You can’t get a better filmmaker to help mentor new filmmakers through the process of making their first film then Chris Columbus.
His early days as a screenwriter at Amblin Entertainment produced beloved movies like Gremlins and Goonies. He would go on to direct film classics like Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Nine Months, and in 2001, he would be the man to introduce Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Roberts and Rupert Grint to rabid fans as the director of the first two Harry Potter movies.
In recent years, Columbus and his daughter Eleanor have been using their vast knowledge of storytelling and the movie business to shepherd first-time filmmakers through the system with their company Maiden Voyage.
Over the past summer, Maiden Voyage either produced or helped produce Joshua Weinstein’s Menashe and Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, but they also helped Robert Eggers make The Witch, and they’re involved with his new remake of Nosferatu. Other films include Tallulah and Mediterranea, which premiered at Sundance and Cannes, respectively.
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Chris Columbus a few weeks back for the following interview.
Last time we spoke was for Pixels. I remember you mentioning Maiden Voyage, and we spoke about it a little bit, but today we get to talk about it a little bit more.
Oh, sure. Since it’s taken over my life, definitely.
Patti Cake$ is a great movie. I didn’t see it as Sundance, but I’ve seen it a couple times since then, and it’s exciting that it’s finally coming out.
Oh, awesome. Thank you so much. I’m in love with the movie. As a producer, it’s probably my favorite movie that we’ve done at Maiden Voyage, and I’ve seen it about 20 times and I’m still not tired of it, so that’s a good sign. I hope that translates to the audience.
It’s a very catchy movie, between the songs and the characters, it’s sort of infectious, which is not something you see much these days, a movie you can just watch it over and over. How did you meet Geremy and what kind of shape was Patti Cake$ in when you first found out about it?
I think it’s our sixth movie, so we’d done a couple movies prior to that, and we were at the Sundance Catalyst Program, and it was presented as an opportunity for investors to get involved with the movie. We basically fell in love with the concept, with the presentation, and we wanted to get involved, but there was no real space or room for any other producers.
Then, as they got closer, at one point in pre-production, I got a call from Dan Janvey, one of the producers on the film, who asked us if we wanted to get involved and I remember my daughter Eleanor, who runs the company with me, was like, “Patti Cake$ is available.” We were like jumping around our office. we were so excited because we knew what the potential of this movie could be. I think the fact that Geremy impresses me, not only as a director of actors, but the fact that he wrote all the music, produced all the music, he hated the trailers that the studio was coming up with, so he cut his own, recorded a version of Springsteen’s Trapped over the trailer, which we had to then go get rights for.
Then there wasn’t enough music for the record believe it or not. Feels like the movie is chock-a-block of music, but it’s not. He needed about five more songs so he went back to the studio with the actors, wrote four or five new songs and now we have a record. I think the video is out there today or tomorrow — it’s a video for a new song. That’s a force of nature. He’s not only a director, he’s Charlie Chaplin. He’s the only other guy, except for staring in a movie, I think one of the other few directors I can think of who do all of that. Clint Eastwood maybe does a little of that.
What was Geremy’s background before this? Was he doing music videos or shorts?
He was close with Benh Zeitlin who did Beasts of a Southern Wild. I think Ben put him in a short, then he had a band, then he did a bunch of music videos and this is just something that was brewing within him for years.
You mentioned before that they didn’t have enough room for more producers, so how many producers is considered the limit? I’ve seen some pretty crazy lists of producers in my time on movies.
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I agree with you. Sometimes there’s two, sometimes there’s fourteen, sometimes there’s thirty. I never know, but at that point, for whatever reason they wanted us to get involved, and we were there, and it was a great experience and one of our favorite Maiden Voyage movies.
Was that last year, Sundance 2016, where you first found out about the movie?
It was two or three years ago, at that Catalyst Program and then it took them a while to get financing and get into pre-production, so it was, I think, three years ago. (Yells out to his daughter Eleanor) Hey, E, when did we go to Catalyst for Sundance for Patti Cake$? Oh, okay. 2013. So, it was four years ago.
Did Geremy already have a full script ready? Was that the only thing he really had to show or did he have songs or anything else to kind of show?
He had songs, he had a script, he had a reel that he showed. He was ready to start shooting as soon as possible, even though he had to wait a few years.
What do you bring to a project like that as a producer? Do you help him find the right actors?
No, no, no. Geremy, I think, worked with Danielle in the Sundance Labs, so he had his eye on her. He was very specific about who he wanted. He had worked with Cathy Moriarty on a short film he did with David Beckham, and he wanted Cathy for Nana’s role. He knew exactly and Bridget, I think he had seen some of her cabaret work and some stuff on YouTube, so she was on the list. He had definitely that Sundance thing in 2013 or 2014, and Danielle was already cast. She was already Patti Cake$, so it was just a matter of time to start shooting.
I had seen Amy Berg’s movie that starred Danielle, and I didn’t realize it was the same actress. It’s such a different character for her.
Were you at the Sundance screening for the premiere?
No, I caught it a month later maybe here in New York. I missed it at Sundance, but one of the things I mentioned in my review was that I was waiting for buses at the shuttle stops and literally every single person was talking about Patti Cake$. It premiered that day, I guess, and everyone was talking about it, so I knew I had to see it.
That was why I asked if you were there because the movie showed and then Danielle was brought up on stage and as soon as she started speaking, the crowd screamed, because she’s Australian. No one had any idea. They were stunned.
How did you get involved with Menashe?
We were helping Josh finish the movie and I was just, again, the whole purpose of our company, Maiden Voyage, is to help first-time filmmakers realize their dream of making their first feature. Doing all of that under $2,000,000 was the goal. That’s going to change a little bit in the next couple of years, but at that point and at this point, we were really stunned because we always said, you can take a guy like Robert Eggers who did The Witch. His movie cost $1,800,000. Audiences don’t know. It looks like it cost $20,000,000 when you’re watching The Witch because equipment and technology, it’s all sophisticated.
With Menashe, they spent $150,000 shooting that movie. That’s it. That was the cost of the movie. That’s a day on Harry Potter. We saw the rough cut and we were just blown away by the sheer beauty, the naturalistic quality reminded me a little of Rossellini films that I’d seen and Bicycle Thieves by De Sica. I just was really taken with this naturalistic, honest, look into this world and it was emotional. For me, it was just such an emotionally satisfying movie. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get involved with it.
How do you pick projects for Maiden Voyage, is it all about the script or the story? Do you and Eleanor have to spend a lot of time with a filmmaker to make sure it’s a right fit? What’s the main driving motivation to get involved with a project?
It’s a very simple three-strike rule. We’ve met with a bunch of other investors and producers and they’re dancing on eggshells. They’re like, “How do you know it’s a first-time person? God, isn’t that scary that you’re going to give them this money, let them go off and make the movie you guys are producing?” It’s simple. I hate to give away our formula, but it works, it’s a simple three-strike rule. We read the script. If the script’s phenomenal, we look at their short film. You have to have a short film, or in Geremy’s case a couple of videos that he had done. If that’s great, then you meet the director. If the director seems to have the confidence and the vision and the stamina, quite frankly, of doing what they’re about to do, then we hire them. We take a leap of faith and so far, knock on wood, the leap of faith has been successful for us. That’s it. If one of those things is weak, the feature film itself will be weak.
I’ve talked to many filmmakers over the years, and I’ve had friends who’ve made films. It always feels like the first movie takes the longest to get made, because they are just learning the editing process. You can’t really do that once you start making movies for studios, so do you have the patience to deal with a two-year process for a first-time filmmaker to make the film they want?
I’d say so. Every film is different. There are no real rules, because quite frankly a movie can be put together in a couple of months or even on a bigger scale for us, for 1492 pictures, which is my other company that does the bigger films. It took us 10 years to put together Night at the Museum. Literally Eleanor, my daughter who’s running Maiden Voyage with me, gave me that book when she was a little girl, a toddler, and said, “Daddy, you should make this movie.” I was like, “Okay.” It was basically a pamphlet, not even a novel. It was a very short picture book and it took us that long to get a script that we all liked and to cast the movie.
I was actually talking about post-production, after they’ve finished on set and need to put the movie together. Do you find it always takes a long time for first-time filmmakers in post?
Oh God, no. Not with us. It depends on the filmmaker, but every movie we’ve been involved in, with the exception of Mediterranea, the filmmakers are getting it ready for Sundance, so we’re not waiting at all. Their post-production is so short because they’ve got to get something to Sundance so it can get into the festival.
That’s amazing to hear, because Patti Cake$ is fairly involved with a lot of elements and characters, and it has the music video aspect to it as well. I’d think it would take even longer to edit.
Yeah, but all of those songs were pre-written for the movie. His post production time again was, “We’ve got to make Sundance.” You don’t want to wait around a year and half. You don’t want to finish your movie, have three months to do a cut for Sundance, because you can always change it after Sundance, and then find out you’ve missed Sundance for a year and you’ve got to wait. That movie will feel dated. It’s just inevitable.
I feel there’s a lot of filmmakers who get their movie into Sundance and after it gets bought by Searchlight at Sunday, they want to work on it more. Is Geremy still working on it afterwards or is he happy enough with what goes there that it’s finished in his mind?
You learn from that experience a little bit and you realize that, “Okay, there are changes I can make,” and sometimes if you’re selling the movie to a place like Fox Searchlight or Amazon, they may want changes and re-shoots. With Patti Cake$, the movie they saw at Sundance is the movie we released.
Are you and Eleanor looking in particular for women directors, since there’s so much interest and demand to get more talented women filmmakers’ work seen?
Well we’ve done movies with women. Tallulah and Little Accidents. Wherever we find the best material, you know? We’ve always obviously, we want to support women. My daughter is becoming a force in the film business, so she wants to support women and I just think, I’m sure we’ll be working with a lot of women in the future.
You said before, you keep 1492 and Maiden Voyage completely separate, so does anything ever become too big for Maiden Voyage and you want to move it to 1492, maybe get a studio involved?
No, nothing. We started small and our goal was to find a way so that investors are coming to us. We are jumping on board, we’re doing a fairly big budget movie in Romania next year, Robert Eggers’ Nosferatu. That’s going to be a bit of a game changer for us because the budget is much bigger than we’re accustomed to, but for me it’s much smaller than I’m accustomed to when I’m shooting a bigger movie. It’s not easy for us, but I’ve had the experience of doing both. That’s where Maiden Voyage is basically going. We’re going to a place where we can help first-time filmmakers make slightly bigger films, or second-time filmmakers. We develop relationships with all of these filmmakers and we want to continue working with them.
Tallulah was at Sundance where Netflix picked it up, so I was curious where you stood on the whole Netflix thing and whether its better to stream a movie than give it a limited theatrical release?
No, no, no, no. I love all forms of getting a movie to an audience, whatever that is. TVs are getting monstrously huge, the theatrical experience is becoming more and more common for people at home and why not? If it’s a movie you’re not going to leave your house to see, why not have it available on Netflix? For a movie like Tallulah, it’s an interesting question because with Tallulah, part of me believes it should have had a theatrical release, because I think, as a comedy and as a movie, it felt fairly fresh. It may have had a bigger chance at the box office, but something like Mediterranea or Little Accidents, I think it’s beneficial that those movies are on a place like Netflix or iTunes or wherever so more and more people can see them.
In a case like The Witch, Rob shot the format at 1:66, which isn’t compatible with any movie theater these days. It’s the old square John Ford and he wanted it shown that way. That’s the way people saw it in the theater and now it’s all over the place on TV. That’s where it gets a little dicey, when you can’t control the aspect ratio of your movie or things like that. For the most part, I’m an obsessive fan of Netflix. It gets me through the day in a big way, a lot. House of Cards, come on, what’s better than that?
You first started getting notice in Hollywood in 1984 and ‘85, having written a number of big hits. How do you feel the attitude of new writers today has changed, and are they coming into a different Hollywood than you did thirty plus years ago?
The biggest difference for me is, back in the day, the only way you could become a director — because independent film wasn’t thriving back in 1980, it existed, but it just wasn’t around. The best way to become a director was not to shoot your own independent film, but was to write a couple of screenplays that were successful. Then they would give you a shot to direct. So for me, I knew that’s what I had to do.
For writers coming into Hollywood today, that’s still an avenue, but I think a lot more filmmakers are taking the independent route and they write their movie, they direct them, and then BAM, you have hit at Sundance or you have a movie like Cop Car and the next thing you know, you’re off directing a Marvel movie. I think that system works really well today, and I don’t think writers are writing that much differently. I read a ton of scripts so the writing hasn’t changed that much, it’s just really the way to get into directing, if that’s what they want. A lot of writers are very happy just carving out a career for themselves as screenwriters, but very few of them. All of them have other ambitions. Honestly, about 95% want to either be producers or directors.
Patti Cake$ and Menashe are both currently playing in theaters in select cities.
As an added bonus, here’s the new music video for the song “PBNJ” from the movie Patti Cake$. (Warning: It contains a LOT of naughty language.)
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor