Director Chris Columbus has written the seminal likes of The Goonies and directed some of Hollywood’s big hits from Home Alone to the first two “Harry Potter” films. He made his directorial debut helming “Adventures in Babysitting” and returns to the teen genre with “I Love You Beth Cooper” based on the popular novel.
In this far reaching discussion, the director talks about the film, reflects on the Potter franchise he helped cinematically create, and talks about his next venture, “Percy Jackson & The Olympians”, which could be another big franchise in the making.
Question: What was the interest in directing a movie like this?
Columbus: You have to go back to “Adventures in Babysitting”. That’s where you’ve got to start. For me, the reason I did this movie was that I was in a situation where you have big budgets, like with the Harry Potter movie, and you tend to work at a slightly slower pace, and you become spoiled and a little soft, and I thought, I need to reinvigorate the process of filmmaking. I wanted to go back to that, and I said to myself, If I were getting out of film school right now and I was starting to direct my first movie, what would I do? And, I went back and looked at the movies I had written — Gremlins and Goonies — and then I looked at the first movie I directed, which was Adventures in Babysitting, and this had been sitting in our office as a book, and Hayden was attached to it, and I thought, Well, this could be a companion piece to Adventures in Babysitting. This gave me an opportunity to do a movie on a lower budget, fairly quickly, with a brand new cast, and try to recreate that energy for a filmmaker, like myself, who’s been given a lot of money to make movies.
Question: Was this also easier because you didn’t have to worry about expectations, like you would with Harry Potter or Rent?
Columbus: But, I worried about the schedule because the schedule was back-breaking. In a weird way, there was actually more pressure. On Harry Potter, if you didn’t finish a scene, the Great Hall would be standing there for the next seven years. In this movie, we just had to move on. If we had a blizzard, I had to rewrite on the spot and lose a scene. There was no chance of going back, and that was exciting.
Question: Were you interested in this material because of your own high school experience?
Columbus: I was a complete combination of these two guys. I was Denis Cooverman and Rich Munsch because I just was a freak in high school. I was a guy who, literally, was in love with movies, in a town that was a factory town. I would see movies all weekend and imitate the characters, and didn’t make a lot of friends.
Question: Were you hopelessly in love with a girl in high school?
Columbus: I was hopelessly in love with probably 7 or 8 different girls, who all said no. But, that sense of putting them all on a pedestal and not really knowing who they were was a big problem.
Question: Can you talk about working with Hayden? What made her right for the role?
Columbus: She was attached to the project, and it was the first time in my career where I was going to make a film that someone was already attached to. So, I thought, I’ll meet her and, if she’s a complete flake, I may have to recast. But, I was very taken with her because she’s very bright and has a great sense of comic timing, which I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t know from her work on Heroes whether she was capable of going a little deeper. The thing that fascinated me about this character is that Beth Cooper has had the most amazing four years of her life and, once she hits graduation and the clouds dissipate, her life is on a bit of a decline and she’s going to be going into a fairly ordinary, mundane life. Denis Cooverman, on the other hand, has had the four worst years of his life and, after this graduation, things are going to start to look up for him. I was interested in how those two characters would intersect and, when they came together, I needed an actress who had an emotional core, who could get to that point where you see in her face that she realizes that things are not going to be going great for her and her life is going to be more ordinary, and Hayden was able to get there.
Question: Was there anything that surprised you about working with Hayden?
Columbus: I think I was most surprised by her willingness. She was game to do just about anything. It was interesting that she felt very comfortable doing the locker room scene, and I was shocked by that. I kept most of the creepy crew members to the back of the set. The older, creepier guys, who were just sneaking in to get a peek were kept at a distance. Honestly, I was really surprised by her comedic timing. Paul Rust had been studying and doing comedy for years, but I never really associated Hayden with doing comedy, and she was really spot-on, in terms of her timing, which is a very difficult thing.
Question: Why do you think she was so comfortable with doing the nude scene in the locker room? Why didn’t you use a body double?
Columbus: She wanted to do it.
Question: How involved with Hayden get with the stunts?
Columbus: She did some of the stunts, but she didn’t do many of the dangerous stunts herself. She drove a couple of times. She didn’t do that many of the stunts. She had to drive into a scene or out of a scene, but a 4-year-old could have done that. She didn’t have to do anything intense. She really did not do any of the more serious stunt work.
Question: Did you have to work around Hayden’s schedule with Heroes?
Columbus: She was pretty free. We shot in her hiatus period, so we didn’t have to worry about that. There was no scheduling issue at all. One time, we needed her and she had to do some sort of Heroes promotion, but it never was a huge issue.
Question: How did you find the girls who played Hayden’s two friends?
Columbus: Just through casting. Lauren London is an actress I liked, in a movie called This Christmas. It’s usually movies that I’ve seen. And, I saw Lauren Storm in The Game Plan, as this crazed babysitter. She was only in the movie for like four minutes, but she made an impression on me, and then when I met her in person, I thought she was perfect. They were great. Lauren is a very skinny little girl, and I had to make her eat a lot of Twinkies and donuts and things, to get her to gain weight. It was a tough job.
Question: Paul Rust is not an obvious choice for the leading man in a film?
Columbus: No, and there were a lot of issues. Our executive at Fox really was supportive of my decision because Paul is, to say the least, a unique-looking guy. I really felt that the challenge was to take a guy like that and make it believable that he could have some sort of emotional connection with a girl who looks like Hayden. That was the excitement for me. It’s a little bit of Cyrano in there. I wanted to go for a guy you could believe would have had a miserable high school experience. Paul Rust’s face says it all to me. Just one look at him and I thought, Oh, yeah.
Question: There is talk of remakes and sequels of some of your earlier work. Are you involved with any of those things? Would you want to revisit any of your earlier work?
Columbus: Not at this point. The Goonies thing is fun. I’ve always kind of liked the movie, but now it’s become a weird, cult-ish thing among 21- to 26-year-olds. They really like that movie. I thought it was okay when it came out, but these kids are wearing the shirts and that’s the movie they want to talk about, more than any other movie.
Question: Not Home Alone?
Columbus: Not yet, but maybe those kids are just going into college now.
Question: Why such a long break between movies for you?
Columbus: Rent was in 2005, and that was part of the reason I jumped into this. So, I jumped into it, and then realized I was going to do Percy Jackson immediately afterwards. There won’t be a longer break anymore, as far as I’m concerned.
Question: What can you say about Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief?
Columbus: We have a tremendous cast. We just finished shooting Uma Thurman as Medusa, with Pierce Brosnan as Chiron. And, this kid from 3:10 to Yuma, Logan Lerman is Percy Jackson. I believe he’s going to be one of the great leading men. I really do. I don’t say that often, but I think he’s really an amazing kid. He’s got a sense of reality about him and a sense of real intensity that I haven’t seen in many 17-year-olds.
Question: What interested you in that project?
Columbus: I’m like a little kid, really. I love to see movies where I haven’t seen things before, and I haven’t seen the world of Greek mythology done really well, on screen. It’s always those cheesy stop-motion monsters, so I really wanted to do them in a much more interesting way.
Question: How are you achieving that?
Columbus: Really fine CGI work. We have Uma Thurman playing Medusa, but she’s wearing those things on her head. We’re putting several snakes in her hair that move, and move with the performance. It’s really interesting.
Question: Are you staying true to the books, to set it up for sequels?
Columbus: Yeah, but there’s a bit of a sense of liberation with Percy Jackson because we’re changing the books. I wouldn’t say significantly, but we’re able to change them a little bit.
Question: Are you worried that will upset fans of the books?
Columbus: I’m not worried. I think they’ll be excited. I’m really excited about the movie. I think we’ve made some of the right choices. A couple of the other books are going to be a bigger challenge, but I think they’ll be real happy with this one.
Question: Will you be involved with further films?
Columbus: I hope so. We have a good cast and I love this world. It’s really exciting.
Question: Do you still regret not having done more Harry Potter films?
Columbus: No, I don’t have any regrets. The only regret I have is mostly emotional. I see those kids on screen and it’s like seeing part of your family on screen. They’re aging before my eyes. And, you see all the sets that we built and all the actors that we cast, and it’s very surreal because it’s an entire world that I put together, yet I’m not part of anymore. So, that part of it is a little melancholy, but I don’t want to go back. Not now.
Question: What do you think of the latest movies?
Columbus: I like them all. I really do. I really like Goblet of Fire a lot. I haven’t seen the new one yet. It was weird to see them because it was like we had set into pattern how those seven movies were going to be made, with the exception of the seventh book being split into two movies. We talked about splitting the fourth book into two movies because the fourth book was huge in length. My initial shock was, Oh, my God, Tom Felton looks so old, or the kids are so good now.
Question: Has Percy Jackson got any similarities at all?
Columbus: The book does. So, we’ve tried to remove those similarities.
Question: Do you have a favorite kind of film to make?
Columbus: I honestly just want to try different types of films. We’re in a very scary situation right now because we’re in an economic disaster area, and yet movies are doing okay, but it’s these gigantic movies, like Transformers. Are those small movies going to continue to get made? That’s what we have to hope for.
Question: Do you want to continue doing small movies, rather than $200 million movies?
Columbus: I think it’s so much fun to do these kind of movies, whether they’re dramas, comedies or whatever. They’re fun to do because, in terms of the cost, there is a relative lack of pressure. In terms of making them, it’s intense, but I think it’s great. I just think it’s great that they can still be made. I don’t know how we exist in the world of Transformers. It’s odd that this little movie is going to open five days before Harry Potter. Talk about an odd situation for me.
Question: What was the budget on Beth Cooper?
Columbus: $18 million.
Question: How could you do that?
Question: Is it weird then to go from this to Percy Jackson?
Columbus: Yeah. Our second unit crew on Beth Cooper were like ex-cons. It was a little scary. I’d go to the second unit and fear for my life. They had prison tattoos. It was scary. That’s how you do it. We’re not hiring children from foreign countries and exploiting them, but at one point, I thought we had convicts working for us. I really didn’t know. It was weird.
Question: Does Canada have a work-release program from ex-cons on movie productions?
Columbus: That was my sick sense of humor. If this gets out, the crew is going to kill me. Just give me three weeks. I’m in Canada for three more weeks. This was the second unit, not the first unit. There were no convicts in the first unit. I did see one prison tattoo. But, our Percy Jackson crew has no convicts.
Question: Does it make it easier that the demand for the box office for Beth Cooper isn’t the same as Transformers?
Columbus: No, we can make a couple million dollars and we’re fine. It was just so much fun to make and there’s very little stress with the release of this movie because of that. You want it to do well, but you hope people will discover it. You still hope that there’s a section of moviegoers out there, who are willing to discover something. With Borat, the movie was released in a select number of theaters, so everybody was fighting to get it and that created this communal experience where the theater was filled, which worked great for a comedy. Now, when movies open in 4,000 theaters, it’s very difficult. I go to the movies every weekend.
Question: What do you like to see?
Columbus: I see what my kids take me to see, and then I’ll catch up on my own choices — the more dramatic, adult pictures — on DVD. I go where my kids want to take me. I have a 17-year-old, so I get to go to R-rated movies, which is fantastic. I’ve waited 15 years to get to go back to an R-rated movie, so it’s just great.
Question: What’s the best one you’ve seen so far this year?
Columbus: I saw The Hangover with my son. We snuck out of the house and said, Let’s go see The Hangover.
Question: As a filmmaker, have you been excited to see your films come out on Blu-ray?
Columbus: Yeah, but I don’t revisit my movies. I don’t want to waste time watching my own stuff. I’ll check the transfer, if they ask me to. With some of the older films, they won’t even get in contact with you. They just show up. Home Alone just showed up. Certain movies, you really want to see on Blu-ray. I’d like to see Harry Potter on Blu-ray.
Question: Are you involved with the DVD for Beth Cooper?
Columbus: I’m involved with the DVD because there’s a big alternate ending in this movie. It’s just from the book. In the book, Kevin, her army friend, comes back. We had two successful screenings with the towel sequence when Rich defeats the guys, so at that point, the audience said, Those guys are gone. Kevin is defeated. It was a high point for the audience. When I brought them back later in the picture, the audience, at that point, wanted to invest themselves in the romance and the love story, and they did not want to see that guy again.
Question: Is there an unrated version for the DVD?
Columbus: Yeah, it will be an unrated version. Language will be pushed intensely.
Question: Is the book very different from the movie?
Columbus: The book is a little bluer, and you’re in Denis’ head. Without narration, that’s something you couldn’t really accomplish in the movie. There were funny things that we just couldn’t accomplish because it’s what he’s thinking.
Question: Did you ask the cast to read the book, in preparation?
Columbus: Because the book doesn’t really go into a lot of their history, I asked the cast to write as many pages as they wanted to about their character’s past, which was really fascinating to me. Paul wrote a very small, detailed one page. Jack Carpenter, who played Richard Munsch, wrote about 18 pages of his past. Hayden wrote a page for me. They were all very, very bright kids and all wrote about exactly where they grew up. Shawn Roberts, who played Kevin, never turned his in. He’s the one guy who didn’t turn his in.
Question: What did Hayden write about?
Columbus: She wrote less about her past and more about her future and what it meant. Basically, she thought she would go to a small community college for about a year, fall in love with someone, get married early, he would be unemployed and they would have two kids together. It was a pretty sad future that she wrote for herself.
Question: What are you doing after Percy Jackson?
Columbus: I have no idea. We have to get Percy Jackson out by February of next year.
Question: Will you take Percy Jackson to Comic-Con?
Columbus: I’d love to, but Comic-Con is in July and we don’t have our visual effects finished. When people see the visual effects, I want them to really be blown away by them and they’re not complete yet. They’re just not ready to show.
Question: What studio is that?
Columbus: It’s Fox.
Question: Is that your home studio?
Columbus: Now. It used to be Warner Bros. Now it’s Fox. We’ll see. They’ve been good though.
Question: Did collaborating with Fox make the Star Wars references in Beth Cooper any easier?
Columbus: No, I still had to get in touch with George Lucas. Thank God we live in the same part of the world. It’s all George’s world, so we had to remove the Star Wars references. When there’s a flashback with them watching Robin Hood, they were originally watching Star Wars and talking about light sabers, and Fox didn’t want to go to him with that. They said, George may not be up for the boners/light sabers reference, so let’s see if you can change it and you may get to use it later in the film. I really thought the polycarbonate blade line was funny and I wanted to keep that in the movie, so I changed it to The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Question: You do show some examples of recklessness in this film, but isn’t that part of the learning experience for teenagers?
Columbus: I think it is, but you draw a fine line as to whether it’s good or bad. Ironically, if you look at the film carefully, they’re never drinking and driving, so that’s good. They might be drunk, but it’s PG-13. I’m not advocating it, but having teenagers of my own, I couldn’t deny that it’s something that goes on. But, I certainly don’t want to advocate that. That would be horrible. I think the most reckless thing in the movie, which scares me, is turning off the headlights and driving. That, to me, is just insane, but it’s funny and it worked, comedically, for that particular scene in the movie. It’s a sense of not being a hypocrite, in terms of remembering what my teenage years were like, which were very similar to this, in terms of me being a nerd and not being able to ask any girls out.
Question: How did you figure out the mechanics of getting in and out of the flashbacks?
Columbus: That was easy. That was fairly simple. I was more concerned about the look of the flashbacks. We talked about whether or not we’d make them in black and white or sepia, or something like that, but in the end, we decided not to. I just thought that snapping in and out of them, as opposed to dissolving, was probably the best way to do it.