Percy Jackson: Gods and monsters

Chris Columbus had huge hits with Harry Potter and Home Alone. Will lightning strike again with his new boy hero, Percy Jackson? Nev Pierce reports

This is about a family film. But it is not a family article. If you are a child, stop reading. If you are offended by genital slang, look away now. Because here comes a lyric from Chris Columbus's iPod: "I'm horny for beaver. Gimme a call, Sigourney Weaver."

This is one of the least offensive – and few non-libellous – lines in "Droppin' Names", the most ear-catching track on rapper Dirt Nasty's eponymous album. It's not exactly the kind of music you'd expect to hear on the iTunes of one of the most successful directors of family films in Hollywood.

Of course, it could be a different Chris Columbus whose 4,022 songs have popped up as a shared playlist on iTunes in the crew hotel, the day after my visit to the set of his latest film, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It could be an entirely separate Chris Columbus who has ticked "Share my library on my local network", thereby allowing everyone in the vicinity a peek at his pop peccadilloes. It could be. But given said library includes a song by one of the director's daughters, Violet, this seems unlikely. Just as unlikely as the maker of such famous family blockbusters as Home Alone and Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone often listening to an X-rated rap about A-list stars (though he should be more ashamed of having the B-52s on there). We'll find out if he reads this piece.

Reading the press, though, might not be something Columbus often chooses to do. He is not a critical favourite. Nine Months and Bicentennial Man were hate-magnets. The last feature he directed, I Love You, Beth Cooper, scored 9 per cent on critics' aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. And yet he is one of the most successful directors of all time. His movies have made more money in America than those by more celebrated film-makers such as Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), Ridley Scott (Gladiator) or Sam Raimi (Spider-Man).

And that's just counting those he's directed – not including producing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban or Ben Stiller hit Night at the Museum and its sequel. Plus, he wrote 1980s cult classics Gremlins and The Goonies, both produced by a key influence, Steven Spielberg. Columbus may not be a brand-name director like his mentor, but he is a film-maker Hollywood studios trust. His movies have made $1.5bn in the US alone. In terms of fantastical family films, he is a god.

Now, he is dealing with deities – Greek gods, in fact – in a quest to conjure a successor to the British boy wizard he first brought to the big screen. As its elongated title suggests, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief is the first in a series, with 20th Century Fox hoping to capitalise on the upcoming conclusion of Warner Bros' magical blockbusters with their own family franchise. Percy Jackson is, simply put, the American Harry Potter.

"After directing the second Harry Potter [The Chamber of Secrets], I was physically exhausted," says Columbus. "I produced the third film and thought, 'I don't think I'm going to go back to the fantasy world for quite some time. But then I was really taken with this book and the concept of bringing Greek mythology into a contemporary setting." This setting is 21st-century America, where unsettled teenager Percy Jackson discovers the ancient stories of Greek myth are actually true. His long-lost father is Poseidon, god of the sea, and far from being a teenage misfit, Percy is actually a demi-god – half deity, half human. This would be great, were it not for the fact that his mother is then kidnapped and he's chased across the country by supernatural beings who believe he has stolen the mighty lightning bolt of his uncle, Zeus. If Percy doesn't discover the real culprit, not only will he be killed but a divine war will break out, causing carnage on Earth.

It's a story – unheralded child turns out to be magical hero – not dissimilar to Potter, and Columbus is following the tried-and-tested formula of those films by supporting his unknown leads with stars including Uma Thurman as Medusa, Sean Bean as Zeus, and Pierce Brosnan as the wise centaur, Chiron.

The former 007 is wearing sunglasses, stilts and blue leggings when we speak, on location in Canada. In post-production, the dubious sartorial get-up will be replaced digitally with a horse's hindquarters. He's between takes on a scene set in Camp Half-Blood, where Percy is introduced to this world's other would-be heroes, including Alexandra Daddario, who plays the daughter of the goddess Athena, and Tropic Thunder's Brandon T Jackson, who plays a satyr who must guide Percy on his trans-America, god-dodging road trip. Idling in the trees by Lake Alouette – a postcard-perfect beauty-spot 90 minutes northeast of Vancouver, Canada – are around 80 extras in their late teens and early 20s, preparing to play a rather hard-edged version of the traditional game Capture the Flag. Their odd get-up reflects the period-clash nature of the picture, with Greek-style leather armour over jeans and T-shirts.

"My 12-year-old son, Dylan, has read Rick Riordan's books twice over," says Brosnan, reflecting on the appeal of the five-novel source material. "I just threw in their names actually, as an ad lib: 'Dylan, Paris, stop lollygagging...' So, I'm doing this for my sons, I'm doing this because it's a great story, I'm doing this because I've got to build a house... I'm doing this for many reasons! But to work with Chris again [after Mrs Doubtfire] is great fun."

Columbus looks – indeed is – busy. This is a big production. There are more crew than I can count and the trailers appear to be breeding amid the trees. Under a marquee where the monitors rest, the director chats with a colleague as the cameras are readied for action. They are discussing the possibility of recasting one of the supporting roles, as the actor wants to "go crazy" with his make-up. (In the end, they don't.)

The day is proving a challenge, as Columbus searches for the right light to shoot, but he appears to be enjoying himself. He's particularly taken with the young actor playing Percy, Logan Lerman. "This is a kid we're going to hear a lot about in years to come," he says of the 18-year-old lead. Sharp-eyed viewers may recognise Lerman from playing Christian Bale's son in 3:10 to Yuma, and he gained experience in US TV series Jack & Bobby.

Being able to work with a fairly established actor, as opposed to a child, was one of the reasons Columbus upped Percy's age, from 12 on the page to 17 on-screen. Not only does it lend credibility to the action (a 12-year-old fighting a Greek god would look daft); it also avoids the endless coaching required to achieve competence with a pre-pubescent cast, something the director has previously suffered through, to his cost.

"With Harry Potter, I felt every other director who came along benefited from the three years of acting class we had when I was there," he says and laughs. "I mean, you look at the first film and it's made up of a series of cuts, because really the kids could only get through one or two, maybe three, lines, if we were lucky. But by now they're phenomenal actors. So I thought to myself, getting into this film, 'Wouldn't it be great to work with actors who have some work under their belt?'"

This isn't the only lesson he has learned from the Hogwarts experience. He's taking some liberties with Riordan's novel (making more of Percy's ability to control water, for example), having been, some might argue, too slavish to J K Rowling's writing. "Those books were extraordinarily popular, in a really imposing way," he says. "Now I've gone beyond worrying about the fans. I think they are so important and I think they're going to be very, very happy, [but] I just think I have to worry about the film first."

Hollywood is always hungry for family-friendly fantasy franchise – from Star Wars to Avatar – and if The Lightning Thief is a success, sequels will follow. Columbus says these will be "interesting" because the characters have started in a "much more adult place". His formative fantasy experiences – growing up in Ohio – tended towards the dark side, "Books like Dracula, Frankenstein. Books by Robert Howard [creator of Conan The Barbarian]. I was heavily, heavily into vampires... "

But he definitely leans to the light side in cinema. His most ostensibly "adult" outing, Rent, is about as evocative of the Broadway musical's poverty and Aids threat as Sesame Street. Still, the 51-year-old family man is energetic and likeable, sincerely trying to make films he "really wants to see. I'm just attracted to these big, fantasy children's movies. I love doing them. I really, really love doing them." Don't expect the sequels to be too dark, then. As we know, the only thing X-rated about Columbus is his iPod.

'Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief' is released on 12 February

Big daddy: Five movies by Chris Columbus

Stepmom (1998)

Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris star in this heart-wrenching film about a broken family. It follows their struggle to adapt to and survive a new lifestyle and the threat of cancer. Sarandon earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress.

Home Alone (1990)

This family comedy was one of Columbus's first big hits. Macaulay Culkin stars as a young boy who is mistakenly left at home when his family go on a Christmas holiday. Columbus went on to direct 'Home Alone 2' in 1992.

Mrs Doubtfire (1993)

Robin Williams stars as a father who, distraught at the idea of losing contact with his children on separating from his wife, disguises himself as a female housekeeper. This multi-award winning comedy won a Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy/Musical).

Rent (2005)

This film adaptation of the famous Broadway musical follows a group of artists and musicians struggling to make their names and make a living on New York's Lower East Side in the shadow of Aids. The film features many of the original cast members.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)

The film adaptation of the first Harry Potter book, starring a young Daniel Radcliffe as the famous wizard. It was nominated for three Oscars and Columbus went on to direct the second film in the series the following year.

Sophie Hudson

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