Director-producer Chris Columbus

One of Hollywood’s most successful directors, Columbus talks about adding “author” to his résumé, with his first novel, House of Secrets.

Described as a major force in contemporary filmmaking, Chris Columbus has directed and/or produced some of Hollywood's most successful films, from Home Alone and its sequel, to Harry Potter features, to The Help—for which he received an Oscar nod as producer. He initially aspired to be a commercial artist and studied art and oil painting, but got his start in the film business as a screenwriter, while enrolled in the directors program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His recent ventures include a second branch of his 1492 Pictures dedicated to helping young directors and House of Secrets, the first book in a new fantasy series.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Chris Columbus has directed some of the most successful and beloved movies in recent history, including “Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and two films from the “Harry Potter” franchise.

He’s now turned to writing novels. Joining creative forces with a young adult writer named Ned Vizzini, the book is called “House of Secrets.” Chris Columbus, good to have you on this program.

Chris Columbus: Thank you, nice to be here.

Tavis: This is interesting for me, that after directing so many of these big hits you now want to write one of these things.

Columbus: Right.

Tavis: Which I suspect, let me guess, hm, movie one day?

Columbus: Possibly. (Laughter) It started as a movie, so that’s – the background of this is it was a 90-page screenplay back in about -

Tavis: Ten years ago.

Columbus: 1999 – pre “Harry Potter.”

Tavis: Right.

Columbus: It was about a $500 million screenplay back then. That’s the problem, so I put it in a drawer, went off to London, didn’t think about it. Came back from London, pulled it out, thought maybe a TV series, possibly. Still too expensive.

A couple of years ago I thought maybe it could be a novel. It might work as a novel, because there’s no limit to what we can do. I met Ned Vizzini and it was kind of magical. After about an hour, we hit it off. I gave him the 90 pages and I said, “Take a look at this, see if there’s something here.”

A week later he emailed me the first chapter, and I looked at it, rewrote it, sent it back to him. We did that back and forth with the first chapter a couple times. We had a hundred pages. After we had a hundred pages we went out to Harper Collins and they picked up the rights.

Tavis: The rest, as they say, is history.

Columbus: So far.

Tavis: I know this is your business, so I’m not surprised that you would know this so intuitively and so quickly, but how did you know over 10 years ago like that that this was a $500 million project?

Columbus: Well -

Tavis: I know you’re being funny, but -

Columbus: I’m being funny, but it was really at a time when visual effects were extraordinarily expensive.

Tavis: Right.

Columbus: So to be able to accomplish some of the visuals in this novel was really impossible without that kind of budget. Things have changed a little now. Visual effects are becoming less and less expensive, and it’s possible, it could potentially be a film.

I want this, though, to live as a book. I want kids to discover it, I want kids to be reading it, I want them to fall in love with reading, so it’s really about the book. The book was designed that way. The book was designed so that when you get to the end of one chapter as a kid – remember, it’s for, like, nine-year-olds to 12-year-olds – you want to turn to the next page. You don’t want to put it down.

That creates a love of reading and a discovery of potential other authors out there for kids.

Tavis: Were there takeaways from “Harry Potter” for how to make this even better?

Sanders: You know what? This is a much more thematically linked project to something like “The Goonies.”

Tavis: Right.

Sanders: People have been asking me – when I got to London, and I didn’t realize it at the time because “The Goonies” was a movie I’d written and forgotten about. All these kids are coming up to me saying “The Goonies” changed my life; “The Goonies” was the quintessential movie for me as a kid.

I thought I liked the movie. I didn’t like it that much. Suddenly, everybody was asking me when are you going to make a sequel to “The Goonies?” When are you going to write the sequel?

I said we can’t do the sequel; the kids are all 30. But as a result, I was able to – I said I’ll do a thematic sequel. I’ll do a thematic kids go on this adventure and it’s got the excitement and sort of the attitude and the wit of something like “The Goonies,” and that’s what this really is, it’s a thematic sequel.

Now it has elements of magic, it has elements of fantasy, which I’ve been dealing with since “Gremlins” and “Young Sherlock Holmes,” so yeah, it’s connected to a lot of my earlier work that I did as a writer.

Tavis: So top-line this for me. Tell me about some of the characters here, what the journey is.

Columbus: The journey is essentially three kids who move into a house in San Francisco, two sisters and a brother, with their parents, and it’s the house of a writer named Denver Kristoff. Now, Kristoff was a writer like Ray Harryhausen, HP Lovecraft, wrote fantasy novels.

When they move into the house there’s about 150 of Kristoff’s books there. They cover every genre, from World War I to the Old West to outer space. Their parents, presumably dead at the beginning of the book, the kids are magically transported into three of the novels, which connect with each other in the story.

The reason it’s exciting for Ned and I to write this is because the canvas is never-ending. It’s an eternal sort of blank canvas, because we can play with and experiment with any genre we’d like.

Tavis: I’m always amazed at writers and directors and authors, songwriters, who start something and they put it down and literally 10, 15, 20 years later they come back to it and they say timing is everything, and then you end up with this.

Columbus: Right.

Tavis: For you, what was that like, putting something down and coming back to it a decade later?

Columbus: Trust me, I put a lot of stuff down that’s lousy, that’s bad. You open the drawer 10 years later and you’re like, it should stay in the drawer. (Laughter) I should feed it to the cat.

But this, this stayed with me, and this was something that I would think about every couple of years. I was like it was the one that got away. Why can’t I turn this into a film? I was not thinking broadly enough.

Then when I got the idea to do the novel, I thought now this idea can live and breathe and exist the way it deserves to exist.

Tavis: This is your first time doing a novel.

Columbus: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of the process? The directing thing you can do in your sleep, and you’ve done it remarkably well, to the tunes of millions and millions and millions of dollars. But what do you make of this process now?

Columbus: This process is great because – and I needed to co-write it, not because I needed experience as a writer. I consider my first job being a writer, being a screenwriter. That’s my first love.

But I didn’t have the time to sit down and lock myself in a room for six months, because I have a film company to run. So for me, collaborating with Ned particularly has been one of the great joys in my life, because I would – every couple of days I’d open a new email and there would be a chapter, and then I would rewrite it and send him back a chapter.

I had two days to work on the novel and then two or three days to work on the film business, and it was a great combination. Also, I was able to spend – (laughs) I guess having been a parent for 20 years, taking 20 years of experience with my own teenagers and toddlers and kids fighting and arguing at the dinner table, it’s been in a memory bank for years. I’ve been able to transport that dialogue into this book.

Tavis: Yeah. Can you see already, given your creative genius, can you see already the next phase, the next chapter, the next iteration of this? Since you mentioned that there is this blank canvas, basically, you can paint on?

Columbus: We’re 130 pages into the second book already, yeah. Yeah, we love it. We love the process, and Ned and I have only met in person four times. We’ve been doing this all over – you know.

Tavis: What do you make of, then, of the beauty of this sort of organic connection, not even knowing this guy, really?

Columbus: Well here’s the thing – as I went into it, and I know based on my own experience that I’m going to go in and he’s a younger writer, he’s 20 years younger than I am. I don’t want him to feel either intimidated; I don’t want him to feel that we’re not doing this on equal grounds.

I said to him, “Look, when I send you a chapter, if there’s something you don’t like, cut it. Get rid of it. Use your own voice in certain areas where you feel it’s appropriate, and if you send something to me and I don’t like it, I’m going to cut it.” We have to have that complete lack of ego about what we’re writing, because the book is the only thing that matters.

Tavis: Yeah. Well, you got it done. The book is called “House of Secrets.” It’s the first book from Chris Columbus, co-written with Ned Vizzini. We know he’s a great director, and now we get to ascertain whether or not he’s a great writer. (Laughter)

Columbus: Read it and you’ll find out.

Tavis: No, of course, of course. I can tell you what JK Rowling says – “A breakthrough roller-coaster of an adventure.”

That’s a nice endorsement.

Columbus: Yeah, and it continues on the back.

Tavis: And she ought to know.

Columbus: We’ve plastered it everywhere. (Laughter) But I sent her the book early. I sent it to her to get some advice, and she came back and said look, you guys are – she loved the book but she said it’s too fast-paced. Slow it down a little bit, add some more character stuff, and we took her advice and rolled with it.

Tavis: And here it is. Congratulations, Chris.

Columbus: Thanks.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

Columbus: Nice to see you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Last modified: April 18, 2013 at 12:40 am