Stand at either end of a New York City subway car and look straight ahead of you. Then watch the “Santa Fe” number in the film adaptation of “Rent” and you will immediately understand what a technical feat it is to set something like that on the subway, assuming you know how many cables and people it takes to operate a 35mm camera with 1000 foot mags.
Chris Columbus is up there with the most successful filmmakers of all time. He has very few films to his credit. A mere 13 as director in the last 20 years. But his successes, which are a great percentage of his work, are monumental. But he has managed to stay away from the spotlight for the most part as a character himself. When he burst on the scene there was no one dubbing him “the next Spielberg”, though I think he may fit the bill better than, let’s say, a Shyamalan.
A Tisch alum, he first broke in by writing the script for Spielberg’s (–cough cough– Joe Dante’s) “Gremlins”, a film that changed our business forever by impressing the PG-13 rating on the public and reinventing the creature feature. Then came his directorial debut, with a young Elisabeth Shue hanging off a skyscraper in “Adventures in Babysitting” in ’87. The film is a romp that I grew up on and still love to this day.
But his fate was sealed in 1990 with the first film phenomenon I ever experienced. I grew up in the town of Holland, PA, about 250 miles from Columbus’s PA hometown Spangler (what a great name, right?), and we would travel a few miles to thee closest nearby multiplex (it had 4 screens), the Eric in Feasterville. We went to plenty of movies there when I was little, but there’s one night above all others that stands out in my mind because it was so ludicrous and surprising. the line to see “Home Alone” actually went from the box office inside out through the lobby and about halfway through the parking lot. We must have waited an hour or so. And this wasn’t a midnight screening or anything, this was just an average showing of the film, and people were waiting! I was amazed by the line itself as an impressionable 6 year old, but then I saw the film.
This $15 million comedy made over $285 million in the US alone. It was a juggernaut, and for good reason. The film is a great comedy with some fine acting, and of course the discovery of Macauley Culkin. If Derek Jones ever reads this, I hope he’s thinking “Fuller, easy on the Pepsi”. Who among us hasn’t slapped their hands to their cheeks and screamed to imitate the film. It’s the result of real comic genius, and John Huges’ script is a big part of that success. I would witness this phenomenon again with “Mrs. Doubtfire”.
I’ve gone off point again. I’ve got to get better at paying attention when I write.
Ah yes, here’s the point. Columbus is still busy. He directed the first two Potter films, and he was also a major force in getting the project off the ground. It seems as though the films could just make themselves, and the highest bidder would get to put their name on it, but it’s really not that simple. We know that the films never needed to be made for the book was successful enough. The business of book rights for film can be an ugly one. We know that more often than not, it’s because our friends in the literry business choose to sell the rights instead of starving. Writing is a much more cutthroat form of distribution with a much lower return, so people sell ideas to the (uncreative) studios to turn a buck. But JK Rowling had more money than any author could imagine in a lifetime, and she was hellbent on retaining the purity of the written word.
Under Columbus, Hogwarts came to life, beloved characters had faces, and magic spells were visualized. He set up the way the franchise would play out, and while I don’t believe that his films were the best of the lot., they certainly provided and talent set of directors with a wide range of tools with which to work. That is commendable.
And of course, “Rent” was a phenomenal adaptation. Some of the concepts for the numbers were so amazing, from a moving camera along a fiery street to the great subway scene. For those who love camera gear, the subway song “Santa Fe” employed the Alien Revolution, a wicked play on the Steadicam.
Perhaps another day I can give a more coherent account of the man’s work. Let’s listen to the pseudo-Spielberg talk!