It was al­ready a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non, but turn­ing it into a suc­cess­ful film (never mind fran­chise) was no easy task. Em­pire was there to find out how they were plan­ning to pull it off


Em­pire was on set of all eight Pot­ter movies. This fea­ture is from our first visit, all the way back in 2001.

WELCOME TO HOG­WARTS School Of Witch­craft And Wiz­ardry. The doors to the Great Hall are al­ready open. Through the win­dows, the Scot­tish High­lands are clearly vis­i­ble. But pri­mar­ily, it’s the heat that hits you, coming from 12 flame torches spaced along the an­cient stone walls, fire rip­pling be­low Gryffindor house ban­ners. Four col­umns of weath­ered, oak ta­bles stretch the en­tire 145-foot length, laid with gold plates and gob­lets, ready for a feast. Four hun­dred pupils will dine here to cel­e­brate the end of term.

Once they’ve eaten their fill, it’s up the mov­ing stair­cases to the com­mon room, which is draped with me­dieval ta­pes­tries. A chess set stands on a solid, oak ta­ble in front of the roar­ing fire­place and the room is lit­tered with beaten-up books. In one cor­ner is a no­tice board on which are pinned the school rules — “No fly­ing”, “No po­tions to be drunk” — and a ‘Guide To Deal­ing With Vam­pires’. A curved stair­case to one side takes you to the cir­cu­lar dor­mi­to­ries, which each con­tain five four-poster beds. Bed­side cab­i­nets are crammed with cages for owls and rats, crys­tal balls and the pre­ferred read­ing of the lower school: the comic The Ad­ven­tures Of Martin Miggs, The Mad Mug­gle.

It’s an im­age of child­hood won­der­ment that is sadly fake. The ta­bles in the din­ing room are not weath­ered by time, but the props depart­ment. The Scot­tish land­scape is an im­pres­sive piece of scenic paint­ing. A fire­man loi­ter­ing just out of sight in the com­mon room has an ex­tin­guisher at his feet, in case the wood-con­structed ‘stone’ walls catch fire, and the no­tices on the board were not writ­ten by Hog­warts stu­dents, but by Eleanor Colum­bus and her class­mates.

She played a key part in bring­ing Em­pire here to­day — Leaves­den Stu­dios, within roar­ing dis­tance of Hert­ford­shire’s M25. But her part comes later. The story re­ally starts with a book no­body wanted to pub­lish.

BE­LIEVE IT OR not, there was a time when the aisles of buses, tubes and trains weren’t blocked with peo­ple read­ing the tales of boy wiz­ard Harry Pot­ter. And when a copy landed on pro­ducer David Hey­man’s desk, he wasn’t par­tic­u­larly drawn to it. English­man Hey­man, whose pro­duc­tion cred­its in­clude the ill-fated

Rav­en­ous and Blind Jus­tice, had re­cently re­turned to Bri­tain, hop­ing to de­velop smaller, in­de­pen­dent movies un­der the aus­pices of his com­pany, Hey­day. One of his as­sis­tants, Nisha Parti, picked it up from his shelves and the next day told him: “You have to make this book.”

“It didn’t pa­tro­n­ise or talk down to its au­di­ence,” says Hey­man. “Harry is a great char­ac­ter — his par­ents are dead, he lives with his wicked aunt and un­cle, he’s not a par­tic­u­larly good aca­demic. There are these things in his char­ac­ter that you can re­late to, that aren’t ex­tra­or­di­nary, and yet he’s ca­pa­ble of ex­tra­or­di­nary things. That makes it magic.”

Hey­man took the book to Warner Bros. and to­gether they op­tioned the book for a bar­gain $700,000, but this wasn’t big news. Warn­ers’ Pres­i­dent Of Pro­duc­tion, Lorenzo di Bon­aven­tura, said at the time, “These books have a ter­rific fol­low­ing in Great Bri­tain.”

Great Bri­tain, not Amer­ica, and as far as Hol­ly­wood is con­cerned, it’s only real news when it’s news State­side. Hey­man sent out edi­tion af­ter edi­tion to prospec­tive screen­writ­ers — “First edi­tions,” he ad­mits rue­fully, “and I never kept one for my­self” — but no-one was bit­ing. Fi­nally, he sent a copy to a writer he’d al­ways ad­mired, Steve Kloves. Kloves, whose

lit­er­ary films The Fab­u­lous Baker Boys and Won­der Boys were crit­i­cal, if not com­mer­cial, suc­cesses, was hooked im­me­di­ately. The next step was to get Rowl­ing’s ap­proval. “I was ex­cited to meet her,” lev­els Kloves, “but I didn’t want her to think I was go­ing to be in the busi­ness of de­stroy­ing her baby.” Luck­ily, he got into her good books from the start by ad­mit­ting his favourite char­ac­ter was not Harry, but his fe­male, smart-arse friend, Hermione. Rowl­ing was de­lighted he’d picked the char­ac­ter she’s since ad­mit­ted is clos­est to her, and Kloves was ac­cepted into the Pot­ter club of three.

By now, Harry Pot­ter And The

Sorcerer’s Stone (the ti­tle was changed in Amer­ica for vo­cab-shy Yanks) had hit the top of the best­seller lists in the US, and ev­ery­body wanted a piece. A who’s who of directors were vy­ing to sign on; Brad Sil­ber­ling (City Of Angels, Casper) was first to ex­press in­ter­est and he hap­pened to men­tion the project to his friend, Steven Spiel­berg. Spiel­berg im­me­di­ately threw his hat into the ring and had talks with Rowl­ing, Kloves and Hey­man. Ul­ti­mately, he de­cided to make A.I.

Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence his next film, and the race was back on.

Sil­ber­ling was again in the pic­ture, along­side Rob Reiner, Alan Parker, Ivan Reit­man, Terry Gil­liam, Wolf­gang Pe­tersen and rank out­sider Chris


Colum­bus. And this is where Eleanor Colum­bus comes in. Now 12, she was ten when she in­sisted her dad read the first book. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll read it,” ad­mits Colum­bus, “and I just fell in love with it. I im­me­di­ately called my agent, and said, ‘I think this is a call back to me in a way. I know peo­ple have writ­ten over the years that I’ve got soft and sen­ti­men­tal, but I’ve got to get back to where I was with movies when I was writ­ing. When I was do­ing Grem­lins and Young Sher­lock Holmes.’ My agent said, ‘Spiel­berg’s got it.’ And I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over.’”

But it wasn’t over. Colum­bus moved on. He toyed with a sim­i­lar fan­tasy script of his own then de­cided that the next film he would di­rect would be Spi­der-man. But then word came that Spiel­berg had passed. Colum­bus had to ‘au­di­tion’ for the first time in years, but he im­me­di­ately con­vinced Hey­man that he was their di­rec­tor. What’s more, within an hour of meet­ing Rowl­ing, she was also won over. Colum­bus promised to re­main faith­ful in ev­ery re­spect. “She re­alised I was not go­ing to cast Ha­ley Joel Os­ment and it was go­ing to be a Bri­tish cast across the board.”

With their prin­ci­pal team com­plete, Colum­bus, Hey­man and Kloves got to­gether and, along with Rowl­ing, holed up in a room for five months, hon­ing the script and nail­ing other de­tails. De­spite the strong Amer­i­can pres­ence, there was never any ques­tion that the film would be made any­where but the UK. The team booked the Leaves­den lot for the next two years to shoot the first film (“Not cheap, but noth­ing on this pro­duc­tion is cheap,” says Colum­bus, a nod to the film’s $120 mil­lion bud­get), and its se­quel, Cham­ber Of Se­crets. This meant that full sets could be built. “It’s easy to make magic with CGI these days,” says pro­duc­tion de­signer Stu­art Craig, “so we tried to make the sets as old-fash­ioned as pos­si­ble. Ar­chi­tec­ture which adds grav­i­tas serves as a bet­ter back­drop for the magic that takes place.”

AS HARRY’S WORLD was tak­ing shape, the cast were slowly coming to­gether. The adults were quick to sign: Richard Har­ris as Dum­ble­dore, Mag­gie Smith as Mcg­o­na­gall, Alan Rick­man as Snape. But while the adult roles were be­ing snapped up, the three key chil­dren were prov­ing harder to lock.

Six­teen thou­sand boys were seen for the part of Harry Pot­ter, but Colum­bus only wanted one and he wasn’t up for the part. Daniel Rad­cliffe had ap­peared in the BBC’S David Cop­per­field, but the young­ster’s par­ents, lit­er­ary agent Alan Rad­cliffe and cast­ing agent Mar­cia Gre­sham, had ruled out the idea com­pletely, want­ing to pro­tect him from the mad­ness that would inevitably ac­com­pany the role. With Rad­cliffe out of the pic­ture, cast­ing di­rec­tor Susie Fig­gis held mul­ti­ple open cast­ing calls but to no avail. Un­able to find what her di­rec­tor was look­ing for — Colum­bus couldn’t move on from the im­age of Rad­cliffe do­ing Dick­ens — Fig­gis de­parted the project. With no cast­ing di­rec­tor, no Harry and no op­tions left, Colum­bus had reached the low­est point in the film’s cy­cle.

As if look­ing for respite from their man­i­fold headaches, Hey­man and Kloves de­cided to go to the the­atre to see Stones In His Pock­ets. In a story con­trivance that would make even Rowl­ing blush, Hey­man spot­ted Rad­cliffe, ac­com­pa­nied by his par­ents, lap­ping up the play. As it turned out, Rad­cliffe’s par­ents were will­ing to re-think their stance and the next day, Rad­cliffe met Hey­man and Colum­bus with a view to an au­di­tion. The first au­di­tions went well, but be­fore pro­ceed­ing the team needed to know that Rad­cliffe would gel with the other two lead char­ac­ters: his best friends, Ron and Hermione.


Ru­pert Grint had al­ready been short­listed by Fig­gis. The cheeky 13-year-old had sent in his de­tails, with a ‘Ron rap’ video of his own cre­ation. Emma Wat­son, 11, had de­cided to go to au­di­tions af­ter some of the cast­ing team vis­ited her school. As soon as they got the three to­gether, some­thing sparked. “I re­mem­ber sit­ting in the car,” says Wat­son, “af­ter one au­di­tion with my dad, say­ing, ‘You know that black-haired guy, he’s go­ing to get it.”’ The black-haired guy was Rad­cliffe, and Hey­man and Colum­bus were fi­nally con­vinced that he was their boy.

ROWL­ING, ONCE THE script was com­plete, was pretty hands-off, vis­it­ing the set only three times. Far from be­ing the all-con­trol­ling writer that many had feared, the team found her a use­ful re­source. She supplied Colum­bus with out­lines of the con­tent of fu­ture books to help ac­tors with their mo­ti­va­tion, and Craig would re­ceive notes and sketches to help de­fine the look. “You couldn’t imag­ine a bet­ter collaborator,” says Colum­bus. She also helped write a new scene for the film, some­thing that hadn’t ap­peared in any of the books but would help pro­vide more back­ground for Harry’s char­ac­ter.

As the film is to be re­leased un­der dif­fer­ent ti­tles in the UK and the States, al­ter­nate ver­sions of scenes re­fer­ring to the Stone had to be shot. To Colum­bus that was the easy part; harder were the com­plex spe­cial ef­fects se­quences re­quired to re­alise some of the book’s most fa­mous set-pieces. The aerial sport of Quid­ditch took four months to shoot, and sev­eral more in the work­shops of Sony to per­fect. Dif­fer­ent FX houses were brought on board ac­cord­ing to their spe­cial­i­ties. Rhythm & Hues cre­ated Nor­bert The Dragon, while Smoke & Mir­rors con­cen­trated on cre­at­ing Harry’s in­vis­i­bil­ity cloak. ILM, who will be more in­volved with Cham­ber Of Se­crets, were also on board, as were UK houses like The Mill and The Mo­tion Pic­ture Com­pany. “Be­tween David Hey­man, Stu­art and my­self, we’re very anal about these sorts of ef­fects shots,” ex­plains Colum­bus. “They have to be ab­so­lutely the best they can be, so we send them back a lot.”

Cur­rently jug­gling his time be­tween a blue­screen stage at Leaves­den and a mix­ing stu­dio in Shep­per­ton, Colum­bus has un­der­taken his Pot­ter ad­ven­ture un­der un­par­al­leled pub­lic and press scru­tiny. And he re­futes claims Warn­ers were any­thing less than sup­port­ive, even when the cut looked like coming in long. “There was never a four-hour cut. I read that some­where. To Warner Bros.’ credit, we re­alised we didn’t want fans of the books to be dis­ap­pointed. There was cer­tainly a two-hour cut of the film, but it was just im­por­tant to the in­tegrity of the film to be the length it is.” Fi­nal run­ning time will be nearer two-anda-half hours.

Colum­bus has a good rea­son for want­ing peo­ple to see this film: it might just stop them bad-mouthing him.

“If my name wasn’t on the film I don’t think peo­ple would think, based on my pre­vi­ous work, that I di­rected it. It’s not just for kids. It’s a great story and 40 per cent of the read­er­ship are adults, so you have to con­sider those peo­ple as well.”

As for Eleanor Colum­bus, she ended up with a non-speak­ing part as one of the Hog­warts first years. Will she still be around — and more im­por­tantly, will her fa­ther — come the se­quels? Colum­bus thinks so. “I can’t imag­ine a bet­ter, more sat­is­fy­ing ca­reer or job at this point in my life. In Amer­ica, ev­ery­one would be con­cerned with how big their trailer is. The Bri­tish ac­tors are men­tally the health­i­est ac­tors I’ve ever worked with in my life. I’m cer­tainly not tired of it yet — you get re-in­spired and re-en­er­gised ev­ery time you go to work.” A po­tent po­tion, in­deed.


Far left: Mag­gie Smith’s Pro­fes­sor Mcg­o­na­gall des­ig­nates a ner­vous Harry (Daniel Rad­cliffe) as Gryffindor. Left: Richard Har­ris dons the beard of Dum­ble­dore. Be­low left: The young re­cruits learn to fly broom­sticks.

Clock­wise from left: Emma Wat­son de­buts as Hermione Granger; Harry and Draco Mal­foy (Tom Fel­ton) get a fright; Ian Hart as half-blood wiz­ard Quir­rell; The late Alan Rick­man as the im­pe­ri­ous yet an­guished Snape; Rob­bie Coltrane’s half-gi­ant, half-hu­man Ha­grid; Ru­pert Grint as head­strong Ron Weasley.

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