From Gremlins, and Goonies, to Home Alone and Harry Potter, Filmmaker Chris Columbus Tackles Faith in His New Film, The Young Messiah
By his own admission, writer, director and producer Chris Columbus is drawn to stories that can be told through the eyes of a child, and a glance at his work proves he has a gift for turning those stories into hit films. With a resume that includes more than 65 films, including household names like Goonies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Night at the Museum and even, The Help, Columbus’ most recent work, The Young Messiah, offers a unique perspective. Columbus took time from his busy schedule to talk with Risen about the film, his career, faith and even the repercussions of sharing such a famous name.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: How did your love for movies develop?
Chris Columbus: My parents were both factory workers and I was an only child, so I had a lot of time to spend working on art. I wanted to be an artist at one point, then I wanted to draw comic books, and my love for comics put me into a zone where I realized drawing comics from different angles, each panel sort of represented a shot from a film. And I thought to myself, “I don’t want to sit in a room for twelve hours a day and work by myself. I’d like to work with people.” I read a Time magazine article about film schools – I had never even heard of film schools – and then I decided to apply to NYU (New York University) because it was the closest film school to where I was growing up in Ohio. I went to NYU and fell in love with making films. I wrote my first screenplay when I was there. I was a junior, and my script was optioned by a Hollywood producer, so I started working when I was in college.
RM: Steven Spielberg optioned your script for Gremlins (1984) and then you wrote a couple more scripts for him including Goonies (1985). How did meeting Spielberg impact your career and what was your relationship like?
CC: Gremlins was just an odd idea I wanted to get down on paper and so I wrote the script on spec, which means you write it for no money and then you send it out and hope someone will buy it. I sent it to about fifty producers and the way Steven tells the story; he was leaving his office on a Friday evening and looking for something to read. He picked up the Gremlins script because he liked the title. He read it that weekend and decided he wanted to buy the script and make the movie. That was really my first connection with Steven and then we hit it off in the first meeting and I moved out to Los Angeles and we started working on the story and the screenplay for Goonies. I wrote Goonies when I was in the Amblin offices [Spielberg’s production company] in Los Angeles. [At Amblin] I would have the benefit of writing three or four pages and then running down the hallway to Steven’s office, showing him the pages, and he would make a couple of suggestions and I would go back and write it. It was like graduate school of filmmaking at that point.
RM: You’ve produced more than 30 films including some of my favorites like the Night at the Museum films, three of the Harry Potter movies, and you even got nominated for an Oscar for The Help. Why was it important to add The Young Messiah to that list?
CC: My love of movies goes across the board of every genre. I love horror films, I love comedies, I love dramatic films. When I was approached by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who had written a couple of scripts for us, he mentioned he had a conversation with Anne Rice who wrote the book, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which Cyrus read, and he fell in love with the idea of making it into a film. We all then read the book and loved the concept of it because I had never seen anything like it. I had always wanted to do a film about Jesus and I had also felt that most of the films I had seen in Hollywood that were depictions of Jesus just felt so reverential and flat. As a kid, Jesus was a hero, because He was obviously this extremely charismatic, amazing person who could touch many people’s lives.
There is a reason He had followers. People fell in love with Him and I never really saw that personality on screen. I always wanted to make that film, but then this came along which really has nothing to do with my own desire to make a film about the life of Jesus, but I loved the concept because I had never seen this particular idea. By the time I got to the end of the script I had tears in my eyes because I was so moved by the journey, and the fact that the screenplay and the movie both really do enable people to examine their faith. That’s why I wanted to make this particular movie.
RM: The Young Messiah tells the story of seven-year-old Jesus who returns to Nazareth from Egypt with his family and discovers the truth about who He is. Having the Bible and Anne Rice’s book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt as source material, how did you maintain accuracy while showcasing a unique perspective?
CC: I think seeing this story through the eyes of a seven-year-old Jesus is really remarkable. I’ve made a lot of movies with kids as protagonists. There is just such honesty when you find an actor who brings a real authenticity and naturalism to the role. That’s what I found this young man [Adam Greaves-Neal] had similarly to other child actors I have worked with in the past.
RM: Many are familiar with Mary as the virgin mother to the Son of God, but what the movie did well was depict Mary and Joseph as parents raising their child. Speak to their character and how the dynamics can relate to families today?
CC: I certainly think what makes the film relatable is that we depict Mary, Joseph and Jesus as a real family, and there is a certain reality to what they were going through at the time. The more reality you see in the depiction of the Holy family – a family up against a lot of particular odds, a family with inner conflict about what is going on – the more you get into the real life drama of those situations and the more relatable it is to a viewer. For me, it’s fascinating and if as a filmmaker I can extend my hand from the screen and draw people into the world, then they are involved with the characters. I wanted the audience to feel that they were actually in this world at that time.
I would have the benefit of writing three or four pages and then running down the hallway to Steven’s office, showing him the pages, and he would make a couple of suggestions and I would go back and write it.
RM: What role does faith play in your life and/or in your work?
CC: It’s complicated. Everyone’s own particular version of faith is a bit private, it’s something you carry with you from the moment you are actually aware of what faith you are being raised in. For me, I was raised Catholic. All my children were raised Catholic. They all went to Catholic high schools. We attend mass regularly. Last year my daughter was married in the Catholic Church. So, I’m still very attached and committed to the Church itself. Faith does play a big part in all of our lives. We don’t talk about it all the time. I don’t believe it is important to discuss it constantly with my kids. I have four kids and I know some of my kids are a little more religious than others. We gave them a strong faith-based background, but then there is a point where you have to let them go out into the world and decide for themselves. The thing I learned from being a parent is that you have to let them make their own choices in terms of their lives and their faith.
RM: When it comes to telling stories that resonate with so many, several of your films have kids as central characters. You directed Home Alone (1990), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Stepmom (1998) and even a couple of the Harry Potter films. Why do you find the way a child sees the world so intriguing?
CC: There is a certain magic in the first time you see anything and I guess I am just drawn to those particular stories. I don’t know why, that’s the weird thing. I wish I had a reason. [Laughter] When you read Harry Potter, or when I read the first draft of Home Alone, I was just intrigued by those particular stories. There is a certain innocence to the stories, but there is also a dark quality that I love. I have to admit, I love that there is this darkness lurking behind every door at Hogwarts. I love the idea that even though Kevin is left home alone there is a declension quality of these bad guys trying to break into his house, and at some point, they are actually trying to kill him.
Those were always the best sort of family movies or children’s stories that I loved. Any soft children’s story just wasn’t interesting to me. Even Goonies is about these kids looking for this treasure, but at the same time trying to save their lives because they are being chased by really hideous criminals. I guess I respond to the realization that there is always a darkness lurking behind something that seems innocent. Even in The Young Messiah, to a certain extent, the visions of Satan are pretty dark and that is always something that drew me to biblical stories as well. There is a really heavy dark side to a lot of the stories I first learned about in school; the Old Testament particularly gets very dark. It’s an important side to telling those particular tales.
RM: Speaking of kids, you have four with your wife Monica. What do you hope they think of first when they think of their dad?
CC: One thing I’ve tried to instill in them, and they are all getting a little older now, is that if there is any moment, at any time in their lives, 24/7, that they need me, I’ll be there for them. I’m sure most parents feel the same way, but I want them to know that I will help them in any particular situation until the day I die. I really wanted them to know that if they needed me they can call me, and I will not pass judgment, whatever the situation is, but I am there to help. You have to tell them.
RM: I know you must have a great sense of humor to share a name with the great explorer that discovered America and then name your production company 1492 Pictures, and your second branch Maiden Voyage Films. What is the blessing and the curse to your name?
CC: To be honest with you, it’s my name and I felt that I didn’t want to go all Hollywood and change it when I got into the film business. I stuck with the name and struggled with that for a bit. I thought, “This is a ridiculous name.” My parents gave me the name and there is a sense that you are not going to be taken seriously with that name. Some people don’t know I’m in the film business so when they see my name on a credit card they will laugh and start to make jokes about me having discovered America – which started when I was ten – so you develop a sense of humor about it. I’ve heard every joke about it. There were prank calls to my house as a kid. I think I developed a bit of a thick skin and a sense of humor about it. I struggle with it to this day and think, “I should just do a movie under a pseudonym so people don’t judge the name and they look at the work.” It’s ridiculous because there are certain people I don’t know, or I haven’t met, and how would they ever know if I’ve actually made up the name.
I think seeing this story through the eyes of a seven-year-old Jesus is really remarkable.
RM: Your daughter, Eleanor, is producing now as well. Talk to me about your endeavor working together?
CC: Almost three years ago we formed a production company called Maiden Voyage, that to live up to it’s name, we help first-time film directors get financing for their first features. So, it’s their maiden voyage of filmmaking. We produce the films and we just premiered our fourth film, Tallulah, at Sundance [Film Festival]. It stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney. I love the idea that these kids – some of them aren’t such kids, they are in their late thirties or early forties – get a chance to actually make their dream film. It’s a very rewarding experience. For me, I love it because I get to meet all these younger filmmakers who are really passionate about making their films and they haven’t lost their soul to Hollywood yet. Our films are all two million dollars or under and you’d be astounded at the look of these films.
RM: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers when it comes to getting their work made?CC: Since technology has moved along so quickly my advice has changed. A couple of years ago I would’ve said the cheapest and best way to make it as a filmmaker is by writing. You can sit in a room and write a screenplay and depending on how talented you are, and how determined and ambitious you are, you can convince someone with 120 pages that you know how to make a movie. That is the first piece of advice I would give someone. Even if you are not making a lot of money and just scraping by, you can still write. If you have a little bit of cash on hand you can make a film pretty inexpensively these days. There was a movie last year at Sundance that was made entirely on an iPhone. There are ways to do it, but now you have to figure out what type of technology you want to use. The more expensive route would be to try and round up money from investors and make your film for a few hundred thousand dollars.