Brendan, Cordelia and Eleanor Walker were suspicious from the first. They may be young — Cordelia is 15, Brendan is 12 and Eleanor is 8 — but they have enough worldly experience to know that when a real estate agent says a place is charming and rustic, she means that it’s small and has wild bears in the backyard. So when the siblings first hear about the house at 28 Sea Cliff Avenue in San Francisco, they’re skeptical. And their caution is quite warranted; the Kristoff House, as it’s called, turns out to hold secrets, magic, skeleton pirates and a behemoth who looks like Mick Jagger.
The siblings and their adventures can be found in House of Secrets, a new novel co-written by young adult author Ned Vizzini and movie producer, screenwriter and director Chris Columbus. Columbus, famous for writing Gremlins and The Goonies and directing Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter movies, joins NPR’s Scott Simon to talk about childhood, cliffhangers and how novel-writing is different from crafting a screenplay.
On why the children each feel that they’re at “the worst possible age, the most powerless and unfair”
“People have always asked me why I’m drawn to material about kids, and for me, it’s — I remember being at that age and feeling completely and utterly powerless. You know, there’s so many things you wanna do and so many things you’re told you can’t do. So you start to dream, you start to fantasize, and you start to go on adventures in your mind, whether it were comic books or Ray Bradbury stories and movies, particularly. You start to learn from those particular heroes.”
On the inspiration for Denver Kristoff, the fictional novelist who owned the Kristoff House, and how novelists inspired the book more broadly
“[Kristoff] was based on a writer, someone maybe like Ray Bradbury or H.P. Lovecraft, but even more prolific, if you can believe it. Kristoff, Denver Kristoff wrote hundreds of fantasy novels in his time. And when the kids move into this house, there are about 120 of Kristoff’s novels in the house. And through supernatural circumstances, the kids are sent into the world of Kristoff’s novels. Now the house itself physically moves into those worlds, and that’s when you get the opportunity as a writer to deal with something like a sort of a Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings element intermingled with World War I — it becomes very exciting.
“And we designed the book — you mentioned that Cordelia was a reader — because we really, in our hearts, and we didn’t want to be presumptuous enough to think that this book is going to be that wildly successful but we had hoped, that if a kid picks up this book — we designed each chapter to be a cliffhanger, much like the work of someone like Michael Crichton or even Charles Dickens. And so we wanted the kids to keep turning the pages, to not be able to put the book down, and when we finished the book, we wanted them to explore possibly other writers.”
On how writing a novel differs from writing a screenplay
“This particular novel, this was one of the greatest creative experiences I’ve had in my life, because there were no restrictions in terms of budget. When you’re writing a screenplay, you have to think ‘this scene can only go on for three pages, because we’re not going to be able to afford the fourth page, or we’re not going to be able to do this’ — I think it’s a thematic sequel, in a weird way, to The Goonies. People have been asking me for years to write a sequel to The Goonies, and I could never find a way to write a sequel, so that’s what House of Secrets has become. So for all those people who love The Goonies, this is closest you’re probably going to get to it.
“For me, I love writing it because I can stop — I can get into a Monty Python-esque sequence where two pirates are arguing over whether one of the pirates’ tattoo is a dolphin or a shark. I wouldn’t do that in a screenplay.”
On whether movie technology is making it harder to dazzle children
“I think it is getting more difficult. We’re in an interesting place right now because the latest 3-D technology that we’re seeing is going to be applied to The Great Gatsby. Now how amazing is that? I guess you have to keep pushing the boundaries. So you know, the images that are in this book — and the first image that really struck me — years ago, when I was running down by Crissy Field down in San Francisco, I got to that point that listeners will remember sort of looks like the Vertigo shot, by the Golden Gate Bridge with Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. And I stopped and I’m looking around and I’m looking at these houses nearby that are dangerously close to the cliff and the ocean, and I thought, what if one of these houses slid off the side of the cliff and fell into the ocean and was floating? For whatever reason — I thought, that’s an image I’ve never seen. I’ve never seen a house floating on the bay. And then it occurred to me how cool it would be to have a pirate ship attacking that house and the inhabitants of the house had to sort of race through the house as cannonballs were flying through the walls. And that image always stuck with me. And it’s kind of the image you see at the front of the book, at this point. It’s kind of come full circle.”
On the plans for the second book in the series
“Ned [Vizzini] and I are 130 pages into Book 2, and it’s incredibly fun. The concept for me of these characters, who look like they just escaped from the last episode of Game of Thrones, about to kill these kids, when suddenly a World War I fighter jet crashes directly over them and inadvertently saves their lives, and out steps a dashing 18-year-old fighter pilot. Being able to combine those two worlds in the second book and in, hopefully, a third book will enable us to bring other worlds into the House of Secrets series.”
On why he’s still working
“People say to me, ‘Why don’t you just stop already? You know, you’ve made a bunch of movies, they’ve been successful, why don’t you retire and golf?’ And for me, it’s only the — I really feel like I have not accomplished what I want to accomplish. I really have not gone there yet. I don’t feel like I’ve made a film that is as good as I want it to be. I always feel that, something has to be better. And for me, I much prefer dropping dead at a very old age — none of us want to drop dead at a young age — on a movie set. You know, I want to continue trying to do better work. I’ve seen Clint Eastwood do it over the years — he just keeps getting better and better, and he’s someone I admire.”