In what could well be the first of a brand new series of family movies, Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief arrives in cinemas today. And we sat in on a round table with director Chris Columbus – the man who helmed the likes of Home Alone, the first two Harry Potters and Mrs Doubtfire – along with actor Logan Lerman, to find out more about it…
What did you really know about Greek mythology and all the myths and legends before you took on Percy Jackson?
Chris: I personally hadn’t studied it for several years, not since school. So I really had to brush up on it. And relearn everything. And it was fascinating when I did. What you can get away with telling children, and what you can’t get away with telling children! It’s a fascinating complex world, and the gods are not very nice people. They’re egotistic and egocentrical, as Jake Abel’s character says in the film.
So, I think we had to tread lightly in those areas, but if it gets those who see the film more interested in reading more about Greek mythology, I think that’s a good thing.
Any borderline myths that maybe you were thinking about using but couldn’t?
Chris: No, because we had a guideline of the book, and the book was written for children. We wanted the film to appeal to more than just children. So Logan and Alex and Brandon’s characters are older, intentionally, so there could be some romantic tension. We didn’t want to tread on anything that didn’t exist in terms of Greek mythology in the first book. We actually left a lot of things that were in the first book out of the movie.
Logan: Part of Chris’ genius is that you can watch his films from when you’re seven years old to when you’re 60 or 70, however long you live to. And you’re always going to find something new. It’s always going to be the first time you watch it. There’s something for every audience in there. It’s something that will last forever.
Was there anything that you shot that you cut out of the film?
Chris: Some small things here and there. But I think it was all about pacing for me, and the experience I had on the Potter films, particularly doing that first film where, because the books were so enormously popular, you had the eyes of the world on you. And then as we did the second and third Potter films, with each film [there was] a little more liberation and a little more freedom. So by the time I got to this film I said I’m going to go into it with a little more directorial abandon and think about the film first. And really think about making the best film possible.
The things that we lost were early on in the process that were in the book, that I just felt would make the movie too long. I really wanted the movie to be two hours, and move much quicker than some of the other films that I’d done. That was my goal.
Chris: No, by the time we got to Prisoner Of Azkaban we had it figured out in a big way in terms of visual effects, and how to get the visual effects as good as possible. A lot of that happened on 2 as well. But in the first film, because we couldn’t get the sets built in time, we didn’t have enough time to shoot some of the major visual effects sequences three or four months earlier than we should have. So I’m not happy with a lot of the effects in the first film.
I vowed when we shot this film that I would shoot the more intense visual effects sequences as early on as possible in the process, so they could really be as seamless as possible. You still want to go back and tinker again and again on specific shots, but for me, I really felt we accomplished from a visual effects standpoint what we wanted to do.
Was there any reluctance on your part to do another film that had so many effects?
Chris: I realised that I had to get back and do something, more so than Potter, that was connected to the types of films that I was writing in the 80s. Gremlins and Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes, the trilogy of Amblin films. I felt there was something about those films that’s missing now. Even Back To The Future falls into it a little bit.
So I really wanted this film to have a bit of a feel of those films, but, obviously, with state of the art CGI. I really do like this genre, and because visual effects are getting a little easier and less cumbersome, I actually love working in this arena.
You talked about altering the characters and the things that you cut out of the book. How involved did you keep its author, Rick Riordan, in that? Or did you have a fairly blank slate?
Chris: I’d say it was a fairly blank slate, yeah. I really felt that the ages of the characters needed to be a little older so that the scenes had a little more depth, a little more energy. I didn’t want that feeling of 11-year-olds with wooden swords, so it felt like a panto of Peter Pan or something. It was important to get those scenes to be physical so that these kids are training to fight off dark forces who could kill them.
When you embarked on the Harry Potter series, there was a sense that it involved a seven or eight year old haul. When you come to this film, are you prepared for the idea that if this film is successful there are going to four or five more movies? And are you happy about that?
Logan: I guess that’s a decision you make when signing on in the first place. I’m very passionate about working with directors that inspire me, and Chris really inspires me to be in this business. And to work with him and hopefully work with him for all the films if we’re fortunate enough to be able to make all of them, it’s a dream.
Would you be happy doing a five-part series? You didn’t seem to be with Harry Potter?
Chris: Yeah, I am. The problem with Potter really was that these films were shot – and these guys are old enough, they don’t have to go to school every four hours! – over 160 days, 170 days. Add three of those together, by the time I got to Prisoner Of Azkaban I was a babbling idiot.
80 days is… it’s not a luxurious schedule, but there’s a certain pace, and a certain excitement. And we’re not shooting these pictures back to back. So I have time to reboot and re-energise. So yeah, I’d love to live in this world for four more pictures. I just love the world, I love being involved with these characters. And the cast. They’re very enthusiastic.
Do you have to take the upcoming Clash Of The Titans into consideration, with the likes of designing monsters?
Chris: No. I had a really good sense of artistic freedom and designing monsters. For me, in particular someone like Medusa, in Greek mythology Medusa is always depicted as being hideous. But for me Medusa needed to be seductive to get you to look into her eyes. And I like the idea of Uma Thurman with her seductive quality along with the fact that she could potentially kill you, as we saw in the Kill Bill movies. I like that edge that she had. So her performance for me would be guiding the CGI snakes on her head, and as a result she inspired the artists who were designing those things.
Clash Of The Titans I was only aware of because, to be practical, we had to be out first. No matter what they did or what we did, it was extremely important we were the first Greek mythology-themed movie in the marketplace.
And Clash is going into 3D, of course. Was that something you were tempted by with this film?
Chris: Well, there was no time for us. Suddenly we’re in a post-Avatar world now, so everyone’s announcing that they’re doing movies in 3D. Which I don’t think is a bubble that’s going to burst. I actually think that 3D is going to be around forever because I think it’s got to a point where it’s an immersive world and it’s exciting. And I think the next logical step is to shoot dramas and maybe musicals. All other types of films in 3D, to see how that holds up. I think they’ll hold up really well.
You really do?
Chris: I really do. I really do. I’d have to talk to more people about it. I guess the biggest problem about it is some people are still complaining about headaches. That’s the funniest thing. Everyone I’ve spoken to about Avatar, about 50% of them said they got a headache from seeing it, from the glasses. I don’t know if that’s really the case. I’d have to do much more scientific research. It certainly appears to be the case that certain people are bothered by the technology. But I love the technology. That’s why I’d like to see something that moves to the next level. What would The Hurt Locker be like in 3D? It could be phenomenal.
Have you got any involvement in the rumours of Gremlins in 3D?
Chris: No, I just read about it a week and a half ago. In an odd way, I hope that they don’t go with CGI, I hope that they puppeteer the Gremlins in the way the Gremlins were originally puppeteered in the first movie, because there was a real hands-on quality. And I think that would be great, because you can’t recapture that. In a sense they’re like Muppets, you know?
So you’re not involved at all?
Not yet! You never know!
Chris Columbus and Logan Lerman, thank you very much!
Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief is out now. Our review is here.