"We Were Writing 24 Hours a Day.": Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini

"We Were Writing 24 Hours a Day.": Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini

House of SecretsLegendary filmmaker Chris Columbus was in Italy. Bestselling author Ned Vizzini was in California. But 6,000 miles only enriched their collaboration on the novel House of Secrets.


Zola: Chris, how did you decide you wanted to collaborate with Ned?

Chris Columbus: My agency sent me the works of a few authors who they thought would be good partners and when I read Ned’s books, particularly Be More Chill and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, I really related to his voice. I thought, this is someone I’d like to at least meet, sit down, and talk to.

Zola: Ned, what was going through your head when you first heard from Chris?

Ned Vizzini: I admit I was intimidated when I got the call: “Chris Columbus wants to meet you.” It’s not often that you get to meet someone who helped shape your childhood. My wife settled me down: “You’re a family guy. He’s a family guy. Just go and be cool.” Once I was alone with him in a room, it was less intimidating.

CC: I met him in Los Angeles and after about an hour I gave him the first 60 pages—about an hour in film—of the screenplay and I said, “Ned, it’s too big for a movie. Why don’t you look at it and get back to me?” A week later he roughed out the first chapter of the book. I rewrote and sent it back to him and he sent it back to me and that was the beginning! A few months later we had 100 pages and we were off and running.

Zola: Most of the novel was written through e-mails. What was it like waiting to receive an e-mail from one another? Were you ever dying to rework or write a chapter but couldn’t because it wasn’t your turn?

CC: When we get these chapters we work very hard. It’s an intensive few days and it’s good for the book to take a break and then you can actually get back into it and it gives you a sense of objectivity.

NV: It’s exciting to get chapters from Chris. He’s very fast.

CC: Last summer, I was in Italy and then the chapters were..well, the writing really started. It went from 35 miles per hour to 120! When I was asleep, Ned was writing. When I was writing, he was sleeping.

NV: I honestly never had a chance to get antsy waiting for him because he’s so quick!

CC: We were literally writing House of Secrets 24 hours a day.

Zola: The house is truly a character—so detailed and alive! Was it based on any real houses either of you know? Or is that pure imagination?

CC: The initial concept happened when I was running. It was 1999 and I was running along the beach and stopped to look at the houses close to the the edge of Sea Cliff and I thought about how in an earthquake one of those houses could just slide into the ocean and how cool would it be if the house could float and then what if a pirate ship comes along and attacks it. So I had this idea and I ran back to my office, which was half an hour away, and began writing immediately.

I went around taking photos of houses that inspired the one in the book, not one house but a whole group. I had a lot of friends in San Francisco. I’ve lived here since 1993—20 years. I’ve been to a lot of these old types of houses and I find them magical and interesting. Particularly when you get into the older ones, you think there are secret rooms, stairs you’d love to climb and get into the attic. I found these old houses fascinating.

NV: For me, it wasn’t based on anything, but since we finished the book I found a house  that looks just like it! I sent a picture to Chris, like, “This is the real House of Secrets.”

Zola: Chris, you’ve written for film. Ned, you’ve written for TV. What are the advantages of writing a novel instead? The disadvantages?

NV: The advantage is that you have control; you can make the characters do anything.

CC: You spend time on characters and their internal thoughts. It’s a very free method. For me, it was exhilarating.

NV: The difficult part is that it’s so time-consuming. A script for an episode of Teen Wolfis 8,000 words. House of Secrets is 92,000 words.

CC: If it were a film I probably would have been much more aware of where you need to be. In a novel you can go off on tangents and readers will go with you if they love it. The great thing about working on a novel is that there’s no budgetary constraints, you don’t have to worry about a first, second, or third act. It created freedom because I didn’t have to worry about scenes or rewriting them while 150 crew members waited for me to finish so we could continue shooting. It’s a great feeling.

Zola: Why choose for the Walker family to have three kids and not less/more?

NV: Oh, you know, Holy Trinity, three’s a charm, three’s a crowd, three races get the rings in Lord of the Rings… It’s a psychologically powerful number.

CC: Three felt right—two girls and one boy seemed right. It stems from the original screenplay. I felt three was a manageable group, somewhat based on my own kids. A lot of the dialogue was my memories of 20 years of raising children, the fights and insults; that gives the book a sense of reality. It’s sort of a documentary in that way and I was nervous when my son was reading it. He was the first one who read the book. He’s always very critical. He’s a big movie fan and an avid reader. He busts my chops about my films. It’s a funny, snarky thing he does with me. I didn’t know what he was going to think about the book. I thought he’d probably be too old for this. But he loved it—read it in a day and a half, called me up and told me he loved it.

Zola: You had to fight your editor to keep in the darker material, such as Captain Sangray’s grisly torture chamber. Where did you draw the line of what was appropriate?

NV: We had that line drawn for us by our amazing editor, Alessandra Balzer. I’ve worked with her for 10 years. Back with my novel Be More Chill, she told me, “Ned, if you want to get the book in schools and libraries, you need to lose this part.” And I listened to her, and she was right.

CC: Particularly being a parent, I know when it can get too scary but also when it can be fun. When I started writing films, I was writing Gremlins [1984] and people considered that to be very dark. And at the same time the Indiana Jones sequel was released and a beating heart was pulled out of a chest and that was very dark at the time. And I remember seeing Gremlins when it blew up in the microwave and the 10 year olds and 13 year olds were falling out of their chairs laughing. Kids love that PG-13 stuff; there’s a sense of darkness about it. You feel like it’s something you shouldn’t be reading. I remember horror comics when I was a kid—you can’t read Creepy or Eerie. We pushed it, we did have certain situations in the book where we didn’t want to change things—like the death of one of the characters—and we wanted to keep it a little violent. We wanted to convey the fact that death does mean something.

Zola: Why, in 2013, do you think people are still so quick to object to and in some cases even attempt to ban books—seemingly more so than with movies, TV, and music?

CC: I don’t know. I see certainly people being open to material they wouldn’t have been 10 years ago. I just saw This is the End, which I loved wholeheartedly—the audience went crazy for it. Ten years ago it would’ve been NC-17. Kids are seeing a lot more sophisticated material on TV that wasn’t available 10 years ago. Kids 18 or 22 have access to Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. There’s a lot of 15/16 year olds watching those as well. Their barometer for violence and suspense is higher than it used to be. Gremlins in 1984 created a PG-13 rating which didn’t exist before that and Indiana Jones. So PG movies used to be PG-13 and now there’s a gray area where PG has become soft for a lot of kids and they’re dying for a PG-13 film.

NV: With House of Secrets, the book is for a middle-grade audience, not a young-adult audience, so the reins are tighter. Still, there are people who object to the violence.

CC: Probably in conservative areas there’s more censorship. It feels freer than it used to for me.

NV: I think they are trying to help us drum up controversy to sell more books.

Zola: This project was originally conceptualized as a screenplay, possibly as a TV show, but has since been broken into a series. Have you already begun working on the next novel?

NV: We are working on the next novel!

CC: Yes!

Zola: Is there any potential of a collaborative film adaptation once the series has been released entirely?

NV: I can’t speak to a film. That’s Chris’s department.

CC: I think we have to be patient. The great thing about books is that there isn’t that urgent quality or by Friday at 10pm you know if you’ve succeeded or failed based on four shows in NYC. A book can live forever. We have the entire summer for kids to read it and talk about it. You can take your time. There’s a real old-fashioned quality of letting a book out into the world and letting them discover it. I always say to Ned, “One reader at a time, one book at a time.” It may take three books before we get every kid in America reading it, and how great would that be! But I think by the time we have those three books out there, we can sit back and say should we make a film.

NV: If it ever happens, I can’t wait to see Captain Sangray.

CC: And there may be more than three books! The screenplay was gobbled up into book one. What we’re working on now—we’re 300 pages in—is all new material. We will push the envelope. We’ve had some resistance with some people involved in the books. Some people think the kids should remain the same age. I think the kids should get older. Things change in their lives. We’re telling it from their perspective. Each book should be every year passing in their lives. We compromised in book two by making it six months, but I want the readers to grow with the books. If we kept them the same age, our first readers may not stick with it because they’ll grow out of it. That’s what we’re in the middle of figuring out.

Zola: Are there any other books you’d love to adapt into films?

CC: There’s a book by John Grisham called Calico Joe. It’s a father-son baseball story, really emotional. I’d like to make that into a film. There’s a book called Homeland…No wait, Home Front—I’m confusing it with my favorite TV show—Home Front by Kristin Hannah that I adapted. It’s a story about a woman who’s a helicopter pilot in Iraq and it’s told from a woman’s perspective and I want to see that made. Michael Koryta wrote a book called The Cypress House. It’s The Green Mile meets Key Largo. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s got a horror supernatural element. So those three.

Zola: Chris, what’s your favorite Ned Vizzini book?

CC: I think it would probably be Be More Chill. It’s a brilliantly written book—its voice and the writing style. It was the moment when the spark went off in my head. Here’s a guy who can bring a really interesting voice, the voice of adolescence, to House of Secrets. And I can bring the older experience of having raised kids, while Ned’s closer and he really understands what kids are thinking. It was invaluable to me.

Zola: Ned, what’s your favorite Chris Columbus movie?

NV: I’m very partial to Home Alone because the old man made me cry. Apparently he makes everybody cry. What can I say, I’m typical.

Zola: Chris, what’s your favorite Chris Columbus movie?

CC: The first two Harry Potter films. They were just a really special time in my life. It was really fun making them. Well, in the first one if we failed, the whole franchise would have been destroyed. The second one was really a lot of fun. Producing the third was great. It was an amazing sort of moment. My kids were really young at the time so we had class trips to the set. It was a time in my life where I was a hero to my kids and now I’m the functioning idiot again.

This article originally appeared on Zola Books.

Kelly Gallucci
Far too busy rereading the Harry Potter series, Kelly finds that her greatest literary sin is that she neglected to read classics like The Shining and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In between overseeing the editorial content for Bookish, holding interviews with authors like Leigh Bardugo and Victoria Schwab, and creating book recommendations for Kanye West—Kelly’s trying to catch up on the books she missed out on. She just finished The Great Gatsby and might be in love with Fitzg. Kelly received her B.A. in English Writing from Marist College and her M.A. in Screenwriting from National University of Ireland, Galway. She is a Gryffindor.