THE WISE-GUY FILMMAKER WHO hoisted a bound-and-gagged Chris O'Donnell 40 feet in the air for a scene in 1995's Batman Forever—then announced a break for lunch while the actor dangled helplessly above the set—was about to strike again. Joel Schumacher, director of Batman & Robin, the fourth and latest in the big-screen series, sat on a bench outside a Long Beach, Calif., soundstage with novice Caped Crusader George Clooney. Suddenly, O'Donnell, who plays the Boy Wonder in the film, drove up in a snazzy rented BMW.

"He pulls up in front of us and leaves a little dust," recalls the rangy Schumacher, 57, his eyebrows arching wickedly. "He had an air of, 'Oh, yes, this is my fabulous new convertible.' I said to George, 'We cannot let him get away with this.' " The two sat tight until O'Donnell had parked and sauntered into his trailer. Then Schumacher procured dozens of bags of microwave popcorn from a nearby catering table and dumped them into the BMW, filling it up to the window ledges. "But it didn't have salt or butter on it," he points out, slyly, "so it wasn't that messy."

Schumacher knows from messy. Yes, he is one of Hollywood's top directors, with 12 movies to his credit, including flashy moneymakers like 1994's The Client and 1996's A Time to Kill. Yes again, the powers at Warner Bros. tapped him to take over the Gotham City gold mine in 1993, after Tim Burton decided two Batman films were quite enough. And yes, the execs watched Schumacher strike pay dirt with Batman Forever, which grossed $335 million worldwide. Schumacher brightened up Burton's Gotham, and he eroticized the characters by adding nipples and bulging codpieces to the costumes. More importantly, Schumacher has kept the financial momentum going. Despite mixed reviews, Batman & Robin raked in $43 million its first weekend.

Yet not that long ago, the director's life was a tangle of drugs, booze and broken relationships. For much of his twenties, he was a hard-core speed addict who shot up five times a day; he was also, by his own admission, "one of the most promiscuous people on the planet. I was someone who went to a party when I was 11," he says, "and got home when I was 52."

Schumacher managed to keep his addictions under control by the skin of his teeth. "I would stop partying a month or two before I shot a movie," he explains, "and I would stay dry until the wrap shot." The wonder is not just that he survived his dissolute years but that he actually forged a reputation as a model of efficiency. Since making his feature-film directorial debut in 1981 with The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Schumacher has become as well known for his dependability as for his enormous talent; he finishes his pictures on schedule and under budget. Says his pal Dream-Works SKG mogul David Geffen: "Joel is about getting things done."

But the true secret of his success, admirers say, is his ability to cast and then manage some of this era's most intriguing actors. Casting is key, says Schumacher, who kick-started the careers of Demi Moore (in 1985's St. Elmo's Fire) and Jason Patric (1987's The Lost Boys) and even cast Julia Roberts in 1990's Flatliners before Pretty Woman was released. Casting is also, he believes, "like falling in love—someone walks into your office and you go, 'How did I live without this person?' "

When Schumacher picks an actor for a part, his passion knows no bounds. In 1993 he got the idea that Susan Sarandon was right for the lead in The Client. He arranged to meet her for lunch at Le Madri in Manhattan and was soon smitten by "this perfect person: unpretentious, self-effacing, brilliant." Sarandon's agent, however, had told him that she'd need three months to make up her mind. "I'm sitting there thinking, 'I can't make this movie without her,' " says Schumacher, "but I can't wait three months. What am I going to do?' "

What he did was grab the flowers from the table, get down on one knee and say, "Please come and marry me on film. I promise you you'll have the most wonderful experience of your life." Sarandon accepted the next day and wound up with an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. "I had a great time," she says. "He's one of the most enthusiastic directors that I've ever worked with."

And one of the most persistent. Unable to find just the right lead actor for A Time to Kill, he fought skeptical studio executives to cast Matthew McConaughey, an unknown "with obvious star quality," says Schumacher. The movie went on to make $154 million worldwide, and McConaughey, then 26, was anointed hunk-of-the-moment, a title Schumacher helped him handle. "With Joel you can just say, 'Hey, here's what's going on,' and within 10 minutes he'll give you some really good advice," says McConaughey. "Joel is an expert on human behavior."

Schumacher was even more helpful to Demi Moore on the set of St. Elmo's Fire. After recognizing that she had problems with drugs and alcohol, he called her into his office two weeks before filming. "I told her I was firing her," says Schumacher, who was himself struggling with similar troubles at the time. "I didn't want to do what they had done with John Belushi, which was just give her the money to kill herself." Moore checked into rehab, where Schumacher worked with her every day. "When she came out, we hired a counselor to live with Demi during filming," he says. "She's been sober ever since."

Though he's proud to have helped people, Schumacher is somewhat uncomfortable with his reputation as a selflessly caring director. "When people say that I am so giving to every single person on a movie set, I think it's because I also need something from them," he says. "In many ways I'm still a poor, lonely kid with the whole neighborhood going on around him, and I've got to be a part of it. And the way to do that is to get people to like you."

Schumacher's first neighborhood was in Brooklyn, where he was the only child of Frank, a soda-fountain worker, and his Swedish-born wife, Marian. Schumacher was only 4 when his father, who was studying to be a pharmacist, died suddenly from pneumonia. The boy and his mother moved to Long Island City, N.Y., where Marian toiled six days a week as a saleswoman in a dress shop. Left on his own for long hours, young Joel put on puppet shows for friends. He also hung around local card games, where he learned to drink beer. At 11, Schumacher discovered sex. "And that," he says, "was the end of the puppets."

He earned tip money delivering meat for a butcher and pedaled his bicycle into Manhattan just to hang out on Fifth Avenue. "I'd see the kids from private schools in their uniforms," he recalls. "I wanted to be them." After high school, Schumacher worked his way through the Parsons School of Design by decorating windows for the chic Henri Bendel clothing store. "He had flair and style in every bone in his body," says Geraldine Stutz, then Benders president.

Schumacher rose steadily in the fashion world of the '60s, cofounding his own Madison Avenue boutique, Paraphernalia, and codesigning Halston's first line of clothes. He also partied as hard as he worked in the pre-AIDS era of free love—and haphazard sex. "I was reckless and destructive," he says. "I had sex with and lived with and romanced many, many human beings on this planet."

Meanwhile, Schumacher's addiction to speed, which he had first tried in a Miami nightclub in 1961, was causing his body to break down. In a five-year span he lost five teeth and dropped dozens of pounds from his 6'3" frame, going as low as 130. "Joel," says Stutz, "was close to annihilation."

Yet something was pulling him back from the abyss. On a snowy winter day in 1970, Schumacher, then 30, went to Central Park and buried his drug syringes. "I dug a hole very, very deep because I didn't want some other tragic addict to find my old needles," he says. Then Schumacher set about fixing his life. Deeply in debt—he owed $30,000 to the IRS—he briefly shared an apartment with gossip columnist Liz Smith (then a magazine writer), who stayed on his sofa and helped him subsist on a $2-a-day budget.

Eventually, Schumacher got work creating sets for TV commercials. His big break came when Woody Allen hired him to design costumes for 1973's Sleeper. The two were lunching on Big Macs when Schumacher confessed his dream of directing. "You'll do it," Allen told him. "You have it."

Woody was right: Schumacher parlayed the sale of several screenplays into a gig directing a 1974 TV movie—which led, down the road, to Shrinking Woman. Yet as he became more successful, his emotional condition, he says, "started to erode." Finally, in 1991, "feeling suicidal," he says, he saw a psychiatrist and began going to AA meetings, which he still attends. Since then, Schumacher hasn't touched drugs or alcohol.

Schumacher sober may be more serene than the high-speed model, but he's still no pushover. "Joel has a one-liner: 'Never mistake my kindness for weakness,' " says Akiva Goldsman, who wrote Batman & Robin. "He's a scrapper, and he will not allow somebody to damage his movie." Case in point: After Val Kilmer verbally attacked two crew members on Batman Forever, Schumacher followed the actor into his trailer and told him off. "He shoved me against the wall," says Schumacher, "and, much to my surprise, I shoved him back."

With Kilmer replaced by the affable George Clooney for Batman & Robin, the set took on an almost cozy ambience. "I've never been on a set where every crew member was so happy," says Alicia Silverstone, who plays Batgirl in the film. "Joel was always cuddling with me, putting his arms around my shoulders. He was very dadlike." O'Donnell, too, acknowledges the easy atmosphere, even as he good-naturedly vows revenge for having to vacuum pounds of popcorn from the backseat of his car at a local car wash. Swears O'Donnell: "I will strike back!"

Schumacher, sitting in his living room in an airy acre-and-a-half estate in the upscale Bel Air section of L.A., doesn't seem worried. His life these days is comfortably mellow. "I'm not in love," he says, "and I don't know if I will fall in love again. Intimacy has been difficult for me. I've damaged that part of me." He lives alone, except for a butler who used to work for Queen Elizabeth. A personal trainer stops by to supervise his daily weight-training sessions.

It's a plush existence, but Schumacher is itching to get behind the camera again, as he will this fall when he directs Sean Connery and Gwyneth Paltrow in The Runaway Jury, based on the best-selling thriller by his friend John Grisham. "I'm better at work than at life," he says. "I'm a good friend, not a good life partner."

He has, however, been an excellent godfather to 8-year-old Lucas, son of his close friend and producer Bruce Berman. "Joel will come over, get down on the floor and do drawings with him," says Bruce. "They'll set up little cities with action figures and have a great time." Schumacher likes the idea that to Lucas he's not any Hollywood hotshot—just a consistent and dependable adult. "My godson has never seen me drunk," says Schumacher. "And I'm proud of that."

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI
SHELLEY LEVITT and CHAMP CLARK in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Shelley Levitt,
  • Champ Clark.