Chris Columbus Talks 'Pixels', Video Game Licenses, Pac-Man Creator, Return To Amblin Era And John Hughes

While in Las Vegas for CinemaCon 2015 last week, I got the opportunity to sit down with Chris Columbus, a screenwriter and director who had a dramatic effect on the cinema of my childhood, and yours. Lets do a list: Gremlins, Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Stepmom, and the first installments of the Harry Potter franchise. His latest film Pixels seems to be a return to the roots of his earlier days, and I'm personally excited to see it.

In my interview with Chris Columbus (who turns out to be a daily /Film reader) I ask him if he will ever return to writing original screenplays again like he did with Gremlins and Goonies. He explains how he got involved with Pixels, initially having not seen the viral short film which inspired the movie. He talks a bit about how the licensed video game characters became involved with the project and also talks about Pac Man creator Toru Iwatani's appearance in the film, not as himself (as seen in the trailer) but in a cameo role.

We learn whether or not there was any pressure to differentiate the movie from Ghostbusters, and Columbus talks about a return to the Amblin era of films, whether he'd ever direct one of John Hughes' unproduced screenplays, and he even gives us an update on the Gremlins reboot. Hit the jump to read my full Chris Columbus interview from CinemaCon 2015 in Las Vegas.

Chris Columbus harry potter

Chris Columbus Interview From CinemaCon 2015

Peter Sciretta: Hey Chris, I wanted to first say I'm a big fan. Your movies helped define my childhood.

Chris Columbus: Well thank you. Huge fan of Slashfilm. I read it all the time.

Oh thank you.

Yes, yes, yes, I'm obsessed. I love movie sites like Ain't It Cool and Slashfilm and Hitfix, Drew's site. I've known Drew for years since he was at Ain't It Cool. But yeah, Slash is great.

I feel like the three sites you mentioned bring an enthusiasm that some of the other sites lack.

Right.

The Goonies 700

You wrote some seminal movies of my childhood and directed some of them, too. Why have you not written a movie in 20 years or so?

Well to be honest, I've written on most of the movies I've done. With the exception of Potter — and I got the Potter job by actually rewriting the script. Not because I didn't like Steve Kloves' script but because I wanted to do a screenplay, they sent, Warner's sent me a script and I basically rewrote it with screen directions to show them how I would direct the movie. But I've rewritten on almost every movie I've done. But I just don't take credit. So...

Will we ever get another original screenplay?

There are a couple originals floating around out there. I did three screenplays two years ago based on novels. Those are gonna get made. So I love writing. When I'm not directing and when I'm not working on some other aspect of producing, I'm writing just to keep myself busy. So yeah, I would love to do another original screenplay. But and one that I would direct myself, you know. But we'll see what happens.

Pixels short film

This movie, Pixels, is interesting... I came across that viral short film which everybody loved. But when it was announced they were gonna make that into a movie, everybody didn't quite understand how it could become a movie... But now that we see it and we understand.

How did you get involved and how did you go from A to B?

Well I didn't, first of all, I didn't know about point A. For some reason, I never saw the short. So I went in. Adam Sandler, who I never met, liked a script that we had, which was based on an old Korean movie called Hello, Ghost. And we wanted to remake it. A very emotional movie. And I went in to meet with Adam about that. And as I was leaving, we kind of hit it off and Adam said, hey, Columbus, you should take a look at this script. It's a rewrite that just came in. We've been working on it for a while called Pixels. And he told me a little of the story and I was intrigued and I read it on the airplane ride back to San Francisco. And I fell in love with it. I fell in love with it because it was one of the most original ideas I had seen since the Amblin days. And it was not a sequel. It was not a movie based on a comic book or a boardgame. It was just truly an original summer movie. And I said, I wanna do it. So that was it.

Then he told me about the fact that it was based on a short film. So I looked at the film and I thought those visuals are a starting point for us. I mean, we can take them to the next level. And that's why I decided to do it. The story itself is just so fascinating, having, you know, been around working in the '80s at Amblin and going down, when I was a writer for Steven [Spielberg], I used to go down to this room and play, he had all the arcade games and I would play them. So that's at times I got to know some of the games. But I was just amazed at how this story worked so well from a character point of view as opposed to the short.

Donkey Kong Pixels poster

When you read that initial script, did that have all the licensed video game characters in it already or...?

It did. And I think Sony was still working on some of the licensing. And then as we further got into the writing, I wrote a little on the script with Timothy Dowling and I gave it back to Tim Herlihy who writes with Adam and we just bounced it back and forth a couple of times. And at some point in the process, I don't remember when, Donkey Kong was an idea and we were like oh we'll never get rights to Donkey Kong. I said, well let's try. We'll try to put it in the movie. And then Nintendo granted us rights. So, I mean, to have this cast is remarkable. I mean, you've got like all the greatest hits of video arcade games from the '80s. And these are superstar game characters. So it's just amazing.

Were there any prima donnas that you couldn't get into the movie?

No.

I mean, other video game characters, I'm not talking about actors.

No. I mean, every character that was in the script we eventually had to have meetings with Namco Bandai and Nintendo and Atari, whoever, [depending on] whatever character we were dealing with. And they as they should, they care greatly about their characters. And we treat them with great respect. So...

pixels pac man creator

Is that the creator of Pac Man who is in that trailer?

No. That is an actor portraying him.

He looks a lot like the real guy.

Yeah. That's an actor portraying the character of Pac Man. But when you see the beginning of the movie, and during the credit sequence, which takes place in 1982, you'll see a Japanese repairman repairing a Pac Man game in the credits. That's the real Professor Iwatani. He used to repair videogames before he invented Pac Man.

Oh wow, I didn't know that.

So take a look, look out for that.

Gremlins remake

The concept feels very inspired by Ghostbusters. Can you talk about that? And 'cause obviously Sony's making their own Ghostbusters universe of movies now. Was there any like pressure to stay away from that territory or...?

Well look, When Josh Gad saw the rough cut of the movie, he said this is the first Amblin movie since like 1986. And I said, well that's what we were really going for. We wanted to create that feeling that you had when you went to see those Amblin movies back in the mid '80s. You know, there was a certain feeling. I can't, it was a little edgy. As a kid, you felt like you were seeing something that–

You weren't being talked down to.

You weren't being talked down to. The movie was made not only for the kids, but for their parents. So that was the goal with this was really to create that evocative feel of the '80s. Now that evocative feel of those Amblin pictures obviously goes, you know, I was there, so I brought a little Gremlins and Goonies into it. A little bit of Indiana Jones. A little bit of Ghostbusters, which was not an Amblin film, but still had that feeling. So it's a combination of it's a, it's got a lot of influences. You know, Ghostbusters not–

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There's never any pressure like "oh we're doing something similar to that in Ghostbusters." I mean, you've got the ghost cars. 

Right. Oh you mean the four ghosts that are the– well we were trying to come up with... what was fascinating to us is to create a version of Pac Man on the streets of Manhattan which has the grids that are like the game has. How do you get to that? Well you use four ghost Mini Coopers exactly in the colors of the original ghosts from Pac Man. So it was not Ghostbusters at all. It was really based on how to bring the Pac Man game to life.

John Hughes

You've done a bunch of John Hughes projects. And I've heard that he had many scripts that have never been made that were more recently discovered.

Right.

Any thoughts of picking one of those up and doing one?

Nobody's sent them to me. I haven't seen them. So if these scripts exist, I don't know where they are. I mean, I guess it's interesting that you mention that now. You put it in the back of my head. Maybe I'll think about actually is there a way that I can get access to those scripts. I haven't seen them.

I've been wondering that. I read a bunch of pieces that said that he kept on writing even after he retired.

I've heard that as well, but I haven't seen any of it. I don't know where they are. I don't know if they're with his family or with a studio.

Well if there were anyone, you would probably be the guy to do it.

I heard something like that from Kirk Honeycutt as well. 'Cause I did the forward for his book. And I was so yeah, I'm intrigued. I would love to. At the very least, I'd love to read them to see what he was thinking about at those. 'Cause he wrote, John wrote very fast. You know, Home Alone was written I think over a weekend, which is insane.

Pixels movie preview

What do you think people are gonna be most surprised about with Pixels?

I think they are truly going to be blown away by the visual effects. The reason I wanted to do this particular movie and do another visual effects movie... I wasn't at first interested in doing visual effects again at this point. But when I read the script, I realized we can create something that the audience hasn't seen before. Usually visual effects even in the movies I've done, all the movies I've done, all the summer movies are based on some version of a reality, whether it's a creature like a dinosaur that has realistic skin movement or a robot. These are based on '80s videogames, so how do you bring them to life in the same way that Patrick John did? But also make them work on a gigantic IMAX screen? So they're lit from within. They're voxelized. Pac Man is at equal times charming, funny and dangerous. And edgy. And I was intrigued by this idea that I had when Pac Man bites and you can see it obviously in the trailer, when he bites through your arm or he bites through a school bus or a fire engine or a building, that part of the building isn't normally, it's not destroyed like you would see in a normal film. It pixelates, it voxelates. Cubes fall everywhere. They light and then they lose energy. And I got into that those visual effects very deeply. More deeply than I ever have been involved in any visual effects in any film. And I wanted them to look completely original and new.

It's really cool looking. Were there any like guidelines for what defines the era of videogames you were gonna tackle in this? Like is Mario too far down the timeline or–?

Not with specific games, but the set pieces. The videogames that are the set pieces did exist in '82. Some of the games, there are a couple of videogames, I don't wanna spoil it for anybody, they have cameos. That maybe were either a little late, you know, [ones that] might have been a little later. But we assume that the Earth has been sending time capsules up into outer space and the aliens have seen all of the time capsules of videogames.

Gremlins

There's a Gremlins reboot coming. Are you involved? How is that going?

I am involved. Initially I remember back in '84-'85 when they approached me and said, do you wanna write the sequel and I said, this is before the obsession with franchises. So my feeling was no. I, we've told the story. I mean, that was that's 1980's thinking. And then suddenly all these years later, we were approached with an idea that really sounded like an interesting version. It's not a remake of the movie at all. It's a, it's just a reinvention of it.

What's the idea?

I can't talk about it. I wish I could.

Does it have any of the same characters or...?

Maybe. I mean, one thing I learned from the Star Wars trailer is that and I actually, we knew this all along and J.J.'s been doing it and really doing it effectively, beautifully is touching into that emotional connection we have with our past. And he did it with Star Trek, just by casting Leonard Nimoy in that role in that movie. And really being having that connection. So when I saw the Star Wars trailer and seeing Chewie and Han Solo at the end of the trailer, I was, it was emotional.

It's so great.

And that's what everybody wanted for the past 30 years. We had wanted that. So for me, I would wanna get involved if we could create some sort of emotional connection even though it's a new story.

Rocky and Creed

[As Peter packs up his gear] And I just saw some footage from Creed, the Rocky spin-off movie yesterday.

How does that look?

I mention it because its the same kind of thing. It's its own story, but Rocky's in it and it has an emotional tie to the original films.

One of my favorites. Ryan Coogler's awesome. Fruitvale Station was amazing.

It looks pretty cool. Anyways, nice seeing you.

Nice seeing you.