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Chris Columbus: Runaway Success

‘Gremlins’ and ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ screenwriter has gone from zero to 60 in Hollywood and dreams of a world run by dogs

Chris Columbus

Chris Columbus with a date in 1985.

Ron Galella/WireImage

A Mustangful of Jersey boys hanging out the windows yelling “What year? What year?” passes on the highway down Manhattan’s West Side as Chris Columbus tools along in his red Rambler convertible. At 27, he’s already a Hollywood fat cat, having seen three of his scripts turned into Steven Spielberg movies that together grossed over $270 million.

But he’s got cheap taste in wheels. His car’s a ’62, with a chunky body, gaudy chrome trimmings and two-tone leather seats, the sort of cool classic that could’ve cruised by 77 Sunset Strip. Its rag top up to a winter world, the Rambler pulls up near a record store where Columbus’ll hunt for an old Impressions collection. “My dream,” he says, hopping out, “would be someday to go for a ride with Bruce in this car.”

He was sweating through a summer job at an aluminum factory in 1978 when he first heard “Badlands” and “Prove It All Night,” Springsteen’s songs egging him to chase his dreams out of Ohio. Ever since his first trip to a theater, when he’d sat in the dark and watched Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on the big screen, he’d wanted to work in the movies. Hearing Darkness on the Edge of Town made him decide to do it.

For such a rock & roll guy, he dresses pretty square. Still looking like a clean-cut college boy in his sport coats and sneakers, Columbus and his wife, a dancer, moved recently to a penthouse apartment in New York with a terrace that affords a true sitting-on-top-of-the-world feeling. A baby-grand piano that nobody who lives here really knows how to play and Japanese-style furnishings, sober stuff for such a knockabout couple, hardly begin to take up the huge space. A skylight’s being installed in the den, so Columbus is set up for work in the middle of the kitchen, the way you imagine Erma Bombeck works.

Only six years ago he was a dorm dweller, a junior at New York University and the star student in screenwriting professor Jesse Kornbluth’s class. “People in my class are encouraged to read aloud, and week after week he would read his movie. And everybody would be floored,” recalls Kornbluth.

The teacher was impressed enough to introduce Columbus to his own agent, and the agent promptly sold Jocks, the story of a Catholic-school wimp trying to make the football team, and Columbus’ first script, for $5000. Columbus wrote another screenplay, Night Shift (not the Ron Howard movie) — awful by all accounts — his junior year and directed a short film his senior year. The summer after he graduated, he slagged off by watching old horror movies and scripted Reckless, a reworking of Rebel Without a Cause set in an industrial town. Reckless sold for $40,000 and was made into an awkward movie starring Daryl Hannah and Aidan Quinn.

By fall, inspired by The Bride of Frankenstein, he decided to write his own creature feature. Late at night, listening to little mice feet scurry around the floor, Columbus dreamed up Gremlins, the tale of cute fur balls that turn into batlike vermin and terrorize a Norman Rockwell village. In Columbus’ screenplay, the first glimpse of one of his beasties is in the kitchen, where he’s just chomped the head off a gingerbread man.

Too funny to be really horrifying, Gremlins splatter animals like a Roadrunner cartoon. It was original enough to catch Steven Spielberg’s eye, and Columbus was summoned to his Los Angeles production company. “I remember there were dogs and babies playing in the office, a real family atmosphere, and Steven jumped up to introduce himself,” he says of their initial meeting. Quickly developing what Columbus describes as an ” ‘older brother-younger brother’ sort of relationship,” he and Spielberg moved on from Gremlins to collaborate on The Goonies, about a gaggle of kids hunting for a buried treasure. Richard Donner signed on to direct it because, he says, “I just wanted to see it so badly when I read it.”

The director was surprised the writer was so young: “When he came to our first meeting, I thought he was driving his father,” Donner remembers.

Columbus wrote for Spielberg by day and by night was writing Young Sherlock Holmes. Paramount gave him only the premise to work with, and he made up the story of Holmes and Watson’s meeting at prep school. Director Barry Levinson, who’d made two impressive movies in The Natural and Diner, was enlisted, and Spielberg waved the executive-producer wand.

“I knew I wanted the kind of production values Steven would insist on for the movie,” Columbus explains. He wanted it to have the feel of a Dickens novel. “I knew he would make sure it was snowing in every single scene. I just love the way Christmas time looks on film.”

Steven Spielberg thinks it’s Columbus’ best effort. “I’ve watched Chris develop from just a writer of ideas to a writer sensitive to character and relationship,” he says. “Even though his concept of the teenage Holmes and Watson didn’t appeal to general audiences, his characters were captured in that movie better, I feel, than in either Goonies or Gremlins.”

Young Sherlock so far has taken in only $20 million, compared to The Goonies‘ $67 million and Gremlins‘ $186 million in box-office grosses. When Young Sherlock was released in December, Columbus hurried to a 7-Eleven and bought The New York Times. He read a review by Vincent Canby that called it “not only the best movie to feature an Egyptian blowgun in several years, but also one of the few really stylish and entertaining American movies of 1985.”

“I think it was the happiest day of my life,” he says.

“There are 4,000 comic books downstairs,” says Irene Columbus, Chris’ mother, who worked at a GM factory most of her life. “He always wrote a lot of little skits from the comics. He’d make up little stories with the characters.”

“He never slept in on Saturdays like the other kids,” says his father, Alex, an aluminum-plant worker. “He had to get up to watch the cartoons. He could draw anything.” His sense of the comically perverse may come from his dad, who, after all, gave him that name. People used to phone the Columbus home to ask if the earth is round or flat, and Chris remembers his father would answer, “As square as your goddamn head.” Asked why he saddled his only son with a funny name, Alex Columbus merely says, “I come from a large family, and some of my brothers had sons before I did, and none of ’em had the courage to do it.”

As it turns out, Chris, a relentlessly optimistic type, always liked his name. “People would always meet me and laugh. Isn’t that what everybody wants? To make people laugh?”

The movies Columbus has scripted for Spielberg are all funny, but more striking is their fantastic visual sense. The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes are full of Rube Goldberg contraptions and imaginary monsters. In Gremlins, the father, a tinkerer and inventor, flashes a business card that reads, “Fantastic ideas for a fantastic world. I make the illogical logical.” There are those who say that Columbus, who names Martin Scorsese and Frank Capra as his favorite directors, has been overly influenced by Spielberg’s vision. But people who know them say they’re just very alike. “Working with them, you could see that they can read each other’s minds. And those are two very sick minds,” says Richard Donner.

“They both approach things with a great optimism,” says Mark Johnson, who produced Young Sherlock Holmes. “They have a similar sense of fun. I’d be surprised to find cynicism or anger in their work.”

Columbus’ friends think this positivism is at the bottom of his Hollywood success. One of a group of cinema students he hung out with at NYU, Mike Barnathan, says: “Chris never saw a barrier to anything. He always had a naive idealism. He’s like a cartoonist who just draws what he wants and then it comes to life.”

Columbus and his wife, Monica, are taking their six-month-old terrier, Figaro, for her noontime walk in Riverside Park. A lone attendant scrubs the hull of a small sailboat as puffs of late-winter wind ripple the Hudson. The park’s as peaceful as a seaside paradise, except for the mangy characters who stumble by.

“So what is the worst idea for a movie you ever had?” I ask. Columbus has to think this over, but Monica pipes up with Dogs. His wife has the sort of derisive laugh that makes you not worry about success going to his head. “Dogs is terrible. Dogs is the worst,” Monica says. “It’s about dogs all getting together and taking over the world.” Chris starts to describe scenes of German shepherds in easy chairs with pipes in their mouths, dogs phoning other dogs, pooches plotting together. The fire’s been rekindled. He’s had his visions realized by millions of dollars’ worth of special effects. His gremlins could break-dance; his young Watson hallucinates dancing pastries. Chris is smiling. 

“I just know if they made the gremlins, they could make believable dogs,” he says. “I like ideas that are no holds barred in the imagination.”

He’s just finished the script for the third Indiana Jones movie, but it looks like the next movie of his that’ll actually be made is Stiffs — which one Hollywood executive assures him will ruin his whole career. This time he’ll direct, his lifelong goal.

Stiffs came to life one night when he was out downing beers with his wife and a friend, talking about love and death and how there are a lot of movie love stories but not many death stories. “It’s a satire of the way society treats death. You can’t smell the formaldehyde — it isn’t gruesome,” he says. “People won’t mind as long as the corpses are smiling.” He won’t say any more about it, and he won’t talk much about the ideas he’s developing at his new company, 1492 Productions, though one is a story of fathers and sons titled The Ties That Bind, after the Springsteen song. He’s paranoid about somebody stealing his ideas.

“It’s the ‘only child syndrome,'” his wife offers.

As Figaro leads the way home, Columbus says shyly, “Well, Steven says you can’t be naive.”

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