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Chris Columbus on Debut Novel: It's the 'Cousin' of 'Goonies' (Q&A)

FILM: Chris Columbus
Byron Purvis/Admedia/Newscom
Chris Columbus

"House of Secrets" is the writer-director's first foray into literature.

With writing The Goonies, and directing Home Alone and two Harry Potter films on his resume, Chris Columbus has serious experience when it comes to weaving stories that resonate with kids.

Now the writer-director has released his first novel, House of Secrets, a young adult book co-written with Ned Vizzini (It's Kind of a Funny Story). The book, from HarperCollins, is the first in a planned trilogy, and follows the three Walker siblings as they go on an adventure to save their parents. Columbus tells The Hollywood Reporter the story began as a screenplay, but he decided to make it into a novel there was not “enough money on Earth to turn it into a film.”  

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Columbus also says he considers Secrets the thematic “cousin” of Goonies.

“The kids depicted in Goonies were realistic American kids who went on an adventure because it was their time to be heroes,” Columbus says. “That struck a chord with me in writing this book.”

Find the rest of THR’s conversation below, where the director reminisces about Potter, shares the books he was obsessed with as a boy, and reveals why his son is his toughest critic.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did this book come together?

Chris Columbus: Around 1999, prior to going off to do Harry Potter, I was working on a screenplay titled Stones of Time. I finished about 90 pages of it, and really was not convinced there was enough money on Earth to turn it into a film. The budget would have been around $450 million. So I put it in a drawer and just forgot about it for four years, went off and did Potter. When I came back from Potter I took out of the drawer and reread it.

Because it was one of my favorite ideas I had been involved with of all time, I figured I could turn it into a novel, but I would need to co-write it with someone only because of time. I didn’t want to quit my career as a director and producer and just devote my entire life to writing novels. WME sent me a few samples, and the sample I was really impressed with was Ned Vizzini’s two novels, Kind of a Funny Story and Be More Chill.

THR: What was the process working with Ned?

Columbus: I met with Ned in Los Angeles and I gave him the first 90 pages of the screenplay. About a week later he sent me the first chapter of the book. I liked what I read and I rewrote it and sent it back to him, and then he rewrote it and sent it back to me until we were both happy with the first chapter. We continued doing that until we had about 100 pages. We took it to our agents. Within a couple of days, HarperCollins did a preemptive offer and the book is sold.

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THR: Did working on Harry Potter inform your book at all? This book also has three characters.

Everyone asks about Harry Potter. I always say look – go back to the movies I wrote. The first one being Young Sherlock Holmes, basically two British kids in a boarding school and their friend who’s a girl who go off on this fantastic adventure in England. Sound familiar? Then I went back and did it again with Harry Potter. It was embedded in my head 15 years before I went off to do Potter.

THR: What about Goonies?

Columbus: When I did Potter, every production assistant on the set or younger person would come up to me and say “You know, you changed my life with that film Goonies.” I would say “What? Really?”  They would say “No, really. It’s your best film and we’re obsessed with it. When are you going to make a sequel?” I said “It’s kind of impossible because the kids are 20 years older. Steve [Spielberg] and I have talked about it a few times, but there’s not really an idea that’s been working yet. Then when Ned and I were putting together House of Secrets, I felt that this is really a first cousin to Goonies thematically. That’s the spirit I wrote the book with. I felt I hadn’t written that kind of story since Goonies.

THR: The world is a lot different than when you wrote Goonies. Is the way you approach young characters different?

Columbus: I’ve had 20 years experience raising four children, so I’ve amassed a bank of dining table arguments, discussions, conversations from toddler to teenager to young adult. I’ve seen it all and heard it all. A lot of the dialogue and character traits in the book come from my own personal experiences. 

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THR: Do you think about old works like Goonies much the days?

Columbus: I didn’t realize at the time that when I wrote Goonies the impact it would have on those kids. I liked Goonies when it came out but then I forgot about it very quickly. Then over the years it was played over and over – kids were telling me they wore out several VHS copies of Goonies. And didn’t understand it. Now I appreciate it and it’s nice to be able to go back to that. I realize I made a connection. There was something in that movie that touched a lot of people for some sort of reason.

THR: Can you explain further in what ways Secrets is a “cousin” to Goonies?

Columbus: The thing that appealed to the kids that loved The Goonies was that it was an adventure. The kids depicted in Goonies were realistic American kids who went on an adventure because it was their time to be heroes. That struck a chord with me in writing this book. Kids all over the world, hopefully, will identify with the Walker siblings because they are going on an adventure to try to not only save their home but try to save their parents.

THR: Do your kids have a favorite of your work?

Columbus: My son is relentlessly critical. He’s in film school. He’s already seen more films than I have and he’s going to be 21-years old. So over the years he’s been a bit of a wiseass in terms of some of the films of mine that weren’t particularly successful. He’s a tough critic. I had the advance reader copy [of House of Secrets] sitting on my desk in my office. He stole the book off my desk, didn’t tell me, and left on a plane to New York. I got a call and he said “I just want to tell you. I read half of House of Secrets on the flight. I couldn’t put it down. Dad, I love it.” That is the best compliment he’s ever given me. And he finished that night. I was really touched by that.