Chris Columbus On 'Patti Cake$,' Indies Vs. Superhero Movies, And 'Gremlins 3' [Interview]

Patti Cake$ was one of the the breakout hist of Sundancee 2017. Newcomer writer/director Geremy Jasper discovered Aussie Danielle Macdonald to play his title character, New Jersey rapper Patti Cake$. The film also stars Bridget Everett as Patti's mom, lounge singer Barb, and newcomer Siddharth Dhananjay.

The producer of Patti Cake$ is someone who's been in the lives of movie fans since the '80s. Chris Columbus produced the film with his company Maiden Voyage, which he runs with his daughter, Eleanor. The director of Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting and the first two Harry Potter movies spoke with /Film about Patti Cake$ and Maiden Voyage, which also produced the film Menashe, about a Hadisic father and his son.

We had a long conversation with Columbus about the state of the film industry...and his plans for Gremlins 3.

Is Maiden Voyage different than your 1492 Pictures?

Yeah, Maiden Voyage actually began about four-and-a-half, five years ago. Prior to that I had been involved with taking a trip to New York once a week to meet with NYU film students and help them figure out a way to fund their first feature, try to find financing for them. I'd fly in for the day, we'd award some money to a documentary and maybe two features. Then I'd disappear, come back to San Francisco and maybe get a DVD out of it at the end of it. What I realized after doing it for about five years at NYU is that I wasn't developing any relationship with these filmmakers. I really wanted to work with them. For me, I get re-energized by working with younger filmmakers, people who want to go beyond the superhero vision of making films, who want to make artistic statements, who also at times want to do movies that potentially could find an audience as well.

So I called my daughter, Eleanor, who was in New York working in independent films. I said, "Why don't we start up a film company where I'm basically doing what I do with NYU but instead of leaving a project, we stay on board as producers and help them through the shooting of the film and the editing of the film, post-production and all of those things. That's how it started. We started with Little Accidents and Mediteranea which subsequently went to Sundance and then Cannes. Then The Witch, which suddenly opened up our mercenary side a little bit because we were shocked at how well the film performed at the box office. Yet it was a towering artistic achievement for the director. For us, it was like, "We can do movies for two to five million dollars and maybe reach a big audience and still come out with our artistic integrity intact."

Would Maiden Voyage be a company you direct films for?

It's possible. It's definitely possible. I've been so inspired, finishing Tallulah and then Patti Cake$ and Menashe, which opened a couple weeks ago, I get inspired by going to the sets, by hanging out with these directors, some of whom have been trying to make their movies for...on Menashe, Josh spent four years shooting that film for a mere $150,000. That was the final price of the film. That, to me, is inspiring. That, to me, is much more inspiring than going off and doing Thor 6.

Does Eleanor give you a new point of view on material?

Completely. Obviously being younger, she comes from a more contemporary place and we don't always agree. It's a three strike rule. First we'll read the script. If the script is great, then we'll look at the short. If the director has done a spectacular short, then we meet the director. If the director feels like someone who can command a set on their first film and has enough confidence and vision to bring what we saw in the script and the short film to their first feature, then we decide to get involved. We don't always agree on the scripts. 90% of the time we do. A couple of movies haven't been made because of our disagreements, but for the most part, we tend to go into it knowing that we both agree that it's a film that should be made.

Is this sort of how you got your start too? You had people like Steven Spielberg and John Hughes believe in you and give you shots at writing and directing.

Yeah, they were coming more from a studio perspective, but back then, the independent film world wasn't as prevalent. You basically were told in film school that if you want to become a director, the quickest and best way to become a director is to write a couple of successful movies. So that's basically what I did. My relationship with Steven on Gremlins, Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes was essentially my version of graduate film school. I learned so much from him just being able to have an office three doors down from him and dropping off pages of something like Goonies and having him make suggestions and I would go back and rewrite it. I became a much better filmmaker because of him.

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The hook of Patti Cake$ is the rap, but it's really a mother/daughter story, isn't it?

It is a mother/daughter story and it's also a story about music. Music is very close to my heart and I love how Geremy was able to connect these two generations of music in this one movie. The movie begins with this incredibly intense rap hip-hop fantasy sequence and then it goes into a fairly obscure Bruce Springsteen song from The River Sessions in 1979 or 1980. Geremy has a love of music that spans decades. That was the first thing I responded to. The second thing I responded to is how well he knows these people. He grew up in New Jersey. He knows this world and he just brought a reality to it. So it is a mother/daughter story. It reminds me a lot of the first time I saw Saturday Night Fever and also Rocky a little bit. Obviously, people are going to compare it to 8 Mile, but I just love the entire idea that the best filmmakers bring you into that specific world. I don't know New Jersey that well, but it's a side of New Jersey I had never seen, nor did I know existed. That's what I loved about what he did with the film. It is essentially at its heart a mother/daughter story, but it's also a story about friendship as well and how friendship translates into music and how that can create something lasting, musically.

Bridget Everett is a movie star. Is she a secret undiscovered weapon?

I think so. She's like the queen of the talk shows now. She just steals every appearance she does, whether it's Jimmy Fallon. Everything I'm seeing, she's spectacular. She's endearing and also incredibly filthy. She's, to me, one of the more amazing talents to emerge from this, as is Daniella of course.

Did we know Bridget could sing before Patti Cake$?

Well, yeah, because she had a cabaret act for years. I think Geremy saw it. I wasn't aware of Bridget until Geremy told me about her and then I started looking up old YouTube videos and teaching myself about how important she was to the New York cabaret world.

Was Patti always going to be an unknown?

I think so. I think from Geremy's point of view, definitely. The shocking thing about it obviously is that she's Australian. We had screenings where suddenly there's a Q&A afterwards and Daniella opens her mouth to speak and she's got this heavy Australian accent and the audience just gasps. At the Sundance screening people were screaming. They couldn't believe that she was such a convincing New Jersyan.

To me the fantasy sequences were about capturing the feeling of music, not just the literal sound of it. Is that what Geremy was going for?

I think the fantasy sequences are obviously capturing what Patti's dreams are, what she thinks she wants. The interesting thing is musicians, because I'm obsessed with music and I've been friends with a lot of musicians over the years, they all say the same thing. Regardless of their level of success, the most successful ones talk about how there's nothing quite like hearing your song on the radio for the first time. There's nothing that can replace that feeling. Some very famous rock stars are like, "It never goes away." It never stops being one of the most joyous moments of their lives. For me, this movie is all about that song being played on the radio. I've seen the movie 25, 30 times and I'm still crying at the end of the movie. That, to me, is what the real dream is. That boils it down to the reality of the dream and the fantasy sequences are again what really don't matter in music if you take music in its purest form.

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I also related to her conflict with her day job. She had to choose the chance to get her song in front of a big artist at the expense of the job she depended on for survival. Could you relate to that career opportunity coming at an inopportune time?

This is a true story. I started writing Gremlins, I was living in Manhattan and I lived in this loft on 26th Street and 7th when a loft on 26th street and 7th was $108 a month for rent. So it was a pretty lousy neighborhood but at the time, it was inspirational because I knew I had to get out of there, so I was writing Gremlins at night. I had written this script called Night Shift which, quite frankly, in retrospect was a pretty bad script. Not the Ron Howard movie. This was about my experience as a factory worker in Ohio. I'd written a script. It was sitting on the shelf for a couple of months and I had written it for Sylvester Stallone. My roommate comes into the apartment, like 12:30 at night, says, "Stallone's shooting a night sequence on 55th and 6th." I said I gotta get over there, I gotta get my script to him.

So I hopped on my bicycle with the script under my arm and rode up to 55th street, literally just as his teamster was driving Stallone away. I didn't get that moment to give him the script, but he had every right to probably put his cigar out on the script the same way that OZ treats Patti in the film. For me, honestly, not being able to get to Stallone was probably a very good thing at that point in my career. For Patti to get to OZ at that point was heartbreaking to me, particularly the way he treats her and because you know at that point she's really got something special. That is one of the more heartbreaking moments in the film. There are a few.

You also know now as a veteran of the business that just giving your demo to the big rapper is no guarantee that he'll discover you and make you successful. Just like Stallone can't actually take an unsolicited script and get it made. 

Oh God, yeah. What I relate to personally, and this is not selfishly, is that my Gremlins script was sent to Steven Spielberg on a weekend. 50 producers had rejected it already and it was sent to Steven for a weekend read. None of us expected him to read it but it was sitting on his secretary's desk. So as he was leaving the office, he saw the title and thought, "Oh, that looks like fun. I'll take it home." He read it and he called me for a meeting. That was the moment I realized I have a potential to get this movie made. It really changed my life and changed my career, that one moment. That happens in the Bar Mitzvah scene when Patti gives her CD to the DJ.

But looking back now, I'm sure you realize even if you'd handed your script to Stallone, that wouldn't have made him read it.

No, in fact I'm positive he wouldn't have read it. It was fortuitous that Steven Spielberg saw the title and he walked by the left side of his secretary's desk as opposed to the right side. He may have never picked it up and I might not be talking to you today. Gremlins would still be sitting on a shelf. Paul Newman used to say, which was a feeling I subscribed to, "Some of it is talent but a lot of it is luck as well." I think that's what happens in Patti's case. She got very lucky that this DJ actually listened to her song.

It sounds like Gremlins was such a pivotal script for you. Now every Monday, Zach Galligan tweets something about Gremlins 3. Is now the right time for it to come back?

Oh, without a doubt. I've written a script. I'm really proud of the script. It is as twisted and dark as anything so we'll see. It's always a budgetary conversation when we're going to shoot it. I wanted to go back to the really twisted sensibility of the first movie. I found that was a very easy place for me to fall back into and start writing again so hopefully we'll see that movie soon.

Can we at least hope for some puppets?

Oh, without a doubt. Minimal CGI. CGI will enable us to remove wires and make the puppeteers lives a little easier. It was brutal. It was like a marathon every night for those guys. In the bar scene alone there were 18-20 people behind the bar. No one had any space to move. It was just hellish for those guys so CGI will simplify that a little bit but it's all puppets.

If gremlin attacks keep happening, does anyone raise the question: do we need to kill Gizmo?

Very good observation. That comes up in the movie certainly.

I don't want them to but I imagine someone's thinking it.

I think it probably is a good idea to be honest with you. Too many people are dying.

Are all the Maiden Voyage films about a very specific world? The New Jersey rap world, the Hassidic community, the colonial farmers... Will all Maiden Voyage films have some take on a world unknown to audiences?

I don't think I can expect that out of every filmmaker. Our first two films, Little Accidents deal with a coal mining community in West Virginia and Mediteranea deals with workers coming from Africa to Southern Italy and dealing with racial issues. Those are all worlds that no one except the filmmakers know. Particularly Jonas when he did Mediteranea, he lives in that world in Southern Italy. I think he lives in the same apartment as the lead actor. These filmmakers, I'm just fascinated by the fact that they know these worlds better than anyone and I say that about most of the filmmakers who've done the films. No one else could have directed or written them but there are movies like Tallulah which is basically set in a world that we've seen before: New Yorkers. So it wasn't about the world. That was really about the story and the extraordinary performances of the three lead actresses in that movie.

We're open to any genre, any kind of film as long as we feel it not only has artistic merit but also something that may connect with an audience. We've tightened up a little bit on wanting the movies to find an audience. Even though I say that and we released probably our smallest film two weeks ago, Menashe, yet at the same time it's connecting with people in a small way. I look at the Menashe grosses and I'm celebrating on the weekend because the first weekend we made $60,000. That's meaningless to Captain America, but at the same time, I love that world. I'm still fighting. I'm still fighting for the movies that I fell in love with in the '70s and the '80s. I want those movies to be made again. They're not going to be made on a big Hollywood budget so this is the way to make them. Filmmakers now have gotten sophisticated enough where a $2 million movie like The Witch looks like it cost $25 million. No one knows because the technology has gotten so great. That, to me, is exciting as well. You can really hopefully find your audience and not spend a lot of money doing it.

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Do you know what you're directing next?

I have no idea. I just don't stop writing. I write every day, whether it's something I'm going to direct or not. We're obviously reading a lot of material and I'm going to do something that's not a $150 million movie, and I don't know exactly what it is. I want to do something between $6-10, maybe $6-15 million. That's the world I'm in love with at this point.

You're attached to several things. Are any of those contenders?

Everything is a contender, but it's all about the scripts. Certain movies at 1492 took years for us to make until we got the script right. Night at the Museum is a perfect example. That took us 10 years 'til the first time that movie reached the screen. Some of the scripts come in or some of the scripts I write are just not ready yet. My daughter is the biggest critic of them all. I finish and I'll give it to her and I'll say, "Well, what do you think?" "Eh, not very good." It hurts but it's that kind of honesty that I don't get from anyone else in Hollywood that forces me to want to do better work.

I love that everything I loved growing up is back, like Gremlins and they always talk about Goonies. Is that good thing, this nostalgia and reinterpretation of favorite things?

Yeah, I don't think that's bad at all because those are at least based on original ideas. The thing that got me into movies ironically were Marvel comics, Spider-Man and Nick Fury and all those comics, Daredevil particularly. I fell in love with movies but I don't have any desire to make those movies. They got me into movies because they taught me in an odd way, back then, when I was seven and eight years old, they taught me about character. Marvel comics particularly because they dealt with superheroes who had flaws which is something you'd never seen before Stan Lee. These were as real as you can get in a 20 page comic book but at the same time, I learned about character development from those comic books. As I said, they don't interest me in terms of where I am right now as a filmmaker. I want to go back and try to find a way to bring audiences into the kind of movies I fell in love with in the '70s.

When I was in film school, I legitimately thought I'm going to go off and do movies like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, make these gritty New York movies like Sidney Lumet. You never end up doing what you think you're going to be doing. You fall into something. I also fell in love with horror movies as a kid and that's what I gravitated toward more at the beginning of my career. So it always has to change. You always have to try to stay fresh even if you fail miserably, and I've done that a few times as well.

You did do a few big budget movies in the Harry Potters. Did those get that out of your system?

I don't know if it got them out of my system. Those movies could only have been made on that kind of budget, unfortunately. There's no way around it when you're dealing with the scale of something like that. It's very simple, less money, less production cost means less pressure. You're always going to put pressure on yourself as a filmmaker to do good work, but there's just something more interesting and exciting about seeing people like Bridget and Daniella and Sid, those three actors to me, it's so exciting that this is kind of their first big movie. No one knows them and they're going to be discovered. There's something so boring to me about I've got to try to find a Hollywood star to put into this movie and they're coming into it from a jaded perspective and they want to be paid a certain amount of money and they want to stay in their trailer. That all goes against everything I love about filmmaking. And that didn't exist on Potter. Potter we dealt with British actors who were very professional and kids. Part of my love of finding those kids is the fact that they were so grateful to be there and so excited to be there, it translates into their performances. I'm more interested in that. I'm more interested in working with new talent and finding other genres that I feel comfortable in, something I haven't done before.

Of course we want to see books like Harry Potter and comic books come to life in movies, but has the original high concept movie been lost in Hollywood. Movies like Home Alone or Speed used to be what I looked forward to. Does the high concept idea alone not have enough weight in Hollywood anymore?

It's not that it doesn't have enough weight. It depends if that concept can translate into a smaller budget. So you're going to have studios reluctant, particularly after this summer, there were a few movies that were high concept movies that didn't do well. Suddenly you're in a situation where studios are getting more fearful. Everybody's terrified about how that movie's going to perform because it cost $170 million to make. I would certainly say that a movie I really loved, and I know I'm in the minority on this, is King Arthur. I really loved the audacity of that movie. Even though he completely veered away from the traditional Arthurian legend, it was still an attempt to do something original and big and fun and a big concept movie, that didn't work for whatever reasons. I do applaud somebody stepping up to the plate and taking a chance like that. That's going to be more and more rare as we get into Hollywood over the next couple of decades and that's unfortunate. The way to beat that is to make smaller movies and spend less money on high concept movies. It's Don't Breathe, big hit for a horror film. Not a lot of money and a huge high concept, great high concept.

And Get Out.

It Follows. They used to talk about, when I started as a writer, if you can tell your story in one sentence we'll buy the script, because the concept is so big. Those concepts are big but the budgets are small. That's where I think you'll find it in the summertime. I don't know what the future is. I think it's early to say for something like The Big Sick but that gave me a lot of hope this summer as well. I love that movie.

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Patti Cake$ opens on Friday.