WTF Happened to Phone Booth?

Once upon a time, in a world not so far away, if you wanted to make a phone call, you would have to find a claustrophobic box that housed the invention of Antonio Meucci, Elisha Gray and the one who actually owns the patent on the invention: Alexander Graham Bell: We’re talking of course about the Telephone. For many of you the idea that you couldn’t just reach into your pocket and grab your own personal device that allows you to communicate with anyone and everyone on this big blue planet is unfathomable, yet as recently as just twenty years ago, the sight of someone walking on a street talking to themselves was actually quite the peculiar spectacle. It is with that bit of knowledge that an idea thought up in the 60’s was given a modern day twist to focus on the last remaining telephone kiosk in New York City where we find our main character Stu Shepard, played brilliantly by Colin Farrell in his first solo starring role, held captive and taken to task by a mad man with a sniper rifle. How did a film originally intended for Alfred Hitchcock and postponed by a real life sniper attack come to define the turning point of a generation. We answer all of that and more when we delve into just WTF Happened to this Movie?!

According to the production notes, The idea for Phone Booth originally came to the iconic screenwriter Larry Cohen in the 1960’s when he pitched it to Alfred Hitchcock, the idea was intriguing, yet the duo could never figure out why someone would be confined to that single location for an entire movie. The idea languished in the back of Cohen’s mind for years, every time he would see Hitchcock, the first question Hitchcock would ask him would be “How are you coming along on our Phone Booth movie?” While Hitchcock would go on to make the single room film Rope and become one of the most legendary filmmakers to ever exist, Cohen would build up quite the resumé as a television writer on shows such as The Fugitive, The Defenders and Columbo as well as schlocky B movie thrillers such as Perfect Strangers (1984), Maniac Cop (1988) and The Ex (1996)

It wouldn’t be until quite some time after Hitchcock had passed away that Cohen figured out the solution to the problem, one that in retrospect seems so simple yet took decades to realize: a sniper has forced the main character to remain inside the phone booth. Cohen says he imagined a scenario where the phone booth represented a glass coffin where people would walk right by it without knowing the person inside is being terrorized. He set the film in New York City because he wanted a location that was so heavily congested that there are literally thousands of people walking around you, who could help you at any given moment, but choose not to, they ignore you and just keep on walking. Once Cohen figured out the where and the why, he was able to write the script in less than a month. Yet getting the script to sell proved a bit more difficult, so Cohen did what any screenwriter would do: he wrote another screenplay. This one was about a young man who receives a phone call from a woman who has been taken hostage, Cohen would title the screenplay Cellular and present it to his friends for feedback. Cohen told them that he felt this screenplay was the exact opposite of Phone Booth as that script was about a man confined to one space and a phone while Cellular was about a man who can go anywhere with his phone, however his friends told him that he had written the exact same script twice. Of course it wouldn’t matter as both scripts eventually sold, and would become the two biggest hits of his career.

Once Phone Booth sold, the hunt was on for a director that could bring some of those “Hitchcock” vibes to the story and a star that could command the screen considering he is in nearly every shot of the movie. The producers, including David Zucker of Airplane fame, would bring in the late Joel Schumacher first, who loved the script but ultimately dropped out to go make the film Flawless. From there, several prominent directors were brought in including Steven Spielberg followed by Mel Gibson who was going to both direct and star in the film and came in with some changes such as making the lead a crooked lawyer instead of a shady publicist. Cohen told Gibson that he hated that idea, but during the course of their meeting he says Gibson did have some good ideas which Cohen told Gibson he was going to use whether or not he remained with the project, which Gibson seemed perfectly okay with. The Hughes Brothers would be considered but would ultimately drop out in favor of making From Hell while Michael Bay would come in to a meeting with Cohen with his first words being “okay, how do we get this thing out of the damn telephone booth?” By the time the producers went through these directors, Joel Schumacher had finished shooting Flawless as well as Tigerland and Bad Company and was brought back in with Schumacher saying he was drawn to the project because it represented a primal fear, the fear that someone is always watching you combined with this newly emerging technological world where everyone had this newfound sense of a loss of privacy. He liked the idea that this was a story that could happen to anyone, it presented a paranoia that was already inherent in most of us.

For many people, Joel Schumacher is the man responsible for ruining the Batman franchise with his 1997 take on the material Batman & Robin. It seems like ever since that ill fated film, it became his entire legacy. Of course, had Batman & Robin been a success, we would have never gotten the Christopher Nolan trilogy that completely reinvented the comic book genre.  Aside from that, Schumacher is also responsible for some of the greatest, and most under-appreciated, films ever made. Whether dominating the 80’s with St. Elmo’s Fire or The Lost Boys to putting out a steady stream of now classic films in the 90s such as Flatliners, The Client, 8mm and two of my personal favorite movies of all time: A Time To Kill and Falling Down while in the year 2000 he would make one of the most underrated war films ever made with Tigerland.

And it is that film, Tigerland, where our story of Phone Booth continues. Even after finding their director, the casting process was a long one as they tried to find an A-list star who could hold the audiences attention while also selling tickets based on their name alone. Names like Mark Wahlberg and Will Smith were offered the role with Wahlberg turning it down in favor of Planet of the Apes and Smith taking Ali instead,while names like Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robin Williams all expressed interest with the studio opting to go younger for the lead role which would see names like Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise mentioned. 

But there was one person who was cast in the role, was fitted for the wardrobe, was ready to start filming but one night called Joel Schumacher and simply told the filmmaker that he couldn’t do it: Jim Carrey. Schumacher says that it is unheard of for an actor to give up a role for which they have already been cast, but he always thought it was a weird choice for a Jim Carrey movie with the duo having worked together previously on Batman Forever, so he understood when he dropped out to go make The Majestic. Luckily Schumacher would hold no ill will as he would cast Carrey in his film The Number 23 a few years later. 

But now came the hard part, with A-list actors falling out left and right and the studio becoming a bit worried that the screenplay was to blame, Schumacher went back to his original choice for the lead role. A young actor he had worked with on Tigerland that he knew had the perfect mix of gravitas and star power, but had never been tested in such a way on screen, a man by the name of Colin Farrell. Once Carrey fell out, Schumacher took the opportunity to show studio executives Farrell’s performance from Tigerland whichhelped change their minds.

With Farrell cast as the fast talking lead, Stu Shepard, it came time to fill in the roles around him. For the Captain of Police, Ed Ramey, the filmmakers originally offered the role to Ray Liotta who turned it down with it eventually going to future Oscar winner Forest Whitaker. The role of Stu’s wife would go to the star of hit Australian soap opera Neighbors Radha Mitchell while the role of the woman who is the reason Stu is in that particular phone booth to begin with would go to Dawson’s Creek star Katie Holmes. Mitchell and Holmes said they enjoyed both the psychological nature mixed with the twisted humor of the script while Mitchell would add that even though the film seems to center on Stu, the story is really about how his actions have affected everyone around him.

For the role of the almost unseen villain, filmmakers needed someone on the other side of the call with a commanding voice. Robin Williams really wanted to be that voice on the other side of the line as did Anthony Hopkins who promised writer Larry Cohen that he would use his “Hannibal Lecter voice.” 20th Century Fox passed on those two names, perhaps for budgetary reasons, so next on the list was Roger Jackson whom many of you may know not for his face, but for his iconic voice as Ghostface in the Scream films. Yet it would be Deep Impact and Super 8’s Ron Eldard who would ultimately be cast as the villain. Even a young Jared Leto was cast in a small role in the film as an actor who is represented by Farrell with the duo having a quick scene in an alley. Ultimately the scene was cut from the theatrical cut of the film, but has shown up in television broadcasts to pad the relatively short run time.

The film would begin principal photography in November 2000 with Los Angeles dressed up to look like New York City due to the fact that New York was deemed too cold to film in the Winter months. Schumacher would bring on his Tigerland cinematographer Matthew Libatique to shoot the film with him using sometimes up to four cameras at once to capture all the action, with some of the actors wearing ear pieces so that they could be told what was going on in the moment and react accordingly. Ultimately the film would take just twelve days to shoot with it being shot in chronological order and taking place entirely in real time, meaning one minute watching the movie represented one minute in the actual movie, a device that had become popular over the years in films like Nick of Time and more recently with the Kiefer Sutherland starring show 24

For the background performers, they had no idea what the plot of the movie was and were simply told to react to what was happening, which would include hearing the F word said over 143 times. For his part, Colin Farrell showed the cast and crew that he was meant for the job when it came time to film the scene where he has to cry followed by yelling at the Sniper to shoot him, Farrell was unable to sleep the night before the big scene which added to the frenetic performance that he nailed in a single take resulting in the entire cast and crew giving him a round of applause after Schumacher called cut.

With filming complete, it was time to test the film, with audiences giving it strong numbers with the exception of one thing. The film cast Ron Eldard as the sniper, Eldard was set up in a building across the street to give Farrell an eye line to look at and was on the phone with Farrell. One day when Larry Cohen was on set, he went up to Schumacher and told him that as great an actor as Eldard was, his voice was not as mesmerizing a tone as he had envisioned for the Sniper. Schumacher simply replied “You think so?” And immediately cast his old pal Kiefer Sutherland, whom he had worked with on films such as The Lost Boys, Flatliners and A Time To Kill, to re-dub the lines. Yet when audiences first saw the film, after hearing Kiefer Sutherland’s deeply iconic voice, they were thrown off when in the final moments of the film it was Eldard and not Sutherland who appeared on screen, resulting in them reshooting the final scene to have Sutherland appear as the Sniper. 

phone booth 2002, Colin Farrell

Of course that scene almost didn’t happen as the original ending in the script was for Stu to step out of the booth and fire a few shots at the window where the sniper is, resulting in the police shooting him with rubber bullets. When Capt. Ramey steps into the Phone Booth, he picks up the phone and hears SWAT surrounding the sniper, who then says, “but you’ll never forget me, I gave you the most thrilling day of your life. Say thanks” before dying. Schumacher says he liked the changed ending, allowing the bad guy to walk away un-punished to show that sometimes the bad guy can win. He expected push back on his ending from the studio, yet never got any.

With the film shot and ready to go, the studio decided to hold onto it for a bit, at the time Colin Farrell was an up and coming star who had several films awaiting releases. The studio decided to wait those releases out in the hopes that they would become big hits and raise the status of their lead star. Unfortunately those films were American Outlaws and Hart’s War which made less than $40 million combined at the domestic box office. But there was one more film Farrell had in the pipeline, a big summer blockbuster starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg called Minority Report. With that film set to release in June 2002, the studio felt safe dating Phone Booth for a November 2002 bow, to capitalize on what would surely be a huge boost to the star status of Colin Farrell. And Minority Report did just that, pulling in nearly $360 million worldwide with a lot of the critical reception focused on Farrell’s scene stealing performance.

With a solid reception out of the Toronto International Film Festival where the film first premiered and a marketing machine already in full tilt, readying the film for its November 15, 2002 release, it seemed Phone Booth was ready to break out big at the box office, but sometimes the real world has other plans. In October 2002, Washington D.C and its surrounding areas were rocked by a series of murders dubbed The Beltway Sniper Attacks where two men traveled across the country killing seventeen people and wounding ten others mainly using a long range sniper rifle from the back of their car. In response to these attacks, and the fact that their film dealt with a person holding someone hostage using a long range sniper rifle, the studio decided to vacate its November 15th release date.

Ultimately released on April 4, 2003, Phone Booth would finish atop the box office charts with a total first weekend take of $15,021,088 beating out the first week of the Amanda Bynes starring What A Girl Wants and the Vin Diesel starring A Man Apart. The film would ultimately top out stateside with $46.5 million with another $51.2 million from international audiences, giving the film just under $100 million in worldwide grosses off a $13 million budget. Critics hailed the picture as a “hitchcockian” nail biter with a flawless performance by Farrell that solidified him as the next big A list actor and applauded Schumacher’s quick pacing for the 81 minute film. Some critics would say that Farrell’s accent was inconsistent within the film, but to them it should be noted that the inconsistencies in Farrell’s accent were done on purpose, those were character choices to show the fraud that this character is in his life, that even his voice isn’t authentic. Perhaps because Farrell was new to the scene, these critics found something to nit pick about, but over the past twenty years we have seen Colin Farrell turn in masterful performance after masterful performance to where we know that every little thing he does on camera is done with purpose because, quite frankly, Colin Farrell has emerged as one of the best actors of the modern cinema age.

Phone Booth is a time stamp of a very specific period in modern history, it works as a perfect transition from the seedy days depicted in a movie like Taxi Driver when sex workers walked the streets freely to the newfound “family friendly” version of New York where those same sex workers are now dressed up like Elmo and charging you ten dollars for a picture!

Despite being around since the days of Hitchcock, the film was made at the only point in history when it could have been made, despite being filmed before the events of September 11, 2001, its release in the aftermath spoke to the new inherent fear we all now lived with. With the rise of cell phones, phone booths became a relic of a forgotten time, but unlike the days of Mount Vesuvius and the city of Pompeii, this moment in time is not a piece of ancient history relocated to classroom text books, but rather a piece of outdated tech that many of us still remember using with the last remaining phone booth being removed from New York City as recently as May 23, 2022, making even the title of this film outdated. But that’s the thing that makes Phone Booth so special: twenty years on, a movie like this should feel outdated, and yet when you watch it, it still feels as fresh and relevant as ever. It works in the same way films like Die Hard and Speed worked, by trapping our protagonist in a single location and forcing him to deal with a literal gun to his head. It would even inspire other filmmakers, such as Wes Craven who saw the film and was inspired to make Red Eye. While in the year 2010 an Indian language remake was made titled Knock Out and in the year 2019, Japan turned the film into a successful play that ran for five months before coming to Atlanta. 

More importantly it gave Joel Schumacher a much needed hit, to show that he was far more than just the guy who put nipples on the Bat Suit! And THAT is WTF happened to Phone Booth.

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