In Joel Schumacher's new movie, Trespass, Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman play a married couple who live in an enormous, Dwell magazine–style megahome. Their marriage is not very sturdy and their teen daughter has started smoking and going to preppy parties where hip-hop is danced and rails snorted. Then (no big spoiler here) a bunch of lowlife bad guys invade the megahome, and all of a sudden the dangers of the outside world are now in.
You would have thought that in this age of rampant foreclosures and rallies against Wall Street, Hollywood would try to appeal to the increasingly shrinking middle class with a slew of "banks are evil" narratives. Instead, the studios and filmmakers have reacted to the current economic mess as they reacted to the social turmoil of the mid-1970s: by pumping new paranoia into the well-tested "home invasion" subgenre.
"It happens every day. We read news items of aggressions and transgressions and, while breathing a sigh of relief, think, 'What if?' We all live with this horror, the fear of potential home invasion." This, according to the Trespass press material, is how the initial premise for the film came to producer Irwin Winkler, who then hired a screenwriter to flesh out the story.
"It's a primal fear," Schumacher explains when I sit down with him in the offices of Millennium Entertainment in L.A.
But wouldn't much of the audience sympathize with the down-and-out home invaders rather than with the rich people inside the luxurious home?
"I definitely think everyone in the movie is very flawed," Schumacher says. "I don't know if the audience has sympathy for the family or not. It seems to be, in all the research screenings, that they do. Because they see them as a family that's made a lot of mistakes. But I have sympathy for the bad guys, too. They grew up in a world where no advantage was offered to them and maybe they took all the wrong roads. I don't know what the alternative was for them. Working at McDonald's? It's a rough life for people who've dropped out of school. Because the difference between the haves and the have-nots, now ..."
Schumacher trails off. He has experienced both sides of the social divide. The life of the 72-year-old director is one of those Horatio Alger success stories that seems unbelievable in the current economic climate of hopelessness, but it did happen.
Schumacher was born in 1939 in New York and, by his own reckoning, joined the working class during the Truman administration. "I've been working since I'm 9," he says. "My parents died when I was young.
"My dream since childhood was just to tell stories and make movies," he continues. "Back then we didn't even know who directors were. We went for the stories and the stars — which a lot of people still go for."
Schumacher studied design and fashion before taking small jobs in the film industry. He eventually joined Woody Allen's production team for Sleeper and Interiors. "Woody told me to write. So I wrote scripts on spec and they sold." He crossed into directing with TV movies and a string of profitable low-budget comedies. Schumacher's breakthrough was writing and directing St. Elmo's Fire (1985), the coming-into-adulthood film for many of the actors in John Hughes' Brat Pack, and the hugely profitable The Lost Boys. "I didn't know those movies were going to be big hits," he confesses. "No one did!"
Schumacher credits his career longevity — Trespass is his 23rd feature as director — to his adamant refusal to be pegged to a specific kind of project. "When St. Elmo's Fire hit, they gave me all the yuppie movies, and I definitely didn't want to do that. Then Lost Boys hit and they gave me all the dark vampire movies. As each one became, fortunately, successful, I always tried to do something 180 degrees the other way."
When pressed for an answer about any auteurial imprint, Schumacher admits that he often likes "to put very flawed people [on-screen] and then stress them out" (see: Falling Down and Phone Booth). "You know," he says, "I don't make goody-two-shoes people. Roger Ebert once said, 'Joel Schumacher dares sometimes to make movies about people you don't like' — but I like them! They're just human.
"The movies I grew up on," he adds, "had dark endings, and sometimes tragic endings, and ironic endings. There isn't a lot of room for that anymore."
Schumacher says he finds ways to balance his darker sensibility with the Hollywood imperatives. "In Trespass," he says, "what happens to their family is what happens to a lot of families. The husband is so busy 'out killing the ox' that the marriage has been lost, and the parenting has been lost somewhat, and you see three people living totally separate lives with a lot of secrets and lies. They've reached too far. Cage and [the home invader played by] Ben Mendelsohn are two sides of the same coin. They both, in very different ways, coming from very different backgrounds, have overreached. There's that scene when Nicole says [about the house], 'You know, we didn't need it this big.' "
Schumacher himself is no stranger to excess, personally (his wild, pre-rehab personal life in the 1960s and '70s) and professionally (those psychedelic tableaux in Flatliners! That film version of The Phantom of the Opera! His mother-of-all-ambiguously-gay-duos Batman adaptations!).
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Trespass — a relatively low-budget film with two major stars in unglamorous roles, a partly CGI set and a Lumet-like small ensemble in an enclosed space — could be seen as Schumacher trying to prove to Hollywood that he can downsize with the times.
In 1997, when People profiled Schumacher for his much-reviled Batman & Robin, David Geffen summed him up thus: "Joel is about getting things done." Here's how Schumacher parses the compliment today: "If you want to feed yourself, you must get the job done. If you don't get the job done well, you don't get hired for another movie, because they will call those people and ask them how you did. Did you stay on budget? Were you easy to work with? Did the actors like you?"
Schumacher at 72 is youthful, fit, dapper and sanguine, with, after decades of criticism, a canny, self-deprecating knack for disarming it. "There are plenty of people more talented than I that came to Hollywood and didn't get a break" is a typical line.
Hard work, going along to get along, plus healthy helpings of good luck and good karma, and never overreaching, no matter where you are in the social ladder: These lessons of how to get ahead in Hollywood seem impossibly Pollyanna-ish in the can't-catch-a-break economy of 2011. Hopefully, in a few years, the confused, literally dread-full Trespass is going to look as much like a time capsule of dated middle-class paranoia as Dirty Harry does for the Watergate era.