Alec Baldwin: I'm Alec Baldwin and this is Here's The Thing from WNYC Radio. My guest today, Chris Columbus, has brought to the screen some of the biggest American family films in the last 20 years: Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire. He also produced and directed the first two Harry Potter films and produced the third as well.
I've known Chris for a long time. We were in school together at NYU.
Chris Columbus: I lived at – I started at Weinstein and then moved to Rubin.
Alec Baldwin: You were in Rubin.
Chris Columbus: I was in Rubin, and I think that's where we met.
Alec Baldwin: Because I was in Rubin.
Chris Columbus: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: For Columbus, NYU was more than just a place to learn the craft he loved.
Chris Columbus: Film school for me was the only – it was sort of the only way out, you know? I grew up in a – both of my parents were factory workers in Ohio. My future was basically working at either my father's aluminum factory or my mother's automotive factory.
Alec Baldwin: Literally.
Chris Columbus: They didn't own them, I'd just be working. And –
Alec Baldwin: Because if they did, you could own them now.
Chris Columbus: I could own them now.
Alec Baldwin: So you made a bad decision.
Chris Columbus: I did, although I don't think there's much work there. But at the time that was it, you know, and the only escape really, for me, were movies.
Alec Baldwin: What were movies to you then? There was no DVD. There was no cable television.
Chris Columbus: No.
Alec Baldwin: How did you?
Chris Columbus: Movies were either the CBS late-night movie – I would sneak out of bed and watch the late-night movie on CBS at 11:30.
Alec Baldwin: The late show.
Chris Columbus: And just stay in the movie theaters on the weekend. There were only two theaters. Two films. Two separate theaters. There was no multiplexes back then. I would watch whatever film came into town over and over. I remember something clicked when I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Something really – and I watched it three times, and I just was amazed by the movie. I didn't – at the time there's no understanding, there's no idea, nobody knew about film schools. Nobody knew that you could actually go to school and learn how to become a – I didn't even know what a director was. So I put my energy into illustrating and writing comic books.
I thought – I still didn't understand the film concept, but I started to draw Spiderman comics, Thor comics, Hulk comics. I wanted a job at Marvel – in the Marvel universe.
Alec Baldwin: Did you think about that seriously?
Chris Columbus: That was my goal. I still loved movies, but I didn't understand how to get in.
Alec Baldwin: It seemed inaccessible.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, completely inaccessible.
Alec Baldwin: I felt the same way.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, and so the comic books, and all of the – this is very naïve of me, but all the comic book superheroes lived in New York City, so this was this magical place for me as a kid, because I'm drawing New York City all the time. And I realized I was spending about eight to 12 hours alone a day and I – I wanted to work with people. I wanted to be with people.
Alec Baldwin: What did your parents think about that?
Chris Columbus: They thought I could go to art school at like Kent State or something. You know, that I could go to art school and I could draw these comics and that's fine. Then I saw The Godfather. The Godfather was rereleased in 1974, I think, and rereleased and then the next movie I saw was Blazing Saddles. I saw those two movies. Changed my life – both ends of the spectrum. I realized with Blazing Saddles, the possibilities of what you could do with film were endless. And TIME magazine came out with a one-page article about film schools. I'd never heard of film school. I didn't know what this could possibly be.
I read about Martin Scorsese and I read about Francis Ford Coppola and I read about USC and UCLA and NYU, and I said to my parents, 'This is what I want to do.'
Alec Baldwin: What did they say?
Chris Columbus: They were extraordinarily supportive.
Alec Baldwin: They were?
Chris Columbus: They were amazingly supportive. Every other relative in my family was not supportive. They said, 'Oh, you're gonna be back here in two years. You can't handle New York City.'
Alec Baldwin: 'You're insane.'
Chris Columbus: And it just was more fire. It was just – I was like, 'Fuck you. I'm doing it.' I got to New York and I remember my father drove me up to Weinstein and he looked at the city and looked at the dorm and he said, 'Let's go home. I'll drive you back home now.' I said, 'No way.' No way. I was in – I was literally in Oz.
Alec Baldwin: Weinstein does look like the library at a community college in the Soviet Union.
Chris Columbus: Right. Exactly. It's the worst.
Alec Baldwin: It's a very undistinguished building.
Chris Columbus: But I immediately fell in love with the city and I knew that I had no choice but to succeed. I had to find a way to succeed or I would be back in the middle of Ohio working in an aluminum factory, and that's hideous.
Alec Baldwin: So you get there. Had you ever touched any film equipment before?
Chris Columbus: Yeah, a Super – my parents did buy me a Super 8 sound camera, which enabled me to start to make films, actually. I made a 20-minute film for my theology class, because I went to a very strict Catholic school. So it was a theology class that was dealing with social issues, so we made a film about abortion, vasectomies, and I was very inspired at the time by – remember, SNL had just –
Alec Baldwin: This is 19 what?
Chris Columbus: 1976. SNL had just come – you know, we would spend our Saturday nights watching Saturday Night Live. So I was doing these basically commercial parodies that I'd – versions that I'd seen on SNL. And I screened it for the class. The class loved it, the priest was horrified.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah.
Chris Columbus: And what happened is, the feeling of showing that movie and hearing those – all of those kids laughing in this small Ohio town, really – really hit me. I mean I – it's an addictive feeling. You know what it's like being on stage, well showing your film and having people respond to it became very addictive. So that fueled my desire to get there as well.
Alec Baldwin: What did your parents say about all your politically-incorrect film making?
Chris Columbus: It was very dark stuff back then, you know, it was –
Alec Baldwin: What did they say?
Chris Columbus: They – you know, my mother went with it. My father didn't really want to have much to do with it. He figured okay. My father – most of the time my father was under a car repairing it in the garage when he wasn't working or having a beer. So I –
Alec Baldwin: 'As long as he's not on the streets.'
Chris Columbus: Exactly. That was my parents.
Alec Baldwin: 'As long as he's not taking drugs.'
Chris Columbus: That's true. And that – that actually, you know my mother was very supportive. My mother was probably much more supportive than my father about what I wanted to do and she had – she shared sort of that dark sense of humor that I had as well. So she supported those movies and she watched – I used to watch SNL with her. She loved it.
Alec Baldwin: So you get to Weinstein, you have a Super 8 sound camera when you get to Weinstein, and what are the first recollections you have of that when you get there to go to NYU?
Chris Columbus: Honestly NYU, the night I got there – the drinking age was 18 – sponsored a bar tour. Can you imagine them doing that these days?
Alec Baldwin: Sure.
Chris Columbus: Eight to 10 bars in the East Village. They would take a group of freshmen and go to each bar.
Alec Baldwin: Chumley's.
Chris Columbus: Chumley's, McSorley's, and that's where I met my best friends and that's where I met my future producing partner, Michael Barnathan. We met that first night –
Alec Baldwin: Bar night.
Chris Columbus: And yeah, I mean the lawsuits are ridiculous. And we met and we hit it off and there was this – I mean you know what it's like. You go into this community of everyone who shares your deepest love of something like film, and you have someone to talk to about it. I had no one to talk to about it in Ohio. You know, I was this –
Alec Baldwin: Everyone's come there from the aluminum factory.
Chris Columbus: Finally I was able to have arguments and discussions. And we would get these – into – you remember these intense, impassioned discussions about directors, you know, and Frank Capra – was he really great or was he, you know, was he much more of a populist director? You get into these fantastic discussions that didn't exist for me in Ohio. So I was in – it was like Christmas morning every day at NYU.
Alec Baldwin: So when you go to film school, did you go there and when you started to become awash in all that process, did you love it and you ate it up and you said, 'More, more, more.' You loved the technical.
Chris Columbus: No, actually I don't. I mean the technical side of it, I have very little interest in it. I want to know as much as I need to know so I can go onto a set and block a scene with actors, but I'm much more – and I've always been this way. I'm much more interested in connecting with the actors on a set because what I've seen as a producer over the years – I saw it as a writer when I was just starting out – directors, a lot of directors, tend to be afraid of actors, which I – it drives me insane. I cannot understand –
Alec Baldwin: Well they're suspicious of actors.
Chris Columbus: They're suspicious of actors. They don't want to discuss – you know, it's this whole thing well if an actor has a question, is he challenging– I love that. I love that back and forth, that discussion.
I thought it was kind of cool in the Apocalypse Now documentary when Brando and Coppola were sitting there for six days discussing – discussing his character. I love that about actors, so I'm much more drawn to working with the actors than I am working, you know, figuring out what lens I need to use.
I know what I want the film to look like, I know how I want it to feel, but I don't need to know the numbers. I just want to make sure that when I get on that set, those actors and I, that we trust each other no matter what kind of film it is.
Alec Baldwin: So there must be moments though, that when you're sitting there on the set of a Harry Potter film and Roger Deakins, who's one of the greatest cinematographers of his generation is there, and do you sit there and say, 'What do you think, Roger? What lens?' You defer to him about all the cinematography or do you sometimes sit there and go, 'No, no, I think it's this.' You must have an opinion.
Chris Columbus: Oh, completely. It's not like I – completely. In other words, I –
Alec Baldwin: You don't abdicate all that to somebody.
Chris Columbus: No, no. I – I do my homework. I storyboard everything. I do my own shot list in the morning. I know exactly if I'm wanna use a crane or a dolly or a – and I also don't – there's the other side of me where I've seen directors who only want to deal with the actors and don't want to block the scene and leave that all up to the cinematographer.
I'm sure you've seen that as well. But I – and I'm not interested in that. I want to have the control, certainly, of the visual look of the film, but I don't need to get – again, I don't need to say, 'I want a 40 here.' That means nothing to me.
What means something to me is to look through the camera and know if I've got it right. But it's much – as I said, it's much more important – the writing is extraordinarily important to me and the connection with the actors and the crew as well. I never wanted to have a career – I've seen a lot of directors work and there's no connection with people and I hate that.
I just hate that sort of – those directors who sort of build a wall up around them. Maybe – maybe it works for them. I'm sure it works for some of them, but for me it's a matter of connecting with almost every person on that set so when I leave the set, they all feel that they've had a great day.
I know it's a weird thing to say, but it's very important to me that the smallest, the person who has the smallest job on the set feels as if he's – he or she – has contributed something that day, you know.
Alec Baldwin: And then when you left NYU, what did you do?
Chris Columbus: I left NYU. I had actually – I was lucky enough. I had –
Alec Baldwin: 1980.
Chris Columbus: 1980 I left, but in '78 I had written – something interesting happened that I had a scholarship. I had this great scholarship that got me through NYU the first year. And my mother would call me. Remember we had those payphones at the end of our dorm hallways. No cell phones. So every Sunday I would go to the pay phone and call home and my mother would say, 'Chris, don't forget to go to the bursar's office and sign' – I had to sign some papers so I would renew my scholarship. And I would say, 'Mom, no problem.' I'd forget. I'd be doing something. That went on for six weeks.
The seventh week I called, she was screaming at me. She said, 'You lost the scholarship.' I said, 'Oh, Christ, I lost the scholarship?' She goes, 'This summer you're gonna have to work at the aluminum factory.' So I went back to Ohio.
Alec Baldwin: Oh no. Chris Columbus: And I was working basically swing shift. I would work day shifts, afternoon shifts and night shifts.
Alec Baldwin: This is after your first year.
Chris Columbus: My first year. Alec Baldwin: Did your mother make you a little necklace with a little piece of aluminum on it you'd carry around your neck after that?
Chris Columbus: In the shape of a crucifix, right.
Alec Baldwin: She wrote, “Don't fuck up on it again.”
Chris Columbus: Oh, God. So anyway, I realized if I was on the night shift I could read, so that first year I would just read novels for eight hours. I had to do it again after my sophomore year. So I went back my sophomore year and I realized if I could get on the night shift for the entire summer, I could write a screenplay.
So what I did is I remember these gigantic, hulking cylinders of aluminum. And I would sneak behind the aluminum cores and sit there with a notepad and I wrote my first screenplay, a screenplay called Jocks about high school football – my experiences with high school football. I was a terrible football player, but I, you know, it was a very personal story.
Alec Baldwin: You suited up.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, I suited up. And I brought that back to my writing teacher, a guy named Jesse Kornbluth, who gave it to his agent. And his agent was a guy named Ron Bernstein, who still works in New York, and Bernstein took me on as a client my junior year. A producer who's since passed away, Steve Friedman, optioned it for five grand.
Alec Baldwin: So your professional career, which began as a writer – as a screenwriter –
Chris Columbus: Right.
Alec Baldwin: Was leveraged by Kornbluth, who was your teacher at NYU.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. That five grand prevented me from ever having to go back to the aluminum factory. So that was my junior year, and then my senior year I decided to not write, because I was getting writing offers, which was great, you know, but I was in college and I wanted to take that time to do my senior film – my senior thesis. So I did a senior film that year, and then when I was out, you know, after college, I just – my agent started to get me writing gigs and I started writing after – as soon as I graduated, basically.
Alec Baldwin: Where did you live?
Chris Columbus: I lived on 26th –
Alec Baldwin: You stayed in New York.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, 26th Street between 6th and 7th.
Alec Baldwin: So once school – you were in Chelsea – so once school ended, you decided you were going to stay in New York.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. I decided to stay in New York because, again, I was always very wary of going to L.A. I don't know why, but I –
Alec Baldwin: Why were you wary of it even then?
Chris Columbus: You know, the weird thing is I have so many friends who think of L.A. as like that's where all the films are made. That's where – that's where the magic happens. But for me, I just – at that point, after four years in New York, I felt very comfortable in New York and had this vision of being able to make every film in Manhattan or writing in Manhattan and living in Manhattan.
I was kind of out of work and I couldn't figure out what I was gonna do next and a friend of mine, Mitch, said, 'You know, since Jaws there really hasn't been a great movie that's featured' – he used the word monster. 'There has not been a great monster movie made.' And I said, 'That's a good idea. That's interesting.'
In the loft I lived in, we had these mice scurrying around on the floors and I would sleep with my hand draped over the bed and the mice would go by in the middle of the night. I thought, 'These tiny creatures are frightening.' So I spent the next six weeks writing this script called Gremlins. And I wrote it on spec – I wasn't paid for it – and I sent it to my agent who liked the script but felt it was a little dark, and still sent it to about 50 producers and studio executives and everyone passed on it.
And Spielberg, Steven Spielberg, was leaving his office on a Friday and passed his secretary's desk and it was sitting there. That's why so much of this business is luck. He passed the script and saw the title and said, 'Oh, that looks interesting.' Picked it up, read it that weekend, and decided he wanted to option the movie. Now I didn't know this. I got a call at my loft, Barnathan answers the phone and says, 'There's someone on here who says he's Steven Spielberg.' I get the phone and he goes, 'Chris, it's Steven Spielberg.' I was stunned.
Alec Baldwin: My God.
Chris Columbus: They flew me out to L.A. I got to meet Spielberg and that sort of -
Alec Baldwin: What year was that?
Chris Columbus: That was 1982, and I lived in L.A. for nine months at that point.
Alec Baldwin: So what happens in that nine months? He's giving you notes or there's creative people?
Chris Columbus: He would give me notes. Now Gremlins was sort of off and running, and someone else was even rewriting it as I was working on another script for Steven. For some strange reason I had sort of carte blanche. I could go into his office whenever I wanted. Whether he liked me, I don't know what it was, but I had an office three doors down from him. I would just go down there whenever. He would be sitting there with Richard Gere or – or Warren Beatty one time. He's like, 'Chris, come on in.' And I would start to talk to him about ideas.
One day he's looking through these old EC comic books and he says, 'Look at this title, Chris. The Goon Children.' I said, 'The Goon Children. That's a cool title.' And we came up with this story together about these kids who find a treasure map and it was The Goonies. I would write three pages of Goonies, run to Steven's office, give it to him. He would make some notes, I would run back to my office and make the changes, and we finished that script in about six weeks. Then I wrote Young Sherlock Holmes with him, kind of in the same way.
Alec Baldwin: For Amblin.
Chris Columbus: For Amblin, and that's when I realized –
Alec Baldwin: Who directed Goonies?
Chris Columbus: Richard Donner.
Alec Baldwin: Dick Donner directed Goonies.
Chris Columbus: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And who directed Young Sherlock Holmes?
Chris Columbus: Barry Levinson.
Alec Baldwin: Right.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. So it was –
Alec Baldwin: You have Steven Spielberg producing your films and you're three doors down from him, and Richard Donner, who directed Superman – I'm going to tell people in the audience who don't remember this timeline – and Levinson, who's directed many great films. They direct – those are your first two movies that get made. Well, Gremlins is the first movie.
Chris Columbus: Joe Dante as well.
Alec Baldwin: Joe Dante.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. Alec Baldwin: So you go from Joe Dante to Donner to Barry Levinson for the first three films that your name was on the script.
Chris Columbus: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And your name was on as the writer of all three?
Chris Columbus: All three, yeah. You know, it was kind of a heady experience; at the same time I always knew this is what I need to be – this is what I should be doing. This is what I have to be doing.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. What did you learn from Spielberg?
Chris Columbus: Spielberg was like graduate school filmmaking for me. Spielberg was like – I learned shortcuts and I learned – basically it was a Billy Wilder quote that Steven, you know, nailed into my head every day, which was, 'Don't tell the audience something more than once.' I learned how to edit material, I learned how to write better dialogue, and I learned how to be much more visual as a writer from Steven. So it was a great relationship, and still is a great relationship to this day. We had the opportunity to work together a couple of years ago. So I – I really loved that time, but at the same time I needed to get back to Manhattan.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Chris Columbus: I don't know. I just felt like I missed – I missed it. It's a very simple –
Alec Baldwin: But did you have a sense, because I find other people have the same thing. 'It's better for me to stay here for my career.' You didn't think along those lines.
Chris Columbus: No. I don't think at the time I was able to articulate it. You know, 20, 30 years down the road now I can look back and understand why I did it; because I was seeing the beginning of people losing touch with reality. Why do directors not have long careers? They don't have long careers because they become extremely successful, then they move into these huge mansions and live an isolated life. They watch movies in their screening room. They don't do their own grocery shopping. They don't pump their own gas. They don't get out there on the street.
At the end of all that, you've lost connection to real people. What are you making movies about? Even if they're fantasy films, even if – again, I did not realize it at the time, I realized it years later. I realized the reason I went back to New York was to connect with everyone again. So I could go to the corner Superette and buy a carton of orange juice for $40.00. So I could see people every day; take my dry cleaning in, take my laundry in. That hasn't changed to this day. I have not changed. You know, I have a great housekeeper now in San Francisco, but for the most part, again, because I'm a director and nobody really knows what the hell I look like, I'm anonymous.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Yeah, you've kept this very low profile.
Chris Columbus: Nobody knows what I do in San Francisco. I mean I have a couple of friends, but –
Alec Baldwin: You prefer that.
Chris Columbus: I love it. I love it. It's fantastic.
Alec Baldwin: These are all conscious choices you've made.
Chris Columbus: Not – I think some of them were subconscious at the beginning. The only thing that mattered to me about becoming a director was longevity. I wanted to make sure that my career would last for decades, no matter what I was doing. I felt that part of that has been this ability to sort of hide in plain sight, in a weird way. Now I understand it.
Alec Baldwin: So you're a writer and you do Gremlins and you do Goonies and you do Young Sherlock Holmes. Is the notion of you directing a film, is it starting to percolate? Do you go to Spielberg and say, 'I want to direct this one?'
Chris Columbus: No. It came –it started with Jesse Kornbluth. Jesse Kornbluth put into my head at NYU, 'The only way you're gonna get to become a director is by writing a few successful screenplays.' After Young Sherlock Holmes, then I realized Goonies and Gremlins had been successful enough that maybe I could get a directing gig. My agent sent me a copy of this script called Adventures in Babysitting.
Alec Baldwin: Elizabeth Shue.
Chris Columbus: With Elizabeth Shue and Anthony Rapp. I loved the – I loved the script. I thought, 'this is something I could do.' And I had great producers, Lynda Obst and Debra Hill, who were very supportive of me as a first-time director. They agreed to let me direct the movie, and that was – that first day on the set was a little horrifying.
Alec Baldwin: How so?
Chris Columbus: It was the thing I had dreamed about my entire life –
Alec Baldwin: In California.
Chris Columbus: No, we shot it in Canada.
Alec Baldwin: Okay.
Chris Columbus: It was my dream to be directing a film, yet at the same time I realized I had to go onto the set and face 250 people and tell them what to do.
Alec Baldwin: You'd never done that before.
Chris Columbus: No. I got over my fear pretty quickly because I had to. It's like jumping off –
Alec Baldwin: Do you still have an apprehension about that now? When it's the first day of school – and I mean shooting – it's not Chris who was drawing his Marvel comics.
Chris Columbus: Right.
Alec Baldwin: It's not Chris that was hiding behind the aluminum spools writing scripts and everything while everyone else is taking a nap at the aluminum factory. It's not Chris alone. There's the writer/director who has this kind of monastic process and then there's the guy that's gotta go out and be the captain of the ship on the deck of the ship with 250 or 300 people there.
Chris Columbus: Right.
Alec Baldwin: So that's a skill you had to develop, correct?
Chris Columbus: I think so, but again because – well definitely so. You know, it was terrifying the first couple of days, but then I realized –
Alec Baldwin: It's a big change.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. I realized that a lot of these crew guys were like beaten animals because directors – there's so many directors who are such assholes. They're so kind of cruel and angry and mean.
Alec Baldwin: They're working something out on the set of the film.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. And I thought that's not gonna work – that won't work for me. And I realized after three or four weeks that people were responding just to the fact that I was not grumpy in the morning, that I wasn't pissed off all the time. The fact that I was genuinely a pretty happy guy, and I really valued what everybody was doing, and if somebody made a mistake I wasn't ready to rip their head off, I just – I understood it. By the end of that movie I realized I learned a valuable lesson, how to earn the respect of the crew and your actors.
Alec Baldwin: So you're there, you make the film, and what happens?
Chris Columbus: The film opens at like $7 million – back then, which was a perceived disaster. So I'm thinking I'm never gonna work again. What happened is the second weekend, it did something that no film, that certain films -
Alec Baldwin: Few films.
Chris Columbus: That few films do, which is it shot up 40 percent in attendance. So we did better the second weekend. Getting that news that we'd increased 40 percent was shocking, and it was great for the movie and it was great and I was able to go off and make another film then.
Alec Baldwin: And what do you go do?
Chris Columbus: I did a film that I wrote. I pitched a film to Jeffrey Katzenberg, and I went off and wrote something else instead, a movie called Heartbreak Hotel about my own obsession with Elvis Presley. The movie opens on a Friday, I read Roger Ebert's review calling it one of the worst films of the year. I'm driving cross country with my wife at that point, because we edited in L.A. for two months, and by the time we get to probably Texas somewhere – this is Wednesday – the movie is already playing on a double bill in the afternoon. They've already – the theater owners wanted to get it out of there as if it was nuclear waste.
So once again I'm thinking, 'It's over. I'll go back to writing.' At the time my first child, Eleanor, was born and I got a script from John Hughes. We both had the same agent. And he said, 'Do you want to do the third Christmas Vacation movie?' I was like that's not really – I didn't dream of becoming a filmmaker to do that particular movie, but I thought I needed the gig and John Hughes is supporting me. So, I started to do that movie. I shot second unit and I had such a disastrous relationship with the star, Chevy Chase, who, you know, he has no shortage of enemies.
It was so disastrous and so humiliating for me, just based on three meetings, that I quit. I said, 'John, I can't do this. I cannot make this movie.'
Alec Baldwin: Did John get that? Did John understand?
Chris Columbus: He's like, 'You know, Chevy is a complicated guy.'
Alec Baldwin: He's a rich food, yeah.
Chris Columbus: I said, 'Let me tell you something. He treated – when I first walked in he thought I was an assistant,' so I'm like, 'I can't really work this way.' So I quit and then I was really – I thought I was really in trouble. And John and I get along great, so John sent me the script for Home Alone. Again, luck plays into it. And I fell in love with the script. I thought it was a great script. I think he wrote it in two days.
Alec Baldwin: I loved him. Loved him. I mean his life and how he went and how he kind of left and gave up and moved back to Chicago – not gave up, but he kind of walked away from it – was always so sad to me because I thought God, I mean I was hoping I could become the next John Candy in his career.
Chris Columbus: Right.
Alec Baldwin: The growing, bleeding, crazy Uncle Buck of the next barrage of films of his.
Chris Columbus: Right.
Alec Baldwin: I loved working with him. Loved him. What was your experience like with him?
Chris Columbus: It was exactly the same. I walked off of a movie that he had given me, so there was never a reason for him to call me back. But for some strange reason I think he respected that or he understood it.
Alec Baldwin: Being Chevy, he understood.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, I think so. When he sent me, you know, when I read this script I thought this is a gift, this script. This script is really, really important. And John – the only concern I had was I had a newborn at the time and John liked to work from about 10:00 – when he was a producer and writing, you know, he wrote all night long. So we would be doing preproduction during the day on Home Alone, and then for story meetings I'd go to his house in Lake Forest and we'd work from 10:00 to about 5:00 in the morning. So I was getting – during the preproduction hours of Home Alone, I was getting about two hours sleep. And John, half of the time he told these great stories, so he would tell stories – you probably remember these –
Alec Baldwin: And smoke.
Chris Columbus: And smoke – and these stories would go on for three hours before we ever got into the fact that we were making a movie. He gave me – once he saw the first day of dailies for Home Alone, he gave me an amazing amount of freedom as a filmmaker, and that really felt great. That – I felt no pressure, because I always, to this day, feel like I'm gonna walk on a movie and get fired. But with John, he made me feel very secure and created sort of a safe atmosphere for me immediately.
Alec Baldwin: Who cast Macaulay?
Chris Columbus: Well John put him in Uncle Buck, and John said, 'You should see this kid,' but John never said, 'Cast him.' So Macaulay came up to my New York apartment – he and his father. The first kid I met, and he was incredibly charming, terrific. But I said to John, just because I felt like I wanted to be responsible, I said, 'I should meet some other kids.' So I met about 300 other kids and then came back around to Macaulay.
Alec Baldwin: Let me get back to you, John. I'm gonna go meet 300 other kids and then I'll call you about Macaulay.
Chris Columbus: I had to do my job, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, but Macaulay was the first one you saw.
Chris Columbus: Macaulay was the first one I saw and he was – you know, it was an interesting situation, kinda like the kids in Harry Potter a little bit. Macaulay had only done one or two movies, so he would do a line. He would say one line, maybe two lines, and then get distracted. So a lot of that film is cut into pieces just so we could get his performance together. But what happened on screen was amazingly charming.
Alec Baldwin: And you had – Heard is the father.
Chris Columbus: John Heard, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And Katherine is the mother.
Chris Columbus: Now Heard thought he was making – Heard, who I love – but I loved him in Cutter's Way. Remember Cutter's Way, one of the great performances. But while he was making Home Alone, he thought he was making the biggest piece of shit in the world and he was a pain in the ass a little bit. He comes back on Home Alone 2, and the first day he's shooting, I yell, 'Action!' He breaks character and he said, 'I would just like to say to Chris and the crew I owe you a big apology. You made a great movie the first time and I'm here to support you.' I thought, 'Wow.' We have it in dailies. I still have a tape of that.
And I got to work with John Candy for the first time, and John Candy came in for one day of shooting. We had him for one day and he has like six scenes in the movie. So we shot for 24 hours – 24 hours straight. And Candy kept going. He just would continue to improvise. And it was my first sort of foray into improvisation. John would do a scripted take and then he would start to play.
Chris Columbus: And he loved improvising. He was brilliant at it.
Alec Baldwin: In a minute, Chris Columbus talks about working with another brilliant improviser, Robin Williams.
Alec Baldwin: I'm Alec Baldwin and you're listening to Here's The Thing. Chris Columbus says he wanted to work with Robin Williams ever since he saw him in Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. Five years later, Columbus got his chance. Mrs. Doubtfire, a film about a divorced father who dresses as a Scottish nanny to trick his ex-wife into hiring him to care for their kids, won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy. Robin Williams won a Globe for Best Actor. But before all that could happen, before the filming even began, Chris Columbus had to meet Williams for lunch.
Chris Columbus: I was terrified. I'd worked with guys like Pesci, who I admired, and Dan Stern, but Robin was a true superstar at the time, and I was – I was nervous about how it would go. And we just – we hit it off immediately. We wanted to – we really connected.
Alec Baldwin: Much of Mrs. Doubtfire was shot in San Francisco. Columbus took the opportunity to move his growing family out west.
Chris Columbus: It's a great place to raise a family, and I felt Manhattan would be a little difficult. We were about to have our third kid and I thought – and two of the kids had been born at Lennox Hill in Manhattan, you know, and I can't – I was walking down the street in Manhattan with my toddler and I couldn't hear what she was saying to me. I couldn't – you know, she's telling – and I thought I've gotta be in a calmer place. And I also fell in love with the city. San Francisco's a great city, and I had – and the relationship with Robin was, still is, terrific. I had a great relationship with Robin.
And with Robin, again, it's like a steroid version of John Candy where you – John liked to improvise, but Robin lives to improvise. So it was almost like seeing a Springsteen concert where he has to exhaust himself after four and a half hours of playing before he can go to sleep at night. With Robin it was the same thing. We would shoot anywhere from 12 to 15 takes for each scene. And we would start with a very structured, scripted take and then move off of the script and change everything. And that's why that picture had to be shot with two or three cameras, because –
Alec Baldwin: So do the execs at Fox know that when you're going into make a film and you have someone who's as varied and who's as – who's as – what's the word, you know, as spontaneous as he is – do you call them up after the first week of shooting and say, 'Fellas, just tear up the budget. We've got to start all over again.'
Chris Columbus: No. We stayed under – we stayed not under budget, but we stayed on budget. Maybe we went over one or two days because he is fast. He's lightening fast, and we shot with two or three cameras.
Alec Baldwin: So he understood the cost/benefit analysis of his improvisations. He wasn't somebody who was overly indulgent.
Chris Columbus: No. And you had actors – you had Sally Field and Pierce Brosnan acting across from this guy not knowing what he was going to say on take number five or six. So we had to have a camera on them because he's – I mean the word genius is used a lot these days, but he – he comes up with these things so quickly, he doesn't remember that he said them in the next take. It's just he's possessed. I sometimes tell people shooting Mrs. Doubtfire was like shooting a documentary.
And by the time we got to the editing room, millions of feet of film at the time – we weren't shooting digitally yet – we had four or five different versions of the film. We had the PG version, the PG-13, the R and the NC-17. I showed Marsha, who was the producer – because we – the film needed to be PG-13, so we knew we couldn't have an R-rated version of Mrs. Doubtfire.
Alec Baldwin: Right. Yeah.
Chris Columbus: I showed Marsha a cut of the film and then Robin wanted to see it with an audience, and that was sort of the thing that sealed the deal because the audience really responded. It was like it really was a huge response.
Alec Baldwin: So he wasn't that intrusive about cutting the film. As long as the film worked in front of an audience, he was happy. He left you alone.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, that was it. It's just every day – we developed a sense of trust after a couple of weeks and I would – it was an incredibly exhausting shoot working 14 hours a day and I'd get home at night and just pour myself a glass of wine and the phone would ring and it was Robin, 'How were dailies? How was I in dailies?' So he was – he was very, very obsessive in terms of his own performance. And Doubtfire sort of received mixed reviews, so for me, I – because of my love of film history and because of my love of certain films, I was – I'd always get – there was a level of keeping it very real by reading what some of these people were saying.
Now some – I should probably have a tougher skin and say, 'I don't give a shit what they're saying.' So with Doubtfire, there was as sense that we had created a movie that was very successful, a lot of people fell in love with, but it didn't, for me personally, I didn't get to that point where I wanted – you know, I always wanted to have that level of critical success and commercial success as well. I just wasn't there yet. So I managed to stay hungry. I mean there was a feeling of me that I needed to accomplish a lot more and I really still feel that way. I still felt that there's a long way to go. Back on Doubtfire I felt there was a long way to go.
Alec Baldwin: So the collaboration with – you did Nine Months after that with Hugh.
Chris Columbus: With Hugh Grant.
Alec Baldwin: And how did that movie do?
Chris Columbus: That movie did okay, but that was the – but that was the blowjob weekend, so that was a –
Alec Baldwin: Was that happening while you were shooting or when it was released – being released?
Chris Columbus: No, no, no, no. We were scheduled. We were doing a press conference –
Alec Baldwin: This is exciting.
Chris Columbus: This is insane. So we're doing the international press conference on a Saturday.
Alec Baldwin: I'd like to make a movie with you – I realize now I want to make a movie with you just so as a gag I can get dressed up as a woman, as a cross dresser, and solicit a detective on Hollywood Boulevard.
Chris Columbus: Just as a gag? What if you got arrested?
Alec Baldwin: Just as a gag. Well I want – the goal is to get arrested. Just to get arrested. And then when I'm down at the police station I'm gonna go, 'Officer, can I explain something to you? This is really just to fuck with Chris Columbus.' I want another sex scandal on his head.
Chris Columbus: It was – and it happened – I never – I never saw it coming. Hugh was like the most completely –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, right. Buttoned down –
Chris Columbus: Buttoned down, really conservative guy, always prepared for work, did a great job. We were doing the international press conference in L.A. The movie was finished. The movie was screening off the charts and audiences were loving it.
Alec Baldwin: Hugh was very popular.
Chris Columbus: So I thought, 'Wow, this is gonna be a bigger hit than Doubtfire.' We screened the movie on a Friday night for the press. I go out to dinner with Hugh, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern. We have this great dinner. I drive Hugh back to the hotel. He says, 'Oh, John Hughes sent me a script. Would you mind looking at it? I don't know if I should do it.' It was 101 Dalmatians. So I walked up to his hotel room, took the script and I said, 'Okay, get a good night's sleep. We have a press conference tomorrow.'
I go to sleep. My phone rings at 6:59. It's Barnathan. He says, 'Turn on the TV.' I said, 'What?' He goes, 'Turn on the TV.' I turn on the news. Channel 2, 5, 7 – mug shots of Hugh.
Alec Baldwin: There goes 101 Dalmatians.
Chris Columbus: I'm like, 'what the fuck did you do?' So there's 150 international journalists that I was doing a press conference with Hugh. Hugh's disappeared. He's at his agent's house. He's gone.
Alec Baldwin: He didn't come.
Chris Columbus: He got – it was me, facing all of these journalists.
Alec Baldwin: Of course he didn't. Amazing. He does this the night before a press conference. Perfect.
Chris Columbus: And he's since said that he did it because he didn't like the movie, which he loved the movie, so that's not why he did it.
Alec Baldwin: He did what?
Chris Columbus: He went to solicit a prostitute because he was so depressed about the film.
Alec Baldwin: He was so depressed about the film he had to have a prostitute. God, I gotta try that.
Chris Columbus: I know.
Alec Baldwin: Hugh Grant's well-publicized arrest didn't completely kill Nine Months. It still made over $183 million worldwide. Mrs. Doubtfire grossed over $440 million worldwide. The Harry Potter films did even better. Two years ago Chris Columbus produced The Help, a much smaller film, which ended up earning a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Clearly, Chris is skilled at selecting the right material to work with, or maybe he just surrounds himself with the right people.
Chris Columbus: It was my daughter, because she was the one who tried to convince me for about a year and a half to read the Harry Potter books. And finally when I did and I realized I wanted to make the movie, there were 25 other directors who were in line. They called it, at Warner Brothers, a bake-off. They said okay, we're going to meet all of these directors and whoever we, you know, feel will make the best movie we'll hire. So I was in line – because Spielberg had dropped out. Steven Spielberg had dropped out.
Alec Baldwin: He was the one who that was gonna direct it.
Chris Columbus: He was gonna direct the film. I think he wanted to combine the two books, add some cheerleaders and stuff, and I think that she wasn't, you know, Jo Rowling was not up for that. So for whatever reason, Steven backed away from the films and then it was a group of literally 25 people. I had the last meeting, because I wanted to rewrite the script for the studio. And what I did is I spent 11 days staying up until about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning rewriting the Harry Potter script.
Steve Kloves wrote a brilliant script, I just wanted to rewrite it with some camera cues, some – add some scenes from the book that weren't in there. And when I went in to meet with Warner Brothers, they said, 'Why do you want to make this movie?' I said, 'Because I've rewritten it for you for free.' Now no one ever does anything for free in Hollywood –
Alec Baldwin: That's unheard of.
Chris Columbus: So it took – it still took them a few weeks to say yes, but I did get the gig. They – and I realized there was still one obstacle. I had to fly to Scotland and meet with J.K. Rowling. That was my sort of last interview and if I fucked that up I wouldn't have gotten the job. So I flew to Scotland, met with Jo, who I was expecting – I hadn't seen many photographs of her at that point. I was expecting Miss Marple. I was expecting some 60-year-old heavy-set woman in a floral dress, and it was – she's younger than we are, she's very, very funny, one of the funniest people I've ever met. Sharp as a tack, and we hit it off immediately.
She spent three hours listening to me. I had diarrhea of the mouth because I was telling her the kind of movie I wanted to make. At the end of it she said, 'That's exactly the kind of film I want to make.'
Alec Baldwin: Wow.
Chris Columbus: And I knew I got the job. Once I knew I got the job, I was fucking scared out of my wits. Everyone was obsessed about who was gonna be cast in the movie, how were we going to design Hogwarts? What was Quidditch going to be like? And I thought the only way to get through this, not to be – so I'm not standing in a corner unable to face my crew – was to just sort of bury my head and start to work. I just sort of went through every day – I moved my family to London and went through every day making the best movie possible. And the great thing is, there were a core of us at the time – four of us: Jo Rowling, David Heyman, Steve Kloves and myself, and we'd meet every couple of days, talk about the script, talk about the movie. And it was that core that really helped me shape what eventually became all eight movies.
Alec Baldwin: And she was around during the screenwriting process or around the shooting as well, Rowling?
Chris Columbus: No, she only came out for one day during the shooting.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Chris Columbus: Just to visit. She wasn't that interested in the shooting. If you're a visitor on a set, it's not that exciting after about two hours. She came out when we were shooting Diagon Alley, but during the screenwriting process, during the rewriting process, and during some of the design work – you know, I would take her through the Harry Potter factory, I called it. We would walk through it – the art department – and I would show her what I was thinking of for Diagon Alley or Gringotts or Hogwarts or the wizarding robes and she just was always very collaborative. She'd say – like the wand. She was very, very specific about everything. Harry's wand couldn't have any specific design to it because it was from an old tree, the wood, and it was just a little crooked. It was that kind of specific comments that really sort of helped me find where I was going.
I never was off the rails, though, because we did – we did share a similar, I think, vision for what we wanted the movie to be. She would give us, also, indications that the films were gonna get, the books, there were only three books at the time. 'Remember, we're going to get progressively darker.' And this had to be sort of – the first one was sort of the storybook version of Harry Potter. It's his origin story. Alec Baldwin: Origin.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, I know. Hogwarts had to feel like the most welcoming place in the world and then we would get little indications that it's going to start to fall apart as we move forward. We set that all into motion, that the movies would get darker and darker and darker.
Alec Baldwin: Did you have a sense – did you say, 'I think I've got this.' The film version of these books – I've got the recipe.
Chris Columbus: Unfortunately, not until we were finished. We knew we were – we knew things were going well, so even though the kids had not had a lot of experience in acting, they were amazingly charming on screen and they felt like those characters. I think the first day that we really felt that we were on the right track is we shot the opening of the Great Hall. We're on this huge crane and the kids are walking in and our visual effects guy, John Richardson, attached 450 candles to strings that were all burning. Everyone had to light all these candles. There weren't any CGI candles in the shot.
I remember sitting in dailies and seeing the shot where the camera cranes up through the floating candles and realizing, 'I think we're onto something here.' Yeah, and so that all felt good. We still had no –
Alec Baldwin: That's cool.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, it was fun.
Alec Baldwin: That's cool. That's cool. What was it like to work – one of my favorite actors I ever worked with was Gambon.
Chris Columbus: Oh God, he was great. Remember –
Alec Baldwin: He was such a character.
Chris Columbus: I produced the movie that he, you know, when he – Richard Harris was Dumbledore for two films. Now let me tell you something –
Alec Baldwin: Sure. With you.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. That was one of the funniest people I've ever met.
Alec Baldwin: Harris – and he refers to himself as Harris.
Chris Columbus: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: 'Harris won't do this,' and 'Harris can't be seen doing this.'
Chris Columbus: On the first day of shooting with Richard Harris, he tells me that he's learned the wrong scene. It was a scene at the end of the movie.
Alec Baldwin: 'I learned the wrong scene.'
Chris Columbus: It was one of the final scenes for Dumbledore, but we happened to shoot it first, and he didn't learn it. And he explained to me that he had learned something else. I don't know if he was telling me the truth, and that's the kind of guy he was. He was constantly – he would always try to piss off Maggie Smith by calling her Dame Maggie. 'Oh Dame Maggie,' he'd say. [Laughs.] It was so fun to watch, but I have to tell you –
Alec Baldwin: He was a bad boy.
Chris Columbus: He was such a bad boy. The things that he got away with in his time, it was never – you couldn't get away with it today. But anyway, so Harris was in the first two, then he passed away. The last thing he said to me, I went to visit him in his hospital room, and I knew –
Alec Baldwin: You saw him when he was dying.
Chris Columbus: I saw him when he was dying and he had – he was sitting there and he'd lost about 20 pounds. We never really knew what he was dying of, he wouldn't tell us. And he didn't think he was dying. So I went to visit him and as I'm leaving, I said goodbye to him. And he says, 'Don't you ever fucking replace me as Dumbledore.' And I said, 'Okay.' That's the last thing he said to me.
Alec Baldwin: 'The character is dead.'
Chris Columbus: So – and that was the last thing he said to me.
Alec Baldwin: And then Gambon came in.
Chris Columbus: Gambon came in.
Alec Baldwin: I love Gambon.
Chris Columbus: He was a character. Yeah, he's an interesting guy but he – he's conservative compared to Harris.
Alec Baldwin: Yes. The last film you directed was Percy Jackson.
Chris Columbus: Percy Jackson, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: The last feature you did. So that was released in 2010. You shot that in 2009?
Chris Columbus: Right.
Alec Baldwin: So you haven't directed a feature in four years.
Chris Columbus: No. And part of that was because of The Help. There was a writer/director named Tate Taylor who wrote a script – who was sort of a director that I had supported over the years, did a lot of short films, was an actor in L.A. And I knew him through one of my daughter's school associates. He would always come, when he'd come to San Francisco he'd sit down and meet with me and show me what he was working on. He came into my office one day and said, 'This is my first feature that I want to make. My best friend wrote this book, The Help.'
I said – I read the script and I said, 'This is a fantastic movie.' I wanted to direct it. Tate's like, 'I want to direct it and I want you to support me so I don't get fired.' So I brought the script to a lot of studios. At the same time the book was starting to heat up. Again, it was one of those books that every woman was reading on the beach. And Steven Spielberg and I sort of reunited to do it. Steven and I met in London. He said, 'What do you think of this guy Tate Taylor?' I said, 'He's incredibly talented. He wrote a brilliant script.' Steven said, 'As long as you promise that you'll be on the set every day.' I said, 'When I produce a movie I like to go for the first week and then I'm off and do' –
Alec Baldwin: So did those guys finance it at DreamWorks?
Chris Columbus: DreamWorks financed it. We shot in Mississippi in the summertime a couple of years ago.
Alec Baldwin: And you were on the set every day.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, I was there every day.
Alec Baldwin: How was that?
Chris Columbus: It was fantastic.
Alec Baldwin: I was going to say, what's that like for you to be the pure producer?
Chris Columbus: Well as I said, usually I just – if I'm the producer, I like to go for a couple of days, make sure it's all in good hands, and then I like to go off and direct or write. In this situation, so I made a promise to Steven. I was there the entire time and the interesting thing was because of the level of performances in that film, getting – actually just being able to watch these actresses perform every day. Viola Davis and Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone, it just was an amazing sort of front row seat to these performances. And Tate was just wonderful with the actresses. He was just – he's an actor himself, again that connection is really helpful. So for me it was a bit of a learning experience. Again, it opened up another sort of part of filmmaking that I want to get involved with.
Alec Baldwin: I was going to say, do you want to make films like that? Because my last question for you is here's a guy who the flame for you, that you were drawn to, from things I've read about you were movies like The Godfather, but you haven't made a movie like The Godfather.
Chris Columbus: Right.
Alec Baldwin: And I'm wondering is that a direction you want to go in? Now you see a movie like The Help and you say, do you want to do more, not even so much racially-themed, but much more kind of intense drama?
Chris Columbus: Here's the thing: I'm not particularly – I'm not saying I'm not happy with the movies I've made, but I still have a long way to go. Hopefully I can live long enough to get to where I really will be happy it; maybe it won't happen. But what I really, really want to do – I would like to make the kind of movies that you and I grew up on, which are the kind of movies – look, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, Serpico, all of those movies were movies that were not only about something but were great dramatic films with an enormous sense of humor, by the way.
All the films I mentioned are very funny at times, yet at the same time they reached a huge audience. And to me, that's what it was about. I didn't want to make a film that was so special and indie and tiny that it wouldn't reach a wide audience. I always felt that when I was watching movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I was watching Dog Day Afternoon, the performances were so amazing and so authentic and real, and those movies found an audience. Now, unfortunately, most of those types of films are being made for television.
Alec Baldwin: And apropos of that, you've made films now – written, directed and produced – huge films, some of the biggest films of the last 25 years. You've been doing this for 25 years. How has the business changed in the 25 years, from your standpoint?
Chris Columbus: Well, you know, when I –
Alec Baldwin: Is it harder to get that movie made you're talking about, that Sidney Lumet-esque drama.
Chris Columbus: Yeah, I've spent the better part of the last year and a half writing films like that, but I can't – it's very, very difficult to get them made in an environment that really is only interested in either sequels or superhero films. If you walked into a studio executive's office in 1978 and said you wanted to make Spiderman –
Alec Baldwin: They would have laughed at you.
Chris Columbus: Yeah. Comic books? Oh, my God that's the lowest form of entertainment. Well now we're in a situation where that's mostly what's being made, so it's difficult. The Help kind of, you know, was made because the book was so successful, and we made it for $28 million, which for a period piece is relatively inexpensive. So if we can find that way to do more of those films, I'd love to do them. That's probably one of the reasons I haven't directed. The Help has really gotten into my head in a big way and said, 'You can make these movies and people will go see them.'
And where I've gotten into trouble in my career, movies like Bicentennial Man, movies like Beth Cooper, again when I did them for fun and when I thought, 'Oh, this will be fun. I'll just go out and make a movie like we're back in film school.' That's not the case any more. There's much more responsibility.
Alec Baldwin: Chris Columbus won't stop making movies, but he has taken a slight detour. His first novel, House of Secrets, a middle school fantasy adventure, is out this year. Chris sent an early draft to J.K. Rowling. She said it was too fast-paced. 'Slow down,' she told him, 'Deepen the characters and work on the complexity.' Chris Columbus says he and his co-author, Ned Vizzini, took that advice to heart.
This is Alec Baldwin. Here's The Thing comes from WNYC Radio.