Chris Columbus
November 12, 2005

Chris Columbus
Chris Columbus directing Rosario Dawson & Adam Pascal
(photo by Phil Bray)

...spoilers ahead...

MD = Michael Dequina; Q = Other press; CC = Chris Columbus

Q: How do you go from Harry Potter to AIDS and heroin addiction?

CC: It's all part of the same--it's a big world out there. Honestly as a director I believe, at least for me, if I start doing the same thing over and over again, I'm gonna get bored really quickly. I need a reason to get out of bed and go to work. I've been waiting nine years to do this movie, so I was obsessed. For various reasons I couldn't do it; other directors were attached to it. So for me it was really important to do this film. I was like a racehorse at the starting gate when I was finally told I could get this movie.

Q: With the kind of family movies that you have done, was there any resistance at all to your [hiring]?

CC: At least I never sensed that resistance from the Larsons. Certainly some people in the press were like, "The guy who did Home Alone and Harry Potter is gonna do this." For some reason, because I've done films that dealt with the issue of family--thematically, they've kind of been linked, whether they were good films or bad films: Home Alone deals with a kid who doesn't have a family; Harry Potter is a kid who's always searching for his family. And [Rent] is about a different type of family. So I'm always fascinated by those particular themes. That's a really extreme connection in a sense. I just felt that I was the right guy to do this movie. And in an odd way, this movie's more personal for me because I lived in Manhattan for 17 years. I've lived in a loft. I knew all these people when I was struggling at NYU; I knew musicians and actors and artists--that was the world I knew.

Q: Did you just catch a matinee of [the stage production of Rent] and said, that's what I want to do?"

CC: I saw it in 1996 with the original cast, and I'd never really experienced that kind of emotion in a theatre before. It was just really emotionally powerful for me. And I went back about five days later and saw it again. I didn't realize until I was casting the film--there were a few ways we could go: we could cast the film with entirely unknowns; we could cast the film--

Q: Why not Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera?

CC: That's what I was going to say--there is the pop star version with Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Usher. I even went to a party to meet Justin, who's a terrific guy, by the way; I don't know if you guys have ever met him, but he's actually a really sweet guy. Then I started to meet the original cast, and I realized the thing I responded to [when I first saw the stage show] was the connection that they had, partially because of Jonathan Larson's death. Obviously you guys know Jonathan tragically died the night before the first preview--that connected these people in a very strong way. There's a deep, intense connection when you're doing that play together for 16 months, and they formed this really, really strong group. There's a chemistry there that as a director I'd never seen before.

Q: But good stage actors don't necessarily make good film actors. How did you know the original stage cast was going to deliver the goods on film?

CC: I just met with them all. I met with them all, talked to them all and carefully considered whether or not they could still do it. And I realized that that connection--I mean, these people originated these roles. So if you go to see Rent now--and this is not to take anything away from the actors who are doing Rent [now]--the guy who's doing [the character of] Mark is doing a bit of an Anthony Rapp impersonation. So these roles are different than the roles in something like Les Misérables or West Side Story because these people actually in a sense it's another side of them. The Jesse Martin you see in Rent is really close to the Jesse Martin I know as opposed to the Jesse Martin from Law & Order. So I think these people are closer to these roles, and that's the way they were cast.

Q: How often did you have to tone them down and say, "You're not playing to the balcony here because I've got a camera three feet from your face"?

CC: A few times; a few times you'd have to do that. [laughs] Idina [Menzel] was the most concerned; she asked me, "Make sure that my mouth doesn't look too big when I'm singing." [laughs] So I was aware of that. The key was really, because I spoke to the original choreographer Marlies Yearby, and she said that the choreography really shouldn't look like choreography--in other words, came from within these actors and it came from within their characters. The only really traditionally choreographed number in the film is the fantasy sequence from "Tango: Maureen"--everything else should feel much more naturalistic. But again, that took months and months of rehearsals.

Q: So you did a rehearsal process?

CC: A huge rehearsal process. Five or six months of choreography.

Q: Did you get a chance to spend any time in New York, in Alphabet City, during that era?

CC: Oh yeah.

Q: How was it to recreate that era?

CC: Unfortunately New York City's become a bit like Disneyland now. When you're here for 17 years I saw it really was like the line in the film: "I'm a New Yorker; fear's my life." That was our motto every day. But now it's gentrified. To recreate Alphabet City in the late '80s was akin to almost doing a western or something because you go down there, and there's a Starbucks at every corner, wireless Internet cafés, DVD stores--things that just couldn't exist. So we had to really carefully pick and choose our locations. I wanted to shoot the entire picture here, but there's also an ordinance in Manhattan that says that you cannot do music playback after 10pm because of all the rock-'n-roll videos that had been shot. So we got one extension until midnight on a Friday night to do "One Song Glory" on the rooftop. Other than that, I was completely confused because I had no place to shoot the "Rent" number. And we were forced to build that street on an L.A. backlot to shoot that particular number. We found some alleyways in Oakland. Recreating New York City in the '80s was extremely difficult.

Q: You were wanting to do this movie for nine years, and you finally got the go-ahead--the difference in making Rent now was the fact that Chicago was a big hit?

CC: I owe a great debt to Chicago and probably Moulin Rouge! because people are now interested in making musicals again. It's a valid genre. The most difficult aspect of Chicago was that originally some creative people around were saying, "What device are you going to use in Rent to get these people to sing? In Chicago, we went into her head, and that triggered the musical numbers." They said, "You can't just have people singing onscreen," and I was like, "People have been singing onscreen since 1929 in The Jazz Singer. It's a genre; it's an artform." They said, "Audiences won't accept it these days," and I was convinced that we could do it if we created a realistic world; in a world that felt like it was real, the songs would be acceptable--and that was the reason why we started the picture with "Seasons of Love." It was our way of saying, "This is a musical; everyone could sit back, relax--people are going to be singing the next two hours."

Q: Why is the time right for this movie now? Why do you think the themes of this movie resonate now, and are they as powerful now as they were when the play was first staged?

CC: Oh, without a doubt. There were some studios that didn't want to make the movie. Thankfully Joe Roth at Revolution loved the play, loved the music, loved the script, and agreed to make the film. But the people who didn't want to make the film said, "Oh, it's dated. AIDS is no longer an issue." And I was horrified. I said, "AIDS is a global epidemic. AIDS is much worse of a situation than it's ever been." We as a country have taken a huge step backwards since 1989 when this play was written, and we need to see a film about acceptance and tolerance and particularly diversity. We're ignoring that, and we've become a little too isolated for our own good, so that's why I think the time is right.

Q: There are specific design elements that are in the stage play that are directly in the movie, which is nice--for example, Mark's "La Vie Boheme" shirt and Angel's Pussy Galore coat, and even a little of the choreography in "I'll Cover You." What went into making the decision to pull something directly from the stage versus things that were changed or altered and things that were cut? What went into that?

CC: Some of the shows of Rent--I've seen the play 15 or 16 times--the Broadway version of the play still holds on to some of those iconic images or iconic wardrobe items. If you're seeing the play in Las Vegas or something, sometimes that stuff tends to get a little brighter and a little too colorful, a little too cute. What we did is we just basically went to old clothing stores, Salvation Army--anything we could do to just find clothes that felt appropriate, and then we would get them as dirty and ratty as possible. Nothing could ever be too dirty for us--we would put on the ground, and people would dance on it just to give it that look. I think Anthony [Rapp] still had his original sweater, and I think we made three or four other sweaters and duplicated the worn look. If you go to the East Village now in the areas that aren't as gentrified, people are still dressing like that; kids are still kind of dressing in that style. I wanted to make sure that the film never felt too '80s; I didn't want to do Madonna, big hair, giant glasses, those sorts of things.

Q: Why did you get Green Day producer Rob Cavallo to do the music for the film?

CC: I loved the music from the show--the Broadway cast album was kind of like the soundtrack to my life for nine years, so I'd listen to it constantly; I was a huge fan of it. But the actors would always tell me this: the Broadway cast album was recorded in three days, and they were doing the show at the same time, so they all had a lot of technical problems with it. And I also felt that it leans slightly a little too far to the Broadway side of it, and I thought it could be closer to a really strong rock-'n-roll record. And I picked up the Green Day record [American Idiot] the day it came out because I'm an obsessive music fan. I heard that record, and I thought this was one of the best sounding rock records I've heard in the last ten years. So I saw Rob's name, and I arranged a meeting, and I asked him if he'd be interested in doing the film, and he decided to do it. It really stemmed from two numbers. I was not happy with the quality of the Broadway cast album [versions] of "Rent" and "Out Tonight"--two really strong rock-'n-roll songs that I felt could just have much stronger power, and that's what Rob brought to it.

MD: What about the various cuts in the show--not just "Halloween" and the second half of "Goodbye Love," but stuff like [Roger's girlfriend] April's suicide? What made you arrive at cutting those parts out?

CC: April's suicide was shot; it just didn't fit into the montage sequence.

MD: But isn't that a major part of Roger's character?

CC: I actually talked about it with the writer [Stephen Chbosky] a lot, and I wanted to be a little more ambiguous about how April died.

MD: And "Halloween" and the second half of "Goodbye Love"? They must've been cut late because they're on the soundtrack CD.

CC: Yeah, those were late cuts, and "Contact" was an early cut; that's why that didn't make the CD. But "Contact" was a number that we had rehearsed.

MD: Was "Contact" recorded?

CC: No, "Contact" wasn't recorded, but we choreographed it and rehearsed it for about three or four months, and at the last minute because of pacing, I felt it would slow the film down, so we didn't shoot that. But "Goodbye Love"--actually when I watched the first cut of the film, and I watched it over and over and over, I would get to the point after Angel's funeral, after the cemetery sequence where "Goodbye Love" happens, I found myself emotionally shutting down. I didn't want any more emotion. As an audience member I couldn't handle it, and it really hurt the end of the film. In the theater--remember, you have some distance from the actors, so you accept "Goodbye Love" in the theater; on film, it was just too much, so I had to cut it. The minute I cut it, the film worked; it felt like you could accept the end of the film now.

MD: And it will be on the DVD?

CC: But I won't put it back into the bulk of the film because I do really feel it hurts the pacing. It will be a deleted scene. I just honestly believe because of the language of cinema--use of closeups, the fact that you're in these characters' heads and you're much closer to them--I just felt that "Goodbye Love" was too much. You'll see it when you see it.

Q: How much do you worry, though, about Rentheads who disagree with your opinion on that? "The play's the holy grail; it kills the Mark/Roger, Roger/Mimi relationship by not having that intimate detail in there."

CC: That's fine. They can feel that way. I can only say that I've seen it, and maybe we'll give them an alternate [cut]. But I really do feel it tilts it. You learn over the years there's a very fine line between what works and what doesn't work, and it felt slightly melodramatic to me to have that [Mark/Roger] argument in the film.

Q: You are used to dealing with hardcore fans anyway, right?

CC: Harry Potter was truly like an exorcism for me. [laughs] By the time we got to the third movie, we realized, let's just concentrate on making the film; let's just forget about listening the fans so much because being that faithful has its drawbacks. I would thousands of letters from kids telling me to make the movies longer and thousands of letters from parents telling me to make the movies shorter. So I just realized, stop listening to people and work on the film. So when we got to the third film, we realized, "Let's just think about the film." And I think that philosophy is continued with The Goblet of Fire, but it certainly inspired me, so I thought to myself, I got to think about the film first. And believe me, when I tell you, the film didn't work with "Goodbye Love." It just didn't, so it's a much better film because of that [cut].

MD: I would like to see an extended fan cut though.

CC: I'll let you see it. I swear. We'll go back and look at it later.

Q: That the studio isn't giving this a platform release shows that Sony is really confident about the movie. But there's a question of is this too gay for mainstream America? The movie is being sold without any real mention of what its dark subject is, with HIV and everything else. Will movie audiences be surprised?

CC: As I said earlier I think people need to see this movie. You know, people have to be a lot more accepting and a lot more tolerant. Maybe I'm just incredibly naive. The picture was given an R rating originally. The MPAA gave me a list of things to cut. They gave me five to seven language issues, and they gave me a list of 30 picture edits they wanted me to change. I talked to the studio, and they said, "You don't have to cut anything. A PG-13 would be amazing for us because everyone would see the film. Just do what you feel you need to do. So I made five language cuts, and I didn't touch the film at all; I didn't touch the picture. And they came back and gave us a PG-13. They said they felt the film was strong enough that ages 13 to 17 needed to see this film. I was actually impressed that a conservative group like the MPAA gave us a PG-13. Now that may have its drawbacks if you're going to be taking grandma and little Joey to see Rent on Thanksgiving, and they don't know what to expect. [laughs] But it's okay to shake people up a little bit I think. I think it's important people wake up and see this. They have the opportunity to walk out and get their money back if they have a problem with it.

Q: Do you think perceptions of you will finally change after this movie, and that this love/hate relationship with the critics will turn around?

CC: I don't know. I really have no idea. I just know that I have to continue to make movies and try to become a better director as I get older. As you get older, you become a little more mature. Maybe I've been maturing at a later rate mentally; I don't know. I just believe that I have to make movies that I'm excited about, and obviously when you wait nine years to do something, and you're passionate about the themes, you change as a person. I really am passionate about the themes of this film; I think it's important for people to see this film. I could never probably go back and do some of the pictures I did in the past at this point in my life. You know, we change.

Q: Just to clarify a little something about the MPAA. The producers told us that you were asked to cut five or six needle frames, is that correct?

CC: Yeah. Well, that's a third of a second I think, yeah. But that was prior to this last screening [for the MPAA]; we took the picture back a couple of times, so those were just trims that we did. It was the difference between the needle going into the arm and the needle touching the arm.

Q: What's coming up next? What's your take on [Marvel comics character] Sub-Mariner going to be?

CC: I'm not doing Sub-Mariner. I have no idea [what's next]. I'm not lying when people ask what are you doing next--I just don't know. If I have to take this film under my arm and tell people about it, I'll do it. I really can't think about anything else.

Q: Will you go back to Harry Potter again?

CC: I love the fifth book. I love that book. But I don't think I can move my entire circus of a family back to England; that would be too difficult.

Q: Because of the collaboration of most of these actors originally in the play, did they have any more input than the average actor would in creating their performances in the film?

CC: Not more. I tend to be collaborative, and if I think the actor's intelligent, I value their opinion. And I happened to be with eight really smart actors [most of whom] originated these roles. It was a very collaborative set. Most of the intense discussions revolved around choreography and how we wanted it to appear, with the exception of "Tango: Maureen," that there was a lack of choreography. In doing that, it's like when you're making a rock record that you want to sound live--it takes a lot of rehearsal. You can't just go into the studio and record it and have it sound raw and live. You have to be even more prepared to make it sound or look improvised.

Q: How did Rosario [Dawson] fit into this?

CC: She was amazing because she came in for the audition, and I had no idea that she could sing or dance. She came in and did "Without You" and "Out Tonight." By here account she was nervous, but there was a fragile quality to her performance, and I was blown away. So the producer Michael Barnathan and I ran after her and said, "You've got the role." That never happens. We just knew it was right.

Q: Were you able to get a deeper understanding of the text?

CC: Yeah, I think the thing is if you look at the play--not to say anything bad about the play, but when you open the Playbill now, the producers were forced to put in little pictures of all the characters with lines between them explaining the relationships because they obviously had some complaints from audience members who didn't understand what was going on. So one of the things we wanted to do was work on the clarity of those relationships and the clarity of those characters. I would always see the play and say, "Why did these guys ever live with Benny? Collins, Mark, and Roger used to live with Benny and hang out with him--why did they do that?" So with [Benny], we wanted to make him a little more charming and a little more accessible and give him more of an honest personality so you see why these four people were actually friends.

Q: Did the actors themselves provide you with insight into the show?

CC: Oh yeah. Aside from studying every musical I could get my hands on to prepare to shoot the film, Julie Larson gave me Jonathan's original notebook with all of his notes. I got boxes of material in terms of character backgrounds that Jonathan had written. So I studied anything I could get my hands on. And then Anthony Rapp--he's still obsessed with Rent in every form. He's been with the show the longest; he was the only person from the original workshop who really made it to Broadway, so Anthony's a wealth of information.

Q: At the end of the day, what do you think Jonathan Larson would make of the film?

CC: I hope he'd be happy. For someone--and Anthony will tell you about it--who used to introduce himself as "the future of American theater," he sounds like he had a healthy ego and was very confident, and I think he would've loved it. It's in his spirit, certainly.

Next Roundtable:
Rosario Dawson & Adam Pascal


Press Junket Roundtable Transcripts
The Review
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Review
Teaser Trailer Review
Trailer #2 Review

Rent: Chris Columbus/© Michael Dequina
Production photos ©2005 Revolution Studios. All rights reserved.
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