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(Rent: Phil Bray)

How do you go from kid wizards to Lower East Side squatters? For director Chris Columbus, who follows up the first two Harry Potter movies with the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning 1996 Broadway musical about New York bohemians dealing with the AIDS crisis, it wasn’t that difficult. ”As a filmmaker you have to accept new challenges or else you get stale really easily,” says Columbus. ”I spent 17 years [living] in Manhattan. I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to say it was personal, but it’s probably closer to me than any of those other films I’ve done.”

For Rosario Dawson — one of only two major cast members who didn’t perform in the stage version (Tracie Thoms is the other) — the project hit particularly close to home. ”Having grown up in a squat, I knew what it was like. And playing someone like [Mimi] just made me want to nurture that girl I grew up around.” The authenticity extended to the look of the film. ”If an audience comes into a theater and they see people singing, they accept it because they believe the visual world that they’re seeing,” says Columbus. ”We wanted to create a [world] that felt like New York City in 1989.” But that doesn’t mean a parade of big hair and puffy skirts: ”We didn’t want to be dated,” says Dawson. ”You want to get a sense of what [era] it is, but you don’t want it to look like an ’80s movie.”