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Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief - Chris Columbus interview

Chris Columbus directs Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief

Interview by Cassam Looch

CHRIS Columbus talks about directing Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, how it compared as a franchise starter to his work on the Harry Potter movies, the likelihood of a Gremlins 3 and why 3D continues to be an exciting advancement in the way movies are made and getting people back into cinemas…

Q. So it looks like you might have another franchise on your hands…
Chris Columbus: Well, you don’t want to tempt the fates, if it were to be successful that would be fantastic. In this case it was actually kind of liberating because I was able to think about the film first. When I was doing the first Potter film it was kind of like we had the eyes of the world on us in terms of who we were casting and all the fans were saying you can’t change this or that. By the time we had finished the first few films, however, we felt like we could do whatever we wanted to do, so when I got into this film I decided I wanted enough directorial freedom to make the movie first and really think about what’s best for the plot.

Q. How did you come to Percy Jackson? It’s not something we are entirely familiar with here…
Chris Columbus: It was a book that actually started to gain popularity in schools because of the connection to Greek mythology. My daughter was having trouble reading because she is dyslexic and when she told me about this hero who is also dyslexic I sort of perked up as I’m always interested in characters that are flawed in some way… in this case, it was a character that had to overcome something and turn it into something that empowers them. The book itself was about Greek mythology in a modern setting and I thought that is something I have never seen before. It’s quite a faithful adaptation but there were certain things that weren’t quite cinematic enough, even though the book is wonderful.

Q. Is it something of an advantage if people aren’t aware of the books going into the film?
Chris Columbus: Well yeah, hopefully you’ll get people coming to the film and then maybe going back and discovering the books for the first time. They’ll see the changes, like our characters are 17 whereas the ones in the book are 11 when they start.

Q. With the special effects in this film does it allow much room for improvisation from someone like Steve [Coogan], or does he have to stand in a certain spot for the shots?
Chris Columbus: No, no not at all. The great thing about special effects is that you truly have as much freedom as you could possibly imagine. I mean that’s quite a recent thing, but these advancements have been amazing. Seven or eight years ago, if I wanted to move the camera back in something like the Hydra scene I would have to bring in a 400-tonne motion capture camera but nowadays you can essentially do anything you want, which completely frees the actors.

Q. Have you seen that huge sea-change then from when you first started working with these effects?
Chris Columbus: Absolutely, I mean the first three Potter movies were like an exercise… a sort of graduate school of learning the ropes for me. Up until that point I had only really written films that had that level of visual effects so on the first Potter film it didn’t feel like we had the time to do the most complex and cumbersome effects on set – we had to leave them until the end. The result is the effects aren’t as good as they could have been.

Going into the second one we realised we should build those sets first and by the third film we could make it feel much more seamless. So, I think I’ve learned my lesson and on this film I realised that the effects were so important that we started on them early on. Our visual effects supervisor is such an amazing guy, and I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to the press, this is a guy who is developing nano-technology to replicate human beings.

Q. You have a long relationship with the studio on this film, was that more of a freeing experience than with some of your other films?
Chris Columbus: I guess so. I mean there are a whole group of different people now from when I was last working there in the mid-90s so it’s also quite a change. I think when working on the Potter films we actually put most of the pressure on ourselves by trying to remain as faithful as possible to the books, so it wasn’t the studio or even JK Rowling. We just had the sense and presence of all the fans around the world with us, so as we said earlier it can be freeing when people don’t have that prior knowledge of the books.

Q. Were you keen to get the movie out before Clash of the Titans?
Chris Columbus: Yes, it was absolutely essential. In fact it was our plan from day one. Obviously now with Titans being converted to 3D we get some more time. I’m certainly up with that process and keen to see how it goes, but it’s quite lengthy. Tim Burton is doing that with Alice in Wonderland as well… he shot it in 2D and now it’s being converted.

Q. How did you go about casting Logan, Brandon and Alexandra?
Chris Columbus: Once we decided to have an older cast and an older leading character, I remembered seeing 3:10 To Yuma and his performance in that really impressed me. He came in and we met, and I kind of knew right away that he was the right person for Percy. The studio wanted to see a screen test and he was spectacular in that and blew everyone away. He has a sort of intuitive ability as an actor, which is very rare for a 17-year-old. His instincts were so beyond his age… that being said, it was a pleasure to work with him as well. It wasn’t like some other films I’ve done where it’s like acting class having the child actor say one line and then having to yell cut before they look at the camera. I truly believe he is going to go on and become a great actor as well as a film star.

Now, once we had Logan I had to try and find someone with the chemistry with him. We met a lot of young women in Los Angeles and the problem is that all these poor young women don’t eat, so they look like they can barely pick up a spoon… but finally when Alex came in she was formidable. She was strong, she was tough, you believe that she was a real demigoddess and together they had a tremendous amount of chemistry. Then Brandon came in and we did a screen test with the three of them and we thought that was right.

Q. What is next for you?
Chris Columbus: We’re producing another adaptation of a book which is very popular in the US called The Help. It’s by an author named Catherine Stockit. For me as a director I hope there is enough success on Percy Jackson that there is a second one because I would jump right into that. I would do the next book in the series. I think you have to do them in order.

Q. How about Gremlins 3?
Chris Columbus: Yeah, we’ve talked about that. No one’s finalized anything yet… I was supposed to have a meeting with Mr Spielberg about something else altogether so maybe I’ll bring up Gremlins 3 there.

Q. It is another one they are talking about doing in 3D, have you worked in that medium before?
Chris Columbus: No, I haven’t actually. Oddly, I have been obsessed with it since I was a kid. My first experiences of 3D would have been films like House of Wax or Creature From The Black Lagoon, but it was kind of disappointing because it never really worked that well. Having seen Avatar and, moreover, Up… that was the one where I thought it doesn’t have to be a gimmick anymore. I think there is a big future for it but the question is does the technology affect people? I’ve talked to some and they say the glasses hurt their eyes. I used to have a problem with the red and green glasses but now it’s not a problem.

Q. Do you think it’s a gimmick?
Chris Columbus: I think it’s getting people back into the cinemas, which can only be a good thing. When we did our press conference in Athens and they asked whether I thought our film will suffer by not being in 3D. I thought that once you are in the theatre you don’t think about whether or not a film should be in 3D. But I’m sure there will be some long conversations about the next one as to which way to go with it.

Read our review of Percy Jackson

Read our interview with Logan Lerman