JOEL SCHUMACHER’S Falling Down is one of the best films ever made; Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is one of the worst films ever made*. It sounds like it should be surprising but it really isn’t; it’s not like Lou Reed making Berlin then turning around & making Metal Machine Music.
The issue here is auteur theory, a product of the French New Wave which holds that a film is primarily, or entirely, the artistic creation of its director. It might seem a little harsh to the writer with whom the film originated, the producer(s) who made it happen, the actors who actually make much more of an impression on audiences (& whose names sell a film better than a director’s), the composer who gives the film character, & all of the many, many “minor technical” but essential elements that make a film work, but auteur theory basically came to dominate the New Hollywood of the 60s & 70s, & its influence continues to be felt.
It is because of auteur theory that Joel Schumacher’s career never really recovered from Batman & Robin, despite his strong œuvre including St. Elmo’s Fire & The Lost Boys, along with the aforementioned Falling Down (I really can’t stress enough how good it is). The fact is that Batman & Robin is not a poorly-directed film. In terms of its mise-en-scène it is competent, & mise-en-scène is a director’s stock-in-trade. It’s just absurd to blame Joel Schumacher for the mess that was made of the film, when there are, really, two parties far more responsible: Akiva Goldsman, whose horrid script is to blame for this sort of nonsense, & Warner Bros., who insisted on a family-friendly, toyetic film after the relative failure of Batman Returns (& relative success of Batman Forever). Joel Schumacher wasn’t in Christopher Nolan’s position, hired to do his personal Batman film however he saw fit; Warner Bros. wanted the movie they wanted, & he was just there to make it happen, the way you might hire a baker to create your God-awful campy, nipply wedding cake design. Joel Schumacher, who commendably (though, as I’ve said, unnecessarily) apologises to Batman fans several times on the commentary track, would rather have adapted Frank Miller’s excellent, noirish origin story Batman: Year One. He didn’t get to do the Batman movie he wanted, because that’s how the industry usually goes, & to make things crueller, he was blamed for the mess Warner Bros./Goldman made of the movie. It’s hard to see Batman & Robin causing Schumacher so much career damage were auteur theory not so influential.
That’s not to say the theory is totally invalid. Some projects, like Batman & Robin, come to be because they’re big & marketable, while others are the result of genuine auteur-led personal passion. This doesn’t mean those passion projects can’t be equally bad. Take The Room, which simply wouldn’t exist without Tommy Wiseau, who is entirely to blame for almost everything bad about it, including the unconvincing performances (a director ought to coax an appropriate, or at least not distractingly bad, performance from their actors) but stopping short of the insipid R&B soundtrack, which he didn’t compose, although he still let it into his movie. But then The Room is a Wiseau Films production, written by Tommy Wiseau, directed by Tommy Wiseau, produced by Tommy Wiseau, & starring Tommy Wiseau. It can reasonably be called his baby. But then, had The Room been a normal project, there would have been a producer around vetoing the majority of Wiseau’s bad ideas, including casting. For most projects, the director has more creative influence than anyone else, but a producer has more creative control, &, of course, a writer usually does more to originate a project (by writing the script). It’s true to say that directors who are successful or independent enough do get to cherry-pick projects, which is why John Ford did a lot of Westerns, but that doesn’t mean the scripts he chose somehow became his, any more than a cover band writes the songs the play. If you had to pick one individual who gives a film its creative direction, yeah, it’s the director. But their main job is to direct, that is to say to make sure that the artistic efforts of everyone else are heading in a direction that helps the overall production. They’re not a novelist, because films are not novels. They’re probably the most collectively-made art form there has ever been, & to reduce everything in a film to one individual’s creative vision just misunderstands filmmaking; while one absolutely ought to praise Steven Spielberg for his superb job on (say) Jurassic Park, one shouldn’t lose sight of the superb jobs done by Michael Crichton on the original novel, David Koepp on the screenplay, John Williams on the score, Stan Winston on the practical effects, Industrial Light & Magic’s David Muren (& team) on the digital effects, & Jack Horner as paleontological supervisor, & the rest of the hundreds of artists & technicians who made the film so excellent. Steven Spielberg couldn’t have done it alone. How could he possibly have?
*Well, not really; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of dull, inept B-movies less enjoyable & wellmade than Batman & Robin. But for a mainstream production with a decent budget & a cast & crew of professionals, it’s one of the worst.