Chris Columbus may indeed be one of Hollywood’s most powerful and commercially successful directors, from Home Alone to the first two Harry Potter films. Yet he has endured much critical disdain. But all that may change as their is early buzz surrounding his cinematic take on the Broadway classic Rent. Always affable and in good humour, Columbus talked AIDS, music and the future of the Potter franchise to Garth Franklin in New York.
Question: How do you go from Harry Potter to AIDS and heroin addiction?
Columbus: It’s all part of the same, you know, it’s a big world out there. Honestly, as a director, you just have to, I honestly believe, at least for me, if I start doing the same thing over and over again, I’m going to get bored really quickly. I need a reason to get out of bed in the morning and go to work, and I’ve been waiting nine years to do this movie, so I was obsessed, and for various reason, I couldn’t do it. Other directors were attached to it, so for me, it was really important to to do this film. I was a like a racehorse at the starting gate, when I was finally told I could get this movie done.
Question: Was there any resistance at all from the family to get involved?
Columbus: I never sensed that resistance from the Larsons. Certainly, some people in the press were like ìThe guy who did Harry Potter and Home Alone is going to do this.î I’ve always been for some reason, because I’ve done films that dealt with the issue of family or thematically, they’ve kind of been linked, whether they were good films or bad films. ìHome Aloneî deals with a kid who doesn’t have a family. Harry Potter is a kid who’s searching for his family, and this is about a different type of family. So I’m always fascinated by those particular themes, but that’s a really extreme connection in a sense. I just felt tha I was the right guy to do this movie, and in an odd way, this movie’s more personal for me because I lived in Manhattan for 17 years. I lived in a loft. I knew all these people when I was struggling at NYU and I knew musicans and actors and artists and that was the world I knew.
Question: Did you catch a matinee of it and think that’s what I want to do?
Columbus: I saw it in 1996 with the original cast and I’d never really experienced that kind of emotion in a theatre before. It was just really emotionally powerful for me, and I went back about five days later, and saw it again, and I didn’t realize until I was casting the film..there were a few ways we could go. We could cast the film with entirely unknowns. We could cast the film
Question: What about Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguillera?
Columbus: That’s what I was going to say. There is the popstar version with Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguillera, Usher. I went so far as meeting Justin. He’s a terrific guyóanyway, I don’t know if you have ever met himóbut he’s actually a really kind of a sweet guy, but then I started to meet the original cast, and I realized the thing I responded to was the connection that they had, partially because of Jonathan Larson’s death. Jonathan, as you know, tragically died the night before the first preview. Well, that connected these people in a very strong way. There’s a deep intense connection when you’re doing that play for 16 months. They formed this really strong group and there’s a chemistry there that as a director, I had never seen before.
Question: Commonly stage actors don’t make necessarily make good film actors. How did you know that the original stage cast was going to work on film?
Columbus: I just met with them all, talked to them all, carefully considered whether or not they could still do it, and I realized that connection. I mean, these people originated these roles, so if you go see Rent now then you still see people and this is not to take anything away from the actors doing Rent but the guy who plays Mark is doing a bit of an Anthony Rapp impersonation. These roles are different from the roles in something like Les Mis or West Side Story, because these people actually really in a sense, it’s another side of them. The Jesse Martin you see in ìRentî is really close to the Jesse Martin I know, as opposed to the Jesse Martin from ìLaw & Orderî so I think these people are closer to these roles and that’s the way they were cast.
Question: How often did you have to tone them down because they’re not playing to the balcony here and you have cameras close up?
Columbus: There were a few times. Idina was the most concerned. She asked me ìMake sure my mouth doesn’t look too big when I’m singing.î So I was aware of that. The key was really..because I spoke to the original choreographer and she said that the choreography really shouldn’t look like choreography. In other words, it came from within these actors. It came from within their characters, and the only really traditionally choreographed number in the film is the fantasy sequence from ìTango Maureen.î Everything else should feel more naturalistic, but again, that took months and months of rehearsal.
Question: Did you do a rehearsal process?
Columbus: Yeah, a huge rehearsal process. Five or six months of choreography.
Question: Did you ever get a chance to spend time in New York’s Alphabet City during that era and can you talk about recreating that?
Columbus: Oh, yeah. Unfortunately, New York City’s become a little like Disneyland now. Having lived when you’re here for 17 years, I saw. It really was the line in the film ìI’m a New Yorker. Fear is my life.î That was our motto every day, but now, it’s gentrified. I mean, to recreate Alphabet City in the late ë80s was akin almost to doing a Western or something, because you go down there and there’s a Starbucks on every corner, wireless internet cafes, DVD stores. Things that just couldn’t exist. So we had to really carefully pick and choose our locations. And I wanted to shoot the entire picture here, but there’s also an ordinance in Manhattan that says you cannot do music playback after 10pm, because of all of the rock and roll videos that have been shot, and we got an extension til midnight on a Friday night to do one song ìGloryî on a rooftop. Other than that, I was confused, because I had no place to shoot the ìRentî number and we were forced to build that street on an L.A. backlot to shoot that particular number. We found some alleyways in Oakland. Recreating New York City in the ë80s was extremely difficult.
Question: But what about ìChicagoî. Was that the factor for finally getting the ball rolling? Columbus: I owe a great debt to ìChicagoî and probably ìMoulin Rougeî because people are now interested in making musicals again. And it’s a valid genre, and it was the most difficult aspect of ìChicagoî was originally some creative people around were saying ìWell, what device are you going to use in Rent to get these people sing because in Chicago, we went into her head to trigger the musical numbersî and they said ìYou can’t just have people singing on screenî and I was like ìBut people have been singing on screen since 1929 and the Jazz Singerî It’s a genre, it’s an artform. They said ìAudiences won’t accept it these days.î I was convinced that we can do it, if we created a realistic world, a world that felt like it was real, the songs would be acceptable, and that was the reason we really started the picture with ìSeasons of Love.î It was our way of saying ìThis is a musical. Everyone can sit back, relax. People are going to be singing for the next two hours.î
Question: Why is the time right for this movie now? Why do the themes resonate now and are they as pronounced now as they were when the play first ran?
Columbus: Oh, without a doubt. There were some studios that didn’t want to make the movie. Thankfully, Joe Roth and Revolution loved the play, loved the music, loved the script and agreed to make the film, but the people who didn’t want to make the film said ìOh, it’s dated. AIDS is no longer an issue.î And I was horrified, because I said to them ìAIDS is a global epidemic. AIDS is much worse of a situation than it’s ever been.î We, as a country, have taken a huge step backwards since 1989 when this play was written and we need to see a film about acceptance and tolerance atnd particularly diversity. We’re ignoring that and we’ve become a little too isolated for our own good, so that’s why I think the time is right.
Question: Can you talk about getting Green Day producer Rob Cavallo to produce the music?
Columbus: Well, as much as I love the music from the show, and the Broadway Cast Album was kind of the soundtrack to my life for nine years, so I was listening to it constantly. I was a huge fan of it, but I always thought, and the actors would always tell me this. The Broadway Cast Album was recorded in three days and they were doing the show at the same time, so they all had a lot of technical problems with it and I also felt that it leans slightly a little too far to the Broadway side of it, and I thought that it could be closer to a really strong rock ën’ roll record. I picked up the Green Day record the day it came out, because I’m an obsessive music fan, so I heard that record and I thought this is one of the best sounding rock records I’ve heard in the last 10 years, so I saw Rob’s name and I arranged a meeting, and I asked if he’d be interested in doing the film, and he decided to do it. It really stemmed from two numbers. I was not happy with the quality of the Broadway Cast Album of ìRentî and ìOut Tonightî, two really strong rock ën’ roll songs that I felt could have much stronger power and that’s what Rob brought to it.
Question: What about the various cuts from the show what about ìApril’s Suicideî? Isn’t that like a major part of the story?
Columbus: ìApril’s Suicideî was shot. It just didn’t fit into the montage sequence. Well, actually I talked about it with the writer a lot and I wanted to be a little more ambiguous about how April died.
Question: And Halloween and Contact cause they were on the CD?
Columbus: Yeah, those were late cuts and ìContactî was an early cut, that’s why it didn’t make the CD, but ìContactî was a number that we had choreographed it and rehearsed it for about three or four months but wasn’t recorded because of pacing. I felt that it would slow the film down, so we didn’t shoot that, but ìGoodbye Loveî actually, when I watched the first cut of the film and I watched it over and over and over. I would get to the point after Angel’s funeral, after the cemetery sequence where ìGoodbye Loveî happens and I would find myself emotionally shutting down. I didn’t want anymore emotion. As an audience member, I couldn’t handle it, and it really, really hurt the end of the film. In a theatre, remember, you have some distance from the actors, so a theatre, you accept ìGoodbye Loveî in the theatre. On film, it just was too much, so I had to cut it. The minute I cut it, the film worked. It felt like you could accept the end of the film now. But I won’t put it back into the bulk of the film (for the DVD) because I do really feel that it hurts the pacing. It will be a deleted scene (on the DVD). I just honestly because of the language of cinema, the use of close-ups, the fact that you’re in these characters’ heads and you’re much closer to them, I just felt that the ??? levels was too much. You’ll see it when you see it.
Question: How much do you worry about the Rentheads who disagree with your opinion on that that the play is the Holy Grail?
Columbus: That’s fine. They can feel that way. I can only say that I’ve seen it and maybe we’ll give them an alternate, but I really do feel that it’s almost tilts it. Again, you learn over the years there’s a very fine line between what works and what doesn’t work, and it felt slightly melodramatic to me to have that argument in the film.
Question: And you’re used to working with hardcover fans anyway .
Columbus: I was going to say that Harry Potter truly. was like an exorcism for me, because by the time we got to the third movie, we realized let’s concentrate on making the film and let’s just forget about people talking and listening to the fans so much ëcause being that faithful has its drawbacks. I would get letters.. 1,000 letters from kids telling me to make the movies longer and 1,000 letters from parents telling me to make the movies shorter, so I just realized, stop listening to people and work on the film. When we got to the third film, we realized [that we should] just think about the film and I think that philosophy continued in Goblet of Fire, but it certainly inspired me, so I thought to myself, I gotta think about the film first and believe me, when I tell you, the film didn’t work with ìGoodbye Loveî. It just didn’t. It’s a much better film because of that
Question: This is getting a wide release, rather than a platform. Is Rent too gay for mainstream America?
Columbus: As I said earlier, I think people need to see this movie. They have to understand that people have to be a lot more accepting and a lot more tolerant. Maybe it’s just incredibly naÔve I think the fact that the picture was given an R-rating originally, and the MPAA gave me a list of things to cut, and they gave me 5 to 7 language issues and they gave me a list of 30 picture edits they wanted me to change. I talked to the studio, and they said ìNo, you don’t have to cut anything. PG-13 would be amazing for us, because everyone would see the film. Just do what you feel you need to do.î So I made five language cuts and I didn’t touch the film, the picture, at all, and they came back and gave us a PG-13. And they said that they felt the film was strong enough that ages 13 to 17 needed to see this film, and I was actually impressed that a conservative group like the MPAA gave us a PG-13. Now that may have its drawbacks, you know. If you’re going to be taking grandma and little Joey to see ìRentî on Thanksgiving, they might not know what to expect, but it’s okay to shake people up a little bit, I think. I think it’s important that people wake up and see this. They have the opportunity to walk out and get their money back if they have a problem with it.
Question: Do you think the perception has finally changed in this love/hate relationship you have with the critics?
Columbus: I don’t know. I really have no idea. I just know that I have to try to become a better director as I get older and as you get older, you become a little more mature. Maybe I’ve been maturing at a later rate mentally, I don’t know. I just believe that I have to make movies that I’m excited about and obviously, when you wait nine years to do something and you’re passionate about the themes, you change as a person. You know, I am really passionate about the themes of this film. I think it’s important for people to see this film, and I don’t know if I could ever go back and do some of the pictures I did in the past at this point in my life.
Question: You have a lot of projects in various stages. Can you talk about some of them such as Sub-Mariner? Which one are you doing next?
Columbus: I’m not doing Sub-Mariner. I have no idea. I really..I’m not lying when people ask me what are you doing next? I just don’t know. I am so if I have to take this film under my arm and tell people about it, I’ll do it. I really can’t think about anything else.
Question: Would you go back to Harry Potter again?
Columbus: I love the 5th book. I love that book, but I don’t think I can get back I can’t move my entire circus of a family back to England. It would be too difficult.
Question: Because of the collaboration of all these actors who were in the original play, did they get more input than the average actor would?
Columbus: Well, not more. I tend to be collaborative, and if I think that the actor’s intelligent then I value their opinion and I happen to be blessed with 8 really smart actors who originated these roles so yeah, it was a very collaborative set. Most of the intense discussions revolved around choreography and how we wanted to make, we wanted it to appear–with the exception of ìTango Maureenîówas that there was a lack of choreography. But in doing that, it’s like when you’re making a rock record that you want to sound live, it takes a lot of rehearsal. You can’t just go into the studio and record it, and have it sound raw and live, you have to actually be even more prepared to make it sound or look improvised.
Question: At the end of the day, what do you think Jonathan Larson would think of the film?
Columbus: I hope he’d be happy. We probably would have for someone who said..and Anthony will tell you about it I think Jonathan used to introduce himself as ëthe future of American theatre’ so he sounds like he had a pretty healthy ego and was very confident and I think he would have loved it. It’s in his spirit.