking. There was so much to show. We did all
this research. Now the real Paris Opera House is very municipal and cold, but
we created the Opera Populare, as in the book, as onstage, and we tried to give
it a personality. And we made it a beautiful voluptuous woman, not just
architecture, and made it very beautiful and that's why all the statues of
naked women from the period. You know, at the time when the story takes place
there were 750 people living in the opera house has well and it gave me
the chance to tell an Upstairs/Downstairs sort of story.
MCCLEAN: Your career has been so diverse - how do you feel
you've evolved as a director, working on the set.
SCHUMACHER: Well, that's interesting. I'm sure I was very
different when I was a new director, when I started doing it. Now I've done
nineteen films, a play, a lot of public service stuff, commercials. And now I
listen to my collaborators and the actors and young people who are always so
smart. Emmy Rossum is so much wiser than I am. Listening to her helped me so
You know I worked on sets and costumes with Woody Allen,
from Sleeper in 1973 to Interiors, that was the last one. I used to hear him on
8th street between Fifth and Sixth at this nightclub Bon Soir, I was
a busboy in the Village and he'd be on a bill with Streisand. And later I went
to work on his movies. And Woody's set was like a high school play, in that it
was loose and everyone was asked to contribute. The three others I worked for
before Woody were more autocratic. On Woody's set, one woman would sit there
and when a scene was shot she'd say, "that's not funny. Is that funny? Do you
think that's funny?" And he'd ignore her and when he'd reshoot she'd say,
"Now THAT's funny." And he'd not be listening to her but he'd be taking
everything in. On the other sets, my God, she would have been fired. But you know, Kubrick said my secret is I
steal from everyone else on the set.
And I always tell everyone, don't go home and tell your significant other
the best thought you had today about what I should be doing. Tell me
that thought. And I probably won't do it
but I want to hear about it. It's so
important to maintain that creativity - not to ever shoot anyone down.
MCCLEAN: Emmy Rossum was so good in this
SCHUMACHER. Oh wasn't she? And to be able to carry that off.
She turned seventeen while we made the film and now she's turning eighteen. And
to do Christine - I mean, she's been through a lot by the end of this
MCCLEAN: What were the visual sources for the film, it's so
SCHUMACHER: Well, we had our research but I looked too at
great period pictures. Greta Garbo in CAMILLE. Vincent Minelli's MADAME BOVARY.
Visconti, THE LEOPARD. No one does period like Visconti. Because you don't want
to just copy the period, you want to let the designers create something new for
MCCLEAN: The Phantom's lair, the depiction is
hyper-realistic, isn't it, sometimes in Christine's imagination:
SCHUMACHER: Well I wanted to give you three worlds. The
first time Emmy goes through the mirror, then her best friends finds it and
it's just a sliding mirror. I wanted to show that Emmy was in this sort
delirium. You know, like, when you're in LOVE at this restaurant and all woozy.
Then you go back to the restaurant later and it looks, well, like just a restaurant.
It's not the same. I wanted that. I tried to create three worlds: 1919 in black
and white when an old man is dying and remembering love and youth and anything
was possible; then what's he remembering, the color and sweep and circus of
that world; and then the Phantom's world, which was very dark. The story has
three sources, really, I think the book, Gaston Lareux does: Beauty and the
Beast, Svengali and Trilby and the Hunchback of Notre Dame.