Hollywood’s Best Film Directors

S1 E14 | FULL EPISODE

Chris Columbus

In "Hollywood's Best Film Directors," we go behind-the-scenes with some of Hollywood's biggest names. They talk about their lives and work, explaining what makes them so successful. The series includes heavy-hitters Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and M. Night Shyamalan, among others.

AIRED: February 22, 2021 | 0:25:03
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TRANSCRIPT

Man: Action! [ Slates snapping ]

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-And got it. -Cut!

[ Slate snaps ]

Narrator: This great Hollywood director

was inspired to make movies after seeing "The Godfather"

when he was only 15.

After selling a script to Steven Spielberg,

he continued working with him,

writing "Gremlins" and "The Goonies."

But his career really took off

when he left Macaulay Culkin home alone

and then dressed Robin Williams in drag for "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Since then, he's had enormous success

directing the first two Harry Potter films

in the amazingly profitable seven picture franchise.

Hi, my name is Chris Columbus,

and welcome to "Hollywood's Best Film Directors."

♪♪

First got interested in movies because of comic books.

I was a big fan of Marvel Comics in the '60s.

That really sort of opened up

this whole world for me that I had never.

It was sort of the most magical time in my life

when I could get to the corner store

and get the newest issue, whether it was "Spider-Man"

or the Fantastic Four or Captain America.

To me, that represented

everything that was exciting about life.

And it was odd because I fell in love with those artists

and the way they drew and the excitement

that people like Johnny Romita and Steve Ditko,

the guys were really responsible for those characters,

drew these panels.

And those panels, I think were the basis

in my head of filmmaking,

because I then at that time when I was about 10 or 11,

started to go to go to the movies quite a bit.

And I was, you know, typically one of those kids

who would sit and watch a movie

two or three times on a Saturday afternoon.

And I remember that specifically

with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

I'd never seen anything like it.

It was just such a breath of fresh air.

And I watched the movie over and over and over.

And I just loved being in that world

because it represented to me an escape

from this dreary sort of factory town

that I lived in, in a sense.

You know, I lived near the Warren-Youngstown area,

and both of my parents were factory workers.

So for me, that was my future.

I had no other sort of destiny in life or choice in my life

but to follow in their footsteps,

which was to either work in an automotive factory

or an aluminum factory.

And for me, I needed to find some method of escape.

So when I was 10 or 11,

I really didn't know what that method of escape was

until later on, as I saw more and more films

and actually read more and more comic books,

I suddenly became interested in my first passion,

which was moving to New York City,

because all of the Marvel Comics were set in Manhattan,

and writing and drawing from Marvel Comics.

That was my goal.

And I realized at the time

that was an isolated existence, drawing comic books.

You just going to be sitting in a room

and working for 12 hours a day alone.

And I realized I liked working with people.

And when I was in high school,

an issue ofTime Magazine came out talking --

it was just a one-page article talking about film schools,

this magical word

that I had never heard before, "film school."

And film school, essentially, the three film schools

they dealt with -- UCLA, USC, and New York University

talked about how you can learn the art of filmmaking.

And that just stuck in my head.

And I realized at that moment that I wanted to go away,

go to film school, and learn the so-called art of filmmaking,

because I realized that it was one step

removed from drawing comic books.

Because all of those years of reading comic books

and actually drawing comic books in my basement alone

really formulated my idea of how to shoot a film in pieces.

And they were basically early storyboards for me.

♪♪

My agent said to me as a writer,

becoming a writer and having films made

is probably the best way to become a director,

because at the time, it was inexpensive.

We never had sort of this wave

of independent films back in the early '80s.

So I didn't realize that I could max out my credit cards

and make a film.

To me, the quickest way to get into the director's chair

was to continue writing screenplays.

So I just wanted a little more indication.

-You talked me out of it. -Okay.

Well, "Adventures in Babysitting"

just gave me the confidence to be back on the set again.

I hadn't directed a film since I had directed

my senior thesis film at NYU, and that was 1980.

So this is seven years later.

And I'm thrown onto a set with major cameras,

major lighting, a major cinematographer,

a guy named Ric Waite who shot "48 Hrs."

So I had to -- I mean, my first day,

you are just -- first day of being on the set

was was extremely intimidating and frightening.

But once I got on the set and once the cameras started

to roll, within about an hour and a half or two hours,

I felt very secure and very comfortable.

And I eased into it.

And I realized this is where I really want to be.

♪♪

Man: Action! [ Slates snapping ]

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♪♪

-And got it. -Cut!

[ Slate snaps ]

♪♪

I was staying at my wife's parents' house in Chicago,

and we just had our first child, and I thought,

"Well, I'm going to get a writing job."

And I got two scripts from my agency,

from John Hughes that weekend, and I thought,

"A directing offer?" And they said, yeah,

John was wondering if you'd be interested

in doing one of these two films.

The first one I read was "Home Alone,"

and I fell in love with it.

And again, it touched on some of those themes

that had been in the back of my head forever.

And I thought, "Wow, I could do this.

I could make this a really, really strong film."

So I met with John, and we hit it off.

And we got along really well.

And he hired me to do "Home Alone."

So basically that was it.

"Home Alone" was at a studio.

And they were so concerned about the budget

that the studio actually put the picture into turnaround

because we were $1.5 million away on the budget.

And 20th Century Fox picked up the rights

to "Home Alone" and decided to make it into a film.

And the first studio where that picture existed

has now to this day

will not put any other pictures into turnaround

because of the success of "Home Alone"

because "Home Alone" was a relatively inexpensive,

cheap picture for them to make.

They sent it away and it ended up doing somewhere

around $500 million at the box office.

And so to this day, they will not put anything in turnaround.

I would like you to meet my son.

This is Chris.

Hello.

Standing in for Jerry Mathers today.

You also see "Mr. Beaver."

Hello.

Well, "Mrs. Doubtfire" happened because I had finished

"Home Alone 2" and I needed to find another project.

And I got a call from Joe Roth.

Again, we were at the same studio, 20th Century Fox.

And Joe said, "We have this script here

that Robin Williams is interested in doing.

'Mrs. Doubtfire,' would you like to take a look at it?"

So I looked at the script. The script didn't work at all.

I just felt that it was not a particularly good script.

And I called Joe Roth and I said,

"Well, here are the reasons I think the script doesn't work."

And he said, "Well, I'd like you to meet Robin Williams

and his wife Marsha, who's producing the picture

and talk to them about it."

So I met with them.

And Robin was someone who I had when I lived in L.A.

for that short period of time,

I would go to comedy clubs every now and then.

So I went to The Comedy Store a few times when he performed.

And I was just blown away

at his energy and what seemed to be

one of the most brilliant minds I had ever sort of come across

in terms of comedy. He was able to,

as we've all seen, year after year after year,

he just goes from one subject to the other,

and it's just this manic sort of intensity.

And when he was in his 30s, I think I probably saw him

when he was about 31, 32.

It was like this ball of fire and energy onstage,

and it was really impressive.

And then I saw his performance in "Good Morning, Vietnam,"

which I just thought

was one of that year's great performances.

So at that point, I really always wanted to work with him.

So to get to meet him in person was an amazing experience.

And what was even better was the fact that we agreed

on where the script should go.

So they said to me in the meeting,

"Well, why don't you rewrite the script?"

And then they weren't committed to doing the movie yet.

So I spent about three or four months

rewriting the script for "Mrs. Doubtfire,"

sent it to the studio and sent it to Robin and Marsha.

And I got a call from Robin a few days later saying,

"You wrote a wonderful script. I'd love to do the movie."

♪♪

I had seen I had seen Macaulay Culkin in "Uncle Buck,"

and I thought he was an incredibly charming kid,

but again, my directorial ego got in the way and I thought,

"Well, I have to I would like to see some other kids."

John Hughes said, "Well, this kid is really good."

So I met Macaulay Culkin in New York,

and I was completely charmed by him.

I thought he was fantastic,

but I still wanted to see other kids.

So I went into casting sessions in New York and Chicago

and Los Angeles and saw maybe 400 or 500 other kids.

Not one kid was even close.

So John Hughes knew it all along.

And I went back and I said, "Well, I've looked at everyone,

and he truly is the best." He's the most unique.

He's not one of these picture per-- He was not at the time

one of these sort of picture-perfect 10-year-old kids

with perfect hair, perfect teeth,

perfect that his ear was a little crooked.

And he had an instant relatability

to every other kid in the audience.

And he was funny. He just was --

something about that kid,

particularly when the cameras were rolling

and when you saw him on film,

cameras loved him, and he was just

immensely funny and talented.

So we went with Macaulay Culkin,

and I never in a million years

thought that I would get one of my heroes, Joe Pesci,

to do to do this sort of broadly comedic role.

And he decided to do the picture,

and Dan Stern did the film.

And so that that group of casting then

gave me enough confidence

with those three cast members to go after people

who were true heroes.

For me, as I was growing up, I was a big fan

of "Second City TV,"

so I wanted Catherine O'Hara to play the mom.

One of my favorite films to this day

is a picture called "Cutter's Way" with John Heard.

And I wanted to work with John Heard because I thought

that was one of the great -- still one of the great ignored

performances in cinema history.

So I got John Heard to do the film.

And it was just great to be able to work with a lot of people

I had always dreamed of working with

and who were open and sort of willing to do the picture.

Me and Chris decided that we would use a dolly shot.

Yeah, what should I do here?

Do a dolly shot.

You think so? Yeah.

I don't know. Really?

-Yeah. -Okay.

♪♪

The biggest challenge we had in doing "Sorcerer's Stone,"

the first Harry Potter movie, was the casting of Harry Potter.

We saw tapes of 5,000 people.

And we just never were able to find the right Harry Potter.

Now, I saw this, a videotape of "David Copperfield,"

which is a BBC series that Dan Radcliffe had made.

And on my first day of casting, I showed the casting director.

I said, "This is the guy. This guy is amazing."

And she said, "You're never going to get him

because his parents don't want him to be an actor."

I said, "What do you mean? He's done this."

She goes, "No, they want him to concentrate on his school work.

They do not want the sort of attention he's going to get

by doing Harry Potter.

So after weeks and weeks of frustrating, you know,

meetings with other kids

and seeing tapes from all over this country

and Russia and everywhere, Harry Potters from all over

the world, the casting director said to me,

"You know, I'm frustrated with you.

I don't know what you want."

And I picked up the tape and I said, "This is what I want.

This is who I want, this kid."

So we forgot, you know -- she said, again,

"You're never going to get him. Forget about it.

Put him out of your head."

Our producer at the time and our screenwriter

went to the theater two nights later,

and they were sitting behind the kid.

Dan Radcliffe was at the theater with his father.

So David Heyman said to Steve Kloves, he goes,

"Let's go talk to them."

So David broke the ice,

mentioned that I was obsessed with the kid.

And we brought in Dan for his first interview.

And slowly but surely,

his parents agreed to let him do the movie.

So I think that was the most important decision

I made on that movie,

was getting Dan to do the movie and also the other cast members.

For me, seeing that all of this cast,

these kids have aged so beautifully,

it's amazing to me. It's kind of shocking.

And this was not something I could predict.

But the fact that these kids have aged so well

and and continue to perform so well, I mean, you've seen it.

We've all seen it in the past.

You get these kids who are adorable,

and they suddenly age into not very attractive actors

or are not very good actors.

These kids have just gotten better.

♪♪

I never knew that Robin would take it as far

as he did in terms of comedy.

I always thought that because we agreed in preproduction

and during rehearsals that he said,

"I will give you as a director the scripted version

of the movie, we'll do two or three of those."

And then I said, "Then I'd like to play."

He just called it playing a little bit.

Well, that playing, I became obsessed with

because that's where some of the most brilliant moments

in the film happen when he started to, as he said,

"play," when he started to improvise,

it was magical at times.

Now, granted, every scene took anywhere from 15 to 22 takes

because he had this urge to get it out of his system.

You know, he had to get these things out of his head.

And that's why we had so many versions of the movie.

So tonally, it was very difficult as a director

to stay in the tone of what the movie was.

So these other versions of the film don't particularly work

because they're essentially all over the place.

Here, what you see in the final film now

is a combination of the scripted film

and the moments that Robin stayed in within character

in terms of improvisation.

So it was a very difficult editing task, I have to say.

It was like editing a documentary.

And there's a moment in the restaurant he decided his teeth

were going to fall out into a water glass

and he starts digging for the teeth.

And the way he started

going for these teeth

and the way he started to improvise

completely took the other actors all off guard.

And I had several cameras.

So what you're seeing are their reactions

and basically mirroring the crew's reactions

of shock when that happened.

He didn't tell any of us he was going to do that.

So to see that happen and to get these honest reactions

from people like Pierce Brosnan and Sally Field,

it's just remarkable, you know?

Because you never had any concept of where he was going.

You just never knew.

♪♪

Man: Action! [ Slates snapping ]

♪♪

-And got it. -Cut!

[ Slate snaps ]

♪♪

Because of my relationship with Steven Spielberg on "Gremlins,"

because we had such a great working relationship,

he was responsible for my next two films.

One was called "Goonies,"

which was just based on idea that Steven had.

So I wrote "Goonies" for Steven.

And then I wrote an idea that I had

called "Young Sherlock Holmes" for Steven as well.

So we spent probably a year and a half,

two years working together on those three films.

And then he asked me to do a version

of the third Indiana Jones film.

So that was a big, big step for me as a writer.

And I agreed to do it. And he said,

"I'm going to be in New York,

and George Lucas is going to be in New York at the same time.

So why don't you come and meet with us

and we'll meet every day and talk about the story,

and then you can go off and write the screenplay?"

So I thought, "What a terrific idea."

And I got to this hotel, and I walk in.

And Steven Spielberg is there. And I had known Steven

pretty well, but I was still very intimidated by him.

And George Lucas is there, who I'd never met,

who I was extremely intimidated by.

So I'm sitting there in this room

with two of my cinematic heroes,

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg,

who started talking about this idea

for this Indiana Jones film.

So I took you know -- I basically worked

as a secretary for five days.

We sat in this hotel room for five days,

and I wrote down everything they said, piece of dialog, action.

And George basically dictated the entire screenplay.

So I went home and I thought -- I was frozen with fear.

I thought, "I cannot change a word of this.

I have to write exactly what they said."

So I ignored everything I had learned in film school,

everything every great teacher had ever taught me.

I basically sat there and worked as a secretary.

I wrote down exactly what George and Steven had dictated

and turned in a script that was completely lifeless

and without energy and without anything of myself,

which I assume now, you know, years later,

I assume that's why they hired me,

because they wanted me to bring something of myself.

But I was petrified.

So I handed the script in, and I was fired.

And it was really a defining moment for me

because I realized I will never do another project

where I ignore my basic sort of intentions

and instincts about this picture.

It's a great example for any kid starting out today.

I always listen to your own instincts.

You can never be intimidated by the people you work with.

Okay, that's where you got to turn on him. Okay?

You're looking away, but you've got to turn on him.

It's King Stanislaw's daughter, isn't it?

It's King Stanislaw's daughter, isn't it?

You're madly in love with her!

You're madly in love with her!

"Nine Months" was an extension of the fact

that I had had a couple of kids at the time

and I wanted to tell the world how great it was to be a father.

"Stepmom" was a reaction losing my own mother.

"Harry Potter" was a reaction of my daughter,

who was always having trouble in school reading,

could never really connect with any books that she was given,

suddenly discovered this book

called "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,"

and she read it in two days and suddenly she discovered

the world of reading and how great reading was.

So she read the first two Harry Potter books,

"Sorcerer's Stone" and "Chamber of Secrets,"

and she said to me, Dad, you've got to make a movie out of there.

And I thought, "Okay. That sounds like a great idea.

Let me call and -- First, let me read the books.

I fell in love with the books, and I called my agent,

and my agent said, "Well, you and about 50 other directors

want to make a movie out of this."

So they said Warner Bros. would be happy to sit down with you

and meet with you and hear your thoughts about the movie.

So I thought I need them to understand

that I'm really obsessed with making this movie.

I want to do this movie more than anything else.

So as a result, I said to my agent,

"Get me the last meeting."

She said, "What do you mean the last meeting?"

I said "They're going to meet all these other directors.

I said, "So let them meet all these other directors.

I want to be the last one in the door, you know?"

So she said okay.

So she called Warner Bros.

and set up my meeting for 10 days

from the day that I talked to her.

So every night until about 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.,

I took the script of "Harry Potter"

and I essentially rewrote it.

I rewrote my version of what it would be.

Now, this was a really good script, by the way,

that Steve Kloves had done, fantastic script.

But I wanted to spend some more time

talking about what the movie would look like and the visual.

So I spent 10 days rewriting that script,

and I went into that meeting and I said, "Look,

I've rewritten the script for free

just to give you an idea of what my directorial vision

of this movie would be."

And that seemed to make an impression on them.

The fact that because no one

does anything for free in Hollywood.

They have to be paid for everything.

And the fact that I actually sat down,

wrote the script without any commitment from them,

knowing that 25 other directors

were interested in the project made a big difference.

I went back for subsequent meetings,

and then I got the call about five weeks later

that I got the job.

Cut!

You know, I was always a big fan of the James Bond films,

and I remember being crushed

when he didn't originally get the role of James Bond.

You know, he was offered the role of James Bond

when he was doing Remington Steele,

and they wouldn't let him out of his contract.

And so, Pierce, at this point and back in '93,

this was pre-James Bond for him.

So he came in and he was willing to do this

sort of small supporting role,

and I'd always thought he was a phenomenal actor.

I remember being on the set with him talking about the fact

that he would be an amazing James Bond.

I would just love the fact if he would someday

get back to it, and he thought,

"Well, it's never going to happen now."

That ship had sort of passed him by.

And about two years later, I got a call from the head

of MGM who said we're thinking of,

you know, casting someone new in the role of James Bond.

Here are the choices. Who would you recommend?

He named two other actors and he said, "Pierce Brosnan."

And I said, "You've got to hire Pierce Brosnan.

He'd be amazing."

So I feel that that's part of my, again.

little contribution to the James Bond saga

that I really, really wanted Pierce to do that movie.

♪♪

Because the success of "Harry Potter" afforded me

the ability when I came back to the States to really find

a movie that I was obsessed with.

Ever since I first saw "Rent,"

it was a musical that I wanted to bring to the screen

because, again, it mirrored that time when I lived

in Manhattan and I lived in a loft on 26th Street

back in the early '80s when 26th Street

was just not a particularly great area.

And I remember living in that loft

and throwing my key down to my girlfriend

who eventually became my wife. So it was very personal for me.

And that story living in New York in the '80s,

at that time when I was there,

it was a very personal story for me.

I really related to Mark, the filmmaker in "Rent."

And I had heard that "Rent" was about to go to NBC

to become a TV sort of musical for television.

And I just immediately put a stop to it

because I had to do the movie.

I had to do the musical as a movie, as a piece of cinema.

So I met with Jonathan Larson's parents and his sister,

Julie Larson, and I explained my vision for the movie,

and they responded to it.

And Joe Roth, again, my savior

back on the "Home Alone" days,

loved the play as well and realized

that it would be great to make it into a movie.

Also supported my decision

to hire all the original cast members,

which I thought -- I just wanted to preserve that moment

when I first saw the play

with the original cast members on film

for everyone else to see forever.

And I made the film

and I remember screening it

for the first time and people were just crying

at the end of it. And they loved the film.

And I realized, well, this subject matter

and this world, first of all, critics aren't going to think

it's very relevant today, sort of like a time capsule.

And I don't know how many kids are going to go see it

in the middle of the country once they realize

what the film is about.

But for me, it was a very important film,

and it's my favorite film of all the films I've made.

I think it just has the most passion

and the most emotional power.

And I love it.

♪♪

Movies for adults, I think, are still --

there's still great movies, you know?

You can say that "Sideways" was a '70s movie, right?

I mean, "Sideways" could have been made in 1975 or 1976.

We do have great movies being made,

but now we have a bigger genre of movies.

So when people harp about the fact

that nobody goes to see small movies anymore,

well, there's still an audience for them.

You can still see them.

You can still get to your theater and see them.

There just happens to be a lot of big movies

that are being made, but that makes it exciting.

It makes it a very exciting time.

Great comedy or great drama is made because someone

is really completely passionate and obsessed by it.

If you are obsessed by that idea and passionate about that idea,

the film will be a good film.

I really appreciate any great sort of filmmaking.

And for me, great filmmaking can be something that is

is very esoteric or something on the level of Martin Scorsese,

which is all about, for me, the visual side of filmmaking

or more about the storytelling side of filmmaking,

which is someone like John Ford or Frank Capra.

And when you develop a hunger for it,

as I started to learn more and more about directors,

I felt I had to see everything.

And I still feel that way,

that if there's something great out there, I want to see it.

And there are so many films that I still haven't seen

that I'm really anxious to see

before I go find my great reward [chuckles] somewhere.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

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