The New World of Chris Columbus

The director of Home Alone and Home Alone 2 talks about getting out of the factory town he grew up in, getting fired by Steven Spielberg, getting creamed by critics, getting to direct Macaulay Culkin . . . and now getting to do whatever the hell he wants.

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Blame his world-famous name, but Chris Columbus remains an almost invisible, stealth presence in contemporary Hollywood. His name has appeared (as writer) on pictures as unalike as Reckless and Young Sherlock Holmes and (as director) on an unpredictable assortment that includes Adventures in Babysitting, Heartbreak Hotel and Only the Lonely. Generally, though, Columbus is best known-- or perhaps that's unknown--for projects in which his name is eclipsed by another--whether that of Steven Spielberg (for whom Columbus wrote Gremlins, The Goonies and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) or John Hughes (for whom he directed the blockbuster hit Home Alone and the forthcoming Home Alone 2: Lost In New York). Having been, like many critics, baffled by the Columbus gift for disappearing into project after project, I welcomed the chance to interview such a specter.

I had to fly to Chicago to do so--Columbus actively avoids Los Angeles--and there, in an office on a mid-city street shaded by elms, I was introduced to a man who looks for all the world like the boy from "Leave it to Beaver," grown to manhood. I do not mean he looks like the actor, Jerry Mathers, fully grown. Mathers no longer looks like the Beaver--Columbus does: the same ready, sweet-spirited smile; the same open, optimistic face. He was dressed in summer wear--shorts, T-shirt, moccasins--and smoked a discreet, admirably unshowoffish cigar as we talked.

CHRIS COLUMBUS: I wasn't sure I wanted to meet you. I was afraid you might be the critic who really slugged me in print a few years ago. I usually don't mind negative reviews, but this one hit me hard, in a personal way. This guy said, "Chris Columbus must wake up every morning and wonder how he gets away with it."

F.X. FEENEY: So. When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

A: [Laughs] I take a very long view. I look at the works of early directors I admire, like John Ford and Howard Hawks and Capra--and those guys had a chance to learn their craft, they were directing three pictures a year. Us new guys, we start and we're doing maybe one picture every two years, and suddenly that first picture, that second picture--everybody's looking at it as if: "Is it going to be the next Citizen Kane?." You can't put a disclaimer at the beginning of your film that says, "I'm not declaring that this is the best film ever made. I am declaring that I've finally gotten a chance to direct."

Q: Do you ever learn from reviews?

A: I learn a lot from reviews. It's interesting. I've gotten some of my best and worst reviews from Siskel and Ebert, and we're in the same building. These guys screen their pictures where we screen our rough cuts. And we're always running into them. You have to remain cordial, because it's inevitably a love/hate relationship. They hate one of your movies, and you hate them for a year. Then they love your next movie, and you love them. [Laughs] "Ohh. They finally understand me!"

Q: Was there a movie that changed your life?

A: There were actually two. I often try to bring them together stylistically, and probably shouldn't. One was the first Godfather movie; the other was Blazing Saddles. I'd never seen a film as exquisitely made as The Godfather. And Blazing Saddles... I'd never seen anybody get away with so much on-screen. Where The Godfather played by all the rules, Blazing Saddles broke them all. Those films sent me off in these two different directions. Blazing Saddles led me to the early Marx Bros, and Woody Allen, which I'd never seen before, and then The Godfather led me to The Conversation and Scorsese pictures. And then somehow they merged in my psyche, and I've got to constantly keep them away from one another in each film I do, because they're not two styles that readily blend!

Q: Reckless was your first produced screenplay. Was the final film what you intended?

A: [Long pause] Oh God--not at all! It's hard to talk about that film, because it's completely lacking everything I believe in about film. There's no sense of humor. The script was much funnier. The film was obviously made by a person who had never lived this kind of life. All these "mythic" touches got added, some of which I took part in--the back wheel of the motorcycle kicking over the beer can, that sort of thing--but after a while, the director just took me off the picture. I decided right there, "I'm never going to have a set like this." I don't care if I don't use a writer on my picture--I'm going to at least walk him onto my set. I felt like an outsider, I felt terrible. As a result, for me, the final film evoked that soulless persona I felt when I was there. The key to that picture--if you watch the whole picture--is that these two people, Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah, never get to have more than a three-word conversation throughout the entire picture!

Q: You got sole credit for that screenplay. What was the content of your meetings with director James Foley?

A: I never met the director until I went to the set--I think. Going to the set and being treated like such a scum was so vivid that I don't remember meeting him earlier than that. There was an arbitration with the Writers Guild, and I wrote a very passionate letter--this was prior to seeing the film--about why I should receive sole credit for writing it. Foley wanted credit at the same time. And I got sole credit for the film. I did it primarily because I was so angry at the entire production, and also because--at that time--if you got sole credit, you'd make more money. It was very important to me to make money at that time, because I was planning to get married.

Q: Steven Spielberg was riding the crest of E.T. glory when you went to work for him to write Gremlins and then The Goonies. How did that work, between you?

A: Meeting Spielberg was a nerve-racking experience, because I was just starting out, and here was a guy whose films I had studied. I was completely intimidated by him; I was completely in love with his work. Only in the last couple of years have I been able to talk to him without having my voice shake. [Laughs] I get much more nervous in the presence of people that I admire so much. Scorsese I met once, and I was very nervous. I've never met Coppola, but--even though I know he's a normal guy--I can't look at him without thinking of how he's inspired my life.

Q: How is your relationship with Spielberg on a practical basis? Do you still show him rough cuts of your work?

A: No, I never did. Because I never really had a chance to. The two Disney pictures I did were previewed and recut so much that there was never a chance.

Q: Does he ever respond to your work when he's seen the finished product?

A: If I don't hear from him, then I know he didn't like the picture. If I hear from him, then I know he loved it. I got a great note about Home Alone. When I was shooting Home Alone 2, we did some sequences on a soundstage out in L.A. and we were two doors down from his office. So I tried to connect with him. He was bringing his son over to the set, but we missed each other. I talked to him after that--and I can now actually talk to him, as a filmmaker. I always wanted him to see that I could direct--that I was a good director. Hopefully, you know, he'll start to realize that! [Laughs] The nightmare scenario, of course, is when your hero fires you. I was fired from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Q: You were?

A: I was in a room with Spielberg and Lucas, and I was so intimidated! Even though I'd known Steven and had done three pictures with him, just by being in the room with these guys, I was a bit gawked. They had the entire story worked out. So I sat there, in Steven's New York apartment, with these guys, 10 hours a day for three or four days. And I left with hundreds of pages of notes. Basically, the entire script was written in those sessions.

Now, I was so scared and nervous at the time that I never had the guts to say, "Can I change some things?" Because I thought that they'd fire me. So I wrote it exactly as they had told it to me. It was almost like I was a court stenographer. It was soulless and lifeless. And I handed it in--and that was it--I was fired! I thought, "Oh my God, my career is over." It was a complete downfall for me, but I learned two things. One is to never, ever regard someone else's story as being so etched in stone that you can't play off of it when you're writing--because that's all writing really is! The other thing I learned is to never get discouraged, as a writer, when they take you off a picture. Because they do it all the time.

Q: Like Spielberg's, your films are clearly directed toward popular audiences. What exactly do you think drives a film toward an audience?

A: It really comes down to something very obvious. A story, a movie, has to evolve from the soul. I know that sounds--it's very difficult to explain--but it's a passionate sort of filmmaking that you almost have to view as a religion. Filmmaking is almost, to me, a religion. It's more than money, it's more than Hollywood, it's a way of life. I'm not doing this because I think it's going to make a lot of money. When people call my work sentimental or corny--it's really the way I believe. As funny as a picture might be, there's got to be an element of heart, something that really connects with the audience. It's something that's been beat into me since film school: that heart is really the most important aspect of a film. That's what I saw most clearly when making Home Alone.

Q: Did you have any idea of the phenomenon that was going to ensue?

A: Not at all. It sounds silly--so many directors have said it in the past--but every film you do, you sort of want to make sure you're going to get your next job. You want it to do well; you want it to make its money back so people will continue to hire you. Home Alone was the first time as a director that I really got to call back all of that Marx Bros.- Blazing Saddles input I had when I was growing up. And I discovered during the making of the movie that I like making comedies. I like the attitude on the set, I like the feeling of being in a theater and having the entire place roar with laughter. I realized the importance of pure comedy.

Q: How is it working with child actors?

A: Kids are just kids--a lot of the time, they just don't want to be there. They want to be out with their friends. And they deserve to have that life. So it's a double-edged sword. I can't imagine being the age of some of these kids and having to report to work every day.

Q: How do you deal with that when you go one-on-one? What kind of relationship do you try to set up with, say, Macaulay Culkin?

A: From the first Home Alone we got along great. I remember how kids think; I like kids a lot. Mac is quite a special kid. He's not even the kind of kid you think is going to be an actor forever;- I expect him to become a director. You have to remember that he's done a lot of stage work in New York; he was a dancer for a while. So he's very trained in the theater, and he comes to work prepared. He knows his lines. For me, it's a matter of not directing him in a predictable way. I would throw out words to him, thinking he wouldn't understand them, but he knew everything I was talking about. It's not like you have to deal with him in a monosyllabic way. He knows everything. He's a very well-read kid.

Q: How do you deal with an actor's parents? Culkin comes to mind, because his father is legendary for throwing his weight around.

A: The ideal is to know a person before everything happens. Before they become incredibly famous, or before they make millions of dollars. I knew Mac and his family before any of the Home Alone phenomena happened. And our relationship has stayed the same. Everything else that's happened is probably a result of dealing with studios and lawyers and all those people, which becomes much more difficult once you become successful.

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