Originally, I was holding off on digging into Joel Schumacher’s 2004 adaptation of Phantom of the Opera until later on in this series, but with his passing a few months ago, I thought that it only made sense to make the next installment of my Phantom Thread series a celebration of Schumacher’s lavish and ostentatious adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, showering it with all the adulation that it has always deserved. Many of its critics faulted this version for being too faithful to the cultural phenomenon that is Webber’s crowning achievement in live theatre, but honestly, this wasn’t ever going to be the gothic horror show from Gaston Leroux’s original novel, and I’m not sure why anyone ever expected any differently from this rendition.
In terms of what Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber set out to create with their collaborative efforts on bringing the stage play iteration of Phantom of the Opera to the big screen, to me, they not only succeeded, but they also managed to supersede any lofty expectations I might have had for it nearly 16 years ago when it was first released in theaters. Phantom 2004 may not be the most accurate take on the material from Leroux’s story, but it is most definitely a brilliant cinematic rendering of Webber’s musical, and I will always defend it to the bitter end, even its less-than-amazing parts (which are few and far between).
Starring Gerard Butler (as the titular phantasm), Emmy Rossum (as Christine), and Patrick Wilson (as a very fresh-faced Raoul), Phantom of the Opera (2004)’s road to the big screen first began back in the late 1980s when Warner Bros. bought the rights for the stage play from Webber and promised him that he’d have creative control over the project (which the studio made good on nearly 15 years later). Webber, who was apparently a fan of The Lost Boys, knew from the very beginning that the director he wanted to adapt his melodramatic masterpiece of the live theatre was Joel Schumacher.
Even after the project was shelved for decades (originally, the film was supposed to star both Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, but Webber’s divorce from Brightman was the first speed bump that slowed production on the Phantom film), miraculously, both Schumacher and Webber stayed committed to bringing the theatrical sensation to life on the big screen, plus they also remained close friends over the years, and eventually the stars aligned in 2002 for the Phantom filmic adaptation to move forward. But this time, they were venturing out together on this journey independently, as Webber’s company had bought the rights to the stage play from Warner Bros. in early 2003.
Little did they know, as they set out to make this iteration of Phantom of the Opera, that they were about to make history as the most expensive independent film ever made, with its $80 million dollar budget. You can see every single penny right there on the screen, though, between the impressive sets, the absolutely gorgeous costuming, and everything in between, so it was obviously money well spent, especially since Phantom 2004 ended up nearly doubling its budget in box office receipts when it was released theatrically.
What I’ve always loved about Schumacher’s Phantom is that it perfectly captures the magic of Webber’s stage play, but the scale of this production is something much grander than any theatrical space could possibly contain, resulting in an experience that’s a sumptuous feast for both the eyes and the ears. Shot at the famous Shepperton Studios in the U.K., Phantom 2004 featured some of the most incredible and epic production design work this side of the original Phantom of the Opera. The biggest set was the interior of the opera house, which could seat 900 people comfortably and took three months to build, and that’s only one of the many impressive sets that production designer Tony Pratt was responsible for (with Celia Bobak’s set decoration prowess doing some heavy lifting here as well).
Throughout all of this design work, Pratt and Bobak’s approaches utilized a Baroque style that celebrated the female form with dozens upon dozens of flourishes, resulting in an extravaganza in elegance at every turn. Equally impressive were the sets for the Phantom’s underground lair, which included a lake that held millions of gallons of water, and provided Phantom 2004 with a great locale for an underwater scene involving Raoul that doesn’t feel wholly necessary, but is still great to look at all the same. One of this writer’s favorite details in this version of Phantom are the moving candelabra arms, which add a sense of heightened gravitas and are also a lovely tribute to the 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast.
The other detail that I love is the breathtaking and grandiose chandelier in the Opera House, which cost over $1 million and was created by Swarovski. The reason it’s so impressive (beyond the obvious) is that it’s about as close to an exact replica of the chandelier from the actual Paris Opera House as you could possibly get. As expected, the chandelier provides the film with two of its biggest moments—at the beginning when it seemingly comes alive during an auction, and then when it comes crashing down towards the end of Phantom after “The Point of No Return” (which differs from when it happens during the theatre version)—so it was definitely worth every penny that production spent on what is arguably the most iconic detail from any and all iterations of Phantom of the Opera.
Another highlight to Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera are the stunning and awe-inspiring costumes that were dreamt up and created by Alexandra Byrne (which were somehow inexplicably not nominated at the following year’s Academy Awards). Some of the best looks in the film went to the character of Carlotta (played by Minnie Driver), as her outfits perfectly reflected her gauche, over-the-top persona to a T. Christine’s wardrobe was fittingly delicate, reflective of the soprano’s virtuous demeanor, and I love that more often than not, Rossum’s character was just parading around in what would be considered fancy negligee whenever she wasn’t on stage. Beyond the main players, every single supporting cast member and extra in Phantom of the Opera (2004) looks like a million bucks, too, with the minimal color palette costuming choices during the “Masquerade” musical number providing audiences with a very different focal point that is a juxtaposition in comparison to the costuming in the rest of the film. But Byrne’s usage of black, white, gold, and silver during that sequence adds another note of elegance during that show-stopping moment in the film.
The only slight misstep in the costume choices in Phantom 2004 is the look of the Phantom when he crashes the ball, as it feels weirdly understated in comparison to every other aspect of the film. Considering how excessive everything about Schumacher’s adaption feels, those absent embellishments are sorely missed during that highly dramatic moment in the Phantom story. That’s just a nitpick, though, because Byrne’s impressive costuming in this version of Phantom of the Opera is truly on another level.
When it came to putting together the cast for Phantom 2004, both Schumacher and Webber were in agreement that they were looking for younger actors, and they wanted their trio of leads to be relatively unknown to audiences. At the time she was being screen tested, Emmy Rossum was only 16 years old. Considering her character Christine in Leroux’s story was a budding ingénue in her teens, the casting of a young Rossum feels perfect, as her impressionable and inexperienced demeanor makes this iteration of Christine ripe for the picking whenever the Phantom is looking to lure her in. Also, one of my favorite details about Christine in Phantom 2004 is how, whenever she’s overwhelmed by the Phantom, her hair gets a bit bigger and wilder, which is something I’ve called the “Jerry Dandrige Effect” for years now, as the same thing happens with Amanda Bearse in Fright Night, and that was one of the first instances I can remember that happening in a film.
At the time he was cast in Phantom, Patrick Wilson had enjoyed an impressive run in live theatre for nearly a decade and had just broken out in Hollywood after receiving both a Golden Globe and Emmy nomination for his work in Mike Nichols’ miniseries, Angels in America. Admittedly, Raoul, Christine’s other love interest, has always been my least favorite character in The Phantom of the Opera, as I’ve always found him to be a bit of a whiny sad sack in comparison to the other characters in this world. Somehow, Wilson found a way to make me a fan of Raoul this time around, and his portrayal of the character is easily one of my favorites from any version of Phantom.
The real wild card casting decision made for this iteration of Phantom was Gerard Butler, who Schumacher sought out after seeing him in Dracula 2000 (it’s nice to know that this writer isn’t alone in her appreciation for that film), not knowing if he could actually sing. And when he came in to audition for Webber, Butler only had four vocal lessons under his belt at the time, but he still made an impression all the same.
Truth be told, I didn’t always appreciate Butler’s performance in The Phantom of the Opera (2004), but it has really has grown on me over the years. There’s a raw energy that Butler brings to the role of the Phantom, where there’s this raspy sense of anger that comes through with every word he utters and every lyric he sings. He may not be the showiest Phantom we’ve ever seen, or the most refined, but there’s a palpable sense of pain and anguish to Butler’s portrayal of the iconic character that often morphs into something very animalistic at times (which ties perfectly into the Phantom’s backstory here, and differs greatly from what we learn about the character in Leroux’s original story).
Also, the scene where the Phantom chases down Joseph Buquet in the catwalks above the stage is absolutely thrilling, up there with some of the best villain chases in horror, and Butler’s ability to be both ferociously menacing and intoxicatingly charming in equal measure throughout Phantom 2004 is pretty damn impressive (and considering he was never a trained singer on top of all that, makes his performance here all the more remarkable in my book).
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Minnie Driver in The Phantom of the Opera (2004), as it’s my second favorite performance of hers, right behind Grosse Pointe Blank. Carlotta, as the petulant diva, has always been more of a foil to the Phantom himself than she is to Christine, but I think Driver’s work in Schumacher’s Phantom is so wonderfully outrageous, she ends up being an adversary to pretty much every other character she crosses paths with. I just adore how much Driver takes the character into camp territory here, and I wish we saw her getting to take on more roles like Carlotta in her career. It’s also worth noting that Driver does pay homage to her involvement in Phantom 2004 with her performance in Stage Fright (2014), which is another film I have always enjoyed.
While it may not have the gothic undertones of Leroux’s story, Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera is still an audacious and ambitious achievement by the distinctive filmmaker who perfectly captured the spirit of Webber’s theatrical production, taking everything that fans love about the stage play to new heights. It’s a film that I absolutely adored when it was first released in 2004 (I probably saw it in theaters on four different occasions), and I still get goosebumps every single time the chandelier is raised and the theater seemingly comes alive during the auction at the beginning of Phantom 2004. I know a lot of genre fans have always praised Schumacher for his work on The Lost Boys, and his Batman films have their fans as well, but I think it’s time that his adaptation of Phantom of the Opera is finally given the praise it deserves for being one of Schumacher’s finest directorial efforts of his career.
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