By Aaron Cooley
When director Joel Schumacher died at the age of 80 last week, the lion’s share of the media attention focused on his iconic four-decade filmography, from St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys in the 1980s, to two John Grisham adaptations and two Batmans in the ’90s, to Phone Booth and Phantom of the Opera in this century. And of course, his resumé includes his own personal stamp on the music video era of early MTV, with videos for INXS, Seal, U2, and Bush.
But left largely anonymous — just the way he wanted it — was the work he actually considered the most important of his life. This was work he also did for MTV, and he did it all for free.
When I started working for Joel as his assistant in 2002, there was no better perk of the job than traveling to New York at his side. Joel grew up in the city, and the bustling energy of Manhattan was very much his lifeblood. Spending most of the year drowning in the claustrophobia of Los Angeles car culture, Joel thirsted for periodic injections of New York like drinking water, and that meant walking its avenues, being a real New Yorker again. We made most of our trips there to work for MTV, so Joel’s best opportunities to hit the streets were lengthy walks from his hotel in SoHo up to the company’s Times Square offices, with not a block spent in a taxi or underground. On a warm day, he’d even do it in flip flops.
A slender, 6’3” figure, he had once dabbled in amateur modeling. Now topped with flowing silver locks and clad with his own sense of unassailable high fashion, Joel commanded every room like a movie star. This was never truer than when we would stop by MTV, where legions of young, aspiring artists and filmmakers clamored to hear him hold court. Judy McGrath, former CEO of MTV Networks, still recalls, “the clusters of MTV employees gathering around Joel to hear him talk about creativity and taking chances and discovering talent and making your mark.”
Joel began working with the company in 1998 when his friend Stephen Friedman (who would go on to become president of MTV and now is an advisor to SYPartners and Chris McCarthy, head of Entertainment and Youth Brands, which includes MTV, at ViacomCBS) was offered his first job there. Friedman was hired to create a social impact department that would produce in-house campaigns around contemporary justice issues and movements to air across MTV, MTV2, VH1, and eventually, mtvU. Anyone who ever knew Joel felt an insatiable need to go to him when faced with a large decision in either career or romance — he was like the Delphic oracle of sex and Hollywood — so naturally, when Friedman was presented with this job offer, he first bounced it off Joel. “Of course you should take it,” Friedman remembers Joel telling him. “Look at the scope and the possibility and the potential reach of this opportunity. You’ve got to take it — and I’m going to help you.”
At first, Friedman thought Joel meant he would offer him occasional filmmaking tips, but he soon realized Joel meant he would literally help him; he wanted to direct the spots for MTV himself. And for free.
Let’s take a step back. In 1998, Joel had just directed Batman & Robin, one of the highest-budget Hollywood pictures of 1997. No matter what you think of that movie (the reconsideration the movie’s getting online is probably the most surprising side-effect of his death for me), Warner Bros. had already asked him to direct another John Grisham adaptation (his second one, A Time to Kill, had been a surprise top 10 hit of ’96) as well as his third Batman. He was unquestionably an A-List director. And here he was, volunteering to do free work for a cable network?
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alicia Silverstone, Joel Schumacher, Chris O’Donnell, and George Clooney at the premiere of Batman & Robin.
Collaborating with MTV offered Joel something much more valuable than money: an opportunity, maybe for the first and only time in his already two-decade career, to do what he really wanted to do with film. He had received his biggest paycheck for Batman & Robin (rumor had it, the largest ever for a director to that date), but left that set feeling like his only job was to sell toys. On a fateful beach stroll with his then-assistant Eli Richbourg, Joel would decide to leave big budgets, private jets, Batman, and Grisham behind to go indie and dark, ushering in the third act of his career, which would bring, if not his most popular, his most unique and original work, in movies like 8MM and Tigerland. Joel had realized he wanted to do more with his talents — and like these more personal films, MTV gave him an opportunity to do a lot more. “The idea that MTV would create an entire department to harness the power of storytelling to change lives,” Friedman describes. “He loved everything about that.”
As a man who always knew he would never have children of his own, one of Joel’s passions was being a surrogate parent and mentor to dozens of young people, the most famous of which have been well-documented since his passing: the Sutherlands, the Farrells, the McConaugheys of the world. The Julias, the Sandys. Mentees of Schumacher have gone on to run studios, win Emmys and Oscars as producers, edit major magazines, and even direct and write their own movies and series. One is even a vice president at MTV.
In 1998, MTV provided Joel the opportunity to make this kind of indelible mark on a whole generation. This started with those “clusters” of MTV employees that gravitated to Joel as a fount of entertainment industry knowledge. “If you’ve ever hung out at MTV,” Friedman says, “you realize it’s a lot of young people.” But it was with MTV’s vast and diverse audience that Joel had the opportunity to impact the most lives.
Soon after Friedman took the job as the head of the new social impact division, Joel would send him an episode of Ira Glass’s iconic NPR show This American Life. Rattling out of Friedman’s speakers came the voice of Lucia Lopez, a 16-year-old who had recently appeared as herself in an ensemble theater piece describing the traumatic experience of watching her brother’s best friend get shot and killed on the streets of Chicago. Joel envisioned building an anti-violence PSA campaign around Lucia’s story.
The idea matched up perfectly with what Stephen was already reading in surveys with young viewers compiled by MTV’s research department: Young people were worried about violence, a sentiment that rings painfully true to this day. “Our research department was constantly doing deep dives into our audience,” Friedman explains, “and listening to what was bothering them.” Within days of Joel’s first spot featuring Lucia debuting on the networks of MTV, a young man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and tortured to death in Wyoming for the crime of being gay. Six months later, two boys shot up their high school in Columbine, Colorado, in what is now considered the first modern school shooting. The timing of MTV’s Fight For Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence campaign which prominently featured the Lucia Lopez PSA, was eerily prescient, struck a deep chord with MTV’s audience, and won a network — which had been considered by many at the time as nothing more than rot for teenagers’ brains — a coveted Governor’s Award, perhaps the most prestigious award given out at the Emmys.
On his next trip to New York, Joel was taken to dinner by Friedman and his bosses, Judy McGrath and Van Toffler (former head of the Music and Logo group at ViacomCBS and now CEO of Gunpowder and Sky), to thank him for his generous contribution to MTV. Joel’s response? “Don’t thank me. Let me do more.”
Over the next 16 years, Joel would create and produce spots for campaign after campaign on a nearly annual basis, several of which went on to win multiple Emmy and Peabody Awards. Catalog the themes of Joel’s MTV work and you have a list that still seems ripped right from the struggles of today: from LGBTQ+ sexual health to voting rights, from online bullying to depression and suicide. “Joel used his superpowers for good,” McGrath says, especially “his ability to tease out their stories, stories few others knew or wanted to hear, so we could blast them out across MTV like a beacon to a kid alone in a bedroom in Iowa.”
As a fan with a front-row seat, what I consider the period of peak MTV-Schumacher collaboration might have come when Friedman was tasked with starting the new channel mtvU. He immediately realized that bringing Joel over was a must. He involved the director in the creation of a mental health campaign called Half of Us in which celebrities from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan to Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz talked openly and honestly about their struggles with mental health. Today, it’s a ubiquitous topic, but in 2008, there was still a stigma attached to opening up about depression, especially for celebrities under the scrutiny of the public eye.
Joel Schumacher photographed in 1993 while promoting Falling Down.
“I had the pleasure of collaborating with Joel” on Half of Us, recalls Mary J. Blige, “and he was a genius.” Over a decade after watching Joel shoot this series, hers is the episode that still sticks with me the most, a searing confession to being a victim of sexual abuse and contemplating taking her own life even at the height of her fame. Joel conducted all celebrity interviews himself. “To this day, I marvel at how Joel conjured up a safe environment for people to share things they had never said out loud before,” reflects Amy Campbell, a senior vice president of creative and production at MTV who oversaw all of Joel’s shoots on set. Stephen Friedman now teaches “The Art of Creating Social Impact Campaigns” at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and the Half of Us campaign is included in his syllabus. The initiative would go on to win the Oscar of pro-social media, the Peabody.
Through all of this work, Schumacher not only refused to be paid, he didn’t want any recognition at all. (He’d probably fire me just for writing this article.) “I once gave him an Emmy we had won for one of the campaigns he helped to produce,” Friedman says with a laugh, “and when he walked out, he left it in my frigging office.”
Watching Joel create social impact content for MTV was when I saw him at his best: guerilla filmmaking techniques with little budget. Bringing people’s truths out of the cores of their souls. Helping young people. I worked on seven movies with Joel, and never saw him as passionately invested in his work as he was on those MTV campaigns. If the youngest generation of Americans has been teaching us older fogeys something during the pandemic, I think it’s that the time for charity donations and social media platitudes is over; we all need to be throwing our complete passion and energy and talents and much of our time into hitting the streets to make change in this country.
Joel already knew this. Whenever he wrapped a movie, Joel could’ve flown first class to some private island, but instead, would travel home to New York to throw himself into another campaign.
Like many Americans, one of the first things I will do when we’re all healthy again is to return to New York, to walk its streets bustling with people who don’t have to concern themselves with social distancing. I think I’ll honor Joel by walking from SoHo up to Times Square — but I won’t be doing it in flip flops. Only he could do that.
Aaron Cooley is a former assistant and development executive for Joel Schumacher, who now is writing and executive producing First Ladies for Showtime.