Chris Columbus may not be the first director that springs to mind when you think of a musical, but after directing two installments of Harry Potter and producing a third, he was looking for something different. The director was deeply moved by Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera Rent, about friends striving for success and acceptance during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. And having once lived in New York’s East Village among struggling bohemians, he related to what the characters were going through. Columbus strove to retain the basic simplicity and gritty urban reality of the original play. The majority of exteriors were shot in New York. Soundstage work took place in New York, Los Angeles and Oakland. For this project, Columbus chose a crew he had never worked with before: choreographer Keith Young, cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, production designer Howard Cummings, costume designer Aggie Rodgers, and editor Richard Pearson.Below the Line: What was your thinking behind recruiting a crew you hadn’t worked with before? And how did you select them?Chris Columbus: In terms of Stephen [Goldblatt], I was looking for someone who really understood the play—and someone I would be in sync with. I wanted this picture to have a different look from my previous pictures. This had to have a much darker feel, and I needed some richness and texture as well. I had been a fan of Stephen’s work and recently saw Closer, and he was someone I always wanted to work with. We met and he brought in a lot of photographs and I was really blown away. We shared the same vision for the film, which is really important. We were inspired by films like All That Jazz and West Side Story. And we knew that to make this film work, we had to shoot New York City as a realistic location. And so Stephen seemed the perfect fit.With Howard [Cummings], he was someone who had lived in Manhattan, who shared the same experiences I had living in the Village, and was really committed to giving the film a sense of reality of place and time. And, again, he understood the visual style that I was going for. Aggie [Rodgers] is kind of a former hippie herself. She really had an understanding and feel for the kinds of clothing that I wanted. I didn’t want to make anything, which meant that Aggie had to go on almost a nationwide search in warehouses and Salvation Armies just to get the proper clothes. And she was willing to do this. She wasn’t full of ego in wanting to design the clothes. She didn’t sketch out each character as though we were doing a $150 million film. We wanted it to be as dirty and grungy and lived-in as possible.BTL: What were some of the challenges in adapting the simplicity of Rent?Columbus: I think the key was people were asking me stylistically about what device I was going to use to make this work. I didn’t understand what they meant. [They said] well, you know, in Chicago, she goes into a fantasy world. And my feeling was that we [didn’t need a device] since we have been seeing people sing since The Jazz Singer. And I believed, and wanted my crew to believe, that if you actually believe that the world of these characters is real and honest, you’ll believe that these people are singing. So we needed to create that kind of atmosphere on the set. It was really a constant battle to make everything dirtier. It sounds so simple but it really isn’t. Clothes don’t always photograph the way you would like them to, so we were dragging shirts through the alley to give the film a real lived in quality. And when everyone on the crew started to fall in love with the recording and started to fall in love with the music, that really created this on-set atmosphere that I had never seen before. I’d seen some of these older, tougher guys actually in tears on certain days. That’s when I knew it was working.BTL: What role did digital technology play?Columbus: Because of some of our restrictions on the film, particularly the ordinance about not being able to shoot in Manhattan after 10:00 pm, we had to shoot on a backlot in Los Angeles. That’s where Howard, I think, had his biggest challenge to make it look like a street in New York City. There was an area that we needed to add set extensions, which ILM did, and the goal, again, which was our mantra, was to make it look real. So digital technology helped in that respect. Plus the use of DI, which gave us so much control over the look of each print—I had never had that kind of control before. We only had a DI on the third Harry Potter film, so this was my first foray with it as a director.BTL: What was Stephen’s main contribution other than trying to push the film darker?Columbus: We talked through every shot, and each musical number required a different visual style so it didn’t get tired—which was my biggest fear—but still maintaining the reality. No matter how warm we got in the Life CafÃ©, it was still very real. We got away from it during a tiny fantasy sequence in the “Tango: Maureen” number.BTL: And this was achieved by muting tones?Columbus: Yes, the opening is cool until the idea of fire is introduced in “Rent,” which introduces a warmth. And then we wanted to make sure it looked like a cold New York City street, so the key was really to make it look cold, because I remember living in a loft like that—it was the coldest I’d ever been in my life.BTL: What was it like working with your choreographer Keith Young?Columbus: I’d say Keith and I spent months working on the choreography, even before the actors were made available. We worked with a crew that Keith referred to as “skeleton dancers.” They were almost like stand-ins and Keith would choreograph a scene and then I would come in the afternoon and view what he had done. And then when we got the real actors involved, they obviously had their point of view, so we had more discussions. By the time we got to the set, the actors knew the A, B, C, D of where they were supposed to go, but we wanted to create a sense of naturalism that was separated from traditional Hollywood choreography. The philosophy was that the movement should happen as a result of what’s going on with these characters. And the actors dictate the choreography but it’s all planned out.BTL: And what was Richard like as an editor?Columbus: He was someone who had a big career in music videos before he had a career in film. That was the key for me—I needed the musical sequences to have a certain energy. I also needed to make certain that we were spending a certain amount of time with each camera move, that we weren’t cutting away like a music video, that you actually want to see the actors’ movements, which I learned from watching West Side Story. The key was to pick and choose those moments because I provided coverage, so for the first couple of weeks Richard and I really got into the rhythm of the film. And as with Stephen, Richard and I talked about the philosophy of each particular scene, and how sometimes it really disrupted pacing to cut too much. He’s a very instinctual editor and he plays guitar so he knows music really well. Editing musicals is really about feeling the music, and he did and that was very valuable to me.
Written by Bill Desowitz