The New World of Chris Columbus
Writer-director Chris Columbus got his start working for Steven Spielberg writing scripts like Gremlins, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes. Once he got his big break as a director, Columbus formed another partnership with writer-producer John Hughes. The success of their collaboration on Home Alone gave Columbus the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted. In this interview from the November 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Columbus talks about working with kids like Macaulay Culkin, stars like Maureen O’Hara and getting fired by his idol.
Blame his world-famous name, but Chris Columbus remains an almost invisible, stealth presence in contemporary Hollywood. His name has appeared (as writer) on pictures as unalike as Reckless and Young Sherlock Holmes and (as director) on an unpredictable assortment that includes Adventures in Babysitting, Heartbreak Hotel and Only the Lonely. Generally, though, Columbus is best known– or perhaps that’s unknown–for projects in which his name is eclipsed by another–whether that of Steven Spielberg (for whom Columbus wrote Gremlins, The Goonies and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) or John Hughes (for whom he directed the blockbuster hit Home Alone and the forthcoming Home Alone 2: Lost In New York). Having been, like many critics, baffled by the Columbus gift for disappearing into project after project, I welcomed the chance to interview such a specter.
I had to fly to Chicago to do so–Columbus actively avoids Los Angeles–and there, in an office on a mid-city street shaded by elms, I was introduced to a man who looks for all the world like the boy from “Leave it to Beaver,” grown to manhood. I do not mean he looks like the actor, Jerry Mathers, fully grown. Mathers no longer looks like the Beaver–Columbus does: the same ready, sweet-spirited smile; the same open, optimistic face. He was dressed in summer wear–shorts, T-shirt, moccasins–and smoked a discreet, admirably unshowoffish cigar as we talked.
CHRIS COLUMBUS: I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet you. I was afraid you might be the critic who really slugged me in print a few years ago. I usually don’t mind negative reviews, but this one hit me hard, in a personal way. This guy said, “Chris Columbus must wake up every morning and wonder how he gets away with it.”
F.X. FEENEY: So. When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
A: [Laughs] I take a very long view. I look at the works of early directors I admire, like John Ford and Howard Hawks and Capra–and those guys had a chance to learn their craft, they were directing three pictures a year. Us new guys, we start and we’re doing maybe one picture every two years, and suddenly that first picture, that second picture–everybody’s looking at it as if: “Is it going to be the next Citizen Kane?” You can’t put a disclaimer at the beginning of your film that says, “I’m not declaring that this is the best film ever made. I am declaring that I’ve finally gotten a chance to direct.”
Q: Do you ever learn from reviews?
A: I learn a lot from reviews. It’s interesting. I’ve gotten some of my best and worst reviews from Siskel and Ebert, and we’re in the same building. These guys screen their pictures where we screen our rough cuts. And we’re always running into them. You have to remain cordial, because it’s inevitably a love/hate relationship. They hate one of your movies, and you hate them for a year. Then they love your next movie, and you love them. [Laughs] “Ohh. They finally understand me!”
Q: Was there a movie that changed your life?
A: There were actually two. I often try to bring them together stylistically, and probably shouldn’t. One was the first Godfather movie; the other was Blazing Saddles. I’d never seen a film as exquisitely made as The Godfather. And Blazing Saddles… I’d never seen anybody get away with so much on-screen. Where The Godfather played by all the rules, Blazing Saddles broke them all. Those films sent me off in these two different directions. Blazing Saddles led me to the early Marx Bros, and Woody Allen, which I’d never seen before, and then The Godfather led me to The Conversation and Scorsese pictures. And then somehow they merged in my psyche, and I’ve got to constantly keep them away from one another in each film I do, because they’re not two styles that readily blend!
Q: Reckless was your first produced screenplay. Was the final film what you intended?
A: [Long pause] Oh God–not at all! It’s hard to talk about that film, because it’s completely lacking everything I believe in about film. There’s no sense of humor. The script was much funnier. The film was obviously made by a person who had never lived this kind of life. All these “mythic” touches got added, some of which I took part in–the back wheel of the motorcycle kicking over the beer can, that sort of thing–but after a while, the director just took me off the picture. I decided right there, “I’m never going to have a set like this.” I don’t care if I don’t use a writer on my picture–I’m going to at least walk him onto my set. I felt like an outsider, I felt terrible. As a result, for me, the final film evoked that soulless persona I felt when I was there. The key to that picture–if you watch the whole picture–is that these two people, Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah, never get to have more than a three-word conversation throughout the entire picture!
Q: You got sole credit for that screenplay. What was the content of your meetings with director James Foley?
A: I never met the director until I went to the set–I think. Going to the set and being treated like such a scum was so vivid that I don’t remember meeting him earlier than that. There was an arbitration with the Writers Guild, and I wrote a very passionate letter–this was prior to seeing the film–about why I should receive sole credit for writing it. Foley wanted credit at the same time. And I got sole credit for the film. I did it primarily because I was so angry at the entire production, and also because–at that time–if you got sole credit, you’d make more money. It was very important to me to make money at that time, because I was planning to get married.
Q: Steven Spielberg was riding the crest of E.T. glory when you went to work for him to write Gremlins and then The Goonies. How did that work, between you?
A: Meeting Spielberg was a nerve-racking experience, because I was just starting out, and here was a guy whose films I had studied. I was completely intimidated by him; I was completely in love with his work. Only in the last couple of years have I been able to talk to him without having my voice shake. [Laughs] I get much more nervous in the presence of people that I admire so much. Scorsese I met once, and I was very nervous. I’ve never met Coppola, but–even though I know he’s a normal guy–I can’t look at him without thinking of how he’s inspired my life.
Q: How is your relationship with Spielberg on a practical basis? Do you still show him rough cuts of your work?
A: No, I never did. Because I never really had a chance to. The two Disney pictures I did were previewed and recut so much that there was never a chance.
Q: Does he ever respond to your work when he’s seen the finished product?
A: If I don’t hear from him, then I know he didn’t like the picture. If I hear from him, then I know he loved it. I got a great note about Home Alone. When I was shooting Home Alone 2, we did some sequences on a soundstage out in L.A. and we were two doors down from his office. So I tried to connect with him. He was bringing his son over to the set, but we missed each other. I talked to him after that–and I can now actually talk to him, as a filmmaker. I always wanted him to see that I could direct–that I was a good director. Hopefully, you know, he’ll start to realize that! [Laughs] The nightmare scenario, of course, is when your hero fires you. I was fired from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Q: You were?
A: I was in a room with Spielberg and Lucas, and I was so intimidated! Even though I’d known Steven and had done three pictures with him, just by being in the room with these guys, I was a bit gawked. They had the entire story worked out. So I sat there, in Steven’s New York apartment, with these guys, 10 hours a day for three or four days. And I left with hundreds of pages of notes. Basically, the entire script was written in those sessions.
Now, I was so scared and nervous at the time that I never had the guts to say, “Can I change some things?” Because I thought that they’d fire me. So I wrote it exactly as they had told it to me. It was almost like I was a court stenographer. It was soulless and lifeless. And I handed it in–and that was it–I was fired! I thought, “Oh my God, my career is over.” It was a complete downfall for me, but I learned two things. One is to never, ever regard someone else’s story as being so etched in stone that you can’t play off of it when you’re writing–because that’s all writing really is! The other thing I learned is to never get discouraged, as a writer, when they take you off a picture. Because they do it all the time.
Q: Like Spielberg’s, your films are clearly directed toward popular audiences. What exactly do you think drives a film toward an audience?
A: It really comes down to something very obvious. A story, a movie, has to evolve from the soul. I know that sounds–it’s very difficult to explain–but it’s a passionate sort of filmmaking that you almost have to view as a religion. Filmmaking is almost, to me, a religion. It’s more than money, it’s more than Hollywood, it’s a way of life. I’m not doing this because I think it’s going to make a lot of money. When people call my work sentimental or corny–it’s really the way I believe. As funny as a picture might be, there’s got to be an element of heart, something that really connects with the audience. It’s something that’s been beat into me since film school: that heart is really the most important aspect of a film. That’s what I saw most clearly when making Home Alone.
Q: Did you have any idea of the phenomenon that was going to ensue?
A: Not at all. It sounds silly–so many directors have said it in the past–but every film you do, you sort of want to make sure you’re going to get your next job. You want it to do well; you want it to make its money back so people will continue to hire you. Home Alone was the first time as a director that I really got to call back all of that Marx Bros.- Blazing Saddles input I had when I was growing up. And I discovered during the making of the movie that I like making comedies. I like the attitude on the set, I like the feeling of being in a theater and having the entire place roar with laughter. I realized the importance of pure comedy.
Q: How is it working with child actors?
A: Kids are just kids–a lot of the time, they just don’t want to be there. They want to be out with their friends. And they deserve to have that life. So it’s a double-edged sword. I can’t imagine being the age of some of these kids and having to report to work every day.
Q: How do you deal with that when you go one-on-one? What kind of relationship do you try to set up with, say, Macaulay Culkin?
A: From the first Home Alone we got along great. I remember how kids think; I like kids a lot. Mac is quite a special kid. He’s not even the kind of kid you think is going to be an actor forever;- I expect him to become a director. You have to remember that he’s done a lot of stage work in New York; he was a dancer for a while. So he’s very trained in the theater, and he comes to work prepared. He knows his lines. For me, it’s a matter of not directing him in a predictable way. I would throw out words to him, thinking he wouldn’t understand them, but he knew everything I was talking about. It’s not like you have to deal with him in a monosyllabic way. He knows everything. He’s a very well-read kid.
Q: How do you deal with an actor’s parents? Culkin comes to mind, because his father is legendary for throwing his weight around.
A: The ideal is to know a person before everything happens. Before they become incredibly famous, or before they make millions of dollars. I knew Mac and his family before any of the Home Alone phenomena happened. And our relationship has stayed the same. Everything else that’s happened is probably a result of dealing with studios and lawyers and all those people, which becomes much more difficult once you become successful.
Q: As a father, how do you view child acting?
A: Macaulay is a very special case, a gifted child who should be acting. Prevent him from becoming one and you’re sort of robbing a lot of people of this little kid who’s a star. What saddens me is that, as a result of the Home Alone phenomenon, all these other kids are trying to be Mac. I see parents pushing their kids in directions kids may not want to be pushed in. Kids were coming in [he mimes a precocious handshake and bow]: “Hello, Mr. Columbus! How are you?” And everything’s robotic and forced. Macaulay Culkin’s a star–the camera loves him. It’s stuff you hear in the ’30s movies– “The camera loves ya, kid!” So my theory is, unless these kids are supremely talented, and you know you have a star like Macaulay Culkin, I would never do it. As beautiful as I think my kids are, as incredibly talented as I think they are, I would do everything in my power to talk my daughter or son out of becoming an actress or actor.
Q: What is your relationship with John Hughes?
A: We relate over work–and we work well together. We’re very much in sync. John is an incredible writer and a great producer–ideal for me as a director, because he doesn’t interfere.
Q: Are you friends apart from your work?
A: We don’t have time. Any free time either of us has, we spend with our families. We’re particularly like-minded that way.
Q: On Home Alone 2 you had to compete with the volcano that erupted after the first Home Alone. What was the mandate you put over your desk when you sat down to hammer out what the film was going to be?
A: John and I talked about some ideas, then John went off and wrote, and spent five months, I think, working on the first draft. I wanted to make a better picture than the first picture, and I wanted to make a picture that would stand on its own. When John sent me the script I realized, had I not done the first Home Alone, I would have done this one, because it did stand on its own. It tapped into the fears and fantasies that made the first one so appealing to me. In the first one, it was just a kid left alone in a house. In this one, it’s a kid alone in a city. There are certainly a lot of references in the second film to the first film. I felt we owed a few things to the kids who’d seen the first one so many times. I keep hearing from parents who say their kids have seen the first one 10 and 15 times; that the tape never leaves the VCR. But if you haven’t seen the first one, it’s not like an inside joke that no one’s going to get.
Q: What are the specific things you wanted to do better?
A: I just wanted the film to look better, to feel its setting. I wanted to photograph New York City in a way I hadn’t seen done before. I spent 16 years in New York. I still live there, part time. And I have a real love affair with that city. I wanted to express that on film. I had to do it in a different way than Woody Allen did in Manhattan. This had to be more of a child’s view of New York.
Q: It’s interesting to note that Adventures in Babysitting is a movie that dealt with this theme. You were sharply criticized, then, for the way you dealt with the homeless and black people.
A: Home Alone won’t touch on those issues as dramatically. Those cries of “racism” directed at Adventures in Babysitting made me very angry. The “blues bar” scene, in particular, was heavily criticized. But all of the black actors from the picture called me up and said, “Chris, we’ll write a letter, we’ll do whatever you want. We support the picture. We believe strongly that that scene is real. It’s not racist in any sense.” I felt it was a scene about music. Kids listen to Simple Minds in the suburbs, and when they come here they’re being exposed to blues for the first time. You can’t argue that this scene was done with anything but love, for the music and the people.
Q: I thought the idea was that Elisabeth Shue gets up and sings the blues because, after the terrifying day she’s had, she’s earned the right.
A: Exactly. That was the epicenter of the movie to me. It’s one of my favorite scenes from any of the things I’ve done. My theory is that the suburbs are a cloistered, awful place to be. The critical attack was frustrating to me, but I felt at the time that it was better not to even deal with any of it. To just ignore it, and it will pass. And hopefully my future work will speak for itself.
Q: Let’s talk about one of your disappointments, Heartbreak Hotel, which you both wrote and directed.
A: I was always a big Elvis fan. That film was about me trying to convince America that Elvis was this great rock’n’roller, as opposed to this fat Las Vegas performer. We made what I felt was a very good two-hour, 50-minute movie. I wrote a long script, and it really should have been released at that length– it would have made a lot more sense. But we got caught up in the preview process of the studio, trying to make the picture a hit. I was too young at the time–it was only my second picture as a director. I should have realized that not a lot of people were going to see the picture anyway, just leave it as it was, because then it would have made a lot more sense, and been a much better picture. I saw it by accident three months ago, and there were pieces of it I loved. I have a cassette copy of that first cut, but I don’t think a restoration will ever happen. It was never enough of a popular or critical success to warrant that.
Q: Tell me about breaking out of Ohio.
A: When I was a kid, I was always obsessed with Marvel Comics. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita–all the great artists of that era. Those guys were my heroes. And I became obsessed with New York City; New York is where all those superheroes lived, New York is where Marvel was. So I had this dream of going to work for Marvel, from an early age. Then when I was in eighth or ninth grade, and starting to see more movies, I realized that by going to work for Marvel and drawing, I’d end up being in a room by myself all the time.
I really didn’t want to do that–I wanted to work with people. So film was a natural outlet. Film, again–those ’70s films– opened up a world to me that I’d never really seen before. I saw Greenwich Village in Serpico, I saw the New York of the ’50s in The Godfather, all these things that I was never aware of, and I had to go there. I became obsessed by New York and with filming. So I started making Super-8 films. Then I applied to New York University–it was the only place I applied to–and went there straight out of high school. I knew I had to get out of Ohio, because both my parents were factory workers. They were very supportive of my plans to be a filmmaker. I think it was our collective naivete–not knowing how tough it was out there. We were really sequestered away in that little town.
All the people we knew worked in factories. I could see that was exactly what was going to happen to me. You always hear these stories of parents saying, “You’ll never make it in the film business.” My parents were saying, “You’ve got to make it in the film business.” Psychologically, that’s always at the back of your mind: “Jesus, if I screw this up, I’m back there.”
Q: How has experience changed you, as you get older?
A: The biggest change in my life, apart from getting married, was having my first daughter. My daughter was born about eight weeks before I read the first Home Alone script. And that had a big impact on me also. I think everything coming together at once–the disaster of Heartbreak Hotel and the joy of the birth of my daughter Eleanor, and realizing that someday she’ll be sitting with a bunch of her friends at two in the morning and some film I’ve made will come on. I never want her to be embarrassed by that. This is taking root in the films I’m making now. I want to make sure that they’re always films that she doesn’t have to sit with her family and be embarrassed about, years from now.
Q: Critics–fairly or unfairly–attacked Only the Lonely for being too sentimental.
A: Only the Lonely would have been a much more serious film had I directed it before Home Alone. And I don’t think it would have been as interesting a film. I’ve always thought John Candy would be a great serious actor, and when you see the film, you’ll see that he does a great job. But there were a lot of times when I let him just improvise, and he comes up with great stuff.
Q: Did you originally see it as a vehicle for Candy?
A: No. It was written for an Italian family, because I knew that world. But I also know–since my wife’s Irish, and I’ve known her for 12 years now–I’ve known this great Irish group of people here in Chicago. And I’ve also known my father-in-law’s friends, who were two Irish bachelors who never got married. That whole world is fascinating to me. So I based it on a lot of people I knew in Chicago. It’s one of the films I’m most proud of, because people in this area are always coming up to me, especially now that it’s running on cable, and they say, “My God! That’s my family! That’s my brother up there!”
Q: What you’re saying touches on something I recall a director once saying about “The Over-21 Factor.” He feels comfortable working with any actor who he became aware of or excited by after he was 21. How did you cope with working with, say, Maureen O’Hara in Only the Lonely?
A: With respect to the “awe” factor, you just have to put yourself in their situation. It so happens that 40 years ago they were doing the exact same thing you’re doing. They were simply out there to make a great movie, or a good movie. With the passage of time, we’ve put these people up on pedestals when–really–they were just very professional people. That’s what’s really exciting to discover, working with older stars: These people are the most professional people in the world. I mean, they report to the set on time. They really study the script, they learn it cold. I’ve worked with a lot of actors who aren’t stars–supporting actors, who, because their egos are getting in the way, don’t know the lines when they come to the set, don’t come out of their trailers for a half hour. Anthony Quinn, Maureen O’Hara and Eddie Bracken in Home Alone 2–these people are always there.
Q: Why have such bad habits developed among newer actors?
A: I think they have too much power. I can never name names, but I had an actor in Home Alone 2 who was nixed from another movie because the star of that movie was a young kid who had just done a TV series–and he was nixed simply because that kid had “actor approval.” Now this guy in Home Alone 2 has done 20 years of film work. And this kid comes out of TV, and says, “No–I don’t want him. I want someone else.” And my actor was–not devastated, but he was hurt by that. To me, that power and attitude is absurd.
The director should be the person, first of all, who decides who’s in the picture or not. Another evil thing that happens on sets that I visit–I’ll see the actors all gathered around the playback on the video monitor. Now, that’s a tool you need, and which I use on certain performance days–mostly for stunt work. But what happens is, a lot of these actors gather around the video monitor and comment on their own performances, and tell the director what needs to be changed, and insist on another take or on what needs to be printed. That comes from actors who have this ridiculous amount of power on the set. It’s not that I have an enormous ego–it’s just that I know you have to make the film a certain way, and the actors have to trust you.
Q: Now that Home Alone 2 is put to bed, if you could wave a wand and just pick your next three pictures, what would they be?
A: I don’t know, and that’s the beauty of it. Because Home Alone did well, I’m reading a lot of great scripts with a lot of potential, but I want to find the script that I haven’t seen before, or that I can add a new twist to. Or that can bring me into a new line of comedy. Or take me into a new side of drama. Even in the area of special-effects movies–which I still have a fondness for–there remain new things you can do, as a result of breakthroughs that were unthinkable five years ago, but became the state of the art in Terminator 2.
Q: Are you a religious person?
A: Oh yeah. I’m Catholic–I go to church every Sunday. I have two children, and I want them to be raised in a traditional religious family setting, so they can make their own decisions. I don’t want to inflict my beliefs by hammering them over the head, and I also don’t want to cloud them with whatever doubts I have. I’m sure that some day, when my daughter goes to college, or my son goes to college, we’ll be having conversations about aspects of the Catholic religion that they don’t agree with, or don’t agree with. Those sorts of intellectual conversations are beside the point now. I think kids need some sort of basis. The people I’ve met in life who I respect the most are people who have had those traditional values– whether they’ve rejected them or not when they got older is irrelevant.
Q: Switch on any talk show, and you get an aria about the dysfunctional family. You strike me as rare in that your experience of family has been very affirming.
A: My most sincere belief is that families, no matter how screwed up they may be, are still–important. It’s better to be in a family than to be alone in the world. There was this great little thing on “Sesame Street” that my daughter watches every day. It went: “Anyone can be a family. You’re a family if you’re two siblings with a grandmother; you’re a family if you’re a father with a son, a mother with a daughter, or an uncle or an aunt with kids. Any two people can be a family. It’s always a family.” It’s tough for me to not be part of a family. When I met my wife, I was an only child and she had seven brothers and sisters. And to me it was like a great party all the time. There’s always something to do, there are always these great people to hang out with–and I loved it. That’s what’s kept me going, and some day when I have a little bit of objectivity, I’d like to write about that. I haven’t found a particular avenue to articulate that feeling yet.
Q: How did you come to be named Chris Columbus?
A: [Laughs] My dad had 12 kids in his family. Every time my grandmother would have a baby, my grandfather would go off and drink a little bit. She would be passed out after the baby was born, and he would come back in and sign the birth certificate. Every time, 12 times running, he would deliver the name “Christopher” or “Christine” to the doctor, hoping that would be the name. Grandmother, who hated the name, would always change it. So there were these 12 Italian kids who were not named Christopher Columbus. My father vowed then that his kid would get the name. [Laughing] And I’ve always been nervous about how that name would go down in Hollywood.
F.X. Feeney interviewed Richard Price for Movieline‘s October issue.