Joel Schumacher looks back on the coming-of-age movie that launched the Brat Pack and captured a moment when we were all convinced we'd be rich, in love, and best friends forever
Credit: Everett Collection

I started my career as a costume designer, making $220 a week. It was the early ’70s, and one of my earliest films was Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I told him that I wanted to be a director, but he said I should write because I was funny and had a big mouth. I did finally get to direct, though. And while I was making my second movie, D.C. Cab, I was staying in Georgetown. One weekend, I was sitting at an outdoor café alone. It was the early ’80s, and Georgetown was like a little village of yuppies. It was the height of Reaganomics.

The heroes were Donald Trump and Michael Milken and Leona Helmsley. The attitude became ”I’m rich, f— you.” And all of these kids were coming out of universities with 20-year plans. I felt sorry for them. I was listening to their conversations and I thought, ”What must it be like to be spit out of these universities, thinking ‘I better make a lot of money’?” No one had done a movie about yuppies yet, and no one had really made a movie about a graduate since The Graduate.

So I started writing a story about a group of friends who graduated at that moment. But what did I know? I never went to college. I got an intern from Duke University named Carl Kurlander, and we wrote St. Elmo’s Fire together on spec. We sent it out to everybody, and people were shocked. The head of Universal Pictures actually called me into his office and said, ”You have single-handedly come up with the seven most loathsome human beings ever created!” But there were two young guys at Columbia Pictures who got it.

There were big battles with the studio over casting. One of the few people they okayed right away was Ally Sheedy, because she’d been in WarGames. She was shooting The Breakfast Club at the time, so I went to Chicago to meet with her and fell in love. She begged me to hire Judd Nelson. I don’t know if she had a crush on him or what. Emilio Estevez just made me laugh so hard in his audition, but Columbia didn’t want him. They only wanted Ally and Rob Lowe, who I wasn’t going to put in the movie, but he came in to see me three times. He poured his heart out. And I thought, ”This poor child, no one is ever going to want it as much as he does.” He was a teen idol, a real sex magnet at the time, and I felt like he was ready to dig deeper.

Andrew McCarthy I had to push for too. But for me, there was no one else on the planet who had that mix of smarts, gentleness, and sarcasm. And Mare Winningham was easy because she’d been a star in TV movies. She already had kids. Actually, she was pregnant when we shot the film, and here she is playing a virgin in the movie! That’s why she wears all those baggy Laura Ashley dresses.

As for Demi Moore, there was no other actress who had her sophistication and sense of fun. And that voice. She was dating Emilio. And Demi was a wild child. I was concerned about her safety and her health. I’m not going to talk about her personal problems at the time, but I didn’t want to give her any money that might support her demise. I felt like I had to do what was moral, so I fired her before we started shooting. She fixed the problem quickly, and it stayed fixed. The only people I offered parts to that we didn’t get were Diane Lane and Matthew Broderick. But, looking back, I think it’s a perfectly cast movie. I may not be a genius director, I may not be the smartest man in the world, but I will match my casts with anyone’s.

When we were shooting the movie, a reporter from New York magazine came on the set to do a story on Emilio. And Emilio took him out one night with Rob and Judd. It bothered the writer that these guys were good-looking and had money and all the girls wanted them. And his story, for better or worse, created the term the Brat Pack.

We weren’t allowed to shoot at Georgetown [University] because the Jesuit fathers said they couldn’t condone premarital sex. I met with one of them, thinking about The Exorcist, which was shot there, and said, ”Wasn’t there a movie shot here where a prepubescent masturbated with a crucifix and said, ‘Your mother sucks c–ks in hell’?” He smiled and said, ”That is true, Mr. Schumacher, but in that particular film God wins over the devil, which does not seem to be the case in St. Elmo’s Fire.” We ended up shooting at the University of Maryland, and one day Rob was changing out of his costume in the trailer there and he said to Emilio, ”Watch this.” He threw open the door and was stark naked, and a mob of girls rushed the trailer. I thought it was going to tip over.

After we wrapped, I got a call from the head of the studio. Our little film was supposed to come out on Oct. 1, 1985, as a back-to-school movie. Columbia had three summer movies that had cost a fortune — Silverado, Perfect, and The Bride. None of them had successful test screenings, so he asked if I could finish the film in three weeks. He also wanted me to cut the story line about Emilio’s obsession with Andie MacDowell, because he thought Emilio was making a fool out of himself. I asked if we could test the movie with the story line in. And when Emilio finally kissed Andie, people cheered. The studio head leaned over and said to me, ”You were right.”

St. Elmo’s Fire made something like $36 million, which is a lot when you consider that a ticket cost $2. That would be like $150 million today. But it didn’t get one good review. Trust me, I read all of them. I think the reason the movie holds up after 25 years is that everyone has their gang and you think you’re going to be friends forever. You really do. And then life happens. It’s all there in that scene where Ally says, ”I just wish everything could go back to the way it used to be!” But of course it doesn’t, and of course it can’t. (as told to Chris Nashawaty)

St. Elmo's Fire
  • Movie