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Q&A – Chris Columbus on Percy Jackson and Harry Potter

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Chris Columbus — who directed the first two Harry Potter films and produced the third — is back, with Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, which tracks the adventures of a boy who discovers he’s half-god, half-human. The gods of Mount Olympus are mad at him — they believe he’s stolen Zeus’ lightning bolt — and he’ll have to go to hell and back to clear his name (and save the world). Columbus discusses what the two series have in common (and not).

Q: How did directing Harry Potter prepare you for tackling Percy Jackson?

A: We had the eyes of the world on us when we were doing the Harry Potter films. The prospect of casting the kids was daunting, and I felt the fans of the books were more like, “You can’t change this, you can’t change that.” But by the second film and the third film, I felt like we had earned some freedom. So when we got to this film, I decided that the book stands alone and that the film stands alone, as well. We took the best bits of the book, and I added some stuff, and that’s how it came to be.

Q: In the first book, Percy is 12. Here, he’s old enough to drive.

A: They’re ages 12 to 17 in the books, so we’ll just make it ages 16 to 21 in the films, if we’re lucky enough to do all five. Percy is a character who’s flawed and has to deal with some intense emotional things — dyslexia, ADHD, perceived abandonment by a parent — and he’s been in and out of several schools, so he’s a troubled kid. You’re not going to get the emotional complexity with a 12-year-old that you would have with someone like Logan Lerman. And if you imagine the training sequences in the film, which have to feel life-and-death, you don’t want them with kids who could actually get hurt, like the battle between Annabeth and Percy. And there would be there no romantic tension if they were 12.

Q: What’s the master plan to reintroduce plot points or characters that were cut, like Kronos, in later films?

A: There’s an idea to open up the second film with Kronos. It’s a matter of what you need for subsequent films, what you need to reference. Like Luke’s scar, for instance. That was something we wanted to keep, because it plays a part in the second novel

Q: What about putting Rosario Dawson as Persephone in the underworld for the film? I thought Persephone was only supposed to be trapped down there during the winter, but this takes place right before the summer solstice.

A: Right, exactly, it is the summer; we played a little with the myth with that one! [Laughs] But I was intrigued by utilizing Persephone, because I thought the relationship between Persephone and Hades could be fun, almost like a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dynamic. And I was intrigued by who these gods were and what drove them to do what they did.

Q: Will the films get darker as they progress?

A: There were only three Potter books when we started, and the fourth book was written while we were working on The Sorcerer’s Stone. And we knew — we had countless meetings with Jo Rowling — that these books were going in an even darker direction. And so for the second and third films, we moved in that direction. That was a conscious effort. With this film, I thought it’d be more interesting to explore some of the darker, twisted, edgier qualities of Greek mythology. Medusa says it in the movie: “Son of Poseidon, I used to date your daddy.” That’s a direct reference to a very dark time in Greek mythology, but those who know about it laugh.

Q: People are going to notice the similarity in structure to Harry Potter: the half-blood hero who’s reluctantly forced into the fray, thanks to the circumstances of his birth; the loyal if slightly inept sidekick as comic relief.

A: I bristle slightly when people say this is like Harry Potter, because that’s easy. Once you see the films, you know it’s not like Harry Potter. That was dealing with the wizard world and magic, and I love it, but that was a very different film. And this is pure Greek mythology. It’s an element of a lot of other movies, like Spider-Man and Star Wars: you’ve got deeply flawed characters who lose something important in their lives and go on a journey to try to find it. That’s at the heart of a lot of Greek mythology and at the heart of a lot of great fantasy films.

Q: Are you worried about the track record of recent adaptations of children’s stories as prospective fantasy-film franchises? Or are you hopeful that, with The Lightning Thief, lightning will strike twice?

A: I think it’s all a matter of how the audience relates to it. We’ll know on Monday morning. It’s a very short life in Hollywood for a film, but, if we get an opening for a sequel, we jump right in.

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