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Friday, July 24, 2015

Chatting With Pixels Director Chris Columbus About Pac-Man and President Chris Christie

Posted By on Fri, Jul 24, 2015 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge Ac-Man chases Ludlow (Josh Gad) in Columbia Pictures' Pixels. - SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC.
  • Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
  • Ac-Man chases Ludlow (Josh Gad) in Columbia Pictures' Pixels.

Decades ago, local filmmaker Chris Columbus gained a cult-like following with films such as The Goonies and Gremlins. Columbus recreates the world of the '80s in his newest film Pixels, which centers around extraterrestrials threatening to end life on Earth via a series of attacks by old-school video game characters such as Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. Unable to be stopped by any military forces, it's up to a group of down-on-their-luck former video game champions to save the world. The film stars a predictably Adam Sandler-ish Adam Sandler Adam Sandler-ing his way through an hour and 45 minutes of safe jokes, alongside a dopey Kevin James and surprisingly off-his-game Peter Dinklage. Bringing the laughs are True Detective's Michelle Monaghan and Frozen's Josh Gad. While the script leaves something to be desired, the animation sequences are stimulating enough to entertain an unpretentious audience. It's a summer blockbuster: big, bold, and likable enough.

SF Weekly caught up with Columbus to discuss Pixels.

Pixels is based off of Patrick Jean's short film of the same name. What's the process like to get from the short to your feature-length film?

What's interesting is that when I got involved, I had a meeting with Adam in Los Angeles. We were talking about another project but as I left, he said, "You should take a look at this script that we're developing." So I read the script on the plane, fell in love with it, and realized that the thing I responded to were the characters. I fell in love with these three characters, who, at the time, were like these three kids who were rockstars at the video/arcade game world. Back then they paid these kids, like, $40,000, and they thought they would go on and have these great lives, but then the arcades closed. And I was fascinated by what happens to these guys as they got older. They were lost souls. One's a conspiracy theorist, the other guy's in jail, the other guy's installing televisions for a living. They're not really happy with their place in life, and they're 40-something. And I love the idea that they have an opportunity to use these skills to reinstate confidence back in their lives, strength, and that's what got me hooked initially. The other thing that got me hooked was seeing the short film, and seeing the visual effects and what the potential of those visual effects could be. I wanted to take it one step further, where we created these sort of voxelized, lit-from-within versions of these 8-bit characters that were equally threatening and scary, but oddly kind of charming and edgy a little bit too.

Everyone is familiar with these characters, but then in the movie viewers get to see them interacting with humans in "real life.

It's really fun for people who grew up playing those games. The whole movie seems like a sort of tribute to the '80s. Was that your intention? It is fun. One of the reasons I wanted to do the movie is because a lot of people were asking me, "Why don't you direct the types of movies you were writing in the '80s, like Gremlins, and Goonies?" Well, nothing's really come across my desk that would fit that particular mold. But when I saw this script I thought, This is my opportunity to go back and direct the kind of movie that no one's seen for a while.

It seems as if in movies such as Gremlins or Goonies that there's always a dark element, but that they're also uplifting. Pixels is essentially about the apocalypse 
 but it's humorous and light hearted. Is that balance between dark and light something that's important for you to put in your films?

I think it is. It's uplifting, but at the same time it's — back then the movies were rated PG. Kids always felt when they were going to see [my past] films that they were going to see something they maybe shouldn't. It was a little edgier. It just felt like they were getting away with something. And today, those movies would be rated PG-13. So we've got a PG-13, essentially family film, but there are jokes for the adults, jokes for the parents, and that's what made it work. You can never make a film geared directly towards kids. You want it to work for adults as well.

Between the vintage video game characters and the contemporary setting, the subject matter in Pixels does appeal to a wide range of people.

I think so, even though that didn't occur to me as much. I didn't grow up in arcades. I learned Donkey Kong and Pac-Man playing in bars at tabletops, with a beer, and you play against someone. Those are the games I knew when I got involved in the movie, and then I had to do research — which, trust me, is much better than doing researching any other area; getting to play those games is fantastic. I had to learn Galaga, Centipede, Q*Bert, all of those.

What's it like to approach Atari and Nintendo and ask to use to their characters? What was their initial response?

The initial script did not have Donkey Kong in the movie. And Donkey Kong to me was like the Holy Grail, someone we wanted to get in the movie and someone we really needed for the final act. Because the final act wasn't working in the script. All these companies — like Nintendo, who own Donkey Kong — eventually we had conference after conference with the board. They treat their characters with total respect. It was a matter of very delicate dealmaking with all of the companies.

You have all these great animated characters in addition to a cast of well-loved comedians. You also have Michelle Monaghan playing a super-tough female lead, so kudos on that.

That was important to me. I have three daughters, and I felt that Michelle needed to be so strong. That's one of the reasons why I cast Michelle, because I loved her work in True Detective, and felt that she really brings a strength to her performances.

She's crazy badass.

That's correct, that's correct.

You also made the surprising choice to cast Kevin James was the president. He's not really known as a particularly regal or noble type of actor. And in the film, his version of the president is caricature-ish. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

When I got on the movie, Adam and Kevin were attached to the movie. We didn't know what Kevin was going to play, and I wanted to go against type, because Adam has a certain way of working. I said to Adam, "Look, I believe in you. I think you're a really good actor. I love Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People, and I really think we need to go to that place." And as opposed to surrounding him with comedians, I'm surrounding him with great actors. We have Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad, and Michelle Monaghan and Sean Bean. And I told Kevin, "you're going to play the president, but we're going to treat it as a version of Chris Christie as the president." If you'll notice in the film, he doesn't have a lot of laughs. He has few moments where he's stumbling with his vocabulary, but aside from that, he needs to feel very presidential. I wanted it to be a completely different role for Kevin. 

Pixels opens nationwide Friday July 24.

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