NEW YORK – For a guy who has the most hyped movie of the year, director Chris Columbus is acting pretty nonchalant.
In a midtown Manhattan hotel, the man behind Harry Potter is cracking jokes, not knuckles, and he displays a constant, impish grin. With the biggest pre-sale of tickets in movie history, he should be smiling. But he's also candid about working with kids (and their parents) and about how the tragedy on Sept. 11 affected him.
Fox News: What's the first holiday movie you remember as a kid?
Columbus: (Laughs) Unfortunately, it's not the one anyone else would like to remember. It was also the first movie I ever saw. My father took me to see Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It wasn't really a magical experience. Even back then, at my young age, I knew I was watching trash.
Q: I don't remember that one.
A: You don't?! It's awful. It used to turn up on TV a lot. Now, it's kind of difficult to see it. But boy, it's an experience.
Q: It sounds like it should be a perennial.
A: (Laughs) No! It's a horrendous film.
Q: Let's talk about your new movie. It was going to be huge anyway, but do you think after the tragedy at the World Trade Center that it will be even bigger? And how has 9/11 affected both you and Harry Potter?
A: Well, I lived in New York for 17 years, so that day, if not the worst day of my life, was one of the worst days of my life. It was just a horrific thing to see, a horrific thing to have my children see. And I can't even...It doesn't exist in the world of film. To me it just solidifies the fact that all of this (he gestures to the room) is only a movie.
Q: Were you working on this film that day?
A: I was working on Chamber of Secrets, the sequel to this film, on that day. And it was the only time in my life that I ever yelled at anyone on the set. I yelled at an assistant director — all because of some minor incident — because I had just walked away from the television screen, where I'd seen the towers come down.
Q: You were in England?
A: Yes. So for me it was just a horrendous day, a horrendous experience. And I still haven't gotten over it. I went to the site yesterday, took my children down, because I thought it was important for them to see. So I guess if people can come and see (Harry Potter) for two-and-a-half hours and it takes you away a little bit, that's great. I don't expect this film to change anything or change anyone's life. But I do hope it can heal people for two-and-a-half hours.
Q: Do films have a new responsibility?
A: Definitely. I think it's a time when people do want to escape. People want to lose themselves a little bit and don't want to be reminded of the reality of what's going on. I mean, it happens in wartime all the time doesn't it? People always want to see films that are more escapist and more, uh, maybe not more fantasy but certainly comedies will have a resurgence.
And I'm sure this kind of film, where you can escape into a completely different world, is a positive thing.
Q: If Harry Potter had been in New York, or any scene had been shot in New York prior to the tragedy, and the World Trade Center was in your shot, would you have taken it out?
A: That's a tough question. I don't think so. The Trade Towers meant so much to me because I was here for so many years, and Home Alone 2 was shot there. I've had a lot of good times in and around those two towers. It really just got to my heart. So, I can't erase them from my memories.
Q: I'd forgotten that Home Alone 2 had a major scene there.
A: Yeah. I haven't seen it since.
Q: Will you revisit it?
A: Yeah, I think so. I think it will give me some sense of warmth and nostalgia to look back on it, I imagine.
Q: Tell us about the next Harry Potter money-printing machine.
A: The next one has the same cast, absolutely the same cast.
Q: Are (the child actors) ready for super stardom? They're The Beatles.
A: (Laughs) They are The Beatles. They even have the same haircut. I said, 'You know what? One thing not to get caught up in, in this whole madness that's about to happen, is the celebrity. Do not get caught up in being called a celebrity because it's an evil thing. Go to the premieres, meet celebrities, go to parties, but do not, do not, start becoming friends with celebrities. Finish this (the press junkets), go back to England, let's work on the film, back at this Harry Potter factory, working on the film. But on the weekends, play football, hang out with your friends, hang out with your family, do not let this change you, as much as possible.'
Q: C'mon, that's impossible.
A: They are going to be recognized. There's no question about that. And I think they have to deal with that. And I think they like that. I think that's a fun aspect for them now. But they have to stay grounded and the key is casting parents as well. That's what I learned through the career. Cast the parents as well. And Daniel Radcliffe has two parents who are loving and who will watch out for him. You just have to stay on the tracks. You can't lose sight of what's important in your life, friends and family.
Q: Well, you hit a little speed bump in the parental casting with the Culkins.
A: Well, I didn't realize it at the time. It was interesting because through the years, you read stuff that you don't even know about. I had probably a better indication, but I didn't know it. I was younger. It was 10, 11 years ago, now. So I was more naive. But now I can look out for certain things.
One of those certainties seems to be that Mr. Columbus and Warner Bros. have a very, very big movie coming out for the holidays. The question is, can it top Titanic? Now, that would be a very magic trick indeed.