It’s interesting to listen to director Chris Columbus talk about longevity. As he listed off movie after movie that are still very much a part of our cultural landscape – everything from Gremlins and Goonies (which Columbus wrote) to Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire (which he directed) – all of these movies received mixed reviews. If you look at Home Alone’s Rotten Tomatoes page, you will be greeted by a big rotten splat. This is a movie that people still love today. Chris Columbus may have the record for movies “not loved by critics, but held up with society at large.” (I have no statistics to back up this claim, but there does seem to be a trend with Chris Columbus movies.)
Columbus’ new film is Pixels, about a ragtag group of ex-arcade masters – which includes Adam Sandler, Kevin James and Peter Dinklage – who are recruited by the President of the United States (which is, crazily, James’ character) to fight an invading alien force. The aliens have based their entire attacking force on video game technology that the U.S. government taped and put on an exploration spacecraft 33 years ago. So, in other words, Pac-Man and Galaga are here to attack us and these people have to stop Pac-Man and Galaga.
I met Columbus in a Midtown Manhattan hotel on a desolate floor that did happen to have a nice enough couch. Over the course of this interview, we managed to name check a good number of Columbus’s “greatest hits,” – including the films mentioned above and the first two blockbuster Harry Potter movies – as well as the the never-ending rumors that The Goonies and Gremlins will both see revivals. (If I were betting money based on Columbus’s body language, I would bet we see a Gremlins movie before we ever, or never, see another Goonies adventure.)
There’s a scene in Pixels where Adam Sandler lectures a kid about the good old days of video game arcades and socializing. When I went to arcades, I don’t remember anyone ever telling me I was doing a good thing. Every generation really does think, “It was better in our day.”
Yeah, exactly, and that’s been going on for generation after generation after generation. The ironic thing about it is, having children of my own – and my son, in particularly, who plays video games constantly with his friends – it is very social. He’s not playing alone; he’s playing with three other people in a room and they’re having a conversation about everything as they’re playing. I remember my parents saying the same thing about comic books, ironically, “You are reading trash.” And now…
And now it’s a big part of my job…
It’s absolutely true. And comic books, particularly, because it’s not the prime form of entertainment in the summertime, as far as movies.
This is an oddball story.
From a story standpoint, what was the hardest part to set up?
Well, when I first heard the premise – which can be told to someone in a minute – is very clear…and I love the idea that these guys are kind of lost souls. They go off and they don’t know what to do with their lives. So, we find them in 2015 and one guy is a conspiracy theorist, the other guy is in jail, the other guy is installing TVs for a living.
And the other is President of the United States.
Which is great. And as I was reading the script, those things kept surprising me, which is a good thing. And I just like the idea that the President has to get these guys together to actually save the planet because they are the only ones who are good at these video games. So, for me, it was such a delightful concept, I just had to do it.
So, the aliens received a tape from 1982. But then they reference things that happened after ’82, like Max Headroom. Is that just a concession you have to make in a movie for a joke?
It’s funny you mention Max Headroom. We debated about that a long time because we did have to cheat slightly because he’s not 1982. But, again, it’s such an interesting way to go and it’s funny and it’s great. And I thought, well, some people will — you, particularly – will get that it’s not 1982. And I think the Madonna clip might be ’84.
I’m probably being nitpicky.
But the great thing is with what you’re touching on, we did have internal disputes for days, sometimes weeks, about stuff. When we did the Breakout scene in India for instance, we found out as we were designing the scene that it was a later version of Breakout we were designing. So, Sandler was furious.
Oh yeah, he was furious. He’s like, “We can’t do this. It has to be the ’82 version.”
Was he mad about Max Headroom, too?
We talked about Headroom a long time. He wasn’t angry about it, we just had a discussion about, “Do you think we will be able to get away with it?” And I said, “I think 95 percent to 97 percent of the audience won’t know it’s not 1982.”
And then it’s my second question.
Where these characters are in their lives reminds me of where the Goonies probably are today. One would be in jail…
[Laughs] Which may be a way to get into, if we ever do the sequel to The Goonies, maybe that’s the way into it actually. I never thought about that.
Every couple of years, someone involved with The Goonies says something about a new movie and it becomes a thing. So now there’s going to be another round of this.
Exactly. There is talk about trying to figure out a way to reboot it or do a sequel – the sequel is going to be almost impossible, I think. For years, people have been saying to me, “Why don’t you direct a movie like the movies you wrote, like Gremlins or The Goonies?” So when I read Pixels, it was an opportunity to recreate that feeling, that Amblin-esque feeling, that we had in ’85.
The beginning of this movie takes place in 1982, and it really did feel like 1982, just the way it looked.
Yeah, we shot it in anamorphic lenses. We really wanted to recreate that look. I think the bottom line is, you can’t define it. I just lived through it and it’s part of my DNA, so I was able to bring that evocative feeling to the screen.
There are a lot of deep cuts arcade game characters in this movie. I saw the egg from Burger Time.
That was a fairly deep cut. That’s sort of the joy I had with that final sequence, which is the ability to take these deep cuts, as you call them, and place them in the background like the old Mort Drucker Mad magazine – when every panel was filled with something in the corner and there were Sergio Aragonés cartoons.
Were you an arcade person?
I was just a little too old to go to arcades, it would have been creepy, so I played video games in bars in Manhattan. When I moved to Manhattan, I was 18, and they had those table top Donkey Kong and Pac-Man games, so you’d play across from someone.
They had those at Pizza Hut.
[Laughs] That’s true! But I was more interested in going to the bar and playing them.
I was eight, so I was at Pizza Hut.
So those were the two games I knew really well when I got into the project. So I had to relearn games like Galaga and Centipede and Joust and Q*Bert.
Q*Bert himself has a big part in this movie. Are kids going to have any idea what that is?
What’s amazing to me is that kids don’t know what a Q*Bert is, but they react to him immediately. He’s sort of our Gizmo in the movie. My niece saw the movie last night – my niece is seven – and my niece said, “You didn’t tell me there’s a better movie than Frozen out there.” Now that’s her!
That’s my headline, “Chris Columbus says Pixels is better than Frozen.”
[Laughs] I didn’t say it! My niece said it! But it’s interesting there’s this sense of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, particularly.
Is Peter Dinklage’s character based on Billy Mitchell?
Part of his performance is inspired by Billy Mitchell.
I know you had nothing to do with Gremlins 2, but what did you think about it?
That was back in the day when there wasn’t this studio obsession with franchises. So, to me, from a pure filmmaking point of view, I felt Gremlins existed as one movie and that was it.
It’s almost a statement on sequels more than it is a sequel.
They asked me to write the movie initially — and I was like, I have no interest. I always just wanted to move forward with the next project. So, after Gremlins, it went directly into Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes. And after that, because there was a little bit of success with those movies, I was able to direct. So it wasn’t interesting going back and writing a sequel to those movies.
Did you go to a theater and see Gremlins 2?
Oh, yeah, I was fascinated. But I literally knew nothing. I don’t even remember if I had read the screenplay. I just wanted to go see the movie to see how it worked.
And I’m fascinated what your reaction was sitting in that movie theater.
Remembering my reaction, my reaction was that I like the movie, but it only should have existed as one film. It felt complete. Now, cut to 30 years later and we are talking about rebooting Gremlins. Is it possible? Again, they are going to make it with or without me, so I’m involved because I want to protect it. We’ll see. It’s a very difficult process.
Speaking of reboots, how has Home Alone not been rebooted yet?
It’s going to happen. I don’t know it’s going to happen, but I think you’re absolutely right. It’s a matter of a year or two or three years. Maybe they’ll read this interview [laughs].
The Joe Pesci character will now be played by J.K. Simmons.
[Laughs] There you go. That’s perfect, right!
And Daniel Stern will be Bobby Moynihan.
I love Bobby Moynihan. I’m a huge fan of Bobby Moynihan.
It will be like the new Vacation, but now it’s an adult Kevin McCallister who forgets his kid.
It’s so funny you mention that, this was talked about maybe 10 years ago – I don’t know, we were just having fun with it – and we said, “What if Kevin is an adult and he has a kid?” But it was still Pesci and Stern – Pesci and Stern are still obsessed with this kid. They’re going to get his kid.
Since the second Harry Potter movie, you haven’t directed as much as you used to. Why is that?
It was interesting. It started with The Help, actually. I was looking for something I wanted to direct. And I did The Help because Steven Spielberg asked me to be on the set every single day. It was Tate Taylor’s first time as director and we really wanted to support him. And so I was really an active producer.
So someone else is the director, but you are there. What’s that like?
It was a little difficult not to step in. But I learned how to be a sort of elegant producer, I guess is the way to call it. Not to be a bully. If you have a suggestion, find the right time. Because I know, as a director, producers hovering around you can get pretty annoying. So, I produced that and I was looking for something else to do … I don’t know if you saw The Witch?
I saw it at Sundance.
So, The Witch is something we are really obsessed with.
That movie is crazy.
It’s great. And Robert Eggers won best director … I’ve been really obsessed with helping these kids get their dream films made. At least when I’m not directing, I’m still going to direct…
Well, obviously, here we are…
[Laughs] Obviously, we are talking about the movie I just directed. But I’m still looking, actively looking. I’m still inspired by people like Clint Eastwood. I love longevity. I love the fact I’ve been able to work for 30 years. I love the fact that Eastwood directed two movies last year.
What was your reaction the first time you saw Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban completed? It’s such a tonal shift from the two Potter films you directed. Alfonso Cuarón still jokes it’s the lowest grossing Potter film, but people love it now.
I’m a producer on it, so it really was guided by all of us. We knew when we were starting Potter where the series was going. We had extensive meetings with Jo Rowling and she said the books are going to get progressively darker. Azkaban was already out as a book at that point, and that was darker. And Chamber of Secrets was darker than Sorcerer’s Stone. And she said they were going to just keep getting darker and darker and darker. So we had to shape the series to move in that direction. It’s subtle, but there is a change between Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, does get a little darker.
But then it’s a huge shift.
It’s a huge change. But we were there the whole time and we saw where it was going and we knew where Alfonzo was taking it. But it really was a concerted effort and the other films followed suit.
Looking back now, are you surprised how much people still like Adventures in Babysitting?
You know, the weird thing about it is, somebody yesterday said, “What do you think about the critical response to Pixels?” And you know, I’ve had a career, if you go back to Gremlins and Goonies and Adventures in Babysitting…
Home Alone got mixed reviews…
So did Mrs. Doubtfire! These movies were all mixed. Now I’m talking to people and they’re like, “Oh, my God, you changed my life with Goonies.” And I’m like, that’s the key, the longevity. If you’re watching it on television 20 years from now, does it still hold up? I used to say that in interviews about Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire and they are still on TV and they still hold up, so something is working. So, no, I’m not surprised by Adventures in Babysitting. Now, I’d be surprised if someone came up and said, ”God, you changed my life with Heartbreak Hotel [laughs],” because six people have seen it. And I’m pretty self-critical, so I know the movies that worked and the ones that didn’t work.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.