Chris Columbus, the famous-but-not-as-famous-as-he-should-be director of The Goonies, Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the first two Harry Potter films has made a career out of telling stories about unconventional families. “One of the themes I’ve always been fascinated by is a character facing the potential of losing their family and what that means,” Columbus says. It weird to say, but that’s what inspired Gremlins, which gave Columbus his initial Hollywood street cred. And it’s what has inspired his new films, which dive into unexpected and gritty communities in Brooklyn. There are fewer feelgoods in his new indie work, but the same themes echo through the films.
Columbus served as executive producer for Menashe and producer for Patti Cake$, two critically acclaimed films created with help from his production company Maiden Voyage Pictures, which he started with his daughter Eleanor. The idea of the company is to help talented, undiscovered filmmakers find funding for passion projects. The idea works. Both films, the first of which follows a Hasidic father on an unlikely and sometimes depressing journey and the second of which follows a wannabe rapper, are terrific and feel unexpected (doubly so if you watch Home Alone between them). Curious about how one of America’s most family-friendly filmmakers became the dad of indie darlings, Fatherly spoke to Columbus about his long, successful career and how he keeps coming back to stories about families.
I had no plan. I went to NYU film school and my heroes were Scorcese, Sidney Lumet, and Francis Ford Coppola. So I just assumed I would make movies like them. I had written a script called Reckless that was based on my experience of growing up in a factory town. It was sort of my Darkness on the Edge of Town. The movie came out and it was terrible. And I realized I had to do something different. I also had an affinity for horror films, and that’s where Gremlins came from. It was truly just writing it and hoping anyone was interested. Fortunately, Stephen Spielberg read the script and wanted to make the movie.
‘Goonies’ was just something Stephen Spielberg and I wrote together. He wanted to make a movie like that and I knew those types of kids growing up in Ohio. So I wrote some of those characters based on friends of mine. Stephen and I came up with the story and I went off and wrote the screenplay for ‘Goonies.’
Home Alone (1990)
At their core, most of my movies are about characters doing whatever they can to get back to their family. And that, to me, is what ‘Home Alone’ is really about. You have these parents who make an understandable, but terrible mistake and end up leaving their son in an entirely different continent. Then Mrs. McCalister goes to hell and back trying to get back to her son before anything happens to him. It’s funny, but, at its core, it’s an emotional story.
Some people like to call out Kevin’s parents for being negligent, but I’ve never seen it that way. For me, it was all about the confusion of that morning and the fact that these parents were trying to wrangle 13 or 14 kids while running late. It’s an honest mistake. I think it’s a little bit mean spirited to accuse the McCalisters of being negligent. You put anyone in those circumstances for all those years and mistakes are going to happen.
Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
I remember watching the ‘Godfather Part II’ and Michael asks his mother if a man can lose his family and that immediately stuck with me. At the end of that film, Michael loses his family and it’s so brilliant. It hit such an emotional chord with me. And, in an unconventional way, that’s not dissimilar to ‘Mrs. Doubtfire.’ Hear me out. You have a guy who is in a desperate situation, it’s just painted in a comedic light where Robin Williams dresses up as a Scottish nanny to connect with his kids.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
I was 100 percent aware of how massive these movies were going to be long before I got the job to direct ‘Sorcerer’s Stone.’ It was a long audition process of sorts and I was one of countless directors being interviewed for the movies. Once I got the gig, I knew there was an extraordinary amount of pressure.
The last part of getting signed on was getting approval from J.K. Rowling. So I headed to Scotland and spent about three hours explaining my vision for the movie to her and at the end, she said, ‘Well that’s exactly the same way I see the movie.’ When she said that, it took away all of my fear and my anxiety. I was able to put my head down and make the best movie possible. I’m so proud of the world we were able to create. I love those movies.
I immediately loved ‘Menashe’ because it’s so grounded. You have a man who is facing the very real odds of losing custody of his son. So I was immediately drawn to the movie and to Director Josh Weinstein’s filmmaking style. It takes such an intense, unrelenting look into realism and one man’s struggle. It’s, at times, difficult to watch but that’s because it’s so well done. It feels real and you feel for this man, even as he makes mistakes.
Patti Cake$ (2017)
I’m drawn to stories that are character-based and are emotionally satisfying for the audience. For me, Patti Cake$ is the ultimate underdog story. When I saw the first cut of the movie, it reminded me of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ or ‘Rocky.’ One of these movies that draws you into a world you’ve never experienced before. Jeremy Jasper directed the movie and he creates this fully lived-in world because he’s lived that life. It’s thrilling to watch.
This interview was edited and condensed.