It was during 1996 when producer-director Chris Columbus caught the original cast of Jonathan Larson's Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Rent at New York's Nederlander Theatre.
So taken was he with the musical's pulsing, emotional, rock-and-roll score that the director of "Adventures in Babysitting," "Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" returned to the show a few days later and subsequently attended several productions of the hit musical around the country. Although the thought of directing a film version of the musical — which is set in New York's East Village and concerns the lives of a group of struggling, young artist friends against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis — occurred to him years earlier, it took nearly a decade for his dream to become a reality.
Now, with less than a month before the premiere of "Rent," the director — who also co-wrote the movie's screenplay with Stephen Chbosky — took a few minutes to chat with Playbill.com about his eagerly awaited film from Sony Pictures.
Playbill.com: When did you first see the musical Rent?
Chris Columbus: Nine years ago [with] the original cast.
Playbill.com: Do you remember your response to the show at the time?
CC: I was completely blown through the back of the theatre. I never really experienced that sort of emotion in a Broadway theatre before. I went back to see it a few days later — completely moved by it. Even back then, I thought about the possibility of making it into a film. But I had heard at the time, I think that it might have been Martin Scorsese, was involved, so obviously I'm not going to get in the way of that. And, then I heard later on that Spike Lee was involved. So I just put it into the back of my head and managed to see the production when it did the road and various non-Equity versions of the show. When we were doing the third "Harry Potter" film, I was thinking about what I would do next. I was always listening to Rent when I was writing; it was sort of the soundtrack of my life. I always knew I wanted to be involved with it in some way if it was still available. I found out that it was going to NBC as a miniseries. I immediately acted upon that and said, "I don't want this thing to become homogenized in a TV version of Rent." Playbill.com: What year was that?
CC: Probably two years ago at this point.
Playbill.com: How did it finally come about that you would direct the film?
CC: I was lucky enough to [be with] the studio at the time who was going to do it. They got it away from NBC right before the papers were signed, and they agreed to let me write one of the drafts of the screenplay. And then they decided that the film wasn't really for them, so they gave it back to me. And, luckily, Joe Roth at Revolution and Sony was open to the idea of Rent because his daughter [Julia] was a huge Rent fanatic. At the time I was fluctuating, deciding, "Should I do it? Shouldn't I do it?" I took my daughter [Eleanor] to see the Las Vegas production, and she was just blown away, and she said, "Dad, you have to make this your next film." Because of our two 16-year-old daughters, we decided to make the film.
Playbill.com: With regards to your screenplay, the musical is pretty much sung-through. Is there much dialogue in the film?
CC: There's about 15-20 minutes of dialogue.
Playbill.com: How involved in the making of the film were Jonathan Larson's family and/or the original creative team?
CC: The original creative team, not a lot. [Rent musical supervisor] Tim Weil was probably the most involved in terms of working with the actors and rehearsing with the actors, so Tim was a very integral part of it. And, [Jonathan's father] Al and [Jonathan's sister] Julie Larson just wanted to be there every day. I don't think [Al] was creatively concerned because he felt very comfortable about what we were doing, but he just wanted to be there, [and] soak it in everyday. And, Julie was just a great resource. She was my direct connection with Jonathan . . . because some of Rent, some of what exists onstage today, feels unfinished. And, part of that is because of, obviously, the tragic death of Jonathan. So, we had to do a little detective work in trying to figure out what these relationships [were], where they originated from. I think the most difficult situation for me was trying to make the character of Benny a realistic entity for the audience. In other words, I wanted the audience to understand why Roger and Mark and Collins were actually friendly with this guy. Taye [Diggs] brought a real charm and complexity to the role so you understood [that] these guys were friends and they really did have a connection in the past.
Playbill.com: It's so rare with film musicals that the original Broadway actors get to re-create their roles on screen. How important was that to you, and how did that come about?
CC: There was talk when I originally [came on board] because all of the various people at the studios — I guess you'd call them Hollywood types — were essentially putting a lot of fear and uncertainty into my head, telling me that the film was completely uncommercial, that no one would ever want to see this film, and you need to protect yourself because Rent has had its day, and it's dated, and all of this nonsense that I didn't believe. I still have yet to find a Broadway score that's as rich in terms of songwriting, where almost every song is memorable. The problem with a lot of Broadway scores is there are two or three songs that you walk out and you remember and you forget everything else. With Rent, it's just one after the other. But you can't convince people of that. So, there was a moment when I was led to believe that it might be beneficial for the ultimate commercial success of the film to have a cast that the audience was familiar with.
This was not the Joe Roth studio, this was the earlier studio involved. The idea was to potentially pepper the film with pop stars. You had the Justin Timberlake-Christina Aguilera-Usher version of the film, which seemed viable until I started meeting some of these people. And, at the same time, it was a little frightening because I didn't know how an audience would be able to separate their version of a pop star from these characters, and I felt that Jonathan had created very distinct and real, honest characters, and I didn't know if I could pull that off. The public persona is sometimes too strong. I don't know if it was a problem for Madonna in "Evita" — it's a film that I really happen to like a lot — but I didn't want to venture into that territory if I didn't have to.
I started meeting a lot of people from the Broadway world — met some really, really, talented people, some who were doing Rent at the time. And, I felt at that point I should probably meet the original cast to see if they've aged, how they look. And, I started to meet with all of them, and I found that not only had they not aged physically, but there was this thing that they carried with them, this really deep emotional, complex thing that you can't really define because of the situation they were sort of forced into. Because of the death of Jonathan, these people were forced to bond together in a way that I had just never seen before. There was a chemistry there that the director sometimes tries to force [actors] to create, and sometimes there's a wonderful thing that happens when that chemistry happens on screen, but it's so rare when actors don't know each other. These people [are] the first to tell you that every show that they had done after the death of Jonathan was a memorial to Jonathan. Because of that, there's a connection there and a chemistry there that you just couldn't re-create. So I realized, when meeting most of them, that they needed to be in this film, and I wanted to recapture that chemistry that I saw onstage nine years ago, and I wanted a film audience to experience that.
Playbill.com: Was there a reason in casting a different Mimi, using Rosario Dawson instead of Daphne Rubin-Vega?
CC: Daphne was pregnant at the time, so that was difficult for that to happen. And Fredi [Walker], I think she admitted in The New York Times that she felt she was too old.
Playbill.com: How did the two new actresses, [Dawson and Tracie Thoms], blend in with everyone else?
CC: Amazingly. Everyone else embraced them and brought them into that world. Because there was so much of this unspoken chemistry going on, they just immediately brought Tracie and Rosario into their circle. I think Taye said it on the second day of rehearsal: "It feels like Tracie and Rosario have always been here."
Playbill.com: What were some of the difficulties in adapting a musical for the screen?
CC: I've always been much more of a rock-n-roll fanatic, obsessive fan, than I have been a movie fan. I watch everything — I'm certainly a movie junkie, but at the same time rock-n-roll takes first place in my life, and I never really got to experiment with anything musical on film. There was a tiny sequence in my first film, which Anthony Rapp ironically starred in. In "Adventures of Babysitting," there was a sequence called "The Babysitting Blues," which was a musical sequence, and every year [when] I'd direct [other] films, I'd always think back to "Adventures of Babysitting" and remember that I had had such an incredible three days directing that musical sequence. I always wanted to experience that again, and I never had. So the concept of doing a musical scene seemed like something I had always been working toward. I wanted to make sure that my filmmaking skills were strong enough at the time that I could pull it off.
I guess that the biggest challenge was convincing people that you don't need a device to make a musical work. I had a lot of naysayers — people who were telling me, "You know, 'Chicago' used a fantasy device. You go into a fantasy world," and that excused the musical numbers. "You can't expect people to just break out into song." And I said, "Why not?" It's not a new concept. It's been in existence since the birth of the musical theatre and on screen since "The Jazz Singer," so I don't quite understand why an audience — particularly a young audience weaned on MTV — would be taken out of an artistic experience because someone is singing. It did not make sense to me, so I abandoned the concept of a device and decided to just move ahead and honestly make a musical, not an old-fashioned musical but a musical where people actually are singing. I know it sounds like the most old-fashioned concept in the world. [Laughs.] But, to me, I was convinced that the audience would easily accept that, and it wouldn't feel odd or jarring to them.
Playbill.com: Was the time setting of the show changed for the film?
CC: That was up for discussion. It was interesting. I asked everyone from Al to Julie, Anthony Rapp, who had been with the show the longest, "What year is this set in?" Everyone gave me a different answer — from 1986 to 1987, 1989, early 1990, and I went with 1989 and 1990 because I [was] intrigued by the concept of the end of one decade moving into another. And, because it was an ambiguous time period in the play, I just felt that it was okay to do . . . . In the hardcover Rent book . . . there's a quote from Billy Aronson, who I think was one of the people who worked on the original story. He fell in love with La Bohème essentially, and writes, "The similarity between these artists and their poverty in New York in the late eighties struck me. The numbers of homeless people were shooting up, people were dying all around us. There was AIDS and lack of government support for the arts. I wanted to rework the plot of the opera." That was in the spring of 1989, [and] he asked Playwrights Horizons to recommend a composer, and the artistic director gave him two names, one of which was Jonathan's, so I think we got the time frame exactly where it was meant to be.
Playbill.com: "Seasons of Love" is now at the beginning of the film. Tell me about your decision to move the song's position.
CC: "Seasons of Love" works as a credit sequence. What it does is it says to the audience, "Relax, this is a musical. People are going to be singing. Sit back, and enjoy yourself." . . . It had been in the middle of a few scripts that I read, [but it] suddenly stopped the narrative drive of the film and really hurt the pacing. Remember, "Seasons of Love" onstage happens after a 20-minute intermission. It's the theatre's way of bringing you back into the show, and I thought that's an interesting concept. I'll use that concept as my way of bringing the audience into this film.
Playbill.com: How much of the Broadway score would you say has been retained for the movie?
CC: I know the film is about two hours and ten minutes long, and the play was probably two [hours] and forty [minutes], so we've lost about forty minutes of score — things that I certainly felt would have hurt the pacing of the film, things that I thought worked more from a theatrical point of view as opposed to a cinematic point of view.
Playbill.com: Are there any other musicals that you might be interested in directing on film?
CC: I don't know. I'm a huge fan of musicals. I talk about rock-n-roll, but I'm a huge fan of musicals. I try to see [as much as I can] when I get back to New York. When I lived there, I saw almost everything, and when I lived in London, I was at the theatre every weekend. . . . It is difficult [to find] an original piece that has as many great songs. Rent has a special place on my shelf next to the classic rock-n-roll records that I've loved. It might be difficult to find another one, but there are a couple I'm thinking about. I don't want to talk about it yet, but there are couple other musicals I'd love to think about, depending on what happens with this.
Playbill.com: You said earlier how enjoyable it was filming the short musical scene in "Adventures of Babysitting." How did the "Rent" experience compare?
CC: Oh God, this was to me the most enjoyable of all. This just felt like what I was always meant to do. And, everyday going to work, and I'm not kidding, was a complete and total enjoy. I've never had so much fun in my life.