20 years ago today, Colin Farrell delivered his best role after Jim Carrey got cold feet
The story of how this movie eventually made it to the big screen is borderline unbelievable.
2003 was very much The Year Of Colin Farrell. He'd previously had some great roles in movies that were either too small to be seen by mass audiences (Tigerland, Ordinary Decent Criminal) or were sold on the names of other, bigger stars (Minority Report, Hart's War). 2003 changed all of that, as he was either the star or the overall scene-stealer in The Recruit, Daredevil, Veronica Guerin, S.W.A.T. and Intermission, all of which were released in cinemas within a 12-month window.
Another of his projects was released in that year, arguably still his best role to date - you can debate this alongside In Bruges, Banshees Of Inisherin and The Lobster - is Phone Booth. And that movie only got a 2003 release date AND got Colin Farrell as its lead following decades (literally DECADES!) of events leading up to and surrounding its debut.
Screenwriter Larry Cohen first pitched the idea to none other than Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1960s, based on a film taking place in real time, entirely within the confines of a phone booth. They eventually gave up on the idea, when neither man could come up with a reasonable plot that would keep them in one location for the entire runtime, although Hitchcock would regularly check in on Cohen to see if he had solved the problem.
It wasn't until the late 1990s, two decades after Hitchcock had passed away, that Cohen came up with the solution involving the sniper forcing the protagonist to remain in the phone booth. Having finally written the script, half of Hollywood immediately wanted the lead role: Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Robin Williams, Anthony Hopkins and Nicolas Cage all reportedly expressed extreme interest.
Directors also were said to be lining up to take the gig, including Mel Gibson, Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay, although Cohen told the LA Times that Bay was taken out of consideration when his first question about the script was: "OK, how do we get this thing out of the damn telephone booth?"
Eventually, Joel Schumacher was hired for the gig, and he was in a weird on-and-off patch in his career, with the massive flop of Batman & Robin still hanging over him, which he followed up with some very varied projects: Nic Cage snuff-film thriller 8MM; Robert De Niro/Philip Seymour Hoffman drag queen comedy Flawless; Anthony Hopkins/Chris Rock action-comedy Bad Company, which infamously was the final film made inside the World Trade Centre AND it had a plot involving an Afghanistan terrorist planning an attack on New York.
Phone Booth could potentially get Schumacher back to being a bit of a king of the thrillers, which he had previously done so well in the likes of A Time To Kill, Falling Down, The Client and Flatliners. And Schumacher had a great get for his leading man: Jim Carrey. The comedic actor had already found success outside of his usual genre thanks to The Truman Show and Man On The Moon, but they still somewhat relied on his funny bone skills. Phone Booth would be Carrey's first proper thriller role, and it would've showed off a new side to his intensive talent...
Jim Carrey steps out of the Phone Booth
... until Carrey suddenly got pulled out of the project. Schumacher told Vulture the following: "We were going to shoot it that summer and he was fitted for the suit. But I got a call from Jim one night and told me he had cold feet. He really didn't feel comfortable with it. Actors never give up their role. If an actor gives up a part then it's not right for them."
Luckily, Schumacher had recently worked with an up-and-coming actor on little-seen Vietnam War drama Tigerland, which is essentially how Farrell came to be cast. With a lesser-known lead actor up front, the movie was assigned a $13 million budget and 12 days to shoot everything they needed.
While the story takes place just off Times Square in Manhattan, pretty much all of the movie was actually filmed outside of a gallery in downtown Los Angeles (the eagle-eyed amongst you can spot a number of LA-marked buses going by in the background). The voice of the sniper is provided by Kiefer Sutherland, who connects to the movie in both the real-time thriller aspect - much like his big show at the time, 24 - and Sutherland had previously worked with Schumacher on The Lost Boys, Flatliners and A Time To Kill.
The movie first debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002, and following a very positive response, was due for a big cinematic release in November that same year. However, in October 2022, the Beltway Sniper attacks took place in Washington D.C., where ten people were killed across three weeks by a pair of snipers. 20th Century Fox decided to postpone the movie's release to 4 April 2003.
Phone Booth was a decent critical hit (72% on Rotten Tomatoes) with a decent commercial return (just shy of $98 million worldwide), with pretty much everyone agreeing that Farrell's magnetic, amorphous performance helping to keep the whole thing together. While he is ably assisted by a great supporting cast including Forest Whitaker, Radha Mitchell and Katie Holmes, Farrell's Stu Shepard begins the film as a truly reprehensible character, and over its taut 81-minute runtime, magnificently manages to pull you over to his side and have you rooting for him by the end.
It is exactly the kind of performance in exactly the kind of film that would never get the kind of attention it deserves - see also: Jodie Foster in Panic Room, Ryan Reynolds in Buried, Anton Yelchin in Green Room - but successfully gave Farrell the spotlight in order for him to show off every aspect of his acting prowess.
Farrell and Schumacher would go on to work together again in Veronica Guerin, and Farrell - as we all know - would become a huge, Oscar-nominated star. Schumacher would never make another movie this good again, although he did contribute to Netflix's political thriller series House Of Cards before he passed away in 2020.
Phone Booth is available to watch at home right now on Disney+.
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