Interview of the week: Chris Columbus

By KAREN BUTLER   |   Nov. 22, 2001 at 10:29 AM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Acclaimed filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Sam Mendes gave director Chris Columbus conflicting advice just before he began working on his latest blockbuster, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."

Spielberg, for whom Columbus wrote scripts for "Gremlins" and "The Goonies" in the 1980s, told him there was only one child who could play the fictitious boy wizard: Haley Joel Osment, the pint-sized star of "The Sixth Sense" and Spielberg's unsuccessful sci-fi flick "AI: Artificial Intelligence."

But, Mendes, the director of the Oscar-winning film "American Beauty," emphatically disagreed, warning Columbus, "The kid's got to be British," since the story is set in England and all of the characters are British.

Columbus sided with Mendes over his mentor and hired relatively unknown 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe to play the part. The result, thus far, has been box-office gold.

Yet, in a recent interview with United Press International, Columbus was quick to clarify that a big payday was not what he was after when he fought to direct and executive produce a movie based on the phenomenally popular children's tales.

Describing himself, producer David Heyman and screenwriter Steve Kloves as "really, truly obsessive fans about the book," Columbus insisted: "We wanted to protect it for the fans. We wanted all the people who loved the books to feel like they were experiencing as much as you can give them on film. I would have preferred to give them all seven hours, but I know that's (impossible.)"

"For a film like this, you have to be hungry and obsessed and I think that was probably why I got the job," he added, explaining that his desire to remain as faithful to the book as possible was another reason why Warner Brothers may have hired him over dozens of other filmmakers.

The 43-year-old Pennsylvania native first gained fame writing movies like "Gremlins," "The Goonies" and "Young Einstein" in the 1980s, following that up by directing a series of popular, sentimental family comedies like "Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Nine Months" and "Stepmom" in the 1990s.

Columbus said that directing "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" greatly appealed to him because it allowed him to return to the "darker, sort of edgier action adventure kids films" that launched his career.

"I've been reading about myself, over the last couple of years, getting all soft and sentimental and I thought, 'I'm not this guy,'" Columbus explained. "I really am not. And I was starting to get angry about it and even before Harry Potter came along, I said I want to go back to doing the kinds of pictures I was writing, which were pictures like 'Gremlins' and 'Young Sherlock Holmes' and then when I read Harry Potter I thought it was a logical extension of my writing career ... "

Columbus pointed out that the key to successfully adapting "Harry Potter ... " to the screen was in finding children audiences could believe actually were the book's three main characters -- Harry, Ron and Hermione.

"The strength of the picture is that the audience cared about these characters," he said. "The special effects are just the icing on the cake."

J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has said she plans to write one book for each of Harry's seven years at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The four novels she has already written have spent many weeks on best-seller lists around the world.

Warner Brothers has already committed to doing a sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," but it is unclear how many more films will star the original young cast.

Asked if he plans to helm the remaining films in the surefire franchise, Columbus replied: "If I do them at this pace, I probably won't survive, but I am down for the second one and I'd like to stick around for as long as the kids do because to let these kids go with another director ... we've formed a tight bond and it's a nice repertory company we have here ... I would love to do the films as long as the kids are involved."

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