Writer of Spielberg fantasies tackles directing

There's a new whiz kid on the Hollywood scene. His name is Chris Columbus, and he's a prot'eg'e of Steven Spielberg, the Grand Old Whiz Kid himself. Mr. Columbus has yet to reach 30 years old, but he's already a veteran screenwriter. His first hit was ``Gremlins,'' the megahit about an army of nasty furballs on the loose in a small town. ``The Goonies'' and ``Young Sherlock Holmes'' quickly followed - making a trio of winners that have earned a reported $240 million among them.

Like other Hollywood writers before him, Columbus nurtured a not-so-secret ambition as he watched the grosses pile up: to become a director himself. This year the dream has come true - with ``Adventures in Babysitting,'' a comedy about suburban teens on the loose in a big city.

Nobody was surprised when film-school grad Columbus took the step from writing to directing. But everyone was surprised when he decided to make his debut with a script written by somebody else: David Simkins, himself a Hollywood first-timer.

What attracted Columbus so much to the ``Adventures in Babysitting'' screenplay? I asked him when he visited Manhattan not long ago.

After the success of ``Gremlins,'' he told me, about 100 scripts were sent to him over the next four years. ``And all of them were rip-offs of `Gremlins' and `The Goonies,' or stupid teen comedies set in high schools,'' he added. ``I set out to write something of my own, but I received `Adventures in Babysitting' about halfway through.

``I read 20 pages and realized it was the perfect film for me - because I wanted to do an extension of my student film, which was about a kid from suburbia who goes to the city.''

Columbus was once that suburban kid himself. ``I went to [New York University] in '76,'' he reports, ``straight from Ohio.''

But he liked the ``Babysitting'' script for another reason, too - and it's a surprising one, coming from the writer of three Spielberg fantasies. Columbus was delighted with the absence of big special effects in the screenplay.

``I'm not really interested in special effects,'' Columbus says. ``Special effects are great for a writer. You can write, `2,000 gremlins walk down the street,' and you go into the movie theater, and 2,000 gremlins are walking down the street. That's a great feeling! You don't have to sit in a studio with little pieces of clay and putty.''

Fussing with props and camera tricks isn't ``the real thrill of directing,'' Columbus goes on. What is that thrill? ``For me, it's getting a great performance out of an actor. That's the direction I want to go in - toward realistic, naturalistic acting.''

Columbus's earliest scripts had a realistic quality, dealing with the struggles of ordinary people in Midwestern factory towns. He wrote the movie that became his first hit - ``Gremlins'' - just to prove he could do something more whimsical.

``I was inspired by mice running around a loft I lived in in New York,'' he recalls with a smile. ``I used to sleep with my arm draped over the side of the bed, and I used to worry that a mouse would come along and take a bite. I realized it's scary to have things running around in the dark, and that's where `Gremlins' came from. It was sent to Spielberg and he responded to it - after 25 other people had turned it down!''

Now that he's a director, Columbus wants to return - by easy stages - to more down-to-earth projects. ``I base the way I direct on the films I loved in the '70s,'' he reveals. ``I feel some of the greatest films ever made are from the '70s. And that's been lost recently - that period of the antihero and naturalistic acting.''

The pictures that inspire Columbus so much include ``The Godfather'' and ``Dog Day Afternoon'' as well as ``Serpico'' and ``One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' among others. He tried for the same ``telephoto lens, realistic sort of look'' in his own directorial debut, even though it's a comedy. He feels he succeeded best with a scene set in a Chicago blues bar.

``I wanted to shoot the city ... not in a wide-angle, cartoony way,'' he says with excitement. ``I hope that as I continue to grow as a filmmaker, my films will become more and more like those from the '70s - which work so well in theaters, with a wide screen, but just don't work on video.... Films with a grittiness and an honest, naturalistic setting.''

Along with that essential realism, Columbus feels that ``ideas'' are another key ingredient of a first-rate film. But he has no patience with intellectual notions of filmmaking that put the ``idea'' before the action on the screen. He grants that he wants to make ``deeper'' films. ``But if it doesn't work on film, for an audience, then the ideas are meaningless. They're much more potent and believable if the film works and involves the audience....

``If you really believe in a good story and good characterization, then your ideas will come to the surface. You can talk about the ideas behind `On the Waterfront' and `The Godfather,' but the films are great because they work as films. If you start talking about ideas as opposed to structure and acting, you're lost.''

One of Columbus's ambitions is to make a film about his past, ``about a coal-mining town, a factory town, the decline of that way of life. That affected me and my parents. It's a great human story.'' But he's reluctant to make a film about people older than himself at this stage in his career, feeling he should stick to characters close to his own age until he matures more as a filmmaker.

Of the two hats he wears so successfully, as writer and director, which does Columbus enjoy most?

``Oh, directing, by far,'' he answers. This is partly because ``a script is only the blueprint for a film.''

It's also because directing allows him to work directly with people. ``There's nothing that compares with getting a great performance out of an actor - when you're working and working, and finally it clicks, and you've got it!''

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