Turning over a new page

ELAINE LIPWORTH
Last updated 05:00 12/05/2013
Columbus

Family king: The Harry Potter blockbusters featuring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were directed by Chris Columbus.

Columbus
TERRORS AND TREASURES: Chris Columbus with child star Daniel Radcliffe.
Columbus
HOME ALONE: Child star Macaulay Culkin.

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The new children's book House of Secrets was written by a first-time novelist but there are already predictions that it will be a runaway bestseller.

The author, Chris Columbus, has had a firm finger on the pulse of pre-teens ever since Macaulay Culkin was left home alone to defend the house from bumbling burglars. Best known as a film-maker, Columbus directed that 1990 comedy as well as other blockbusters, including Mrs Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films. He is the undisputed king of family films.

The director's literary debut is an adventure about a family who move into a spooky house once owned by a mysterious pulp-fiction author. The parents go missing and the children find themselves trapped inside a dangerous imaginary world. Written with a co-author, Ned Vizzini, the book started life as a screenplay and was shelved for years by Columbus, who decided it would be too expensive to produce: "I re-read it and it hit me that it would be a good idea for a novel."

J K Rowling describes House of Secrets as a "break-neck, jam-packed, rollercoaster of an adventure".

The story, about the adventures of Eleanor and Brendan Walker (named after two of Columbus's four children), and their sister, Cordelia, is an engrossing page-turner and the writers have been commissioned to deliver a trilogy. "Jo [Rowling] loved it," says Columbus, who sent his friend an early manuscript. "Why would I not go to her? She wrote me a long email and said: ‘It is too fast-paced. You've got to slow down, deepen the characters, work on the complexity.' We took her advice to heart.

"I've raised four children so I have amassed 20 years of dinner conversations, fights, kids snapping at each other and the intense love they have for each other. I am just writing based on my own experience as a father."

We are meeting at the film-maker's aptly named 1492 Pictures in San Francisco, although it turns out the director was not named after the explorer Christopher Columbus. His father, Alex, the son of Italian immigrants, named him "Chris not Christopher, because of a long-lost wish by his father to have a Chris in the family". (Columbus' grandmother had refused to inflict the name on any of her 12 children.)

The director has made the best of it.

"Most people think I've changed it to Chris and I say to them, ‘Are you insane?"'

Decidedly un-Hollywood, Columbus and his wife of 30 years, Monica, a former dancer, have raised their family in northern California rather than Los Angeles. "I've always maintained a distance from Hollywood," he says. "It's intoxicating and it's fun, but when I'm there I always feel like I'm crashing the party. I feel I'm getting sucked into that world."

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Columbus bounds into the room to greet me with the same energy as his dog, an affectionate pomeranian called Gizmo (named after the creature in the 1984 film Gremlins, for which he wrote the screenplay). Wearing black-framed glasses, dressed in a purple polo shirt and jeans, the director exudes youthful exuberance.

Is life for the Columbus kids - as I imagine - constantly entertaining? "Well, maybe I was the most fun dad in the universe during the golden years of Harry Potter, when we were living in England, because they were all young," he says. "Then they became teenagers and now I am like a functioning idiot, as every parent is. They want their own space and you have to say ‘No', so you're not fun.

"My youngest daughter, Isabella, is 16 so she's having a lot of kids over to the house and we can't leave. I have to keep an eye on all of them, I don't want kegs rolling down the driveway."

Columbus grew up poor and says he and his wife have taken care not to spoil their children. "My wife brought up all four kids. We've never taken a trip alone away because we wanted to be there for them."

On a white board behind the desk is a complicated-looking production schedule listing various projects at different stages of development, including Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, which is out this summer. He directed the original 2009 Percy Jackson film. His cluttered desk is covered with DVDs, books and family photos.

Brendan, 20, and Violet, 19, are both at New York University, where Columbus also studied. His eldest daughter, Eleanor, 24, a recent NYU film school graduate, is working for him in a new company set up to foster young film-makers.

There were no concerns about employing his daughter - on the contrary. "It's not a vanity position. She is essentially running the new company with me because her taste in material is so good. She convinced me to read Harry Potter all those years ago."

Columbus was responsible for casting Harry Potter, including the three central stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint.

He says he learned a sobering lesson about child actors from his experience with the notoriously troubled Culkin clan, making Home Alone. "I was much younger and I was really too naive to think about the family environment, as well. We didn't know that much about the family at the beginning; as we were shooting, we learned a little more. The stories are hair-raising. I was casting a kid who truly had a troubled family life. With Potter, I realised that you have to cast the family as well."

None of his own children, incidentally, lean towards acting, although Eleanor played Susan Bones in Harry Potter.

In hindsight, would he have cast another actor to play Kevin in Home Alone? Columbus leans forward and shakes his head. "I have no idea. But Macaulay is a very talented guy. I saw him on the London stage in 2001 in Madame Melville and I think he has the opportunity to put his life back on track. It's not too late for him."

Any advice for Culkin, now 32? "He should take a lesson from Daniel Radcliffe, who has got away from the partying side and devoted his life to doing good, solid work. That's what's healthy about being in England and not being in Los Angeles."

Columbus, an only child, was born in Spangler, Pennsylvania. His father was a coal miner, his mother worked in a factory. When he was 3, the family moved to Ohio "for the promise of a better life" when Alex Columbus got a job in an aluminium factory. "You're above ground so you don't have the promise of black lung or the mines caving in so that really was a step up. My father always said, ‘Don't ever do a job that you hate', which meant that he hated his job.

"I grew up with very little but the only things I cared about were books, comics and movies, which were relatively cheap entertainment back then," says Columbus, who won a scholarship to NYU and fell in love with films.

At the end of his first year, however, "I stupidly forgot to renew my scholarship by signing a few slips of paper, so I had to work in the factory that entire summer."

He wrote 20 pages of a screenplay while working the nightshift, "writing between giant rolls of aluminium, hiding from my foreman. It was pure incentive to get the hell out of there". His teacher at NYU passed the work on to an agent. "It saved my life. I benefited from the terrifying reality I faced of having to live and work in that factory for the rest of my life, if I didn't make it.

"I can't give that to my children, but I say, ‘Do something you really love'."

House of Secrets by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini is published by HarperCollins, RRP $24.99.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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