Chris Columbus Interview: Talking with the Pixels Director

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ComingSoon.net Sits Down with Pixels Director Chris Columbus to Talk About Video Games and Adam Sandler

There are few filmmakers who have had as an illustrious career when it comes to making a mark in pop culture as Chris Columbus, whose early scripts for movies like Goonies and Gremlins made him one of the hottest writers in Hollywood during the ‘80s. Moving into the ‘90s, he was working as much behind the camera directing movies like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire with the late great Robin Williams, and he continued that run with the first two “Harry Potter” movies in the early ‘00s.

Columbus’ latest movie Pixels teams him with comedy superstar Adam Sandler, as it takes a premise from the ambitious short film with the same title and creates an alien invasion movie in which the aliens use classic ‘80s video games to attack the Earth. It co-stars Kevin James —as the President of the United States, of course — and Josh Gad as another one of their childhood buddies, Ludlow Lamonsoff, as well as their mortal enemy (Peter Dinklage), all called upon to battle the aliens in a winner-take-all video game face-off. 

It’s certainly different for Columbus to be directing an Adam Sandler movie per se, but his fingerprints are all over the movie (in a good way) most notably in the characters and the exciting set pieces when Earth’s greatest video game players fight back.

ComingSoon.net last spoke to Columbus five years ago for Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and we had two chances to talk to him about Pixels.

So first, we sat down with Columbus at Dave and Busters in Times Square for a really short video interview where we mainly talked about what got him interested in working with Adam Sandler on this concept, as well as the unconventional casting, including that of Peter Dinklage. 

The next day, we sat down with Columbus for a longer interview where we got more into the nitty-gritty of getting the rights to some of the video games, recreating them using FX and large-scale sets built on the Toronto soundstages and more. He even talked about one of the decisions that could have had a major impact on his life and career when he had to choose between directing “Harry Potter” and another movie.

chris columbusComingSoon.net: I want to talk about the video games in the movie. You have all the classics. I was curious about getting the rights, because I remember when Disney was doing “Wreck-It Ralph,” there was always issues about getting some of the Nintendo characters, but you got to use almost all of them, including Q*bert and most of them have massive scenes.

Chris Columbus: When I read the script for the first time, Centipede and Pac-Man were in the movie. We didn’t have a lockdown on Pac-Man yet and there was no Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong, to me, was the Holy Grail. I just wanted Donkey Kong to be in the movie. So basically, what we had to do is create conceptual art, and also, create an animatic, a very detailed animated version of the sequence, with the lenses I would be using and everything. Then, we had conferences with Nintendo. After a few months and after they realized that we were going to treat their characters with respect, they gave us permission to use Donkey Kong. Some companies were a little easier. I mean, Pac-Man, it was really Professor Iwatani himself who really went up to bat for us to get Pac-Man.

CS: Was part of the deal that he got a cameo in the movie as well?

Chris Columbus: It was our way of thanking him, you know? He was very helpful. It was interesting. Dealing with those gaming companies was the thing that inspired the Iwatani scene, because what happened is I realized that some of these guys were so obsessed, they said, “We love our characters. Please treat them with respect.” I thought, “What if there’s a guy who really loves these characters?” I wrote that scene, where his hand is bitten off. I sent it to our producers, Adam and Steve and Allen Covert and they said, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to put this in the movie.”

CS: And it made it into all of the commercials and trailers.

Chris Columbus: I know, it’s a “Pinocchio” moment, yeah.

CS: So were you working on trying to get these rights almost as soon as you came on board?

Chris Columbus: I know they were developing the script for some time before I got involved, then yeah, it was a two-year process.

CS: I noticed the Pong scene was very short, so were there limitations on how some of the games were used?

Chris Columbus: No, there’s a cameo from someone that I don’t want to mention, because it’s a nice surprise, a tiny surprise. It lasts for seconds. That was the only restriction we had on time. But at the end of the movie, I wanted to recreate sort of the feeling of reading those old Mort Drucker “Mad” magazines. The panels where Mort would put so many little things in the corners. Then, there was Sergio Aragones’ cartoons. So I thought, “It would be great to pack each frame with as many references as I could physically put in the frame.” I don’t think we were turned down by anyone. But it is fun to hear people spotting Burger Time or Paper Boy or even Space Invaders.

CS: I think part of that is places like Barcade. Mike Ryan, who you spoke to earlier, has a birthday at Barcade every year, so every local movie journalist in town knows these games, but also, 21-year olds who may not have been around in their heyday know these games, too, which is why the movie seems to play so well.

Chris Columbus: That’s pretty great. It’s pretty fun, the Barcade. It plays well with adults and kids. The goal is really–and I only found this out recently–is that the kids really seem to know those characters. I mean, literally, it sounds like a joke, but I was out on the street in front of the premiere yesterday and there was a little girl on her dad’s shoulders. She couldn’t have been more than five or six. She pointed up at our giant Pac-Man and she goes, “Pac-Man!” I thought, “Wow. So the kids know these characters for some reason.” They can go with their parents who probably played the games, and it’s kind of a nice bonding experience.

CS: They’re iconic, also thanks to the internet, like for instance, Google had that Pac-Man game on their front page to commemorate its anniversary.

Chris Columbus: Oh, I remember that. Yeah. I was very excited about that. One of the other guys I was talking to earlier said that a lot of these arcade machines are in laundromats in Queens and stuff.

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CS: You have kids yourself. I don’t know how old they are, but do you you use them as a test audience at all? At what point do they see it?

Chris Columbus: My son, he kind of was working on the movie with me. He was working as a production assistant when we were doing the film in Toronto. Basically, he’s a film fanatic. He really puts me to shame, and I think I’m a film buff, so I’ve showed him the film. He came to the first preview, so he’s seen every version of the film. He’s been very helpful, my son Brendan, giving me some notes and telling me how to cut the movie a little tighter and stuff. My other kids have seen it in later stages. They’re all into film. My daughter Eleanor and I run this independent film company. It’s called Maiden Voyage, which is why I don’t direct as much as I used to. We try to help first-time filmmakers find funding for their films, all films under $2 million. So we’ve been kind of really successful over the last two years in terms of helping these filmmakers. Not really huge commercial films we’re getting involved with, they’re small films. We’ve been to Cannes twice. I mean, I’m sorry. We’ve been to Sundance twice and we were just at Cannes with “Mediterranean.” We were at Sundance with “The Witch.”

CS: Oh you worked on that? I just interviewed Slash from Guns and Roses and he was raving about “The Witch.” He loved it. It’s pretty intense.

Chris Columbus: Yeah, and he won Best Director, which was great.

CS: I wanted to talk about turning these video games into larger-than-life FX-driven set pieces. You’ve done a lot of FX-driven movies in recent years. What were some of the challenges of creating the video games and integrating them with practical locations and practical and the actors?

Chris Columbus: Well, it becomes slightly more challenging because you have to do a lot of things practically, but I wanted to do it that way. As directors these days, we have a CGI toolbox that enables us to basically create entire CGI sequences. I wanted the CGI, even though there’s a lot of it, to be integrated into the practicality of the sets themselves. I wanted the actors to be on real sets, so we built the entire Donkey Kong set.

CS: To scale? Even vertically? You could actually go there and there were different levels and everything?

Chris Columbus: Yeah, well, we took up three sound stages, so we built the platforms to scale so the actors could run on the platforms and climb the ladders. Because it was physically impossible to get that high, there were sections of three, two and two, I remember. The actors could be like, 75 to 100 feet in the air on harnesses and it was grueling.

CS: And you went full scale?

Chris Columbus: Full scale. It was awesome, but it was also terrifying, you know? Kevin has a fear of heights, but they were all harnessed. I’d have to go talk to them on a harness and I was terrified. I’m walking. They’re jumping. But again, it gives it that sort of handmade quality. Then, when you add the CGI moments later, there’s a feeling that, “Oh, I’m in a real location.” Because for some reason, an audience, when they see too much CGI, they’re aware of it. It’s a subconscious thing. I don’t know why, but they can tell.

CS: Perhaps there’s been so much of it and we’re getting so used to it, and also because of people like me, who goes behind the scenes and finds out more about it. It’s all my fault there’s not as much magic as there used to be.

Chris Columbus: Right. That’s true, but that’s okay. I like people to know how things are made. But the same thing with the Pac-Man sequence. We shot it all practically. There’s a real car chase for four weeks and nights.

CS: Was that actually outside on location?

Chris Columbus: It was outside in Toronto, yeah.

CS: Was the entire movie shot in Toronto? I know it can pass for New York but you have so many locations in the movie.

Chris Columbus: It was all Toronto. There was a moment where it’s four in the morning and Josh Gad is running down the streets of Toronto being chased by a golf cart surrounded by bright yellow lights. It looked ridiculous in the dailies because he’s being chased by a golf cart, but it added that interactive light and that reality.

CS: It’s amazing you guys were so under the radar. I feel like these days, people are on the streets shooting all sorts of stuff, and I don’t think I saw anything. Was it so late at that night that people were sleeping?

Chris Columbus: Yeah, I don’t think any of that footage was leaked. The only stuff I saw in the newspaper was I think Dinklage, Ashley Benson and Josh, somebody snapped a few pictures when they were doing the sequence in Washington D.C.

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CS: That’s a good example of what I mean, that Washington D.C. scene. There’s different elements of CG, because you have to create D.C. in the background. There’s no Washington Monument in Toronto, and you have things in Toronto you have to get rid of.

Chris Columbus: We had to cut the buildings in half, because no building in Washington D.C. can be higher than I think 12 stories or something. So yeah, there was a lot of that, but it was still practically on the streets, every time I’d go out on the street, it was hilarious. There were hundreds and hundreds of pixelized cars that were built, all the destruction was setup. Then later, we would just add a little bit of light or something to them.

CS: I remember at Comic-Con last year, you guys were still in the middle of shooting and that’s less than a year of post-production, which is amazing. So were you guys just doing a lot in advance?

Chris Columbus: We’d hand over sequences early, yeah.

CS: Let’s talk about some other things you’ve done, because you now have a 30-year plus career of movies with a lot of classics including “Goonies,” “Gremlins” and “Home Alone.” You also worked with Robin Williams at the height of his career. “Mrs. Doubtfire’s” still kind of a classic. At this point, do you look back at stuff and feel like you can move beyond them? You’re not trying to write or produce remakes of any of those films.

Chris Columbus: There’s talks of a remake of “Gremlins” and “Goonies” and I’m a little involved only because they’re going to do it with or without me, so I want to make sure that whatever is done is treated with respect. If it’s not the right thing, I would certainly voice my opinion and say that maybe it’s not such a good idea. But I’m really more concerned about moving forward and longevity’s always been a big part of it. I was always very inspired by people like Clint Eastwood, who moved on and did different things later, even I think, what, Clint has got to be 80 something now. He made two movies last year. So that to me is inspirational, you know?

CS: He had one of the biggest hits in his entire career last year.

Chris Columbus: Yeah, it was unbelievable, that’s inspirational to me. You kind of never know what is going to come next, but I’d like to do something a little smaller, maybe. I’d love to do something dramatic. It just has to be the right thing. I mean, it’s interesting. Some of the best scripts I’ve read, I’ve got there too late over the last couple of years, things like “The Imitation Game,” “Argo.” I was like a couple of weeks late. Somebody else was on the movie and I read them and I was like, “Damn.” But, I realized, “Okay.” So I know the kind of movies. I know strong material. I’ve been doing it long enough. I’m just going to wait. I’m just going to wait until I find that right piece of material to maybe do something dramatic.

CS: You mentioned developing these movies that were at Sundance. Is that something important to you, to find the next generation of filmmaker and help them get through the system?

Chris Columbus: Well, it’s more about helping them get that first film made. The first four films in Maiden Voyage have been first-time filmmakers, and that’s why it’s called Maiden Voyage, but at the same time, if there’s a filmmaker who it has to be his second film, Eleanor and I, who run the company, would say, “Okay, well, we would support you, even though it’s your second film.” But I get such a tremendous amount of joy and inspiration from working with these kids. Some of them aren’t kids, they’re like 31, 32, but it’s their first film, so all the Hollywood stuff is pushed away and it’s all about making the film. There’s a purity that’s just awesome because it happens. What’s happening today, as you well know better than anyone is, someone will make a great independent film and then they’re hired on the next “Thor” movie or whatever.

CS: They have to deal with that whole other level where they’re trying to be creative, but also it’s very hard.

Chris Columbus: Right. Yeah, it’s like one of the best debuts I’ve seen in the last couple of years was Ryan Coogler in “Fruitvale.” I have high hopes for “Creed.”

CS: I think it’s going to be good from what I’ve seen.

Chris Columbus: Yeah, it looks great. It looks like you’re going back to the first “Rocky.”

CS: Considering how “Pixels” turned out, it seems like you have a good relationship with Sony, so have you thought about doing more with them even just producing?

Chris Columbus: Yeah, it depends on what it would be. It’s funny, in 2000, there was a point when the studio was deciding whether or not, “Okay, are we going to put Columbus on ‘Potter’?” I hate to refer to myself in the third person, but they said that, then I was getting a lot of heavy pressure to do “Spider-Man.” So I had to make a decision. I ended up going with “Potter” because I felt more strongly about “Potter,” even though “Spider-Man’s” probably the reason I ended up being a filmmaker. Those comic books really inspired me. So I always harbored a desire to do a “Spider-Man” movie, so maybe someday, you know? It’s interesting. I think they’re going back and doing the origin again, I don’t know.

CS: They’re not going to do the origin, but at one point, they wanted to do spin-off movies , so maybe one of those would be up your alley.

Chris Columbus: I’d like to do an older “Spider-Man” movie. I don’t even know if anybody’s ever dealt with him, the comics, because I don’t read comics as much as I used to, but somebody’s dealt with him at age 43 with kids.

CS: In the movies, they just get younger and younger. It will be “Spider-Baby,” eventually.

Chris Columbus: That’s true.

Pixels opens on Friday, July 24 with previews on Thursday night. You can also watch video interviews with the cast including Adam Sandler right here